Questionnaire Responses of the Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon
1. Our Diocese is looking for a person with a robust and articulated spiritual life. Describe for us your personal spirituality and prayer life. What practices do you follow regularly? What experiences have most profoundly contributed to your spiritual life? What or who has most influenced you; how have those influences changed over time? How have you articulated your spiritual vision to others?
As parish priest and now bishop, I have always sought to communicate the vision that each of us has a unique ministry from God, for which we are peculiarly gifted. I remain fascinated by the Body of Christ: on the one hand, we “have all been given the same Spirit to drink” in Baptism, and yet each of us has a place and time to do something unique and beautiful for God’s mission. The life of a disciple of Jesus is first to seek after this unique ministry, inspired and nourished by Word and Sacrament, and then to exercise it in the context of a worshipping community. Then “our hearts may truly there be fixed where true joys are to be found.”
As a boy, I grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family in Newport, Rhode Island. At age six, I became an altar boy, a bit precociously, where I met a priest who had spent ten years locked in a “tiger cage” in Communist China. With a deeply scarred face and a permanent bent, he impressed the congregation with his apparently simple homilies and his great kindness. This was in contrast to the other priest, a brusque Irishman, who kept telling me I was too young to serve. Despite his tormented past, the missionary’s spirituality was so vibrant and deep that he could deliver a true and simple message that resonated even with a young boy. This is when I first began to think I should be a priest.
After a fine education at the Portsmouth Abbey School up the road, I came to the conclusion that I was no longer a Roman Catholic. Transferring to a French lycée to study physics, I began a long course of philosophical study as well, which lasted several years, during which I abandoned belief in God altogether. Meeting one day my thenidol, Jean-Paul Sartre, only to hear him exclaim that he lived “only to smoke,” I began to question myself. Was this the end of my road as well? This led me to reconsider many things, including faith. The idea of priesthood came up again, but as I did not even belong to a church anymore, I could not imagine pursuing it. As I had always studied music, my father being an organist and organ builder, I switched majors and started work in sacred music.
My organ teacher, Jean Langlais, under whom I studied for three years, had a strong influence upon me. His liturgical sensitivity, not to mention his extraordinary gifts as musician, helped me attune to what is happening in the Eucharist. After some encounters with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who gave me their Bible (the King James Version translated into modern French — hilarious!), I found myself believing again, if not to say for the first time, that Jesus Christ is alive.
Langlais later convinced me to continue working at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where I served as organist in several different congregations. I found increasingly that I felt that I was “in the wrong end of the church.” I still did not consider myself a member of any particular denomination. After several meetings with an atheist psychiatrist to determine whether this yearning was not an aberration, he threw me out, telling me to “find a church and work it out.” Next I turned to a wise Jewish woman, a friend of my then-fiancée’s family, who told me in no uncertain terms that I was indeed being called to be a priest.
At the same time, I made the wonderful discovery of The Episcopal Church, thanks to Melinda, now my wife. I was quite surprised to find myself feeling at home right away, now thirty-two years ago. Seven years later, I was ordained to the diaconate and priesthood, and ten years ago this fall, to the episcopate.
Over the past decades I have continued to grow through the regular use of the Book of Common Prayer, working with spiritual directors, and practicing daily prayer, both formal (the Offices, and others) and informal. Besides daily encounters with the Scriptures, reading and studying theology are very important to my spiritual life, as well as my ministry. People are looking for spiritual leadership, to understand intellectually their call to ministry, and to grow spiritually by learning experientially in community. As each of us seeks to learn how to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” our work together needs to grow out of a deep sense of conviction, a shared theology and a communal vocation. In my daily life of prayer, I seek strength and inspiration to be able to offer that kind of leadership.
2. Describe your leadership style. Where do you range on the spectrum between “big picture”, leaving execution to others, and “hands on”, giving your personal attention to details? Please give examples. How would you go about developing a strategic vision for the Diocese? The Diocese of New York is large and complex; its parts have varied strengths and problems. What sorts of tasks would you hold to yourself; what sorts of tasks would you feel comfortable delegating to others? What qualities would you look for in hiring Diocesan staff? How would you deal with disagreement, discord or disaffection within the Diocese?
I often reflect upon Gregory the Great’s classic definition of a bishop: “servant to the servants of God.” It is an expression that has shaped the way I try to lead. I have taken to heart the definition of a leader as one who seeks to develop the leadership of others around me, so that they can become in the end better leaders than I. What I like about this dictum is that it helps me not to think too highly of myself, and that ultimately, my leadership must be always about service to others.
