Profiles in Faith: Paula Clark: First Woman and First African American to Lead the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago
The Rev. Paula E. Clark is the first African American woman and person of color to be elected Bishop of the Chicago Episcopal Diocese comprising 122 congregations and more than 31,000 members in Northern, Central and Southwestern Illinois.
Her historic December 12, 2020, election, which empowers her to help heal the nation’s deep racial division, stands in sharp contrast to what she described as “vivid memories” of the racial discrimination she experienced growing up in Washington, D.C.
It was a time when, she recalled, her family was among the first in her neighborhood that tried unsuccessfully to integrate the largely white Baptist Church, a disappointment that led Clark and her parents to the Episcopal Church.
Weeks before her scheduled consecration on April 11, 2021, Rev. Clark suffered a cerebral bleed requiring surgery and occupational and physical therapy. The consecration is now scheduled for August 28.
In Her Own Words
“I have protested, prayed and spoken out in public and in the media about racism against people of color, police reform and the disproportionate cost of COVID-19 on black and brown bodies. Now I’m discerning with you … I have watched and admired you from afar, and now I am listening for God’s call as your next Bishop, because so many of your passions, priorities and dreams resonate with mine … You’ve bravely confronted the sins of inequity and racism, and I give God thanks for your witness.” — Paula Clark, speaking in her candidacy video before her December 12, 2020, election as the 13th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago
“I am overwhelmed, I am humbled and filled with so much joy, people of Chicago. I can hardly believe it. I am overjoyed. Thank you, Diocese of Chicago. You have been incredible throughout this process of discernment under really — really — challenging circumstances. You’ve been so creative, so resourceful, so caring and courageous. You have really captured my heart.” — Paula Clark, shortly after she was elected December 12, 2020, as the 13th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago
“I have vivid memories of the social unrest of 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and experienced racial discrimination as one of the first black families in our neighborhood. My parents tried to integrate the local white Baptist Church, without success. One Sunday, my father scooped me from a church pew, and staged a walkout with other black and white families who then formed ‘The Fellowship of the Free.’ This group met in the basement of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church every Friday evening, and had communion with freshly baked bread. I knew gathered together with these diverse, faithful Christians, God was present in the breaking and the eating of that delicious bread.” — Paula Clark, quoted in her “Spiritual Autobiography” on the website of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
“We Episcopalians are a strong people who can model for the rest of the country and the world what it looks like to walk the way of love … God is calling us to a new day and a new way of being.” — Paula Clark, in the Chicago Sun Times, December 12, 2020
“One way for churches to address shifting contexts is to uphold and expand the ministry and authority of the laity. Before and during this pandemic, we began to look at ways to raise up, empower and broaden parish leadership to assume some of the duties traditionally assigned to clergy. I am inspired by models of ministry I have witnessed in large, so-called ‘Mega’ churches where all members are given the authority and the charge to serve as ‘ministers of the church,’ whether it is in preaching, parking or practicing radical hospitality. In these settings, every member becomes a ‘minister’ and has a role in carrying out God’s call of service. The priesthood of all believers needs to be embraced and lifted up as valued ministry.” — Paula Clark, in answer to the question: “Much has been written about the changing paradigms in 21st-century Christianity. How are you thinking and working to engage these changes? How will this inform your ministry as bishop?”
“All the major world religions believe in unity and peace and love … So this is an opportunity for us to have a counter-narrative to some of what we are seeing in our wider society.” — Paula Clark, December 17, 2020
The Stories Others Tell
“Rev. Clark said she never aspired to become a Bishop. She said she was called to be a Priest in the Episcopal Church, but as the first woman and person of color to lead it she will now also become a trailblazer.” — December 14, 2020 article in ABC News
“We can celebrate because she’s not a Bishop for just women, she’s not a Bishop for just people of color — she’s a Bishop for the entire diocese, and that’s how she approaches her work.” — Rory Smith, a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago who was part of a commission to promote awareness and appreciation of diverse cultures in the Church.
“I am grateful for the leadership and grace embodied by our presiding Bishop and our Bishop-elect. Everyone continues to be amazed by Paula’s recovery to date, and we believe that this time will allow her to serve as the vibrant, brilliant and faithful bishop we know she will be.” — The Rev. Anne B. Jolly, president of the Standing Committee overseeing the Diocese of Chicago, in a May 2020 statement
A Life in Brief
Paula Clark was 10 years old when she was baptized by Bishop John Walker, the first African American dean of Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where Clark was born. She modeled her ministry after his, inspired by his “gentle spirit and dedication to love and justice.”
