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 GenXers were starting to becoming bishop nominees, I got a very clear and persistent message from God: “Change the face of the House of Bishops.”
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 newly elected bishops had a similar leadership style to each other and to previous generations of bishops. 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. The only institutional discernment is during the nomination and call process — not in the months and years before a particular profile is announced. I find it very strange that we don’t have any sort of regularized 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 together a few times over about a year.
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. Before attending WEEL, may participants have only seen bishops in their own diocese, often they are bishops who look similar (gray beards were really in about 10 years ago) and do leadership in a similar way. These women see that single 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 women bishops who have very different personalities from one another–and who are different 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.
The first three cohorts of WEEL were based around these four embodied metaphors:
“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.
COVID gave me plenty of time to reimagine WEEL, and in 2022 I will begin offering WEEL 2.0.
This next generation WEEL 2.0 will include:
- Three Embodied-themed in-person gatherings with women bishops
- Support through monthly Zoom calls
- Three individual hour-long coaching sessions
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). In a post-cohort survey, 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 chose to participate. Our second cohort was specifically all black women. 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, straight and LGBTQ.
Most participants were part of an episcopal search process during or after their WEEL cohort. WEEL 1 was for women discerning a call to the episcopate within the next two years. 90% of them advanced in a nomination process. 83% of WEEL:WOC advanced in a nomination process. WEEL 3 was designed a bit differently and included women who felt a call to the episcopate greater than five years into the future. Half of this cohort have advanced in a nomination process. Several WEEL alumnae are now bishops.
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 women bishops went from 2 to 8 in that same time frame.
Might You Be a WEEL Participant?
If you would like to be added to the WEEL waiting list, or if you know someone you would like to nominate for the list, please let me know.
If you are actively discerning a call to the episcopate in 2022 or 2023 and would like to find out about joining WEEL 2.0 in 2022, contact me ASAP.
What Does WEEL Cost?
The total cost of a WEEL cohort is roughly $20,000. I am committed that cost will not prohibit participation.
Generous donors covered the majority of the cost of the first three cohorts. WEEL 2.0 has received enough support so that over half the cost will be covered by generous donors. Nine in-person days with women bishops, eighteen hours of facilitated online calls, and three hours of individual coaching are included in the $1,400 cost to participants.
If you would like to help fund this work or know an individual or group that might, please contact me.
If your Continuing Education budget is insufficient to cover the cost of WEEL participation, do not despair. With a little bit of effort, you may be able to find full funding. Here are a few ideas:
Diocesan Continuing Education Grants
many dioceses offer continuing education grants for clergy. This would be an excellent use of these funds.
Bishop Discretionary Funds
Most bishops have discretionary funds and would likely be happy to support your discernment through WEEL.
Whether it’s Christmas Gifts, Ordination Anniversaries, or simply “You’re Great!” you likely have people in your life who would be willing to support this work. You may have one donor who could underwrite your WEEL experience with a gift of $500 or $1,000. Maybe you have 10 friends who could all give $50. All these ways help pay for WEEL and also get more people involved in supporting you–beyond just financial support.
Consider earmarking your honorariums for weddings, funerals, and other extra services and speaking engagement to fund this work.
If you have exhausted all your fundraising opportunities and still do not have full payment, please contact me. I am committed to money not being a barrier to participation in WEEL.