Bishop Sean Rowe wasn’t looking for more to do. He was already the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, father of a now-17 month old daughter and deep in the throes of his doctoral dissertation when he got a call from Bishop Clay Matthews. Matthews, bishop for pastoral development in the office of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, had a proposal for him: how would he like to become the provisional bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem while remaining bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania?
The Standing Committee in Bethlehem had already embraced the idea of calling a provisional bishop to lead the diocese through a period of reflection on its future in the wake of the retirement of Bishop Paul Marshall, and now Matthews wanted to know if Rowe was interested in the job.
“It was entirely unexpected,” Rowe remembers, “Out of the blue. But the more I explored it, the more I felt a sense of call. What spoke to me about it was the opportunity to work collaboratively with another diocese, to experiment with a different model of ministry. The church has talked a lot about that, but someone has to take the plunge.”
Rowe is not one to “Lone Ranger” a decision, he says, and so he took the offer first to his wife, Carly, a longtime Christian formation professional, and then to the Standing Committee in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Somewhat to his surprise, he discovered that they liked the idea too.
“I thought it was a kind of challenge that was just out of left field enough and just hard enough that it was probably of God,” said the Rev. Adam Trambley, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon and secretary of the diocesan council and diocesan convention. “It seemed to me that Northwestern Pennsylvania was in a place that the bishop could take on that challenge and that he has the gifts that are necessary to help the Diocese of Bethlehem to get through the challenges it is facing.”
With the backing of those who mattered most to him, Rowe agreed to be the Standing Committee’s nominee for provisional bishop at the diocesan convention on March 1, 2014.
“The Diocese of Bethlehem has a history of generosity and a willingness to try new things,” Rowe says. The diocese’s partnership with the Diocese of Kajo-Keji in South Sudan, where it has built seven schools and a theological college, is particularly impressive, he adds, and the small parish collaboration encouraged by the Under One Roof program is precisely the sort of initiatives the church needs to explore.
“The clergy and the leadership have some energy and ideas and I am looking forward to collaborating with them in the next chapter of their ministry,” Rowe says. “It seems like there’s a sense of desire and willingness to engage mission, and I am excited to meet them and take the next part of the journey with them.”
The feeling is mutual, says the Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns, chair of the Standing Committee in Bethlehem and rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton.
“Bishop Sean is at once a thoughtful listener and an engaging personality. When we first met him in person, we were struck by how closely he listened to us and also how quickly he connected with everyone in the room.”
“We knew from both his leadership style and what the people of Northwestern Pennsylvania have accomplished so far in his episcopate that he has the leadership and pastoral gifts that we need to make the most of this transition.”
If his nomination is confirmed, Rowe says, he will arrive in northeastern Pennsylvania with a simple plan that begins with listening. “My approach is working in ways that are highly collaborative with lay leadership and clergy leadership,” he says. “Building a college of clergy, a true collegia, is really important. In Northwestern Pennsylvania, I try to meet with clergy individually on a regular basis and meet as a group twice a year for two days at a time. So we are meeting four days a year face to face, all of us, exchanging ideas and talking about mission and ministry.”
Rowe, who has been Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania since 2007, was the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion upon his election and remains the youngest bishop in the Episcopal Church. He grew up and went to college in the diocese he now serves, and went directly from college to Virginia Theological Seminary in 1997.
“I was one of a handful of people under 35,” he recalls. “They were at a bit of a loss. There were literally faculty who had not taught students that young. But it wasn’t until I heard people say ‘He’s going to be the youngest priest in the Episcopal Church’ that I thought it was something unusual.”
Despite his youth, Rowe was elected president of his class and president of the student body, and became deacon-in-charge of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, Pa. at 25.
“It was just this wonderful place to go,” he says. “Thanks God I had a corps of lay people who taught me how to be a priest. They sort of loved me into the priesthood. They mentored me.
“These were people who have prayed twice as long as I had been alive. I had no illusion I was more spiritual or knew more about what was going on than they did. They really taught me priest craft. They taught me and I just sort of sat at their feet for a few years.”
After just seven years in Franklin, Rowe was elected bishop of the diocese on the first ballot, getting two thirds of the votes from both orders. “I don’t think the diocese was trying to make a statement about wanting a young bishop,” Rowe says. “It was a vision of hope for the region, trust in a compelling vision of what it could be if we tried.”
In seven years as a bishop, Rowe says he has learned a few things that should serve him well if the Diocese of Bethlehem confirms his nomination on March 1. “I try to engage the work from a highly relational place, and to realize that change in a diocese can be slow in coming, even slower than in a parish. Rebuilding trust takes a long time. It doesn’t just happen. Leaders have to act in ways that are trustworthy and have integrity over a long period of time before people believe that yes, they are indeed worthy of trust.”
Rowe has won the trust of people in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and developed a strong corps of clergy, many of whom came to the diocese after he became its bishop. He also set a standard for openness and transparency that has been praised across the church in handling sexual abuse charges against one of his deceased predecessors, the Rt. Rev Donald Davis, who had sexually assaulted young girls.
Trambley describes Rowe as “deeply spiritual and a man of real prayer.”
“Whatever challenges there are, are going to be steeped in real prayer and real discernment,” he says. “The other thing is that he really loves his people and cares about all of the people that he is working with at a deep level. So even difficult decisions are made with the long-term best interests of everybody at heart. He’s not afraid to do what needs to be done, but he is going to do it in a way that actually loves and cares for people over the long term.”
As a leader, Rowe has “a real sense of vision,” Trambley says, but has “a certain degree of flexibility and creativity about getting there.”
While logistical arrangements are still being made, it appears that beginning in August, the Rowes and their daughter Lauren will move back and forth between Erie and Bethlehem, spending two to three weeks at a time in each diocese.
Carly Rowe, who will be leaving her job at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Erie, says she is looking forward to getting to know people in the Diocese of Bethlehem. She sees her role in the family’s new endeavor as “the relationship person, the bridge builder.”
She says that people in the Diocese of Bethlehem will find her husband to be “intense, but in a good way,” and “very accessible.”
“He is one of those people, he believes so strongly in the Episcopal Church and what the Episcopal Church is all about and he is always looking for ways to do things better,” she says. “What’s the long-term mission strategy? How are we going to be as a denomination 50 or 100 years from now?”
“He’s just super committed to everything the Episcopal Church is about.”
Photo reprinted with permission from Times Publishing Company, Erie, PA. Copyright 2014.