The principal of Wycliffe College, one of the member institutions of the Toronto School of Theology, has been elected the seventh bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. The Rev. Canon Dr. George Sumner will be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church on November 14, 2015.
For Sumner, who earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Yale, this means a move from academia into local church leadership — in the crucial role of chief pastor of a 77-parish diocese. In Trust asked Sumner to reflect on this transition and the leadership lessons that apply to both academy and church.
What lessons from being a theological college leader will you bring to your new role as bishop?
Theological college principals are a pool from which people choose bishops. That overlap has been recognized in England and Africa for years. There are some similar dynamics. Bishops deal with young ordinands and fundraising, for example.
A principal has a kind of pastoral role, for faculty and board. However, a diocese is bigger than a college, so the pastoral role of a bishop is an order of magnitude larger.
What were the most important leadership lessons you learned at Wycliffe?
I learned to trust the people who created the authority structures in the school, who wrote the bylaws and handbooks. I found it was important to resist taking powers for myself that weren’t mine, but at the same time, to exercise the authority I was given.
A principal needs to be sensitive to the faculty’s hopes and interests and take all the different constituencies into account. But at the end of the day, you can’t shy away from leading the organization. You have your thumb in every pie as the head of a school, but there is someone watching the kitchen, which is the board.
So, don’t back away from authority, but use it. That’s a strategic lesson.
Personally, I learned a lot about fundraising. The outsider doesn’t understand that half of the job of a college principal is development. It is talking to friends, encouraging them, and raising money. Lots of people who have other areas of expertise don’t have much experience in raising funds. It’s good that schools hire scholar-pastors as their leaders, but they have to be willing to learn this other role.
How will that translate into being a bishop?
The classic definition of bishop is “pastor of pastors.” You’re also their supervisor, so people don’t always want to come to you with their pastoral issues. That’s one of the challenges with bishops. The idea that people will go to their bishop with what they are struggling with is not realistic, although you are their pastor ultimately.
The life of the diocese is the parishes. A bishop works through the parishes, but the parishes have their own life. A bishop’s role is to figure out what helps them thrive.
When I started here at Wycliffe, another principal said the engine that moved our college was the faculty. Because a school rises and falls on the faculty, they must be productive and not fight with one another. And the administrators must not divert energy away from the faculty’s work. You can’t be running another, separate, ring of the circus. Everything has to come out of the faculty and go back into it.
Similarly, as a bishop, everything you do must feed into parishes. Parishes are where people hear the Gospel, so everything goes back to them. In both academic life and in church administration, it’s helpful to remember that administrators serve those who teach and lead others. Bishops serve their priests, who shepherd their parishes. Academic administrators serve their faculty, who teach and guide students.
Administration is letting people do their thing, not micromanaging, but setting up parameters. It’s saying, “Here’s the field, but I’m not going to manage your kicking and running.”
What are you most looking forward to in your new role?
The role requires a person who is interested in knowing what to do in situations that are complicated, and where the path forward is unclear. There’s an excitement in that.
Dallas is dynamic and growing. It has a remarkable diocese, and the diocese wants to engage this exciting region evangelistically. It has a lot of young clergy who describe themselves as evangelically catholic.
In terms of leaving Wycliffe College, I live in a world of theologians, but the person who said the most interesting thing to me was Wanda Malcolm, who teaches pastoral psychology at Wycliffe. She said that for theologians, the greatest challenge is to feel. You have to let yourself feel a range of emotions, including loss.
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