Synods are a special experience, one in which delegates listen for and discern the moving of the Holy Spirit in making decisions that affect the church. At the Synod of 2014, the Spirit seemed to be saying, “not now” in one area—the election of a bishop.
One of the Synod’s key powers is the ability to elect Bishops of the Moravian Unity. Each Synod has the potential to raise an ordained clergy person of the Province to become a “pastor to pastors.” And while this Synod was in the process of electing a bishop, circumstances seemed to signal that now wasn’t the right time.
The province lost two bishops over the last four-year period, including Bishop Robert Iobst, who died in 2012, and Bishop James Hughes, who in 2014 moved out of the Southern Province.
Bishops in the Moravian Church do not have administrative or Provincial leadership responsibilities—instead, they serve as “pastors to pastors,” ordain new clergy or consecrate higher orders of clergy, and provide counsel to the PECs. They are Bishops of the worldwide Unity, not only of the Province in which they are elected.
Electing a bishop of the Unity isn’t like a typical election. There are no candidates, there is no campaigning or electioneering. It starts with delegates discerning a personal selection of a clergy person who would be good in the role, based on the movement of the Spirit in delegates’ hearts.
A resolution was approved early in Synod to elect only one bishop during this Synod. Ballotting commenced, with many clergy receiving votes. As the process continued during the next few days, two pastors—Tom Shelton and Carol Foltz—rose to the top of the list.
Election of a bishop requires two-thirds affirmation by of those voting. The process continued, and no one was receiving the required two-thirds for election.
Delegates prayed over the issue. It was proposed that this Synod elect two bishops, but the proposal wasn’t approved. The Province’s four current bishops remarked that they are not feeling overwhelmed. Several pastors discussed the need for greater pastoral care; others remarked that care of that kind should come from other sources such as pastoral counseling and spiritual development. As Synod was coming to a close on Sunday morning, it became apparent that the candidates were evenly matched and neither would receive the required number of votes.
After much discussion, the delegates decided that this wasn’t the year to elect a bishop. The process illustrated that we indeed must listen to the movement of the Spirit at Synod; sometimes, the Spirit says, “not yet.”