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A Few Good Men:

One Diocese's Search For A Bishop
by Gregg Nescott,

Member, Metropolitan Council

(Editor's note: On November 15, 2008, an Extraordinary Diocesan Assembly of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania nominated Archimandrite Melchisedek (Thomas Pleska) to fill the vacant episcopal see of Pittsburgh. His nomination came on the first ballot, over two other candidates, by a two-thirds majority. That nomination was promptly reported to the Holy Synod of the OCA. Four months later, the nomination remains in limbo, with nothing reported back to the Diocese but that Fr. Melchisedek was interviewed by members of the Holy Synod in December, in Washington, D.C. Because a great number of clergy and laity outside of Pennsylvania have expressed interest in how the Diocese conducted its search for a new bishop, a review of that process in offered here.)

On June 17, 2007, Archbishop Kyrill fell asleep in the Lord after a long illness, leaving the Diocese's parishes in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Southeastern Ohio without a shepherd. Following a period of mourning, Metropolitan Herman, appointed as Locum Tenens for the Diocese, declared the episcopal see vacant, triggering the process set out in the OCA Statute for nominating a successor.

From the beginning, there was disagreement on how quickly to proceed with the search. Some felt that we should wait months or years to nominate, reflecting satisfaction with parish life without a bishop. Many others noted that the Diocese had been without effective episcopal leadership for a considerable period of time already, in light of Archbishop Kyrill's age and declining health before his repose. These voices noted concern with the recent history of the Diocese of New England, which was without a bishop for more than eight years after Archbishop Job left for the Diocese of the Midwest.

By October 2007, the Diocesan Council and Diocesan Assembly both urged Metropolitan Herman to schedule an Extraordinary Archdiocesan Assembly for the purpose of nominating a new bishop. The response was swift: on October 30, the locum tenens scheduled a nominating assembly for December 8, 2007, allowing the Diocese a little more than a month to conduct a search. While permission to begin the search was welcomed, the extremely tight time-frame was not. But we had no choice, and the search began.

How To Search?

The search was grounded in three considerations: the Statute of the OCA, any guidance, canonical or otherwise, offered by the Holy Synod, and how the Diocese viewed its role in this critical undertaking.

The OCA Statute offers little assistance on how a search for a new bishop is to be conducted. Article VI states that candidates for diocesan bishop must satisfy all requirements of the Canons; preferably should have completed a course of study in a graduate school of Orthodox theology and be conversant in English; must be among the monastic or celibate clergy or laymen, and if, at the moment of his nomination, he is a layman or celibate or widowed priest, he shall pronounce at least the first monastic vows; and that a diocesan assembly may not nominate the diocesan bishop of another diocese.

Article VI, Section 10 of the Statute provides the nuts and bolts for the nomination of a candidate by a diocese, and election by the Holy Synod, but is silent on the search process.

The only additional guidance in the search and nomination process came via a two-page document adopted by the Holy Synod in 1972, 'Instructions Concerning the Election of the Ruling Bishop,' which was provided to the Diocesan Council by the locum tenens. The 17 points of that directive merely explain the nomination and election process set out in the Statute, in greater detail.

Two other 'rules' were communicated to the Diocesan Council by the locum tenens for its episcopal search: 1) under the rules of the Holy Synod, any candidate to be considered for an episcopal vacancy must have been Orthodox for at least 15 years, and 2) a 'list' of names of candidates would be forthcoming from the locum tenens/Holy Synod. (This elusive list was promised many times, but didn't appear until March 6, 2008, as discussed below.)

With the clock running, Diocesan Council met on November 3, and discussed and agreed on a search plan. It was first determined that the nominating committee required by the rules should consist of all 20+ members of the Council, to eliminate the process being controlled by a small, select group.