Whether in my work in the Church or outside, my task is always to see to it that what needs doing gets done. This is the executive function of leadership — taking responsibility. In order to be able to exercise this well, I have to know enough about what needs doing to be able to delegate to others effectively. Because it is my conviction that leadership in the church is not about accumulating credit for oneself, but rather for the parish, diocese, Episcopal Church, delegating comes naturally. What successes I have had to date are the result of good delegation.
Throughout most of my ministry as priest and bishop, I have had to exercise my leadership in a context of meager resources. This has required that I be very creative in advancing the mission and ministry needs of the church. More than anything else, people are our greatest resource, and so I strive to create an environment that enables clergy and lay volunteers to exercise their gifts in the context of mutual ministry. In the Convocation, I believe that these processes are raising up some of the finest new lay leaders, deacons, priests, and now bishops serving the Episcopal Church today.
In the final analysis, it is the strategic vision for which I am responsible — the concrete working out of our plans for the future. Everything else can be delegated, if need be, but not this. The vision has to be developed, and then “owned” by the rest of the leadership and the people. Then the development of what was decided needs guidance, refinement, and evaluation, all sustained by an effective communications strategy.
My first cure, All Souls, North Versailles, Pennsylvania, was slated to be closed when I was named as deacon in charge for a year. I ended up doing most tasks by myself for a time, especially after I took the parish off diocesan support and we ended up laying off all but the weekly cleaner. Eventually we came up with ways to hire a secretary and musician again. We developed a Sunday School paid for with bake sales and craft fairs, a scouting ministry that brought our out-of-the-way congregation greater community visibility, and a few mature Christians started an effective men’s ministry. By identifying and encouraging leaders, the laypeople were able to take on more and more of the parish’s life. It is still open, a resource for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.
My second parish had suffered from grave misconduct by my predecessor, which had been concealed from the parish and me during the calling process. We were able to make everything transparent, and recover large sums of money embezzled separately by my predecessor and a dishonest stockbroker. In my third parish, St. Andrew’s Church & School, Fort Pierce, Florida, we were able to develop policies and procedures that led to significant growth across the board, including planting a new parish (Church of the Nativity, Port St. Lucie), turning the school around (now called St. Andrew’s Academy), and building endowments from zero to around $20 million today.
My call to serve as Bishop in charge of the Episcopal Churches in Europe (part of the Presiding Bishop’s jurisdiction) was to build a diocesan structure virtually from scratch, one peculiarly adapted to ministering over a range of national cultures, laws, and languages, not only for expatriates and Anglophones, but also for local people who are finding they can live their faith especially well in the unique way Episcopalians have of being Christians. To build a functioning diocese across a continent, covering six countries and operating in others from time to time had never been done in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Jeffrey Rowthorn, my predecessor, had cast the vision of a missionary diocese, but the structures to make the vision a reality were still sketchy. The first task for me was to obtain an education experientially, which was necessarily by trial and error for the most part. I had to learn a great deal about the Convocation’s history, and each of its unique congregations in their particular contexts, as well as how to be a bishop. For example, while in France we are legally counted as churches, in Italy we are considered as public charities. In Germany, our congregations are organized like sports team booster clubs (though we are actively working to take advantage of recent changes in the law that will allow us a more ecclesiastical structure). In Belgium, the Crown pays a salary and housing stipend for our clergy. Switzerland and Austria have their own peculiarities.
The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, with our four thousand members and eighteen congregations and ministries, now functions like a diocese. We have an active standing committee (the Council of Advice) that also oversees the budget passed by our annual convention. After I went through three different auditors (including a Big Five company), our financial structure and reporting are now professional. Europe sends a full deputation to General Convention. We have a versatile Commission on Ministry of the Baptized, overseeing processes of discernment for lay and ordained ministries. Our European Institute of Christian Studies offers a flexible process of formation for ordinands to the diaconate and the priesthood that requires high standards of learning and training for active ministry. They have developed a curricular method, “Transformed By Stories,” currently being finalized for publication for the wider Church by Virginia Seminary’s Center for Christian Formation and the Episcopal Church’s Office for Christian Education, working with the EICS members who developed it. A Youth Commission designs programs and trains parish ministers for a range of ages from 10 to 30 years old. New congregations are being planted, some as fairly temporary for expatriates, some in other languages, and some as permanent parishes. We have published bilingual Prayer Books in Italian, Spanish, French and German, to help develop the radical hospitality that is the hallmark of our congregations across six countries. The clergy meet twice a year for a retreat and a clericus, and are encouraged to develop a network of support and mutual enrichment. We have clear child protection and harassment avoidance policies, and we helped the Church Center develop anti-racism training for the 11 dioceses that are outside the United States. And we now have clear standards of clergy discipline, as well.
