The Diocese of Mississippi is in the process of electing its tenth Bishop – a process which will take another 13 months to reach fruition. It is not a process to take lightly.
A quotation I have held in mind for years is attributed to Bishop Duncan Gray, Sr. – the first in a line of three Bishops from the same family. He is reported to have said, “Anybody who wants to be Bishop deserves to be Bishop.” There is humor in that saying, but I would contend little truth (unless, of course, that person is elected to serve another diocese!). Aspiration and ambition have little resonance in this process of discerning the call of a Bishop.
There is a superficial understanding of the office of Bishop that sees the role primarily in terms of ordinations, confirmations, baptisms, visitations, presiding at diocesan council, and getting to wear all those fancy vestments reserved for the office. It is as if the role is being the recipient of endless adoration, admiration and deference.
As one who has spent the last 12+ years sitting across the hall from the Bishop’s office, I would like to disabuse anyone of that notion. I have compared the Episcopate to a mountain – it is much more attractive from a distance than it is up-close.
The public role of a Bishop may well indeed be primarily seen in some of the more appealing occasions. But that is only a fraction of the work of a Bishop – and even a smaller fraction of the emotional labor.
There is a frequent failure to understand that in our hierarchical system of church governance, there is a tendency for some very unpleasant “stuff” to “flow uphill” – and end up right at the Bishop’s door. As our current Bishop has noted, “there have been a lot of ‘come to Jesus’ meetings in my office, but very few people have found Jesus there.”
When a problem arises in a congregation, and it is not resolved on a local level, it will either fester there (and ultimately show itself in a later, more intense way) or move up the ladder toward the Bishop’s office. If that matter cannot be clarified or resolved by a staff member, then it is passed on to the Bishop for his action, counsel, or decision. Note: The easy things get resolved further down the line; the higher intensity matters flow toward the Bishop.
This is where much of the Bishop’s work is done. It is frequently the source of “emotional labor.” These are times for words, advice or actions which draw on the reserves of that deep well of spirituality which, hopefully, the Bishop has in reserve. Absent that deep personal well, the Bishop is left to his or her own devices – in other words, a dry well and a train wreck waiting to happen.
It is the hope of the Church, I think, that a Bishop enters into the Episcopate with a deep, flowing river of wisdom and strength that will allow her or him to “speak the truth in love,” to manifest the presence of Christ, and to make decisions which are motivated by the Spirit’s presence.
Such a person is one who has a calmness of spirit and is not a shallow, unmoored responder to external stimuli. Two sayings comes to mind for me: “Still waters run deep” and “Shallow waters are the most turbulent.”
A genuine call to the Episcopate (as opposed to an ambition or aspiration) is a call to service and, not infrequently, a call to suffering. The Bishop must occasionally walk through some very deep valleys with others. The Bishop is sometimes asked to make very hard decisions – decisions which dramatically impact the lives of those about whom there is great affection.
Such a life is not alien to us. We are blessed with a model of that life in our sacred scriptures: “I come among you as one who serves”; “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” The trappings or glory, power and adoration are all later accretions.
I believe a true call to the Episcopate is not sought but is heard and responded to with some reticence and reluctance. To thirst or aspire for the Episcopate is to minimize what Jesus said to the mother of James and John: “You do not know what you are asking.”
Metaphorically, in terms of the cost internally and spiritually, there is an apt illustration. To seek and acquire the office of Bishop to meet one’s own needs is akin to the misguided soul who sought the Holy Grail for his own purposes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: His life and body were reduced to ashes and dust, blown away by the wind. That is a bit dramatic, but it illustrates the potential cost for one who seeks the Episcopate for self-validation. The sense of yawning emptiness would eventually overcome and overwhelm the ambition and yearning which brought the person to that point.
To the one who is truly called, there may be wellsprings of living waters which can sustain her or him through times of great aridness, pain and suffering. And that person, whoever it may be, will have the profound sense of responding to the authentic call of God.