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Mission Leadership Review Finds Successes and Challenges

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, former president of the House of Deputies, presented a Mission Leadership Review of the first four years of Bishop Shannon’s tenure at the business session of Diocesan Convention conducted over Zoom on November 9.

The review identified Bishop Shannon’s successful efforts to restructure the governance, mission, and finances of the diocese through the THRIVE initiative as among the greatest strengths of her ministry to date, Jennings said.

Clergy and congregations in much of the diocese also appreciated the bishop’s encouragement to “experiment and try new things,” Jennings said. In interviews, they singled out her support for new models of congregational ministry and leadership—including the Constellations clergy-sharing initiative—and the creation of the Green Mountain Online Abbey as significant contributions to diocesan life.

Jennings also found that “institutional and individual racism” in both the diocese and the state hinder Bishop Shannon and the diocese in their work together. This challenge, Jennings said, “causes damage to relationships and diocesan systems and is exacerbated by longstanding reluctance to discuss race and racism.”

Ministry and leadership reviews are common practice across the Episcopal Church, and the review Jennings conducted was stipulated in Bishop Shannon’s initial letter of agreement with the diocese. Jennings, who has conducted numerous ministry reviews across the church, said she interviewed 48 people “including the bishop, lay and ordained leaders, and members of the bishop’s staff” in preparing the review.

She found that Bishop Shannon’s work “to clarify financial situation of the diocese” and the emphasis she and Michael Shapiro, interim chief financial officer, place on financial transparency is “deeply appreciated.” People also praised the bishop’s “pastoral care, warmth, creativity, faith, preaching and presiding, and love of the church.”

Jennings also cited several areas of ministry that are in need of attention. These include the need for role clarity in diocesan governance; recruiting enough people to fill diocesan and congregational leadership roles; communicating widely a strategic vision in the diocese; overcoming the “New England tendency toward congregationalism,” and resolving “existing tension between some members of the Standing Committee and the bishop.”

The last of these concerns, Jennings said, “is now being addressed in a positive and productive manner.”

Jennings’ review also identified several “obstacles and threats” the diocese is facing. Some of these challenges—such as declining attendance, a lack of resources, and resistance to change—are common across the church. But the issue of “institutional and individual racism” was a matter of particular concern to some delegates.

Noma Anderson, Ph.D., of the Cathedral of St. Paul, said the inclusion of “racism and racial dynamics” in Jennings’ review “gives reason for pause and reflection.”

Anderson is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at the University of Vermont, and, like Bishop Shannon, she is a Black woman who was recently chosen to lead an overwhelmingly white institution in an overwhelmingly white state. She said she hoped a written copy of Jennings’ findings could be made public for further discussion.

Jennings said dealing openly with the issue of racism was important “not only in terms of the safety, security and effectiveness of your bishop in Vermont and in the diocese,” but as an example to the wider church.

Bishop Shannon is consulting with diocesan leaders and Jennings about a more expansive release and discussion of the MLR report. Details will be announced in early 2024.

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