Good news: every effort is being made to maximize the number of questions asked and to get responses from all four candidates. The "walkabout" event in Sioux Falls last night went a full three hours, alternating questions from the floor with written questions submitted on cards by those in attendance.
Several hundred people were present, so there was no way to get to all the questions. But some important things were asked that gave good insight into the candidates.
After laying out some very short, common sense ground rules, designed to maximize Q & A time, the moderator asked the candidates one starter question:
Why do you feel called to be Bishop of South Dakota?
John Tarrant gave the only satisfying answer: people had approached him two years ago, but he had dismissed the idea. But as more people came to him, he submitted to the possibility of "the Holy Spirit speaking through the church," and allowed his name to go forward. His approach is, "I will be elected if it is God's will," and he made clear that he would stay on as Rector in Pierre if not elected.
Douglas Dunn, as I warned in earlier posts, simply played to his local upbringing. He said he is called to be Bishop "because South Dakota is home." He mentioned "Fr. Bob" (his dad, a priest in the diocese) with glances around the room to see who was responsive to the name drop.
John Floberg spoke of his "call to serve among Native American people." While it was positive to hear a confident statement of his God-given gift, the answer raised two questions about electing him bishop here. 1) He's already fulfilling his calling quite wonderfully right where he is, so why move? 2) He might have come off as over-specialized, when South Dakota's leadership need is more diverse.
Peter Stebinger didn't express a strong call, either, saying that "the Plains are a place that feel like home" and noting some attractive possibilities for lay ministry development and bicultural ministry. He also spoke of being "stale" after 25 years in one parish. While I agree that "stale" can be God's nudge to move on, it doesn't answer the affirmative issue of, "Why here?"
People in attendance asked questions about youth ministry, use of technology to help with growth, pastoral support of clergy and other issues. The candidates tended to have the same general responses for these and some other questions.
But there were a few questions that were challenging and which yielded revealing answers.
What is your view of the resurrection?
Stebinger offered the most decisive and welcome answer. "I passionately believe in the physical resurrection of our Lord on Easter Day." He went on to say that "a metaphor is not enough" and shared that, as an Examining Chaplain for the Diocese of Connecticut, he had argued for requiring would-be clergy to affirm the fact of the resurrection ("But I was overruled.")
Tarrant started strong but then took a strange turn. He noted, as he did several times during the night, that his theology flows from the Incarnation, the fact that God's Word became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ. He seemed to be building a bridge from that to the reality of the resurrection, but then began an uncomfortably vague series of statements like, "his disciples experienced him" and "God takes what appears to be death and brings life." Not his best answer of the night.
Floberg, who offered some amazingly clear theological answers to other questions, didn't do so well with this one. He got into a confusing riff on the Biblical idea of "latter days," then touched on the presentation of Jesus as "the second Adam" - which works well with Biblically informed people but not with a building full of Episcopalians. He spoke of "looking to the future to see who God is calling us to be." All in all, a confusing response.
Dunn used church code to deny the fact of the resurrection. Jesus is risen "in people for whom he is alive." In a diocese where the mission is going to require supernatural help from God, this was very bad news.
How do you deal with inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church (in particular ordination of clergy and blessing of same sex unions)?
Floberg gave the strongest and clearest answer. "The faith that I carry is the faith I was taught through the Bible. All people can be part of the church... but the church must speak with clarity for ordinations and blessings, so I am opposed." He went on to say that the only way he would change his mind would be through a persuasive Biblical case - "If it is there, I haven't heard it yet." He said plainly, "I will not be bullied into change." He spoke of the need to find "a common faith language in the church," which agrees with the diagnosis of denominational problems in the State of the Church report for this year's General Convention. One informed lay person said to me, "I think this is the only candidate who could go to the House of Bishops and come back with his beliefs intact."
Dunn said that his parish moved from "cautious" to "embracing" of allowing gays and lesbians to be ordained as clergy. He wants to wait on same sex marriage "until it is the law of the land."
Stebinger said, "If a community puts a person forward, and that person is approved by (the diocese and bishop), they should be ordained and allowed to serve in any diocese of the church. Although same sex unions are legal in CT, he does not permit them in his parish because "at this time it would fracture the congregation."
Tarrant noted that same sex unions are simply not legal in South Dakota. As to ordination, he affirmed the traditional position that it is behavior, not orientation, that matters. But beyond those two points, he said "I don't know where my mind is on this" and "I don't have a sharp answer for this." This presents a worry about how Tarrant would function in the overheated climate of the House of Bishops or if pushed by activists locally.
What would you expect of Confirmands?
(a question submitted by a group of teens in attendance)
Dunn said he would "Ask them who Jesus is" and expect them to be able to tell their answer to the Bishop before Confirmation.
Floberg said he would look for "a mature confession of the faith," admitting that confirmands haven't "arrived" but know "how to get there" by prayer, knowing the Biblical message (and how to read the Bible for actual content), and being part of a "multigenerational community of believers" (not just an isolated youth group.)
