Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What’s the peirnt?

A good friend and I have a question that we pose to each other from time-to-time:  What’s the peirnt?  It is an intentional misspelling and mispronunciation of the last word, and intended to reflect a question from old mob movies – the original and stated question being, What’s the point?

I sometimes find myself wondering that, as it relates to ordained ministry and its exercise in the parish. 

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration I can offer came in a meeting several years ago with either the vestry or search committee of a congregation (the grace of God has caused me to forget which congregation it was).  As the congregational leaders and I discussed the responsibilities and expectations of their next priest, one member said rather caustically, “I want them to pray on their own time.”

I later shared that observation with the senior priest who was then my spiritual director. His response: “That is a ditch I would die in.” His question was, What is the point?

As I work frequently with search committees and vestries, I see the always-present (but sometimes unstated) question arise again and again: What are the expectations of the new rector or vicar?

The person mentioned above clearly thought that it was not the priest’s responsibility to pray – at least on “church time.”

There is a variety of stated and unstated expectations of a cleric – some clear and expected, some unclear and unanticipated.  Some reasonable and some unreasonable. I recall on my first Sunday in one of the parishes I served that an elderly, senior member came to me after the service: “Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for not saying anything personal in your sermon.”  I knew the roots of her concern (they were well-entwined with the congregation’s history), but it was clearly an unstated expectation that I would not get too personal in my sermon.  What if someone else had been called and had been unaware?

But that is a very small example which illustrates a larger point:  There are many expectations of a parish cleric.  Such as…

… Being present in the office on a regular basis.

… Making pastoral calls as needed.

… Assuring smooth functioning of the parish office.

… Visiting newcomers soon after they visit the parish.

Or, visiting newcomers which have expressed no interest in the parish, but someone in the parish has met them.

… Sharing information about pastoral concerns (such as someone’s hospitalization), while preserving appropriate confidences.

… Always being solemn when appropriate, and always being happy when expected.

… Seeing that adequate training is offered for lay readers, Eucharistic ministers, acolytes and others – even if attendance is not convenient for them.

… Preaching sermons that are not too long and not too short.

… Not dealing with social or political topics from the pulpit – unless the congregation largely agrees with the perspective.

… Increasing attendance by young families.

… Assuring the ongoing functioning of a multi-faceted Christian education program.

… Being responsible for the sound financial condition of the congregation (or, conversely, having nothing to do with what Will Campbell called “filthy lucre”).

… An ancillary point: Never talk about money.

… Being the “moral police” (generally directed toward “someone else”) of the congregation while saying nothing of inappropriate behavior.
... Growing the congregation without changing the congregation's methods of functioning or its means of relating to newcomers.

… Being available and responsive 24/7, regardless of the impact on the cleric’s family.

… And, of course, the biggy: Don’t let conflict enter the congregation and, if you do, assume responsibility for it.

Those are among the expectations I have encountered over 12+ years of working with congregations and clergy, and over 14 years of parochial ministry before that.

One of the challenges faced by many clergy is that, with unstated expectations, one person’s perspective is perceived as valid as another’s.

The fact is that priests take vows before the Bishop which summarize their responsibilities as ordained people.  Since we, as Episcopalians, articulate our theology in our prayers and liturgy, it only makes sense that the vows taken before a Bishop at ordination would articulate our understanding of the ordained ministry. The Bishop’s address to the ordinand includes the following:

As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts. You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.

The vows, containing the essential duties of a priest, follow:

Bishop             Do you now in the presence of the Church commit                                       yourself to this trust and responsibility?
            Answer            I do.

Bishop             Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction 
                        and leadership of your bishop?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the                                      Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of                                         such things as may make you a stronger and more                                                able minister of Christ?
             Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you endeavor so to minister the Word of God                                       and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the                                               reconciling love of Christ may be known and                                           received?
            Answer            I will.

 Bishop             Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all                                             whom you are called to serve, laboring together                                            with them and with your fellow ministers to build                                              up the family of God?
            Answer            I will.

 Bishop             Will you do your best to pattern your life [and that                                       of your family, or household, or community] in                                                 accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you                                        may be a wholesome example to your people?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in                                        private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for 
                        others, offering all your labors to God, through the 
                        mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification                                              of the Holy Spirit?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             May the Lord who has given you the will to do these 
                        things give you the grace and power to perform them.
            Answer            Amen.

