The incoming leader of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster chuckles as it becomes clear she is about to be asked about her extensive business background – as in the business of commerce. The chuckle builds into outright, full-on laughter.
“I was hoping you would ask this,” says Rev. Melissa Skelton of the Diocese of Olympia in Washington State.
Canon Skelton will cross the border in March to replace Michael Ingham, who retired in August after 20 years as bishop of the sprawling diocese.
Canon Skelton was ordained to the priesthood while working as a Procter and Gamble brand manager in 1993.
She continued working for the company while serving at a parish in Cincinnati. She earned an MBA from the University of Chicago after completing her divinity studies.
“In divinity school, I had a kind of more restless energy around accomplishing things than my classmates,” Canon Skelton, 62, says in a telephone interview.
“In business school, I had a more reflective side than my business school colleagues,” she says.
“The mixing of the two actually strangely expressed the spirit that I bring and it has been the story of my life.”
The latest professional turn in that life revolves around the New Westminster diocese – established in the southwestern corner of the province in 1879 and now comprising 68 communities, including the Sunshine Coast, Hope and Metro Vancouver.
The census indicates that 84,000 people identify themselves as members of the church, although parish rolls suggest 15,000 to 18,000 active members.
Canon Skelton was elected over four male and four female candidates late last year. She becomes the first female bishop of the diocese and its first American leader.
She inherits the lingering after-effects of Bishop Ingham’s 2002 decision to bless same-sex unions, and environmental advocacy such as opposing Northern Gateway.
What will you bring to the table as an American?
I asked the committee that initially interviewed [candidates], “Why would the Diocese of New Westminster even want to have an American as a nominee?” And they said, “Fresh eyes.” That they would appreciate someone actually coming from a different perspective to see in a new way what they are so accustomed to seeing.
How much work do you have to do in healing the effects of the same-sex union issue?
In my first year, that’s something I’ve got to figure out. I’ve heard there’s still a sense of hurt and difficulty in parishes around that. I have an organization development background, and I think the first thing one does in any kind of organization development work is what, in some ways, is called diagnosis.
Has Bishop Ingham offered you advice on this?
Not at all. But I am hoping to spend some time with Michael. In church systems, one of the things that seems so incorrect is that a new leader coming in often never speaks to the one that has come before him. That is not my philosophy.
What is the place of the church in environment debates and is there a point where the church risks becoming political?
For me, the church is a place where people that work in all these areas – in the political realm, in the realm of business, in the realm of health care – come together and are renewed in what we would call baptismal identity and purpose. Our people are planted everywhere. And we want them to be the ones, where they are planted, to bring about the change in the world that Christian people would want to see. That’s the primary thing I pay attention to as a rector. Then there are issues that the church’s voice needs to be heard on and environmental issues are right at the centre of where we are in this part of the world.
The collective voice of the church is a perfectly important and legitimate way for us to exercise who we are as Christian people.
What red lines can the church not cross?
I think we discover it when we cross it. Part of the incarnation, if we talk theologically, is the mess of life, and we typically find out about it when we’re right up to the line or we have crossed it.
How does your business background help you as a church leader?
I learned the joy of working in teams, the love of accomplishing something, the confidence we can bring a new thing into being in this world was stunning to me because I had never absorbed that, felt that, either in an academic setting or, sadly, in the church. When I was at Procter and Gamble, we were evaluated 50-50 on the development of people and business results. I learned there [about] how can we foster new leaders, how can we showcase and train new leaders, that it wasn’t all about me. So those have been just invaluable lessons. I would not be prepared for this role without them.
What do you think your new role means for women in the diocese?
I was ordained to the priesthood when there weren’t many women who were also ordained, so the first few times I was actually around ordained women, I was just agog and I was trying to figure out how does this work with me. The same would be true of a woman bishop. There’s this feeling of, “Oh my gosh. I see my gender reflected there. I see it affirmed there I see possibilities for my own leadership wherever I am there.” I think it means quite a lot – and for more than women.