I was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1998 at the age of 28. At that point in time, there were so few young people being ordained that we had been told a third of us would end up as bishops.
As we started nearing the point of GenXers becoming bishop nominees, I got a very clear and persistent message from God: “Change the face of the House of Bishops.”
God was being very clear with me that God wanted me to do something about the fact that less than 9% of Episcopal bishops were women, and less than 15% of bishops were people of color. Also, when I looked around the church I noticed that we seemed to be electing people with similar leadership styles to be bishop. But the church has different needs in front of us than we have in the past. In order to meet these needs, we must have leaders with different skill sets.
After a few years of praying, thinking, planning, and early work, I ended up creating a cohort model for discerning a call to the episcopate (becoming a bishop).
What is a “Cohort Model of Discernment”?
In The Episcopal Church we ordain deacons, priests, and bishops to special work in the church. When people think about becoming a deacon or a priest, they have a formal, several-year long process of reflection by themselves and also in community with others from their congregation and from the larger diocese. In many places, these people do an internship in a different congregation to get a better understanding of the breadth of the church. People discerning a possible call to become a deacon or priest go through years of discernment alone and with others before the decision is made whether or not they will become a deacon or priest.
But when a person thinks about becoming a bishop? Crickets. There is no formal process–either individually or with a group–for discerning if a person is called to become a bishop. It is very strange that we don’t have any sort of discernment program for this important leadership position.
So I created one. Specifically for women (because, remember, only 9% of bishops were women). My model gathers together women who have fantastic, out-of-the-box leadership skills…women who don’t necessarily want the job of bishop, but who would be fantastic bishops for leading change in the church. WEEL invites 6-12 of these women to join together in a cohort that meets four times over a year or so.
The Value of Mentors
One of the most valuable parts of WEEL is that at each gathering, we have one or two women bishops who are with us for the whole three-day event. The bishops are asked simply to bring their whole selves to our gatherings: to share their story of who they are, how they became a bishop, and the joys and struggles of their work.
This has made a profound difference. Women of WEEL have seen bishops in their own diocese who look similar (gray beards were really in about 10 years ago) and do leadership in a similar way. They see that model of bishop and reject it. That is not the sort of leadership they feel called to offer. But then! Then, these women really get to know our current women bishops. They see these women have very different personalities from one another–and from most of the male bishops they’ve met. They hear stories about how these women have taken their own personalities and their own leadership styles and have changed the role of bishop to fit the gifts they bring. And then the Women of WEEL begin to understand. They begin to understand how God might need their particular quirky, strong-willed, “feminine” etc personality traits to lead this church we are becoming.
This program is specifically about Embodiment. People with women’s bodies were not getting elected bishop. And so WEEL focuses on women’s body as a metaphor of the work of discernment. Each session has a cheeky catchphrase for the work we’ll be doing. Here are the session titles from Cohort 1 (although I’ve done some updating for future cohorts):
“Pedicures: Building a Solid Foundation” focuses on grappling with the parts of being a bishop that participants don’t like, sharing how they are engaging and avoiding considering becoming a bishop, and inviting participants to more clearly verbalize their particular gifts for this ministry.
“Does this Eye Shadow Go With My Mitre?” is all about getting comfortable in your own skin, imagining what it would be like to be a bishop with the body you have, and grappling with others’ comments and possessiveness about women’s bodies. Women leaders are seen, treated, and touched differently than male leaders, and this session is all about this reality.
“A Good Bra Makes All the Difference: Finding a Good Fit” is session three. This session focuses on building skills to read and understand a diocesan profile, and to get more clear on each participant’s gifts and what sort of places could be a good match.
“Putting on Your Big Girl Panties, or Knowing What You Need to Lead” is the final session. (And yes, as a woman priest, I have been told to “put on your big girl panties.”) This session is all about planning for life as a bishop in a way you may not have ever seen modeled, but in a way that is life-giving for you.
Does it Work?
Studies say Yes.
WEEL is a confidential program. I and other members of the program will not share the names of participants (although they can self-identify). But 100% of women in the program say it has a positive effect on their ministry and future leadership.
Our first cohort consisted of women who were willing to consider a nomination for bishop within 3 years. Equal numbers of white women and black/women of color were asked, but only white women were willing to participate. Our second cohort was specifically all black women. And our third cohort was a mixture of women ready soon and women discerning for many years down the road, and included both white and women of color.
WEEL is not the only change that happened between 2015 and 2020, but during that time the percentage of women bishop moved from 9% to 23%. An astounding shift. The number of Black bishops went from 2 to 8 in that same time frame.
The WEEL program is on hiatus during the pandemic, however I still offer private coaching and mentorship to women and BIPOC who would like to work on discerning and clarifying a possible call to become bishop. Contact me for more information.
What Does WEEL Cost?
The total cost of a WEEL cohort is roughly around $20,000. I am committed that cost will not prohibit participation. Generous donors have underwritten most of the cost of this program, allowing participants to pay only a $500 registration fee and their own travel costs. If you would like to help fund this work or know an individual or group that might, please contact me.