These vows express the essential theological raison d’etre for the priesthood, and they provide the basic job description for a priest.

But there is more:  The canons of the Episcopal Church (especially Title III, Canon 9 – Of the Life and Work of Priests) provide some meat on the bone for a priest’s functioning.  Among those duties are the following:

      ·         Seeing that people under their charge receive instructions in the Holy Scriptures; in
             the Catechism; in the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of the Episcopal Church; and in
             “the exercise of their ministry as baptized persons.”

·         The instruction of all persons in the topics of Christian stewardship, including a reverence for God’s creation and the right use of God’s gifts; generous and consistent giving of time, talent and treasure for the mission and ministry of the Church at home and abroad; the biblical standard of the tithe for financial stewardship; and the responsibility of all persons to make a will as prescribed in The Book of Common Prayer.

·         The proper preparation and instruction for Baptismal candidates and their sponsors;

·         Similarly, candidates for Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation should be properly prepared;

·         To announce the scheduled visit of the Bishop;

·         To read in public worship or otherwise disseminate a Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops;

·         To keep faithful and accurate records of all members (including those who have received communion three times in the previous year) and of baptisms, confirmations, deaths, transfers and other changes in membership status.

As you can see, the calling of a priest – including a Rector or Vicar – is largely to the nourishment and development of the spiritual life both in his or her own life and the life of those in the congregation.  This is the work of deepening the journey from which the meaning of life may emerge.

Contemporary critics of the Church write and speak about how the focus of the Church has moved more toward matters of secular life.  Those critics may be right, but from a direction they did not intend. The role of the priest has developed into one of meeting people’s expectations in what is largely a consumer culture. The expectations are frequently associated with mundane matters rather than the transformational deepening of one’s faith.

The priest is called to pray and draw deeply on his or her spiritual journey, taking the fruits of that journey to share with the congregation so that their lives might benefit from those insights. The benefits the priest derives from a deep and profound spiritual life will enrich his or her preaching, teaching and caring for God’s people.

Referring to the earlier quotation from the Vestry or search committee member: If the priest prays only on his or her own time, the congregation may very well get that for which they hope.


Friday, August 16, 2013

Can You Hear Me Now?

Throughout my adult life, faith has been a key component of my existence.  Like many of us in Mississippi, I grew up in a theologically-conservative environment.  The Methodist Church I attended felt to me to be no different from some other the more conservative, evangelical denominations prominent on the Mississippi landscape.

Make no mistake, though:  I am very grateful for my roots in the world of John Wesley.  One of my primary models of ministry was a pastor at Central Methodist Church in Meridian (these were the days before the formation of the United Methodist Church).  His name was John Cook, and though he was not aware of it, he modeled the pastoral life for me.  I will be forever grateful for his example.  His preaching served as a model for my own – a standard at which I am sure I come up short.

I remember the nights at church camp.  A young preacher would come in.  All the teenage campers would be gathered in the recreation hall.  We had the minds of teenagers and all that implies.  I remember specifically one young preacher who thundered to us that one – shaking the gates of hell for us.  Scaring us to death. (I am reminded of the saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”) It was emphasized that the wanderings of our teenage minds were the work of the devil, and judgment would be awaiting us.  He was, in my mind, the sweating evangelist, not unlike the Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of Elmer Gantry.

His proclaimed God was one of expected and required righteousness. An angry God.  A God of vengeance. A God of retribution.

That image of God was seared into my consciousness. Seared.

Yet, I loved God.  And I heard that God calling to me again and again and again.

Over the years, my life of faith drew me more deeply into a relationship with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I was drawn toward the Episcopal Church.  It was within that community of faith, and with clergy such as Ted Holt, Mickey Bell, Duncan Gray, Jr., and Sid Sanders, that I found the “God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Again and again, from these and other priests, I heard “the Good News” of a God of grace.  And I heard all that within the sacramental ministry of the Episcopal Church.

So much of this was pre-verbal.  I could not articulate the experience. My vocabulary and insight were not sufficient.  Still, all this, on some level, made my heart sing.

Then began the experiences of transformation.  Revelations. Seeing through a glass – but a little better than darkly. Moments of transcendence.  The veil is opened briefly. Glimpses of the Holy… the numinous.