It was next agreed that the search process should be as careful, fair, reasoned and open as time allowed. We were well aware that the recent history in the OCA of electing diocesan bishops generally began with the election of auxiliary bishops by the Holy Synod, with little or no input from the dioceses. These auxiliary bishops were thereafter proposed for election as diocesan bishops at nominating assemblies, generally with no other candidates presented.

One striking exception played out in Canada a few years back, when that diocese underwent a months-long, diocesan-wide search for an auxiliary bishop. Meetings were held in cities across Canada, Archbishop Seraphim and the clergy and laity discussed candidates, and the name of a single nominee was eventually submitted to the Holy Synod for election. (That nominee was not elected, and Canada remains without an auxiliary to this day.) Our Diocese was well aware of how Canada handled their search.

Because it seemed to us that all clergy and laity in a diocese should have a voice in the search process, and because the nominee(s) submitted to the Holy Synod for election should truly be the choices of the faithful, coming from the people, the Diocesan Council adopted an aggressive search process. Accompanying this open process would be as much publicity as could be generated, advertising the search for candidates on the diocesan website and in the newsletter and mailings, with a goal of reaching everyone in the Diocese.

The Search Begins:

Diocesan-Wide Informational Meetings

A critical first step was the scheduling of two regional public informational meetings in the eastern and western parts of the Diocese. A priest and layman were chosen by the Council to moderate these meetings, both held during the third week of November 2007. Each meeting ran about two hours, and followed an identical format. The procedure for nominating a bishop was discussed, and the brief history of episcopal ÒsearchesÓ in the Diocese was outlined. (In 1972, Bishop Theodosius was transferred as ruling bishop in the Diocese of Alaska to W PA, and in 1978, a request that Bishop Kyrill be elected as bishop of Pittsburgh, in addition to his duties as bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese, was accepted by the Holy Synod.)

But these meetings focused chiefly on two points.

The first was a discussion of what qualities the faithful thought were desirable in a bishop. Using scriptural references for such qualifications as a starting point, people then simply stood and discussed what they hoped for in a candidate. For example,some talked about the importance of visiting all the parishes regularly, while others spoke of a bishop as a good teacher, or the importance of a strong theological education in an Orthodox seminary. Every suggested trait was put on a flip chart, and, curiously enough, each meeting came up with 21 suggestions.

Although someone commented that anyone possessing all the qualities named would have to be a superman, certain desirable talents stood out, and were repeatedly voiced:

* A true shepherd, a loving spiritual example of unquestioned morality, character, integrity.

* A leader with vision.

* A man with good people skills, who works well with all, in a conciliar spirit.

* Someone with experience on a parish as a pastor -- although some also pointed to monastic experience as being valuable.

After a thorough discussion of talents, the sessions then sought from the people names of any candidates they had in mind. Some people spoke briefly of why a particular individual might be a good candidate; others just suggested names. By the end of the first meeting in Black Lick, 19 names had been put forward for the Diocesan Council to consider. At the Carnegie meeting three days later, 4 additional names were proposed.

(By the end of the search process, 27 names had been evaluated.) The candidates were located in the United States, Canada, Greece, and Russia, represented five OCA dioceses, and came from Serbian, Greek, and Carpatho-Russian jurisdictions.

It was clear after these meetings that the faithful were interested and energized by this process. It also was clear that the month the Diocese had been given for a search was wholly inadequate, and the Diocesan Council unanimously petitioned Metropolitan Herman to postpone the nominating assembly. That request was granted, and the Extraordinary Assembly was rescheduled for May 3, 2008.

Moving Toward Nominations

The Diocesan Council reconvened on February 9, 2008, to discuss all the candidates. We were reminded that the locum tenens had again advised that a ÒlistÓ was to be sent, but no further information about this list was available. Council members were asked to speak with friends about the names suggested to that point, to review and share any available biographical information, and to try to educate themselves and the Council about the candidates. A meeting to review the candidates and attempt to agree on nominees was scheduled for March 17.

