- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - “Collaboration.”

The Right Rev. Sean Rowe realizes he’s using the word a lot these days. But it’s an approach he’s committed to, and he thinks his interest in working with others is one of the reasons his life is about to change. He is poised to take on the role of bishop of a second Pennsylvania diocese, at least for a while.

Rowe, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, is the nominee for provisional bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem. If approved, as expected, by the Bethlehem diocese’s clergy and lay representatives in a March 1 vote, Rowe will continue to head the Erie-based diocese he has led since 2007 and will also oversee the Bethlehem-based diocese for three years until a new bishop is selected.

“It certainly was not that I don’t have enough to do here,” Rowe said. “I have more than a full-time job as bishop of this diocese.”

He’s also currently working on his doctoral dissertation, is a husband and has a young daughter.

In a letter to members of his diocese, Rowe said he hadn’t sought the added role of provisional bishop. He was approached in late 2013 by officials from the Bethlehem diocese and the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Unlike his position in the Northwestern diocese, which comes with life tenure, the provisional bishop’s job has a defined period of time.

Rowe said either he or the Bethlehem diocese could end the relationship over the course of the three years.

After prayer, Rowe decided to give it a go.

“Across the Church, we’re looking for different models of ministry to meet the 21st century,” he said. “This isn’t limited only to the congregational level but also to the diocesan level.

“I’ve been talking about new models of ministry. I’m participating in a restructuring task force that is churchwide. And we can talk about new models and theorize about new models but somebody has to take the plunge.

“And I really felt like this was an opportunity to model the kind of collaboration that is going to be key to the future of the Church,” he said. “And I have a real sense of call to a vibrant church with different expressions, and this is me walking the talk.”

Tom Noyes has confidence in Rowe.

“I think he can handle it,” said Noyes, 44, a member of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie. Noyes also thinks Bethlehem can benefit from Rowe, who’s done well here.

“I certainly admire the job he’s done,” Noyes said. “I think he’s brought an energy to the job.”

If Rowe is approved March 1, he will have two full-time jobs. He’ll oversee offices and staff in Erie and Bethlehem, including two sets of congregations. The Northwestern diocese has 33 in 13 counties, and Bethlehem has 63 in 14 counties in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Rowe estimated the number of Episcopalians in his current diocese at about 5,000. The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns, president of the Standing Committee in the Bethlehem diocese, said it has about 15,000 members.

Rowe doesn’t intend to leave one group completely for the other.

“I have no plans to become the bishop of Bethlehem,” he said. “I’m committed to this region and to the people here,” he said.

He’ll initially spend one week a month in Bethlehem and, by fall, will split time between the two.

Rowe said he’s easing into the arrangement because he’s working on a doctorate at Gannon University, which he wants to finish this spring.

His studies are focused on organizational learning and leadership. He said this will be an opportunity to put into practice what he’s learned.

“I find we have a number of excellent theologians in the Church and so I wanted to broaden my skills in the organizational arena,” he said.

His “knack for things organizational” was a quality that attracted the Bethlehem diocese, Gerns said. Leaders there also admired the way he helped the Erie-based diocese use transparency and creativity to contend with issues like sex abuse by clergy.

Rowe in July 2010 revealed that he had received reports of sexual abuse of young girls in the 1970s and 1980s by the Rev. Donald Davis when he was bishop. He died in 2007.

At the time of the announcement, Rowe apologized and said it was important to come forward, tell the truth and seek healing and reconciliation for victims and the Episcopal Church.

Rowe said this week that while he wasn’t proud that the abuse happened, he was proud of the response.

“I’m grateful for our ability to tell the truth and to accept what that brought to us, which overall was a tremendous level of healing and reconciliation,” he said.

While many in the Bethlehem diocese are ready to welcome Rowe and many in Erie are willing to share him, he said his dual role isn’t a move toward a merger of the dioceses. Rowe pointed out that they’re not even contiguous.

Questions like whether the state needs five Episcopal dioceses should be on the table, he said, but that’s not the primary mission of this appointment.

Bethlehem’s bishop retired Dec. 31.

Gerns said a provisional bishop serves as an interim to assist a diocese as it makes the transition to a new bishop. He said this provides an opportunity to step back and take stock. Bethlehem will take a breather for the first year and then begin the search for a bishop, which typically takes 18 to 24 months, he said.

Rather than looking for neighboring bishops to come in during that time to perform ordinations, confirmations and consecrations, the Bethlehem diocese opted for a provisional bishop, Gerns said.

He said officials had a “wish list of gifts and qualities” they wanted, and they chose Rowe because of his “stable, forward-thinking leadership.”

“He has a strong track record of building relationships with clergy and lay leaders and proven skill at resolving conflict directly and effectively,” Gerns said.

Rowe, 38, is still the youngest bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Beth Weddington, 63, a member of the Cathedral of St. Paul, described Rowe as young, full of new ideas, and able to talk with people of all ages.

“I think he’s a great bishop,” she said.

Rowe considers his age an advantage.

“I am often the only young adult in a House of Bishops meeting,” he said. “I’ve been able to bring a different generational perspective.”

He also is a fairly new father. Rowe and his wife, Carly, have a 16-month-old daughter, Lauren. They will accompany him to and from Bethlehem.

The bishop said Carly Rowe is phasing out of her work as director of formation and program development at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Millcreek Township. She’s part of a three-member leadership team he created there. He also cited St. Jude’s Episcopal Church, which is one church with ministry at centers in Greenville, Hermitage and New Castle, as a new model of ministry.

He’s proud of both and other diocesan improvements during his time.

“I think there is a real willingness to experiment, to try new models of ministry … and a greater sense of collaboration across the diocese,” he said. “That is, rather than being independent congregations, that there’s a greater sense of unity, that we’re part of one diocese.

“That’s been a signification piece of work that I’ve been committed to over the course of my episcopate. … This idea that we can all do our own thing or all operate in independent silos is a thing of the past.”

Rowe said he’s getting to know the Bethlehem diocese, although he’s keeping contact limited until after the election.

The Erie bishop will be there for the vote, which Gerns expects to go in Rowe’s favor.

“I’m pretty confident that it will happen,” Gerns said.





Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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