Sweeping Advances Mark a Dozen Years of Bishop Harrison’s Episcopal Ministry


Bishop Dena A. Harrison retired this fall after 12 years as bishop suffragan* for the Diocese of Texas.

She served at All Saints, Austin; St. James’, LaGrange ; and St. James’, Conroe before her election in 2006. Bishop Harrison helped develop Safeguarding training for the Diocese after it was mandated by the Church’s General Convention in 2003 and helped set the standard for the rest of the Episcopal Church. She also chaired the boards of a number of diocesan institutions: El Buen Samaritano, a social service agency for immigrants in Austin; Seminary of the Southwest, Austin; St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Austin; and St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System, Houston. She was key in the sale of the Health System in 2013, which established the Episcopal Health Foundation with a $1 billion corpus, as well as the Great Commission Foundation with an additional $126 million focused on planting new churches. Bishop Harrison was the first woman elected a bishop in Texas and in the Church’s Province VII.

Carol E Barnwell: How and when did you first experience your call to ordination? What experience did you have growing up that you feel formed the basis of your faith and your call?

Dena A Harrison: When I was eight years old, an ordained woman came to preach in our Disciples of Christ congregation, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. It’s not that I actually knew what that meant, but at that moment I knew I was called to ordination. My childhood congregation really invited me into deep faith formation and nurtured that growth. They both loved me and challenged me to learn and to risk new experiences. They encouraged me in leadership and modeled healthy faith. As an adult, I knew that I wanted to convene communities what did that same important work.

CEB: Is there a particular person who supported your journey to ordination and what did that support look like?

DAH: My home parish is Church of the Epiphany, Houston. It was the leadership of that congregation, both lay and ordained, who named the ordained vocation for me and encouraged me toward it. That discernment happened very organically, growing out of our life of worship, prayer and service. My husband, Larry, was probably the most significant individual in that journey. He had an unwavering conviction that I was called to this life, and he has continued to have a lot of vision about my ministry.

CEB: It was not as easy for a woman to attend seminary when you went. What particular challenges did you have at Seminary of the Southwest that you were able to improve after you became board chair?

DAH: Circumstances are very different today in any number of ways. There is a larger, much more diverse faculty whose focus is on preparing students for church leadership in various areas. The lay tracks are much more developed and diverse. When I attended seminary, the focus was on passing on the tradition as an end in itself; today, the focus is on carrying the tradition into the future in ways which both preserve it and adapt it to new realities. This is always the task of leadership, and that task is now center stage. When I attended, the ordination of women was still a very new idea for the church. There were no ordained women in the formation environment, and a good number among both faculty and students were ambivalent about the idea of women in ordained ministry. Today those questions have been largely answered by the lived experience of the Church. Not only is the dean of the seminary a woman, but there are a number of ordained women on the faculty and serving as rectors and mentors in field work congregations.

CEB: You were the first woman bishop in Province VII and in the state of Texas. What did that process teach you about yourself? Your call?

DAH: Being “the first” has never been particularly important to me in any stage of my ministry. I have had the sense of being called by God, affirmed by the community, and simply being about the business of serving faithfully. I do understand that “firsts” are important, however. In order for things to change, there has to be a first. I’ve never felt called to be “the first,” but I have felt strongly called to follow the leading of Jesus into serving God’s mission of reconciliation. At the point in history in which we live, the role of “the first” has fallen to me, but it is not the most important thing. The ministry of Jesus is the most important thing, and the people of the Diocese of Texas have been incredibly supportive as together we have served God through the Church.

CEB: You’ve seen the number of women bishops grow in the House of Bishops. What particular changes does this bring to the Church?

DAH: The Church is much more able to embody the fullness of human experience. Women have experiences that men do not have, and adding those to the mix of leadership hopefully allows greater wisdom to operate for everyone’s benefit. It is really hard to generalize about this because all bishops are individuals with varying gifts. The culture of the House of Bishops is generally collegial and has really adapted to women fairly quickly in the greater scheme of things.

CEB: Many people describe you as being able to speak truth with great pastoral care. Bishop Andy Doyle remembers sound advice you gave him as a young priest about making changes to a program instead of ploughing more money into it. What best exemplifies your guiding wisdom when assessing situations—how do you discern your best advice?

