Thursday, July 06, 2006

The New Presiding Bishop and the World

Much attention has been paid to the election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and the first woman to hold the position. Some are dismayed. Many are pleased. The many "It's a Girl!" buttons in Columbus were cute. (I was distressed that I didn't get one.)

Others may consider what difference it will make that she's a she. I've even seen one (favorable) comment about her background in science. But, I'm interested in a different question: what difference might it make that she's a "second career" cleric?

We've been talking about the "second career" phenomenon for some time. When I entered seminary, almost thirty years ago the average age of my class was about 35. One member of the faculty shared with me then that his standard admission interview question had become, "So, what have you failed at before hearing the call to ministry?" More recently there have been annual conferences for clergy under 30. Concerns have been raised about the scarcity of young applicants for orders; but God continues to call many older applicants.

Now, Bishop Jefferts Schori is not the first "second career" cleric to be elected Presiding Bishop. In fact she's sixth. You can review the histories of all the Presiding Bishops here. This is my list of those who spent time in another career before entering the ministry.

Alexander Viets Griswold 5th Presiding Bishop from July 17, 1836 to February 15, 1843 – practiced farming before studying theology

Thomas Church Brownell 7th Presiding Bishop from September 20, 1852 to January 13, 1865 – taught in college before studying theology

John Henry Hopkins 8th Presiding Bishop from January 13, 1865 to January 9, 1868 – superintendent in iron works before ordination

Alfred Lee 10th Presiding Bishop from May 31, 1884 to April 12, 1887 – studied and practiced law before entering seminary

Thomas March Clark 12th Presiding Bishop from February 7, 1899 to September 7 1903 – worked for two years as a teacher between college and seminary

Katherine Jefferts Schori 26th Presiding Bishop from November, 2006 – oceanographer

(I should note that I don’t include John Gardner Murray, 16th Presiding Bishop. While he worked to support his family after his father died, he was already in seminary at the time.)

But, if Jefferts Schori is not the first “second career” Presiding Bishop, she is the first in 100 years, and the first since the position of Presiding Bishop became a full time job, instead of being added on top of a diocesan bishop.

Will that make a difference? When I think of my colleagues who heard the call later in life, or perhaps fought it longer, I have to appreciate that their secular work experience provides experience that augments their ministry. It gives a perspective that I don’t have, having been ordained as a young man. It’s not that I never held another job, but I never had it as a career choice. It simply paid the bills while I waited through the diocesan application process and the seminary admission process. It’s not the same.

Specifically, I think it’s a different experience on the ministry of the laity, and of normative Christianity. After all, we clergy are the exception and not the rule. The normative Christian is a layperson; and the normative context of the Christian life, with all its blessings and challenges, is the Christian life of a layperson.
Within that, there is experience of living in institutions other than the Episcopal Church. Business and academic institutions have their own structures, their own cultures. We have sometimes thought that those cultures had something to offer us; and sometimes not. Remember the old joke, “When does a good businessman lose his business sense? When he’s elected to the vestry.” But sometimes I think those institutions do a better job at clarifying expectations up front, and at finding effective ways to share their messages in a changing culture.

I could be wrong, of course. However, perhaps Jefferts Schori will bring these to her new office. Of course, she brings a new and unique perspective; anyone would. But I have to believe that her experience in the world before hearing the call will help her to lead us to share that same call into the wider world. She should be able to lead us effectively into the larger culture: she’s been there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, Marshall. I don't often think of being a "second career clergy person as a gift" but I love how you reflect on it. On a different note, email me sometime at You apparently had quite an impact on my mentor, rh.