Person of the Week
Ian Douglas: The Right Decision at the Right Time
Essex resident the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, Bishop Diocesan of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, will retire next year. His next steps remain uncharted, but full of promise. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier)
Here’s one shortcut to talking about retirement: Just say Michael Jordan or David Ortiz. And what’s the message? Go out at the top of your game.
That is what the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, Bishop Diocesan of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, plans to do. At 63, he doesn’t have to retire until he’s 72, but he has announced he will leave in the fall of 2022.
He has been in his present position since 2010.
“I think 12 to 14 years tenure is the sweet spot,” he says. “In that time, you should have been able to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish and not run out of energy. I don’t want the diocese to lose steam.”
In spite of his impressive title and responsibilities, the bishop is a most informal and engaging person, as well as an effective problem solver. When a reporter explained that the usual convention in Person of the Week stories was to use the subject’s first name, though that might seem inappropriate in his case, his response was immediate: “Call me Ian.”
He explained that he was often asked that question in the course of visiting Episcopal parishes throughout the state.
“I tell them to call me by my Christian name; this is Christian community,” he says. “But I tell them if it makes them feel better, call me Bishop Ian.”
An Essex resident, Ian says his elevation signified that the Connecticut diocese was looking for change. And his very elevation proclaimed that change. He was the first Bishop of Connecticut to come from out of state—not the first in a long time, but the first ever since Samuel Seabury was named the first Episcopal bishop of Connecticut in 1784.
“In electing me, from the wilds of Massachussetts, I was the first bishop in 225 years not from Connecticut,” he notes.
Connecticut appealed to Ian, who had been previously sounded out about accepting positions in other localities, because of what he describes as the state’s incredible diversity despite its small size.
“Economic, racial, demographic, Connecticut is a microcosm of the wider world: rich, poor, black, white, rural, urban, suburban, inner city,” he says.
And the size has its advantages.
“It’s compact, easy to get around and build relationships,’ he adds. “In the 21st century, Connecticut is a Petri dish for change. That’s what excited me.”
Ian says the notion of the Episcopal Church as a bastion of the establishment does not conform to what the church is today. Rather, it is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual community.
He speaks French and Haitian French, the French-based language that is the vernacular of Haiti. He served as priest of the L’eglise Episcopale D’Haiti Western Massachusetts at the beginning of his pastoral career. He notes that among Connecticut’s 170 parishes, there are two that are Kreyol speaking and 12 that are Spanish speaking.
“You go from Brooklyn [CT] to Greenwich; you can’t get much more diverse than that,” he says contrasting the rural northeastern Connecticut parish with the Fairfield country suburb.
Ian has focused much attention on how to use the resources of the church to make it responsive to the needs of the 21st century.
“People in Connecticut know we have to do things differently; we have to align our resources differently,” he says.
Still, he sees in that situation an opportunity to adapt the church to new challenges.
“It is an exciting change, that’s why I am drawn to it. It’s a reorienting of our lives to put God at the center,” he says.
That, he notes, is a challenge, particularly in New England, pointing out that the Northeast has been the least religious part of the country, at least for the last two decades.
Ian thinks the questions the church needs to be asking are the ones that the community as a whole needs to be asking: questions of race relations, homelessness, addiction, and education.
One of the changes Ian has made during his tenure is to move the diocesan offices from a Hartford mansion that the Episcopal Church owned to rented space on the top floor of what was once a ball bearing factory in Meriden.
“Offices in a mansion in Hartford were no longer appropriate. It sent the wrong message. It seemed inaccessible,” he says.
The new space is next to a housing project and accessibility is further encouraged by an open floor plan.
Ian also changed how space was used in Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford; fixed pew boxes were removed and movable chairs substituted. Representatives from a variety of community organizations, among them the Capitol Region Community College, the Hartford Stage, the Wadsworth Athenaeum, and the Hartford Public Library were invited to have suggestions on the on the configuration of the space so it could be available to a wide range of organizations.
Ian also points out that change has extended to the priesthood. It is no longer necessarily a full-time position. Historically, he notes, priests were privileged financially, but now, some 60 percent of the Episcopal priests in Connecticut are part-time in the job.
“We have to reinvent the priesthood, too,” he says.
Ian did his undergraduate work at Middlebury College in Vermont and has advanced degrees from the Harvard School of Education and the Harvard Divinity School as well a doctorate in religious studies from Boston University and honorary doctorates from both the Yale Divinity School and the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught for more than two decades before coming to Connecticut.
He still considers himself very much a teacher and says that congregations know when he visits it is always prudent to have a white board and markers close at hand.
He has always been active in the wider Episcopal Church community, through service on church committees, writing and lecturing.
Ian admits that will be hard to step away from his present position.
“It’s a great job and I love it,” he says “but it is very demanding; it is 24/7 and lots of responsibilities.”
He would like to slow down, have more time for family. He and his wife Kristin Harris have three adult children and two grandchildren.
There will also be more time for activities like cross country skiing, sailing, and Cross Fit training, which Ian has done for 13 years. He can envision teaching again as well as doing work in the wider church ,but he has made no firms plans.
“I’m going to wait and see,” he says.