Just when we thought it was safe: Shannon Johnston resurfaces

By | January 11, 2021

Did you ever have a moment of profound cognitive dissonance? Where you look around and just go, “Holy Toledo—what the heck just happened?”

That was this author’s reaction when he recently learned that Shannon Johnston, former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (DioVA), has been named as a fellow to George Mason University’s (GMU’s) Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution. His buddy, Tory Baucom, who left Truro Anglican in the midst of a report about his bullying management practices, joins him at the organization, which is located in Northern Virginia. Details of Johnston’s new gig can be found here.

Before we go further, this author has firsthand experience with Johnston and his “conflict resolution.” More on that later, but it needs to be said up front.

Johnston’s dismal track record

Nor was Johnston’s time with DioVA exactly reassuring. While he gets a pass for the litigation with the CANA dissidents, Johnston left a diocese marked by conflict, including his now infamous dispute with the Trustees of the Funds.

Similarly, diocesan staff under Shannon Johnston were profoundly unproductive, marked by interpersonal strife, lack of direction, and more.

Indeed, well-placed sources tell Anglican Watch that, not long before Johnston’s abrupt resignation, a team of experts from the Lombard-Mennonite Peace Center was brought in to try to effect reconciliation within Mayo House, to no avail. In fact, the one constant theme allegedly was the need for Johnston to make himself scarce.

These conclusions appear to be confirmed by Johnston’s announcement of internal strife at the diocese, available here. And Johnston’s abrupt departure was proceeded by the equally abrupt announcement that Canon Pat Wingo, who had formal training at the Lombard-Mennonite Peace Center, was leaving the diocese.

Even more troubling, and a sure sign of larger dysfunction, during his tenure Johnston repeatedly refused to deal appropriately with clergy misconduct, including:

  • Refusing to provide St. Thomas’ church in McLean with the pastoral response mandated by church disciplinary canons after the diocese forced the church’s former rector out in disciplinary proceedings. His alleged reason? That diocesan legal counsel told him not to “get too involved.” Without going into detail, it’s also fair to say that other specifics of that situation were handled appallingly badly.
  • Allegedly engaging in cover-up in a disciplinary proceeding in which a female church employee experienced egregious sexual harassment. As in the case with the parish in McLean, to date the diocese has failed to provide the requisite pastoral response, nor has it made any effort to assist the victim.
  • In the case of this author, repeatedly refusing to get involved in a situation involving allegations of gender-based harassment; bullying; questionable HR, cash management, financial reporting, and other parish issues; and allegations of criminal conduct by clergy. In every instance, Johnston brushed the allegations aside, either trying to ignore them, or claiming that they were “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” And when the clergyperson in question attempted to drag the author’s mother, dying of COPD, into court in violation of state law, Johnston refused to even acknowledge the issue. As with the other cases, Johnston refused to comply with church canons mandating a pastoral response, even after being reminded by national church officials of his obligation to do so.

Not to be outdone, my late mother, often an insightful judge of character, referred to Johnston as “Janus,” the two-faced god.

Why the moniker? Because of Johnston’s two-faced handling of her conflict with this author’s former rector.

In short, Johnston’s tenure was just this side of an epic fail. And while society was such that folks might have ignored his shortcomings in the 1950’s, church members in the 21st century simply aren’t prepared to do so.

Tory baucom’s equally dismal track record

Similarly, a report released by leaders at Truro at the time of Baucom’s abrupt 2020 resignation allegedly found that Baucom’s tenure was marked by conduct described as “abusive,” “intimidating,” “coarse,” “vulgar” and “unpredictable.” The Washington Post further reports that Baucom has agreed not to set foot on church property again—a telling indicator of just how bad things were at the church.

There also are signs that Truro was just about as troubled in its governance during Baucom’s tenure as DioVA was during Johnston’s tenure. Not only did we have the foolish decision to litigate over the property, but allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy at the church suggest a lack of appropriate supervision, accountability and training.

Adding to the questions surrounding this situation is DioVA’s recent announcement, done almost on the low, that it is considering selling to Truro property to the ACNA crowd. That, despite the fact that the church has a longstanding history of supporting conversion therapy, forcing youth out of the church perceived to be LGBTQ+, and other actions profoundly at variance with current bishop Goff’s positive comments about the news.

Do we see the hidden hands of Johnston and Baucom at work, even as DioVA tries to sell assets in order to hang on financially in the midst of the pandemic? We may never know, but the juxtaposition of events certainly suggests that the two continue to have ties to the nomenklatura of the diocese.

The diocese today

Nor is DioVA doing well following Johnston’s purported departure.

Shortly after his retirement was announced, the diocese brought in outside experts to help straighten out the mess at diocesan headquarters, Mayo House. At the same time, the diocese announced efforts to find a bishop provisional — an effort that fell flat on its face, with none of the candidates agreeing to serve. This, despite the fact that plenty of parishes in the area, including St. Paul’s K Street, have had bishops serve as interims. That speaks volumes about the mess Johnston left behind, and the fact that the standing committee didn’t see the issue coming is damning, indeed.