DAH: Each of us has a particular perspective and experience. We only see what we can see individually, but we do all see. The best decisions get made when everyone is honest about what they see. Sometimes that is easy to share, and sometimes it is hard. The hard conversations can be among the most fruitful because they may require us to expand beyond our comfort zone in considering what God might be doing. We need to take great care with one another in these exchanges because we are all fallible, we are all vulnerable, and any one person may be wrong about any one thing! As the Christian community, it is our responsibility and our privilege to trust one another enough to discern together and to trust the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth.

CEB: You were board chair at St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System at the time of its sale and were key  in those negotiations as well as in establishing the Episcopal Health Foundation with the proceeds. What began in 1950 with a $1 million gift from Roy Cullen to Bishop Clinton Quin and $1 million investment form the Diocese, eventually funded the billion-dollar Episcopal Health Foundation for the Diocese of Texas’ 57 counties, a $100+ million foundation to plant new churches as well as a commitment from Catholic Health Initiatives to renovate or rebuild the hospital in the Texas Medical Center with an additional billion dollars. When you were a mortgage broker before becoming a priest, did you ever imagine your leadership would help to create such a legacy? What are your hopes for the future of EHF?

DAH: The sale of our hospital system was such a significant event, and it was accomplished through the inspired dedication of many people. I certainly never imagined that I would participate in a moment like it, and I count it a great privilege.

The mission of the Episcopal Health Foundation makes it possible for the church to fulfill its mission of ministry to the most vulnerable. When the hospital was founded, it was a response to a big gap: the lack of acute care in the Houston area. Today, the Episcopal Health Foundation continues to respond to the gaps in community health care throughout the Diocese. The Foundation allows us to minister in all our 57 counties in whatever ways meet the needs present in each local setting. My hopes for the future are found in the many creative ways EHF has already gone about its mission in its short life. Its ability to bring the best research, best practices, and the best local knowledge together makes a true impact for health. It is really exciting to imagine the exponential impact it will have in years to come, particularly as it partners with congregations and other nonprofits to make our diocese a healthier place.

CEB: What moments will you treasure from your time in the episcopate?

DAH: There are so many of these that it is hard to narrow it down. I have loved Sundays! Worshipping with congregations and with people making faith commitments has been the greatest privilege and joy. Our congregations are “where the action is” as they go about their ministries. Sharing their accomplishments as well as their challenges has been such a rich experience. I will also treasure meeting people around the world who are Anglicans. One of my best memories is a Eucharist under a tree in an African village. The dialect was totally unfamiliar, but I felt right at home. The liturgy was truly common prayer, and even though I didn’t understand a word, I shared the full experience with all gathered there. I will treasure the people of our Diocese, the work we have done together, and the life in Christ which we share. I am humbled by all the ways people have held me up in this work.

CEB: What are you most happy to have accomplished?

DAH: So much of a bishop’s work in this Diocese is with our institutions. I rejoice particularly in sharing the ministry of El Buen Samaritano, St. Stephen’s School, and the Seminary of the Southwest. The work done by these boards and these communities has been inspiring. While not everyone in the Diocese knows a lot about each institution we have, we can all be proud of the ministry they do on our behalf. It makes me happy to have had the opportunity to participate in these ministries.

CEB: What will you not miss?

DAH: Probably early-morning meetings! I’ve never been a morning person, and so a more relaxed wake-up schedule will be a new experience.

CEB: What is your advice to the person who will be elected your successor?

DAH: The most important thing is to embrace all that you will experience. You can’t predict what that will be, and there are always surprises. Just know that you have been called into this ministry by God’s people, and they will pray for you and help you.

CEB: Besides binge watching mysteries on Netflix, reading and catching up on some needed rest, what are you looking most forward to in retirement?

DAH: My hobby has always been genealogy, and I look forward to doing a lot more of that research. It is great fun for me to make new discoveries and to learn more about the lives of the people who went before us. Larry and I have an RV, and we will no doubt be making good use of it—maybe even combining genealogy and travel—and just enjoying more time with one another.

* A suffragan bishop is an assisting bishop who does not automatically succeed a diocesan bishop. The Diocese of Texas will elect a new bishop suffragan on February 22, 2019, at its 170th Annual Council.


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