Bishop James Justman, of the ELCA's East-Central Wisconsin Synod, has resigned. (ELCA release here, Wausau Daily Herald here) He was elected to a second term in 2012 and, following the meeting of the Conference of Bishops in October, has been on "sabbatical." Bishop Justman cites "personal reasons" for his resignation, the sort of thing that inevitably raises the questions it refuses to answer.
In politics and big business, "personal reasons" or "to spend more time with family" are the customary whitewash for a scandal or a major screwup. But is it the same in church circles? We genuinely do not know.
Now, it is easy to imagine reasons that a bishop might choose to step down. The job, especially as it has been practiced by the ELCA, is almost comically bad. You are given great symbolic status and virtually no executive authority; you are called to manage dwindling resources in an atmosphere of panic and distrust of institutions; you are an authority among people who largely distrust authority. Although your job title calls you to teach doctrine and administer discipline in the tradition of the apostles, your church feels more comfortable if you serve as a middle manager, giving mildly inspirational pep talks and telling a few jokes, but otherwise deferring to the halfwits they elect to lesser offices.
It is easy to imagine why one might want to quit a job like this. But by the time most pastors are elected bishop, they have a pretty good idea what the job entails, and have declared themselves ready to take it on. If they weren't ready to serve, they would have avoided election in the first place. Although some, like Lower Susquehanna's Penrose Hoover, are said to accept only reluctantly, they accept nonetheless.
So why do ELCA bishops typically give up their posts? Some, like Robert Rimbo, get a once-in-a lifetime offer to leave the blasted postapocalyptic wasteland of Detroit for Manhattan's Upper West Side. (Likewise, Paul Stumme-Diers left Milwaukee for a parish on Puget Sound, and Craig Johnson left the Minneapolis bishop's office to serve a large congregation in the same city.) Nothing especially scandalous there. Some, like Paul Egertson of California, are asked to resign for principled actions which nonetheless violate church policy -- like Egertson's 1994 ordination of a partnered lesbian. Depending upon your perspective, that's downright heroic.
But others, like Rimbo's successor Stephen Marsh, find that the stresses of their ministry make it impossible to keep their "addiction issues" -- Marsh's word -- in check. In 2006, Michael Neils resigned as bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod and as an ELCA pastor after admitting to an adulterous liaison; other ELCA bishops -- Slovak Zion's Kenneth Zindle and South-Central Wisconsin's Lowell Mays among them -- have resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct. And of course Mays' successor and Justman's Wisconsin neighbor Bruce Burnside, killed somebody while (allegedly) driving drunk.
The thing is that if you resign to accept a new call, you tell people about it. Even if you resign for some pretty awful reason, like a relapse or an affair, the custom seems to be to make it public. So what sort of reasons for a resignation are so dire that an ELCA bishop chooses not to disclose them?
Maybe we're way off base here. Maybe these personal reasons have no moral or ethical element to them at all. It could be that he has been diagnosed with some grave illness, or that a member of his family needs urgent attention, or some other genuinely private and personal thing. Terrible as those may be to contemplate, forgive us for hoping that's it.
Meanwhile, we pray for Justman, his family and especially for his synod, and hope that when the story comes out it will do nothing to vindicate our worst fears.