One of my first priorities was to highlight the Convocation to anyone who would listen as the exciting, challenging mission field that it is, ministering on the edge of the Church and living in a microcosm of the Anglican Communion. We had had an image of chaplaincies to rich expatriates, which was perhaps true in the nineteenth century but ceased with the First World War. Europe was thought to be the graveyard of a clerical ministry, instead of the training ground for priests in difficult, ambiguous mission situations that it is. Today it is safe to say that the Convocation of Churches in Europe has a positive image around the Church and the Communion. Our clergy move to major positions in the Episcopal Church: seminary dean, bishops, and rectors of large parishes. Our ordinands have no trouble getting placed, as well. And we continue to attract superb clergy willing to take on the challenge of ministry in unusually diverse congregations in unfamiliar settings, learning other languages and cultures.
As the bishop enabling and overseeing these developments, I have had to function on a very restricted budget. Thanks to the Episcopal Church Center, a missionary assists me, and we also have a part-time secretary and bookkeeper. Our committees have to meet electronically more often than not: the Council of Advice and the COMB meet three times a year face to face, for instance. Diocesan conventions are major events, hosted by a different parish each year. I also serve as deployment officer to the congregations and clergy, and have overseen a complete change of clergy leadership during my tenure.
We have planted new congregations, and we have had to close some mission churches. Only after their congregants came to the understanding that they had come to that point in their lifecycle did we do so.
Building the airplane and flying it at the same time has not been without some unplanned crashes. The Convocation is still very much a work in progress, and there are plenty of rough edges to smooth out.
Again, the key difference in every case is of course the many talented and committed laypeople and clergy that I have had the privilege to work with over the past 26 years. By gathering teams together of competent people, setting them to strong challenges, giving them the necessary tools, and getting out of their way, we have been able to accomplish a great deal together. Learning in each what the “big picture” was and how to do the smaller components allowed me to delegate effectively enough that we were able to accomplish these. This would always be the approach I would take.
A strategic vision
To develop a fresh strategic vision for your diocese to me means to gather all the stakeholders in a clear structured way that allows for the Spirit to speak through us. And then put the question to them: what part of God’s dream are we being asked to bring forth in the future? The Diocese of New York spreads over very different regions, each with different needs and concerns. You have been through very wrenching times, which will not likely end soon. The true vision will be one that takes the full measure of the diocese’s strengths and weaknesses. Since a diocese exists only to meet the needs of its congregations that they cannot meet for themselves, it will focus on the local, where all ministry begins and ends. It will be hopeful, that is, realistic in light both of God’s providence and economic and demographic facts.
Once an answer begins to become apparent, then we need to parcel out various aspects to the appropriate diocesan committees and ad hoc work groups, in order to clarify the smaller pieces of the big picture. Finally, when we get to the “pixel” level, it will be time to make a corporate decision and then go forth. As we go along, we will need regular check-ins to evaluate progress and make course corrections.
One question I have already, among many, is how to continue developing Hispanic ministry. I have some experience of it, and it seems clear that this will be a major growth area in the future. What other people can we reach that we haven’t up to now? What role should “emergent” strategies for congregational development play? What about “street church” and other non-traditional ways of reaching out? Where should resources best be directed, always remembering that ministry is local?
Since it is true that an organization’s budget clearly reflects its real priorities, then the diocesan budget should closely follow the strategic vision we say we believe in. It follows, then, that the future selection of suffragan and assistant bishops, as well as other paid staff, should follow those guidelines as well. The existing staff members, starting with the Bishop Diocesan, need to be on board with the corporate vision, and clear about their roles in it. I always look for people who can think for themselves and yet share their leadership for the benefit of the whole team. Ambition for the Church above personal ambition is essential. Furthermore, people who need micromanaging should go work for someone else.
It is normal for a diocese to have subjects of contention. If we are to obey Christ’s injunction to “love God with all our mind,” then that means we must ask questions and look for answers. Invariably, the answers are not all going to be the same. In the give-and-take of discussion and dialogue, even argument, the Episcopal Church decides its life. Part of my role is to help people become comfortable with that process. The other part is to manage conflicts, which means trying to channel them and their actors in search of reconciliation that will bring forth growth in all parties concerned.