Those experiences did not come frequently, but they were moments of profound grace. The Jesuits might call them consolations after experiences of desolation. They came at those points in my life when I realized the futility of trying to do things as I had done them. And it revealed to me a God who was profoundly different from the God I had seared into my mind at church camp so many years before.

Those experiences – those sacred encounters – have come maybe five or six times in my adult life.  I do not claim to be a mystic, but these were certainly mystical experiences.  Each time, I have thirsted for more.  But, I guess, they were meant as viaticum – “provisions for the journey.”

It may be both apt and accurate to say that Moses’ description of the Hebrews – “a stiff necked people” – would also apply to me.  It would be accurate because, again and again, I would receive these sacred visitations and self-disclosures from God, but after a short time, I would turn away and seek to live the life of legalism, self-sufficiency, and works-righteousness that I had learned so many years before.

The most dramatic and powerful of all these sacred encounters came in the fall of 2005.  Only a few months before, Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast (and, of course, New Orleans). Life in the diocesan office was frantic, chaotic and overwhelming.  I could not imagine what my fellow clergy were dealing with on the Coast. All of us, I think, were running on adrenaline.  I was certainly not practicing any form of wellness or self care. It was ministry at hyperspeed.

It would not be long before my attention would be sharply focused. In a meeting which preceded General Convention 2006 – a meeting over which I presided – I experienced something very strange.  I later described it as a déjà vu experience on steroids.  While no one else likely noticed any change in my countenance, I was aware of something very significant taking place within me. After the meeting, I confided that experience to the chaplain of that deputation meeting, the Reverend Ron DelBene. I described it as some sort of ecstatic experience. Then I headed back toward the office. 

However, the sensation which I had experienced during the meeting returned to me in waves.  It was repeated again and again over a short period of time.  I knew something was awry, so I went home.

Nora was concerned.  I went to bed, concerned about the sensations, and also utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally.  Nora called a friend, a clinical psychologist, worried that I was experiencing neurological issues.  He came by, visited with me in the darkness of my blinds-drawn bedroom, and encouraged me to see a local neurologist.  Facilitated by him, I was able to see the neurologist pretty quickly.

Over the next two or three days, I remained in bed – completely spent by the experience of the previous months and the immediately-preceding days.  It was in the dark solitude of that bedroom, as I wafted in and out of a conscious state, that I had what may be the holiest experience of my life.

Again and again, the same images came to me.  Images from scripture. Especially images from the life and writings of St. Paul.  They resonated deeply within me in my semisomnolent state.

The first image was of the conversion of Saul – but a specific account of that conversion.  In the Book of Acts, there are three versions of Saul’s conversion – the original “Road to Damascus” experience.  First is in Chapter 9, when the conversion actually took place.  Then, in Chapters 22 and 26, Paul recounts the experience for his listeners – the cataclysmic event when he was transformed from Saul to Paul; from a persecutor of Christians to a leader of the young movement.

My “visions” focused on the account told in Chapter 26.  It is only in that telling that a certain phrase is included.  In each of the two earlier accounts, Saul, after being blinded by a great light, hears a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  The voice, of course, is from Jesus.  However, in Chapter 26, Paul is telling the story again, this time to King Agrippa.  In this account, Paul tells of being struck blind by the light and then hearing a voice says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?  It hurts you to kick against the goads.  The last phrase is found only in this passage.

That image came to me repeatedly.  And, I should note, I was unaware of the distinction between those three passages at that time.

The other passage which came to me in that semiconscious state was more familiar.  I argue that it is the high point of the New Testament.  It comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Those days were challenging times.  The tests I went through under the care of the neurologist were unremarkable and did not reveal any significant issues.  But the spiritual fruits of those days were truly profound, and I have gone back to that spiritual well again and again. I have yearned to return to that experience.

I came from those days and those moments with insights about God and my relationship to Him that were transformative.  Sorting through those visions, I discerned certain insights.  The first was from Chapter 26 of Acts, and Paul being told “It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I believe that God was conveying to me the truth that I had been kicking against the goads.  I had raged against an internal storm. I had striven for God’s grace.  I had sought to earn God’s love.  I had tried so hard to prove my own worth.  God was telling me, “These are already yours. You need not strive so hard.”

I also heard the words of Romans 8 with great clarity: There is nothing that I can do or cannot do that will separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

The echoes of voices from the past – the young, sweating evangelist at camp, the voices within my own psyche – were silenced, but only temporarily.  Lessons learned early in life are hard to overcome.  As I noted earlier, they were seared into my mind. 