On March 6, the 'list' finally arrived. A letter from Metropolitan Herman contained a list of five priests 'who responded favorably to be considered as possible candidates.' Accompanying the five names were computer-generated print-outs containing very basic biographical information, dry statistics that offered little of value about the candidates. One of the five, a priest in the Diocese, told Council that he did not wish to be a candidate at that time. All five names were already on the list generated by the diocesan informational meetings, so the Diocesan Council merely noted that the names were already under consideration. The Council rejected any speculation that we were limited to discussing only these five names.

In addition to the five names, the letter also named three other candidates who were already on the search list generated by the Diocese. The locum tenens advised that these three priests 'chose not to be considered.'

At the Council's March 17 nomination meeting, individual discussion of the 24 candidates took more than three hours. At the end, the Diocesan Council unanimously agreed to recommend the nomination of Igumen Jonah Paffhausen of California, and Archpriest David Mahaffey, a native son and priest in Eastern Pennsylvania.

In an attempt to get to know these men better, each was invited to lecture a class of the diocesan Late Vocations program, with the entire Diocese invited to sit in, ask questions of the candidates, and informally meet and chat with them. Fr. Jonah and Fr. Mahaffey accepted our invitations to do so, in March and April 2008. Another candidate who had not secured the nomination of the Diocesan Council, Archimandrite Juvenaly (Repass) of St. Tikhon's Seminary, was invited to lead the diocesan Lenten retreat in April.

On April 14, 2008, a diocesan-wide public meeting was held in Pittsburgh for the purpose of explaining to the people how the nominating procedures at the May 3 Extraordinary Archdiocesan Assemly would work, answering all questions, and sharing how and why the decision of the nominating committee/Diocesan Council to propose the names of Frs. Jonah and Mahaffey had been reached. With the nominating assembly on May 3 less than three weeks away, everything seemed to be on track.

The Search Derailed

On April 22, 2008, during Holy Week, the search process was derailed. The Diocesan Council was notified that, due to 'extraordinary circumstances,' Metropolitan Herman had advised that Fr. Jonah was withdrawing his name from consideration for nomination to the vacant see in Pittsburgh. Shortly thereafter it would be revealed that +Archbishop Dmitri had proposed Fr. Jonah as the auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of the South.

At an emergency meeting of the Diocesan Council on Bright Monday, a frustrated Council unanimously petitioned the locum tenens for another postponement of the nominating assembly, and that request was granted.

On May 14, Diocesan Coucil met again to lick its wounds and to restart the episcopal search. It was decided then to expand the search process, to include broader opportunities to discuss the candidates, and to meet and greet each of the top choices. Soon, two new candidates were under consideration. Each candidate was again exhaustively considered and discussed. In the end, it was decided to invite four candidates to Western Pennsylvania during the summer, for more in-depth and personal diocesan-wide discussions and meetings. With the luxury of several more months to talk, the Council was confident that it would eventually agree on suitable candidates.

Four Candidates Visit The Diocese

With this new plan, four men were invited to travel to the Diocese. They were invited to meet with clergy and laity for coffee and informal discussions in Black Lick, to the East, on a Thursday night, and the next night in Carnegie or Allison Park, in the West. On Saturday, each was scheduled to meet with the Diocesan Council, to talk. Where possible, the candidates were invited to serve in various parishes, and to preach. Each also was offered a tour, visiting parishes within the Diocese.

The first to visit, in June, was Archimandrite Melchisedek (Thomas Pleska), who taught at St. TikhonÕs Seminary in the 1980s, was an OCA parish priest in Connecticut for nine years, and then had entered a monastery in Greece in 1998. His name surfaced in May, after someone on Council asked, 'Whatever happened to Fr. Pleska?' As planned, he met with clergy and laity on Thursday and Friday, and the Diocesan Council on Saturday, served in Ambridge on Saturday, and served and preached at the Cathedral in Allison Park on Sunday.

