In a recent letter sent to the diocese of Virginia, Bishop Shannon Johnston provided additional information on his recent announcement that he will be asking the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center to help address internal issues at Mayo House, diocesan headquarters; as well as his intent to retire sooner rather than later. The bad news, though, is that the announcement makes clear that issues at the diocese will not be resolved under Johnston.
The problem arises from the bishop’s efforts to frame the issue. In his letter, he states that the diocese is not involved in moral or legal scandal, and that the diocese is “right on target” with its programs and ministry.
So let’s parse these issues.
Apropos the issue of moral challenges, we’re dealing with a diocese that is so clueless that it has said, in writing, that it has no issue with shunning and other non-sexual clergy abuse. Whoa! That’s serious stuff. Shunning can be profoundly traumatic to victims, and +Johnston is okay with it? That right there speaks volumes to his leadership and his moral compass.
Nor is this his only disciplinary screw-up. The diocese thoroughly bollixed its handling of a clergy disciplinary case in Northern VA, resulting in lasting trauma to the parish in question. Meanwhile, while I am not at liberty to share the specifics, there are other, very serious allegations swirling around +Shannon and Title IV; these involve third parties entirely unrelated to me.
Now, let’s focus on conflict and change management. One thing is very clear, and that is that things are a hot mess at Mayo House. Yet bishop Shannon wades in, probably without any sort of independent, professional assessment in front of him, and proclaims that the diocese is “right on target,” that it’s doing things right, etc. But if conflict is out of control within Mayo House, that in itself tells you that this simply is not accurate. It’s the whole notion of a healthy mind in a healthy body. If Mayo House is unhealthy, so is the diocese, for a healthy diocese will work towards health in all its component parts. In fact, leaders set the tone and direction in any organization, and the fact that Bishop Shannon is just now figuring out he’s got a problem is, itself, a problem. That also tells me that Bishop Shannon is adept at shutting down feedback loops that would otherwise help him keep a finger on the pulse of the organization. This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that he’s already using his role to try to limit the perceived scope of the problems, versus being an active listener. Far better to send around a survey to the diocese, designed by outside, independent consultants, that asks the questions, “How are we doing? How can we improve?” I promise all involved that, if the diocese takes that approach, it will discover that things are not okay, and on multiple levels.
In short, this is a phase at which Bishop Shannon should tell folks at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, “I am open to any and all feedback, and commit to hearing it without concluding that such feedback is intended to cause harm. Retaliation for providing feedback will not be tolerated.”
In addition, the diocese would be well advised to establish normative behaviors at all levels, much like the excellent normative behaviors document produced by the diocese of Souther Virginia. Among the behaviors that should be expected:
- All persons are treated with respect at all times, including in conversations about them that do not include them. My own experience is that +Shannon turns a blind eye to a shockingly negative level of discourse involving current and former members of the diocese, including me. (For example, I received a letter from the Rev. Caroline Parkinson that was shocking and appalling in its disparaging language and content. The fact +Shannon was copied on it tells me that diocesan clergy at all levels think this sort of thing is okay.)
- Persons providing feedback are to be assumed to come from a place of good intent.
- Clergy are held to the highest ethical and behavioral standards, and there will be consequences when this does not occur. In short, acccountability needs to be normative.
- Feedback is welcomed and encouraged, even if it is unpleasant.
- Providing feedback or criticism is safe and won’t result in retaliation.
- Conflict will be addressed promptly and effectively.
In short, some of the issues I have seen in the diocese are so deep-rooted that it undoubtedly is best if +Shannon retires sooner rather than later. Even his recent letter to the diocese tells me that +Shannon is both a big part of the problem and unlikely to be capable of fully resolving the problems now facing the diocese. The only way he will be able to prove me wrong is by taking a radically different approach to things than what he has shown to date, and his recent letter makes clear that he’s already headed down a very different path.
See the full text of the letter below.