A report issued by a Special Commission to the Diocese of Lexington in October 2007 was not, by any reasonable interpretation, a rousing endorsement of the tenure of +Stacy Sauls as Bishop of the Diocese of Lexington (KY). The report, which should be read between the lines as much as in the words and sentences themselves, declares “the Diocese of Lexington is systemically unwell.” While certainly not laying this situation entirely at +Sauls’ feet, by meting out blame to certain dissenting factions who have disagreed with mission decisions of the Diocese, it appears to also raise many questions about +Sauls’ ongoing tenure that may be answered in the coming months. If Bishop Sauls was looking for a ringing endorsement or a hearty vote of confidence when he appointed this Commission, it does not appear that he has received either of those results.
The full report is available for reading by clicking on the link at the end of this post.
+Stacy Sauls, 53, a former attorney and 1985 graduate of General Theological Seminary, became the Sixth Bishop of Lexington on September 30, 2000, succeeding +Don Wimberley. Membership, attendance, and pledge/plate giving all seemed on a general upward trend through 1999, but have been in decline since then. To be fair, the largest declines have occurred since the fateful decision of the General Convention 2003 to approve consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and the ensuing, growing schism between liberals and orthodox in the Episcopal Church. It must nevertheless also be stated that +Sauls voted in favor of that decision and many members of the Diocese would characterize his attitude toward those who were dismayed by Robinson’s consecration as “Get Over It.” There have also been other incidents within and without DioLex that may have contributed to this downward trend.
One of the earliest controversies in +Sauls’ tenure came with the charges of embezzlement he lodged against his Canon to the Ordinary and Rector of St. Augustine’s Chapel, Christopher Platt. Chris was accused of theft from his discretionary accounts, when many of those who know him and were privy to the “evidence” would state to the contrary that probably all that occurred was bad or non-existent bookkeeping. Platt, when confronted with the charges, denied them but dutifully offered to submit to the Bishop’s discipline. Instead of dealing with the situation quietly, however, Platt was subjected to a show trial that resulted in his being defrocked. Many observers close to the Diocese believe that the real reason for the trial was for intimidation of the remaining Diocesan clergy, i.e., a warning to not cross Bishop Sauls. There have also been rumors that Platt "knew something" on the Bishop, but those have never been substantiated, not even by Platt himself. The accusations and being put through the wringer by +Sauls crushed Platt; he is living quietly in Kentucky on disability to this day. Many would say a great voice in the pulpit and a truly pastoral man has been silenced and sacrificed to the Church. And, I cannot help but observe that the swift hammering of orthodox Bishops by the national church in the last few days finds strategic echoes, if not +Sauls' fingerprints, in the deposition of Chris Platt.
Bishop Sauls was next confronted with a parish that, in his view, defied his ecclesiastical authority. St. John’s Parish in Versailles, KY, was in the process of searching for a new Rector. Documents produced in a later court proceeding between the old and new parish over the proceeds of a trust revealed that +Sauls had "spies" in St. John's who were reporting to him and may have followed his guidance on intra-parish strategies. St. John's eventually found Fr. David Brannen and, in +Sauls’ view, proceeded with a call without properly involving +Sauls in the process.
When asked by +Sauls whether he would vow to not take St. John’s Parish out of the Episcopal Church, Fr. Brannen honestly stated that he could make no such promises. +Sauls therefore refused to approve the call of Fr. Brannen. St. John’s Vestry proceeded with the call anyway. +Sauls immediately “fired” the Vestry and took over control of the accounts and assets of St. John’s, albeit without apparent Canonical authority to do so (perhaps one of the reasons for the proposed new Canon on discipline of the laity?). A significant number of the members of the parish left and formed St. Andrew’s Parish, affiliated with the Anglican Church of Uganda. The new Anglican church is still meeting in schools, but is soon to break ground on a new building.
One of the interesting upshots of this whole process was a meeting conducted by +Sauls with the membership of St. John’s parish shortly before its final defiance of him. +Sauls was asked several questions about his faith and personal theology; these have been widely circulated on the Internet, but this author has heard of this meeting from several who were present including the questioner, and the reports of +Sauls’ statements are generally accurate. He was asked, among other questions:
PARISHIONER: Do you believe the Bible is the inspired word of God?
SAULS: I believe the Bible is a book of poetry with a lot of history in it. I believe the Prayer Book has all that one needs for salvation
PARISHIONER: Do you believe there is a Satan?
SAULS: Not metaphorically speaking, no.
PARISHIONER: Do you believe in heaven and hell?
SAULS: I believe that an all-loving God would never send anyone to hell for eternity. I believe he works it out in the end for everyone.
I have been told by several current members of St. Andrew’s that these answers were significant in their decision to leave TEC and affiliate with the Anglican Church of Uganda.
Not long after the Versailles events, +Sauls discovered that the Vestry of a small parish in Maysville, KY, Nativity, had set up separate trusts and corporations to own the parish property, and had transferred some property, in anticipation that the Parish may in the future decide to leave TEC. No doubt still stung by the departure of a large portion of St. John’s, +Sauls acted swiftly to depose the Vestry members who had taken this action, and to place Nativity under Diocesan control.