One challenge is to find ways to encourage occasions for people to get together without a formal agenda. The real program is to get to know each other, build relationships, and do the day-to-day work that unfolds naturally in social situations. Clergy gatherings, days for wardens, young people events, annual dinners at the Cathedral, and many other occasions are crucial to a healthy diocesan life, whether in a jurisdiction like Europe that crosses national, linguistic and cultural boundaries, or the three boroughs and two regions of your diocese — urban, suburban and rural.
3. A Diocesan Ordinary is at once Chief Pastor to the Diocese, especially its clergy, and Chief Executive Officer of the Diocese. What connection do you see between the two roles of the Bishop? How do you deal with errors or misjudgments of those under your supervision? How have you juggled pastoral and administrative roles in your prior and present positions? Do you think you are better qualified for one or the other?
In my experience, the roles of pastor and administrator have always been intertwined. They can seem to be mutually exclusive: for example, how does one fire an employee pastorally? In fact, “respecting the dignity of every human being” should govern even difficult decisions, so long as the context of the larger community is kept in clear focus as well. Moreover, clear and transparent administration serves a pastoral function, and effective pastoral care for a large group of people requires good management of pastoral resources. My record as bishop and parish priest is that of both caring pastor and effective administrator.
Maintaining an efficient staff means picking people who are likely to do well with the tasks they have entrusted to them, giving them clear direction and adequate tools for the work, and then getting out of their way — for a while. Eventually, evaluation and possible redirection are necessary. This means allowing people freedom to fail. Those who work for me understand that I will give them a number of chances to learn from their mistakes. I will take responsibility for these. Of course, they also have to understand that continuing to have such freedom to fail depends upon achieving success, and that their actions always reflect upon me and on the rest of the staff as well.
Being Bishop in charge in Europe has required not only developing a functioning diocese under unique conditions, but also building opportunities for far-flung clergy to come together. While I am a capable pastor, especially in emergency situations, the pastoral role of a bishop is normally to build ways for clergy to care for themselves and each other, secure in the knowledge that their bishop intends the best for them and their families and congregations. Predictability of response, including in disciplinary matters, is crucial. This shall become more important in the years to come as the radically new Title IV discipline canons come into force this July. Furthermore, the Bishop Diocesan needs to have a pastoral relationship with key lay leaders as well.
Besides the usual administrative duties that every diocesan has, the Bishop of New York has several unique functions, such as chairing the boards of trustees of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and General Theological Seminary, as well as active participation in several other boards. How to prioritize all of these will be an important learning during the coadjutorship.
4. New York is one of the nation’s and the world’s major economic, political, and cultural centers. Historically Bishops of New York have played leadership roles in the National church and the Anglican Communion. How does that tradition fit with your vision of the Bishop of New York? What role should the Bishop of New York play in the House of Bishops? How should the Bishop of New York deal with other religious or secular communities in the City, in the Nation? How active should the Bishop be with respect to issues of economic or social justice? How would you go about creating that role for yourself? Which activities have you been involved in, which have particularly interested you; which are those you think you are particularly qualified for?
It certainly is daunting to wonder what it would be like to follow so many great Bishops of New York. John Henry Hobart has been a personal hero of mine for a long time, for instance.
What has always focused my attention is the idea of what the church is actually for: “It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world.” My ten years as bishop has only widened my appreciation of the truth of this. Pointing to what the Triune God is doing — and acting on what we see — is the essence of our work, beginning with the ministry of the Laity. Leaders of the church, clergy and lay, have the task to keep the rest of us on that course.
As chair of the board of General Seminary and host bishop of the Episcopal Church Center, including the Observer to the United Nations, the Bishop of New York has a special voice in the House of Bishops. He or she will automatically be given the role of a senior bishop, working with others to move the church in the long term toward more faithful witness and effective ministry, as well. For all sorts of reasons, people will always look to the Bishop of your diocese, if only to wonder where The Episcopal Church is heading now.
In our tradition — and the Bishops of New York have exemplified this, I think — a bishop is not only the overseer of a certain number of Episcopal congregations, but also a bishop for the whole region “and away to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As the Prayer Book Ordinal says to a new bishop, “you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world.” Therefore your Bishop has the task, with other religious leaders, to gather the strength for an effective voice in the affairs of the City and New York State. There are national and international roles, as well, beginning with overseas partners in mission in the Anglican Communion.