The result was that the DioVA standing committee left Susan Goff in place as Ecclesiastical Authority. Goff has said that she will stick around until the next bishop diocesan is elected in 2022 — a stay that increasingly is looking like a bad case of overstaying one’s welcome.

Initially, Goff seemed to get off to a good start, holding listening sessions in five locations across the diocese in February and March, 2019. But in keeping with diocesan tradition, two years later, we have seen nothing come of the effort. That begs the question: If Goff wasn’t going to do anything with the information gleaned, why did she take up everyone’s time?

To be fair, it does appear that, in July 2019, Goff managed to repair the rift with the Trustees of the Funds. But since then, other than a lot of communication about social distancing and the pandemic, and the potential sale of Truro, we have heard relatively little from Mayo House, possibly due to Goff’s treatment for breast cancer.

Meanwhile, even the pandemic guidance from Goff has become thin, with the last clergy conference call minutes now more a month old; during that call, Goff again shut down all in-person worship in the diocese due to the pandemic, with a possible exception for Christmas.

Yet during the intervening weeks, the pandemic has continued to spiral out of control, even as Episcopal schools in the diocese reopen at the worst possible time. Still, silence from Mayo House, even as deaths and infections soar.

Nor have we seen any meaningful progress on other issues confronting the diocese:

  • Racial reconciliation has gone nowhere since the diocesan listening sessions of 2015.
  • The diocese continues to shed Average Sunday Attendance and membership, even as the remaining members ramp up giving.
  • The diocese has appointed the feckless and ethically questionable Sven vanBaars to look at ways to stabilize giving to the diocese. Good luck there.
  • Conflict remains alive and well in many corners of the diocese, ignored by Goff and diocesan staff, which still refuses even to investigate allegations of illegal conduct by clergy, as evinced by this author’s experience with the diocese.

What next?

It appears that the arrival of Johnston and Baucom at GMU is relatively recent, for there is no information on the GMU site about upcoming courses, or entries on the site’s blog. So it’s too early to predict what will become of the program.

Meanwhile, Johnston’s bio on the GMU site also appears to be a bit of revisionist history. For example, he talks about his historical commitment to social justice. Yet one of the reasons Johnston was elected bishop diocesan is that he was largely viewed as a conservative, who would not pose much of a threat to the dissident factions in the diocese.

Nor is his statement that the CANA crowd left over the role of LGBT persons in the church entirely accurate, and he would certainly have reason to know that; it is a grave over-simplification of a complicated issue.

Indeed, the dissident factions had formed an epicenter for conservatives in the denomination that long predated the ordination of Gene Robinson. Moreover, plenty of evidence  emerged during the property recovery litigation to suggest that the schism had been in the planning for many years, and had its roots largely over issues of power and influence. Indeed, John Yates of Falls Church and Tory Baucom had been egging each other on for years, especially after Yates allegedly got passed over as a TEC bishop.

It’s also interesting to note that Foley Beach, and the rest of the ACNA hierarchy, were not big fans of the Johnston/Baucom mutual man-crush, with Beach putting his foot down hard on the proposed center for reconciliation at Truro, calling the whole deal a “counterfeit reconciliation” and claiming that Baucom had ignored his authority of bishop. Big surprise there—Truro’s track record when it comes to Episcopal authority was hardly one of eager compliance.

In other words, the conflict between the diocese and the dissidents had little to do with same-sex marriage, property issues, or anything other than power and control.

But why?

So why are two of the folks seemingly among the least likely in all of Christendom to affect peacemaking pursuing this initiative? It’s a fair question and one that can only be answered via speculation.

This author believes the answer is, in part, that neither Baucom nor Johnson like to be told no. Both have big egos, and both like to get their way. So when Johnston’s tenure at DioVA collapsed, as did Baucom’s gig at Truro, both appear to have been been hunting around for a Plan B that would place their project outside the jurisdiction of their respective denominations.

But beyond that, my best guess is that both are narcissists. One has only to look at their management styles, their reputation for conflict, their relationships with others, and even Johnston’s rather monarchical signature to reach that conclusion.

And like all good narcissists, Johnston and Baucom like to portray themselves as larger than life heroes, as role models, as exemplary Christians.

Yet if we apply the biblical standard, “by their fruits you shall know them,” we see men mired in conflict, feckless about the management of their organizations, and high-handed and unkind towards others. Yes, both will tell you what they think you want to hear, and they are both good at playing the game, right up until they implode due to their hubris.

So, my hunch is that the center is not actually about affecting peace and reconciliation, and it’s certainly not about Christian faith. Instead, it seems to be all about reputation management for two spectacularly unattractive individuals.

After all, if Shannon Johnston is so concerned about peacemaking, he might start by offering to help resolve some of the messes he left behind within DioVA. Opportunities abound.

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bruce Atkinson PhD

Thanks much for this information.