Still, I know that God has shown me another way – a way of life, a way of grace, and way of peace. I find myself living between two theological worlds.

Why is it so hard to live into that paradigm shift?  God asks me again and again, Can you hear me now?  What will it take for me to move from the old life to the new life into which I have been called?  That is a question that is raised for me again and again, as I reach the bottom of life, realize my own brokenness, and am reminded that I need not strive for something that has already been given me.

 Thinking on this, I am reminded that I am in good company.  Hear St. Paul’s words:


15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… 16I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15,19-25)
I hear these words in an entirely different way than I have heard them before. These are lessons that I have had to absorb time and again as I have sought to prove myself, my rightness, and my self-sufficiency.  The bottom is always a hard place, and it is chastening.  But once it is reached, my attention is drawn toward God and the way out of the depths.  The bottom can be very therapeutic.  There is healing in that moment.

All of this runs the risk of being theological narcissism, and I am aware of that possibility.  Instead, I see it as having an important influence on how I preach, how I minister, and how I relate to friends and family.  If properly integrated and applied, no experience is lost in the economy of God’s movement in our lives.

I am also aware of the eternal nature of these lessons I have learned.  That there is nothing – life, death, whatever may comewhich can remove us from the loving embrace of the God of grace.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What is Call? – Part 4

Please see earlier Parts 1, 2, and 3

Looking back over Christian history, the authentic call may have aspects which are not necessarily appealing. God may speak to us in circumstances not to our liking.  The genuine call is not usually concerned with the more mundane and pedestrian middle-class concerns of modern cultural aspirations. Simply reflect on those calls which the Church honors and celebrates, such as the lives of the Apostles post-resurrection. Think of Julian of Norwich. Recall the examples of Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer. Ponder the lives of the Martyrs of Memphis. Spend some time thinking of the ministries – and variety of challenges faced by – of Duncan M. Gray, Jr. and Will D. Campbell.

We may blanch. We may ignore the call.  We may deny it.  We may choose a path more to our liking.  I would contend, though, that we do so at our own peril.  A friend who denied what I believed to be a genuine call saw much of his life fall apart.  Another, who refused the pathway to healing, lost his vocation and family. It is not out of a sense of God’s punishment, but from a sense of being out of synch with what we are created to be and do.  It is both a call to service and fullness of life, as opposed to self-fulfillment.

A genuine call is to service and fullness of life, and is seldom one of complete self-fulfillment.  There is almost always a cost – sometimes small, sometimes profound.  The Greenville, Mississippi poet of the early 20th Century, William Alexander Percy, summarized that truth so well in Hymn 661 from the Hymnal 1982:

They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown
Such happy simple fisherfolk
Before the Lord came down

Contented peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God That fill'd their hearts
Brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod,
Yet, let us pray for but one thing -
The marvelous peace of God.

To reduce this truth to the almost inane, in calling us to service, God says to us, “I never promised you a rose garden.”  The true, authentic call is not so concerned with location, compensation, size of the parish, or the trappings of success.  The Call is to hear – and hopefully respond to – the voice of the One who seeks our service, wherever it may be.

What is Call? – Part 3

Please see earlier Parts 1 and 2

The issue of initial assignment of newly-ordained clergy is not one of arbitrary decision by the Bishop.  The Bishop typically spends months in reflection and prayerful consideration. He consults with the seminarian and, if there is one, spouse. He discusses the placement with the Commission on Ministry and, I suspect, the Standing Committee (though I am not in those meetings). He converses with the various congregations about the prospect of accepting a newly-ordained person into their midst.  Out of that multifaceted process emerges the Bishop’s assignments.  Mississippi has a history of placing all seminarians who are ordained.  That is fairly unique in the Church. Sometimes, though, it is not well-received, but those occasions are rare.  My point in all this is to say that the call may be to some place other than what may have wished, but the process is one of call and need by the Church.

Once we get into the ordained vocation, the same issues sometime arise.  The primary symptoms are those which I listed earlier – those situations in which there is a reluctance to “perceive a call”.  Those potentially become intractable.  In such circumstances, clergy may sometimes find themselves either struggling in a position which is not ideal or being unemployed for reluctance to accept a call to someplace they do not choose to go, for whatever reason.