In this very uncertain time, I do not believe any bishop can shirk the responsibility of speaking out and working for the common good against the atomizing forces of our age. There is an overwhelming agenda: the environment, the nation’s deep insecurities, the global economy, the reality of enduring grinding poverty and constant warfare in the world. In my own ministry, I have worked to develop platforms from which to address these in various aspects, for instance, a Huffington Post blog and Anglicans Online columns. As Bishop in Paris, and representing the Episcopal Church in Europe, I have done extensive inter-Anglican, ecumenical, and interreligious work, to further mutual understanding and growth in common mission. Among many other initiatives over the years, I recently proposed ways toward recognizing our full communion with the Church of Sweden. After the Iraq war, I developed with others a ministry to bring Iraqis threatened with death for reasons of faith to refuge in France. This required carefully nurturing a close working relationship with the government over a number of years, and we brought 1300 people out — mostly Christians, but some Muslims and Mandaeans as well. My Francophone background has led me to take a leadership role in the rebuilding of the Diocese of Haiti, at the request of the Bishop of Haiti.
As a parish priest, I worked as economic justice officer for the three dioceses I served. For example, in 1989 I helped develop a corporation, Maglev, Inc., to launch high-speed magnetic levitation train technology in the United States, as part of a movement to create new jobs in western Pennsylvania devastated by de-industrialization. As treasurer I oversaw a $2.8 million project budget, answering to corporate, labor, church, and government stakeholders. I also directed our Washington lobbying campaign for the project until I left Pittsburgh in 1991. (See www.maglevinc.com.)
With other clergy leaders in Fort Pierce, I led the consolidation of two separate white and black ministerial associations into one, of which I was elected the first president from 1998 to 2001. Once called “the cocaine capital of the U.S.” by Dan Rather, the united churches during my presidency led a successful citywide campaign to dismantle drug-smuggling gangs.
I have grown comfortable with being in episcopal ministry. To learn the specific work of being Bishop of New York, besides beginning with a significant period of listening and relationship-building with lay and clergy leaders, I would personally seek out and use resources such as a spiritual director, management consultants, mentors among successful bishops of large dioceses, and gain real fluency in Spanish, as well as develop my ability to address sensitively multi-racial concerns.
Building a network of relationships through careful listening would lay the ground for developing my own voice in the context of your great city. While “past performance is no guarantee of future results,” as they say on the Street, I can affirm with confidence that I would take to my heart the interests of the people of the Diocese and the communities they live in.
5. By entering our process, you have indicated that you are open to the possibility that God might be calling you to this important and challenging ministry. Tell us why you think you are open to that call. After reviewing the material in our information packet, which of your professional and personal experiences would equip you to meet the perceived needs of our Diocese? Which of your gifts and qualities?
The Diocese of New York is going through the same wrenching times that the churches around the country are experiencing. There will be hard work ahead for the next Bishop of New York. However, I have always found that when we come together to seek God’s dream for our part of God’s mission, the Spirit is faithful and opens new vistas, sets new tasks, offers new resources, along with new challenges. It is always our joy to accept that dream, that future, whatever it may bring, so long as we are confident that through it we are becoming the people that God intends us to be.
That confidence is what I sense in your profile, and I share it as well. The many and varied experiences I have had in parish and episcopal ministries make me want to communicate the enduring value of our way of being church. My own faith has been tested and is solid. I have a variety of gifts and talents as compassionate pastor, able administrator, effective advocate, compelling preacher, teacher and writer, which seem to match what you are seeking. The international, multi-lingual and multi-cultural proficiencies I have developed also would be right at home in New York.
At this point in my life, I am 58 years old, blessed with robust health, and a seasoned bishop. I believe I am at “the height of my powers.” Thanks be to God, I have had a wonderful life and ministry so far. And now I have come to a crossroads. I have been for a decade what can be termed a missionary bishop. There is always a moment when the missionary comes home, to share learnings and to receive fresh gifts.
Either the Spirit will give me a new vision for more active years in Europe, or else I am being called somewhere else. I am wondering whether I am being called to be bishop of a settled diocese in a great city. Of course, it will be hard to leave Paris and the great people of the Episcopal Churches in Europe. Like many others, however, I too love New York.
Finally, on a personal note, our daughter Marie-Noëlle has relocated to the States, and we do not envisage her returning permanently to Europe. I am paid in US dollars, and the exchange rate has not been kind to us, living in a great city that is as expensive as New York. I have traveled extensively for a decade for the Church. At year’s end, I will receive a lifetime “platinum” frequent-flyer card, the ambiguous trophy for massive travel featured in the recent film Up In The Air. St. Benedict commended the virtue of stability, staying in one place, and I would like to try exercising it…
Two priests from Europe were recently elected bishop. I advised both of them when they were nominated for bishop, they should be willing to help the church select its new leader, and by saying “yes” they will have already won. It is a great privilege to be asked to help New York find your next Bishop. Please be assured of my prayers for all of us in this process.