She is married to Andrew McLean, and describes herself as “the proud matriarch of our blended family of five adult children, and seven grandchildren.”
Clark first felt the calling to priesthood in the seventh grade, while attending weekly chapel services at the National Cathedral. Because her mother disapproved of women’s ordination, Clark did not pursue her ecclesiastical ambitions until after her mother’s death.
Clark received her undergraduate education at Brown University, where she attended what she calls “Black Chapel” and sang in two choirs. She completed her graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she attended “various churches and Bible study groups which kept my faith grounded in community.”
She returned to her hometown, Washington, D.C., to work in local government. While engaging in lay ministry at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, her mother, who opposed the ordination of women, “finally acknowledged my calling.”
“I felt God calling me through John 21:17, ‘Feed my sheep,’” Clark recalled. She was ordained to the priesthood in 2005.
At St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, D.C., Clark developed Christian formation programs for children and adults. She led an outreach ministry, partnering with another parish to address food insecurity. She also served as rector of St. John’s Church in Beltsville, Maryland, which she described in her candidacy video for the Chicago Bishop position as “a growing, multicultural congregation connected in ministry with its community.”
Before joining the Chicago Diocese, Clark served for seven years on the staff of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., starting out as Canon for Clergy Development, Multicultural Ministry and Justice. Her work entailed creating spiritual formation and leadership programs for clergy, while working with parishes in transition and supporting historically black, multicultural and Latinx ministries. She also helped develop antiracism programs.
In 2019, Clark was named Canon to the Ordinary and Chief of Staff in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. She directed implementation of the Diocese strategic plan, which — besides focusing on congregational revitalization, spiritual formation with a school for Christian faith and leadership — involved equity and justice programs.
Clark and her Church both made history on December 12, 2020, when she was elected as the first African American and first woman to serve as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
On April 11, 2021, Rev. Clark suffered a cerebral bleed requiring surgery and occupational and physical therapy. Her consecration is now scheduled for August 28.
Achievements We’ll Remember
1986-1995: Information Officer at the Office of the Mayor and the Washington, D.C., Board of Parole.
1993-1994: Public Information Officer for Criminal Justice in the Office of the Mayor, Washington, D.C.
1995-2000: Director of Human Resources and Administration at Delon Hampton and Associates, a professional engineering and consulting firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.
2000-2001: Director of Community Services at the Hospice of Prince George’s County, Maryland.
2002: Seminarian at the Church of the Spirit in Kingstowne, Virginia, serving in that position until 2004.
2004: Assistant/Associate at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. She serves in the position until 2007, sharing in liturgical leadership, preaching and pastoral care, besides revitalizing outreach ministries, particularly a partnership with a historic African American parish, and providing food pantry services in Anacostia, among the poorest areas of Washington, D.C.
2008: Priest in Charge at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beltsville, Maryland, serving in that position until 2009.
2009: Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beltsville, Maryland.
2013: Canon for Clergy Development, Multicultural Ministries and Justice at the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.
2019: Canon to the Ordinary and Chief of Staff in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, serving in that position until December 12, 2020.
December 12, 2020: Elected as 13th and first woman and first African-American Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
Paula Clark’s Religion
Episcopalians believe in “a loving, liberating, and life-giving God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and “in following the teachings of Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection saved the world … a legacy of inclusion, aspiring to tell and exemplify God’s love for every human being. Women and men serve as Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in the church. Laypeople and clergy cooperate as leaders at all levels of the church.
Following the American Revolution, American members of the Anglican Church broke away from the Church of England and formed the Episcopal Church, based on the same theology but no longer under the direct control of the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion, which describes itself as “Protestant yet Catholic,” and “deeply grounded in the Early Church and the traditions and beliefs which have grown with Christianity from its beginnings, just like the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.” In 2019, the Episcopal Church had some 1.7 million baptized members, representing 1.2 percent of the adult population of the United States. The Church opposes the death penalty, has been a stalwart proponent of civil rights, and in 2015, the General Convention passed resolutions permitting the blessing of same-sex marriages.
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Pope Francis (June 23, 2021)
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Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Huseinni Al-Sistani (May 26, 2021)
Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury (May 19, 2021)