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Words of Wisdom on Leadership from The Bishop Phoebe Roaf

Words of Wisdom on Leadership from The Bishop Phoebe Roaf

03/23/21

Perhaps leadership requires answering the question: 
Do you trust God has you? 
Maybe I’m not called to be a bishop forever. Maybe I’m at a cathedral or at VTS or back practicing law in a few years. Am I open to the radical trust of a radically generous God so that I don’t have to worry that God will have something for me and letting go of the fear?

In the early days of the pandemic, I had the pleasure of spending an hour discussing diocesan leadership with Bishop Phoebe Roaf. Here is an excerpt from our conversation, which conveys, I think, the prayerful, non-anxious, and collaborative leadership style our first Black woman diocesan bishop in Province IV brings to her relatively recent ordination as Bishop of West Tennessee (May 4, 2019). CVC

I will say that you are not a priest or a pastor to someone until a relationship has formed. It takes time to build up trust and collegiality. I’ve been bishop for ten months, and I’ve not even visited everywhere to form relationships with my clergy. Newer bishops are very mindful of this. 

Leadership in my context has been about trying to find balance. There are diocesan directives regarding the pandemic that needs to be clear, and there also needs to be leeway for priests when they know what is best for their context. We have faith communities where the overwhelming majority of members are in their seventies and the eighties with pre-existing conditions where their demographic is particularly at risk. We have churches in rural communities with ten members or fewer. A given church’s specific context is very important. And, of course, we are using Zoom, Facebook and conference calls to be as creative as we can be. I am very mindful that this is my first major challenge as a bishop, with the pandemic beginning less than a year into the job. There are ten of us who were consecrated in 2019. We solicit advice from one another, and I am truly grateful. John Bauerschmidt [Diocese of TN] and Brian Cole [Diocese of East TN] and I have issued joint statements, realizing we also need to do things individually, but we check in with one another regularly. My experience is that bishops are really working to stay connected and not become isolated. This is not a time to be a lone ranger. I think it is an act of leadership to solicit input and call upon others. It is always important to know your weaknesses and others’ strengths. 

A lot of what you learn in seminary and the College of Bishops, in a sense, you have to suspend. On my best days, when I am walking and getting my rest. I appreciate my priests and deacons so much and can be gracious and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. It is especially important now for all sides to be gracious with themselves and one another. 

I don’t want to assume I know the answers or think I don’t have to ask questions, so I am asking a lot of questions – exploring and wondering over all the options that may have been considered prior to my arrival. Some will take it as a neutral inquiry, and some will interpret my questions as criticisms. But these are simply questions seeking additional information. Nevertheless, I think it’s important as a leader to notice and be conscious of how questions are received. There is an art to crafting good questions – what Parker Palmer calls “open and honest questions.” Engaging in significant amounts of inquiry when you or others are stressed out might not set things up in the best possible way. 

Thinking back, I remember the clergy from Louisiana and Virginia disagreeing at times with the bishop. Now I see things I didn’t know, and I see why a bishop can’t show all their cards. I think of the Native American saying about not knowing until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s moccasins. 

It’s probably too soon to see how the pandemic will affect theological education. Virginia Theological Seminary, with a strong endowment, is committed to a three-year residential process, and other seminaries could be more proficient in distance education. But I do wonder now how having to do this at a distance might shift our perspective. Not all seminaries can afford to give the three-year residential degree student the needed scholarship funds. As we learn about the virtual experience, there will be an impact, but I am not yet sure what that will be. I know I needed the three-year residential experience. I would not be the priest I am without that experience in the community. 

However, it is so counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Physical separation doesn’t have to mean you’re not connected. For my generation, connection meant being in the same room. Yet, people who live thousands of miles away are reaching out. I am very interested in how we make the best of that and keep it going. It will take us out of our comfort zone. I think that already there is some tension between the folks who teach the traditional core curriculum seminary topics versus the “softer” classes like pastoral care, Christian formation, and other optional areas. As some ask for these to be more emphasized, and some experience this as a loss. We need those in established fields to make some room. I think it’s time to take a look at syllabi, the structure of requirements, and what is required versus recommended. And I know there is some real resistance to what the impact might be, but this gives us the opportunity to think about things in a new way. No question, it’s uncomfortable. 

What could be helpful is if we could not focus on winners and losers but focus on the process and the outcome…if we could do that and feel our agency while letting go of the outcome. I would love to see us try to retrain the primary survival instinct and step back to look at what is needed for the common good. 

As a bishop, I notice that we are concerned with the number of congregations, the number of ordained priests, and the number of parishioners, but not the number of dioceses. How might the diocesan landscape need to be restructured, knowing that will mean fewer bishops? 

Perhaps leadership requires answering the question: Do you trust God has you? Maybe I’m not called to be a bishop forever. Maybe I’m at a cathedral or at VTS or back practicing law in a few years. Am I open to the radical trust of a radically generous God so that I don’t have to worry that God will have something for me and letting go of the fear?

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