Throughout this time, complaints started to circulate about the manner in which Bishop Sauls conducted his interpersonal relationships within the Diocese. Clergy were seen to be intimidated and cowed. Diocesan officials were pitted one against the other. It became known that anyone took great risks to disagree with +Sauls openly in meetings, as he had displayed a prodigious temper in responding to dissension. One person commented to me in recent months that “the next pastoral act by Stacy Sauls will be his first.” While this is perhaps extreme, it is indicative of the view held by many in DioLex of their Bishop, based upon their personal experiences, that he is much more an administrator and indeed still an attorney, and less so a pastor.
Bishop Sauls has had accomplishments during his tenure. The successful and quite beautiful renovation of Mission House (right) as a Diocesan Headquarters has been completed, although there have been complaints that +Sauls has declined too many opportunities to truly use the facility as an outreach or “mission” place. The funding for the renovation was a source of controversy as purportedly money which had been in a restricted endowment for the now-closed Lexington Theological Seminary was withdrawn and spent on the renovation, thus to some degree tarnishing the accomplishment.
+Sauls initiated a Reading Camp program that provides a summer camp for underprivileged children who do not read to grade-level, with fairly intensive instruction and training in basic reading and comprehension skills. In Kentucky, with its myriad problems with education, this is a worthy effort. Unlike some of his brethren in the House of Bishops, +Sauls has held to a regular schedule of Parish visits and thus makes his presence at least nominally known to the TEC flock in DioLex. And he has started two new congregations, St. Martha's and Apostles, to replace other departing Anglican parishes, although property questions in the form of some belief that part of the property should have been sold have plagued both of these parishes.
And, as a personal note, +Sauls was very supportive of my former parish through a difficult process of relieving a Rector of her duties and slogging through interims, supply priests, and a search process, including three to four (or more) personal meetings by +Sauls with the Vestry to discuss ongoing processes and options. Both in my service as parish Chancellor and then Senior Warden, +Sauls was available and supportive in one of the more difficult processes I ever hope to endure.
Many of +Sauls’ accomplishments have taken place outside the scope of DioLex. He was nominated for Presiding Bishop in the election that saw the elevation of Katherine Jefferts-Schori to that post. He chairs the HOB Committee on the property litigation and has made several presentations to various HOB meetings regarding litigation. There is little doubt he is involved in overall litigation strategy with Schori and David Booth-Beers, as well as the more recent efforts to propose new disciplinary Canons, and is a “player” among his brethren in the HOB. He has been invited to give speeches to many groups related to the Episcopal/Anglican world such as the December 2007 Chicago Consultation, where his topic was “Our Constitutional Heritage: Why Polity and Canon Law Matter.” Bishop Sauls is also in the process of obtaining an L.L.M. in Canon Law from the University of Wales, for which he is taking periodic “mini-sabbaticals” to complete the classroom work for this degree.
The events that brought about the appointment of the Special Commission took place primarily within Diocesan offices, the Executive Council, and to some extent the Standing Committee. As should be expected, there are diametrically different views of what transpired. It is clear, however, that the appointment of the Special Commission had a great deal to do with the financial management of the Diocese, the Bishop’s role in same, and disputes between Diocesan officers arising from these issues. The Special Commission was appointed in January 2007 in a very emotional letter sent by +Sauls to the Executive Council. In this letter, +Sauls evidenced being highly upset that the extent and nature of his financial oversight and decision-making had been questioned and, apparently, that accusations of improprieties had either been made outright or strongly implied. He asserted his authority as Bishop, but asked this Commission to study the situation and pronounce its judgment on whether these matters had been properly handled. Many who saw this letter at the time thought the Commission would end up being a rubber-stamp of approval for the Bishop; to their credit, they have not but seem to have generally taken an objective view.
Apparently at least part of the dispute arose when the former Diocesan Administrator and Financial Officer, a cradle Episcopalian and a CPA, questioned +Sauls’ use of restricted Diocesan funds for non-restricted purposes after discretionary funds had been exhausted. There were also issues being raised in the course of an annual Diocesan audit over the financial health, or lack thereof, of DioLex. Some, including the Special Commission report, have characterized these questions as improper interference in the mission of the Diocese by certain Diocesan officials once decisions had been made in Executive Council and/or by the Bishop. Others view this as the officials conscientiously doing their jobs and raising questions where they should have been raised. The truth is still not all that clear, and the Special Commission has recommended that at least some of the issues be treated as water over the dam and dropped.
In addition to the former Administrator named in the report, several other Diocesan officers have resigned in recent months, including the long-time Chancellor and more than one Treasurer. These conflicts and no doubt others are among those that caused the Special Commission to state: “At present, the Diocese of Lexington is not functioning as it should. The lines of authority set out in scripture, tradition and canon have been repeatedly and purposely crossed.”