On June 24, the locum tenens sent a second list to the Diocesan Council, which contained the names and biographies of two more candidates for the Council to consider: a priest from Canada and one from the Bulgarian Diocese. The Council added these to the pool, bringing the total number of candidates to 27. (The locum tenens also advised the Council informally during the search process that two names on the list of 27 would likely not be acceptable to the Holy Synod. It was a moot point, since by June one of those men was no longer under consideration, and the other had taken himself out of the running months earlier.)

Frs. Mahaffey and Juvenaly followed with visits to the Diocese on separate weekends in July, sitting through similar meetings. and the fourth finalist, Archimandrite Vladimir Wendling of Chicago, came in August.

(Fr. Vladimir would later withdraw his name from consideration.)

Notes were taken at each of these meetings, and an extremely detailed six-page spread sheet was compiled, listing the four finalists side-by-side, comparing biographical information, including education and experience, and also summarizing some of the answers given to questions asked in the public meetings, for the benefit of those who would be delegates at a nominating assembly, but hadn't met each of the candidates. For instance, one question repeatedly asked by parishioners and clergy who genuinely wanted to see their bishop was, "How often might you visit our parishes?" Other popular questions dealt with vision, an understanding of the Diocese and its challenges, initial steps that might be taken upon election to an unfamiliar see, and views on Orthodox Christian Fellowships, church growth, and youth.

Following the visits of the four candidates, the Diocesan Council met once again to present a name or names for consideration by the Extraordinary Diocesan Assembly. After discussion, the Council voted and agreed to recommend two names to the Assembly on November 15: Fr. Melchisedek and Fr. Mahaffey. The spread sheets were widely disseminated at the annual Diocesan Assembly in September, together with a report concerning the nominating committeeÕs decision, and to parishes, deaneries and individuals. Every reasonable effort was made to educate all delegates to the Extraordinary Assembly on the qualifications of the candidates before the November 15 vote, especially because the Statute strictly prohibits any comments in support or against any candidate during the Extraordinary Assembly: individuals are simply nominated, without comment, and the voting proceeds.

The Extraordinary Assembly Votes

After a search that ran several weeks beyond a year, and following 23 meetings, the Extraordinary Archdiocesan Assembly convened at St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on November 15, 2008, just days after the close of the All American Council in Pittsburgh. In a nomination gathering presided over by Bishop Tikhon, now the locum tenens, 79 weary voters cast their ballots. The names of Fr. Melchisedek and Fr. Mahaffey were offered by the Diocesan Council, sitting as the nominating committee, and one individual added the name of Fr. Juvenaly from the floor. Contrary to the last nominating assembly in W PA in 1978, when many names were placed into nomination in an apparent attempt to dilute the vote and deny anyone from receiving either the two-thirds vote required by the Statute for a first ballot nomination of a single candidate, or the 40% required on the second and last ballot for two names to be submitted to the Holy Synod for election, no other names were placed into nomination.

When the first ballot votes were counted, a shocked Assembly learned that no second ballot would be needed: Fr. Melchisedek had carried 2/3 of the vote, and, by Statute, his name would be submitted to the Holy Synod as the nominee for the vacant see, to await their election.

The fact that such an exhaustive and exhausting search had resulted in the endorsement of Fr. Melchisedek by an overwhelming majority of the delegates was not lost on the people. Some priests later commented on the joy and enthusiasm that was expressed in their parishes when the news of the nomination came. Certainly, those who supported other candidates may have been disappointed in the outcome of the vote, but many seemed willing to start planning for the work that so badly needs to be done, and for the arrival of a new Shepherd.

Unhappily, the excitement and goodwill of four months ago continues to rapidly dissipate, as a diocese anxious to move ahead awaits action by the Holy Synod.



Other Reflections:

Fr. Paul Harrilchak
Holy Trinity, Reston VA

Fr. Ted Bobosh

Special to OCA News

Fr. Michael Plekon  

Special to OCA News

Holy Trinity, Boston

Fr. John Scollard

Special to OCANews