Tarrant said he would look for evidence that their clergy and lay sponsors had taken the confirmands through a sound course of study, and that he might come up with "ten questions" of basic Christian knowledge that they should be able to answer during the Bishop's visitation.
Stebinger reaffirmed the Prayer Book standard of "a mature affirmation of Baptismal vows." He related that one year, he had given a class of eleven teenagers the choice of declining to be Confirmed it is wasn't personally meaningful to them. "They all refused. All have since chosen to be confirmed." He would want confirmands to be able to tell him why their faith is personally important. He also talked about the need for congregational sponsors to be selected well in advance and to take part in faith discussions with candidates.
What didn't get asked
There were no questions about the leadership direction of the Episcopal Church, and how the candidates would deal with the conflicts and substantive changes in that are likely to emerge at General Convention this year. This is a big gap for a diocese that draws half its operating budget and money for Reservation ministry from the national church.
There were no questions about how the candidates would deal with conflict or dissent.
The questions, with the exception of the one about the resurrection, did not draw out clear priorities and leadership directions from the candidates. They tended to pass the microphone and say, "I agree with what the others have said." As one of my lay people reacted to the event, "This didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. Do they disagree with one another on anything, or do they disagree with our culture about anything?"
Most of the questions asked for opinions - there was little to nothing about actual evidence from the candidates' ministries. Dunn is getting away with the argument that his parish's innovations are "things to draw people into the life of the Lord, " when in fact his parish has lost close to 125 attenders since 2002.
My impressions and opinions
It is my hope that some of these unasked questions will come up at the other walkabout venues. The locations are a good mix of city and rural and spread around the state, so some different perspectives are likely to emerge. But communication in SD is slow and difficult. There are areas with little to no internet access or cell phone coverage. With the election coming up May 9th, it is unlikely that there will be sufficient time to "compare notes" and get a complete picture of what the candidates are about.
While Tarrant had the best answer to the "call" question, he seemed overwhelmed by the pointed questions about resurrection and homosexuality in the church. I found myself worried that he might not be up to the conflicted state of the church. On the one hand, he will give all sides a fair hearing. On the other, the Episcopal Church has been damaged by gentle bishops being ground down by activists. So while I know that Tarrant would treat me well, I worry about how the church would treat him and what that would do to the diocese.
Stebinger came up a few notches in my estimation. Although I found his answer to the "call" question rather arid, his answer on the resurrection was like water in the desert. And he seems consistent about resisting radical change until there is wide consensus in the church, refreshing change from the reigning Episcopal Church madness. At the same time, he could turn around and say, "General Convention has declared this or that agenda to be OK, so we have consensus and full speed ahead!" He's clearly on board with the activists as to implementing an LGBT agenda, just at a slower pace. And I don't know that his consensus building approach, which works very well in the closeness of a parish, would translate into the vastness and diversity of this diocese.
Floberg has so many good qualities in terms of real experience. But he's not a polished communicator. Some of his answers were right on target and others were confusing. He has the clarity of faith and love of people to be a good and decisive leader in this setting. But he's also a down to earth, "lunchbucket" kind of guy, and Episcopal snobbery (yeah, it's real) might work against him. He has the most experience of direct work at the national level (which a bishop has to do), but he doesn't do a good job getting that across. Of the four, he is probably the best representative of this region to the national church.
Dunn (or at least his parish) embodies a terrible Episcopal problem: altering the belief and practice of the church to "reach people," while all the evidence shows that the alterations drive away existing members without reaching those outside the church. It is unlikely that his congregation's dramatic loss of people will ever be mentioned in this pre-election process. He smiles, jokes and plays up his SD roots. His answers to questions are the most general and jargon-laden.
In short discussions and eavesdrops after the event, my overall impression is the same as what appears in the State of the Church report. People are in clusters of the like minded, without a common faith language or sense of what the church is about. We are not good "followers," so it is very hard to raise up leaders. The denomination is, as The Episcopal Church Foundation put it a few years ago, "incoherent" when it comes to leadership. Because of this, it is hard to even identify criteria by which to rank the candidates.
Tarrant would be the kindest pastor and best unity builder within the diocese.
Floberg would be the most stable and most reliable representative of the diocese within the national church, and probably the most effective at reanimating Reservation congregations.
Stebinger knows the most about congregational development, which is good for the "city" congregations but not always welcome in other settings. I told him, "You're the one I would most like to have drinks with to chat about church growth."
Dunn is a very nice man by all accounts, but a prescription for chaos. Issues of closed, "in group" leadership, conflict-avoidance and the negative impact of national church innovations are real here, and Dunn would likely amplify all three.
Keep up your prayers for the candidates, their spouses and the diocesan team that are travelling for five consective days and nights, for the convention delegates who will be voting, and for the candidates' home congregations in this time of waiting and uncertainty. And pray for the whole state of Christ's church - we need it.