The Special Commission has made many sound recommendations, including formation of a Diocesan Audit Committee and a change in the firm that will perform audits in the future; that no Diocesan bodies or committees meet without notice to all potentially interested parties, including the Bishop; that the Executive Council post its Agenda at least seven days before meetings, and its minutes be posted electronically within 30 days of each meeting; that Executive Council include in its minutes “action items” and the person(s) charged with those items so that heightened accountability can be fostered; that a professional Diocesan Administrator and Treasurer be hired immediately; and that in general, all who are involved in Diocesan operations, including elected officials and Diocesan staff, work to end an atmosphere of distrust, accusation, innuendo, and finger-pointing which has affected them all, and instead work to instill an atmosphere of civility in Diocesan dealings.
The recommendations to Bishop Sauls, however, are those that raise the question with which I have titled this post. As I stated above, if one reads between the lines with these recommendations, they are anything but a ringing endorsement of +Sauls’ Bishopric. For example, the Commission has recommended that the Vice Chancellor serve also as “Almoner” to be a confidential adviser to the Bishop regarding use of the Bishop’s discretionary account. With regard to the Diocesan budget, the Commission recommends “that the Bishop have little hand in developing the budget, but submit funding requests as do other agencies of the Diocese.” The Commission further recommends that hearings at the Diocesan Convention on the budget “be presented by the Budget Committee rather than the Bishop.” (If this latter recommendation is intended to spare the Bishop taking the heat spawned by any new budget, I feel fairly sure he should not object to this move.)
Near the end of the report, the Special Commission makes several specific recommendations to Bishop Sauls, which I will quote in their entirety:
1. To the degree it is practicable, avoid involvement in Diocesan finance
a. Your input is critical to the budget process if the mission of the Diocese is to move forward, but that should be the extent of your involvement beyond turning in receipts.
b. When possible, avoid even signing checks.
c. Learn to trust the Treasurer and Finance Committee.
d. Be our Leader, not our manager.
i. Articulate a vision and hold us to it. Each year the Convention is invigorated by your words and the words of our invited guests. Follow up on the vision you present. The Stewardship presentation by Greg Rickel would be an excellent place to begin.
ii. Lead with confidence, not caution.
2. Do your best to resist overreaction
a. It is difficult for someone to disagree with you openly and honestly if they fear what your reaction might be.
3. Explain your rationale. Inspire us. Sell us on your program.
a. Many decisions are yours alone to make. The leadership of the Diocese will be more inclined to trust you if they understand your reasoning,
4. Feed the flock of Christ committed to your charge.
a. We are proud to have you represent us to the wider Church,
b. But we need you as servant and pastor, not just as overseer.
c. Understanding the importance of your work in the National Church,
d. We ask you to understand the importance of your presence here with us.
e. As you stated you would in your first address to us, we ask you to "walk among us."
5. Decide whether, despite the hurts you and your family have endured, remaining as our Bishop is worth the work of reconciliation that will be required.
The Special Commission should be commended on its efforts, by its usage of this gentle language, to try to not worsen the situation in a Diocese that they have already described in their report as “systemically unwell” and “dysfunctional.” But, trying to distill these points down to their essence, are they not saying to Bishop Sauls:
- Stay out of the financial affairs of the Diocese (with the implication that he has caused some problems by past actions);
- You have a bad temper and need to work on it;
- You have to trust us if you want to be trusted;
- We would prefer that you do your job here in DioLex instead of running around with the national church and its issues so much, i.e., we think your personal priorities as Bishop of DioLex are out of order; and
- If you can’t handle this job and what we ask of you, maybe you should be looking elsewhere?
I have heard nothing of how Bishop Sauls reacted to this report, so anything I would say would be rank speculation. With that large grain of salt in mind, I cannot imagine that this report was very well-received in +Sauls’ corner office at Mission House. The Commission did slap quite a number of other hands in the Diocesan hierarchy and did scold everyone within its reach for helping to foster the poisonous atmosphere that has apparently filled Diocesan offices and meetings for quite some time. There is little question, however, that Bishop Sauls did not avoid the Commission’s approbation and criticism. There is likewise little question that, as Bishop with the ultimate power and authority, as the Commission recited in the preamble to its report, any and all Diocesan “dysfunction” is ultimately +Sauls’ responsibility, particularly in light of the fact that he could not himself, in his pastoral capacity, work to resolve these differences but instead had to enlist the aid of a “Special Commission.”
So, again, the question is whether this report is the harbinger of the end of +Sauls’ Bishopric in the Diocese of Lexington? Given his national-level work and his efforts to gain the advanced degree in Canon Law, is a position at 815 with the national church in his future? Could he be lining up as the successor to David Booth Beers? What does it mean that he apparently plans to take at least half of calendar 2008 on sabbatical/vacation and will be out of DioLex? Or, does he have his eye on any one of several Bishoprics in more significant locations than DioLex, financially and otherwise? Or, will he instead decide to gut it out and stay at DioLex and “live into” these recommendations? Only time will tell, and my crystal ball is very cloudy on this question. Nevertheless, stay tuned, dear readers, because things they are a-happenin’ with +Stacy Sauls, one of the “players” in the HOB.