Recently, media outlets across the country rushed out reports about the election of Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows as the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis.
They proclaimed the historic significance of her election, which makes her the first African-American woman to lead an Episcopal diocese. She will also become only the second woman to head the Indianapolis diocese when she succeeds current Bishop Catherine Waynick, who will retire in April.
However, Episcopal leaders in Indianapolis are excited about the arrival of Baskerville-Burrows for other reasons. They see remarkable potential in her ability to lead the diocese to new heights.
Rev. Suzanne Wille, the rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, said she was “super excited and overjoyed” when she found out Baskerville-Burrows would be the new bishop of the local diocese.
“She has real authenticity and is great at bringing people together,” Wille said. “She is also very thoughtful, and I have been very impressed by her work.”
Baskerville-Burrows, who is from New York, currently serves as director of networking for the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, where she oversees community partnerships and connections that facilitate church revitalization.
A graduate of Smith College, Cornell University and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Baskerville-Burrows is known among clergy for her expertise in historic preservation. She also has become well-respected for her dedication to addressing issues including gun violence, social justice and racial and class reconciliation.
All of this, local Episcopal leaders say, makes her an ideal fit for the Indianapolis diocese. In recent years, the organization has placed a stronger focus on issues such as social justice, mass incarceration, fighting homelessness, interfaith cooperation and increasing diversity by carving out more leadership roles for women, racial minorities and young people.
Rev. Bruce Gray, canon ordinary for the Indianapolis diocese, believes Baskerville-Burrows is well-suited to lead the diocese in its mission to spread the love of Jesus Christ and help bring positive changes to the community.
“She has a strong resume and a good track record,” Gray said. “She is also a person of deep faith and a great communicator. It is important for a bishop to communicate well with both God and the people.”
The Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis traces its history to 1835 and represents Anglican churches across central and southern Indiana. It includes 49 congregations in a diverse set of communities and is a partner of several overseas ministries.
Baskerville-Burrows was elected bishop on the second ballot during a gathering of Episcopal officials on Oct. 28 at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis. She was among five high-ranking Episcopal leaders who represented various cities and were nominated to be considered by a standing committee.
That committee was charged with finding a new bishop when Waynick announced her upcoming retirement. The election culminated a nearly two-year search process by the diocese at its 179th Diocesan Convention.
“We had a strong and diverse slate of nominees,” said Rev. Mary Slenski, president of the standing committee. “However, (Baskerville-Burrows) was so clearly elected. I went into the election hoping we would have answers guided by the spirit, clarity and compassion in our ministry. That is exactly what happened.”
At press time, Baskerville-Burrows had said little about her election and had been focusing on making a smooth transition from her current job in Chicago to her new leadership role in Indiana.
However, in recent comments provided to the local diocese, she expressed appreciation for her 19 years in ministry, the last five of which have been in Chicago.
“I’ve supported communities of transformation, communicated a vision of hope and gathered and networked God’s people across distance and difference,” she said. “I believe these experiences have prepared me to lead and serve in the particular place that is the Diocese of Indianapolis.”
Baskerville-Burrows, who was ordained in New York, sometimes discusses what she calls the defining moment of her ministry, which occurred during the infamous morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
She was near the World Trade Center when the terrorist attacks occurred, and while being in a fearful situation and seeking shelter alongside other people gained “a renewed perspective” on the concept of faith vanquishing fear.
“My relationship with Christ, which I found in The Episcopal Church, teaches me that the world is filled with incredible beauty and unspeakable pain and that God is deeply in the midst of it all, loving us fiercely,” she said. “So each day, nourished by the sacraments and stories of our faith, the beauty of our liturgical tradition, the wide embrace of this Christian community, I learn over and over again how to live without fear.”
The election of Baskerville-Burrows as bishop of Indianapolis comes at a time when the national Episcopal Church is led by an African-American, Bishop Michael Curry. Some see their rise in leadership as examples of how the denomination has been making stronger efforts to reach out to more African-Americans.
However, although Gray, Slenski and Wille all appreciate Baskerville-Burrows’ attributes as an African-American and a woman, they agree that it is her qualities as an individual and a leader that make her stand out above all.
During the election process for the new bishop, nominees were invited to come to Indianapolis and participate in “walkabouts” to meet local clergy and congregation members. Baskerville-Burrows excelled at the interpersonal process, Slenski said.
“They felt a connection with her,” Slenski observed. “Her ability to connect with people is what makes the difference.”
Note: Baskerville-Burrows will be ordained and consecrated as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis on Saturday, April 29, 2017, at 11 a.m. at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University.