The 17th Century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert wrote a poem entitled “The Call”, which has been memorialized in Hymn 487 in the Hymnal 1982. His words reveal the subtle, transcendent, life-changing, and irresistible nature of the call:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: 
such a way as gives us breath,
such a truth as ends all strife,
such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength: 
such a light as shows a feast,
such a feast as mends in length,
such a strength as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart: 
such a joy as none can move,
such a love as none can part,
such a heart as joys in love.

A true call is mystical, nuanced and profound. It requires discernment. It is very personal – unique to the individual. To paraphrase what the Supreme Court said about obscenity, “It cannot be described, but you know it when you see it.”

What is Call? -- Part 2

Please see earlier Part 1

There is a story about a new seminary graduate coming out of a meeting with Mississippi Bishop John Maury Allin many years ago.  The new graduate had been told by Bishop Allin that he would be serving three small congregations in the Mississippi Delta.  He was commiserating with a colleague in the Bishop’s ante-room when Bishop Allin stuck his head out of his door and said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you – there’s one more congregation I want you to serve.”  The new graduate, of course, symbolically clicked his heals and saluted.  It was part-and-parcel of the call.

It seems to me that the understanding of call has evolved over the years.  I suspect there are many layers to that evolution, but the needs of the church remain.

Very few people “perceive a call” to rural ministry.

Very few people “perceive a call” to small church ministry.

Many people “perceive a call” to urban areas. A corollary of that axiom is that many people “perceive a call” to a specific geographic area

Many people “perceive a call” to large churches.

Few people “perceive a call” to congregations with lower compensation. Likewise, many people “perceive a call” to congregations with higher compensation.

Very few people “perceive a call” to places that are challenging or in conflict.

Few people “perceive a call” to serve multiple congregations.

All of this is true and accurate, and I am sure for a variety of reasons.  But the true third rail in this process is the spouse’s preference.  Ironically, it is symptomatic of both a growing awareness of the importance of spousal fulfillment and significant sexism.

It has become an issue for spousal fulfillment because, I believe, there is increased awareness of the health of the family system among clergy families. No longer is the clergyperson viewed as an isolated entity.  That understanding and appreciation of the family unit are healthy developments.

However, it is also important that the couple which enters into the process of ordination – and those who are already within Holy Orders – have an anticipatory conversation of the unique nature of ordained ministry.  Ordained ministry may call someone to serve in some place which the spouse does not prefer.  It may require adjustment of the family’s expectations, all within healthy norms of family life.  This is a point I seek to hammer home in interviews with aspirants for Holy Orders – “You will not go back to your home church. You may well go to some place you do not wish. The winds of the Spirit may call you into some unanticipated places.  And the Church will need you there.” A couple should have that conversation well in advance of the issue arising.  The possibility should never come as a surprise.

The problem of sexism is a deeper issue.  In the days when clergy were largely male, it was assumed that the spouses (all females) would go wherever the husband was assigned or called.  That paradigm has shifted dramatically. Now that many aspirants, postulants, candidates and clergy are female, the male spouses are granted some deference from prior expectations.  It seems that the thought is, “Of course we would not expect him to leave his position with the company he serves.  We will accommodate that need.”  That, I would argue, is unfair to the female spouses, who have gone any place for so long, and to the Church, which has unmet needs in many quarters.
What is Call? -- Part 1

For some years now, I have been concerned about changes in what is understood as call.

I guess part of my concern is rooted in the fact that I spend so much time dealing with the subject of call.  As the deployment officer (aka transition minister) for the Diocese of Mississippi, I encounter some aspect of this topic at many different points: the Commission on Ministry; placement of newly-graduated seminarians; clergy thinking about moves; search committees looking for their next rector, vicar or priest-in-charge. So the subject of call and its interpretation are frequently on my radar screen.

I recognize the potential to sound like father time on this subject. As I entered ordained ministry, there was an understanding that we would go where we were needed.  God bless them, my wife and family were always willing to do what was required.  That included some challenging times as I went through the three-year seminary training.

When Bishop Gray, Jr., called me in the spring of my senior year, we were thankful to be sent to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where I would serve as curate at Trinity Church, Pass Christian, and vicar at St. Patrick’s, Long Beach. I was posted at Trinity for three years (under the loving guidance of the Reverend Bronson Bryant, rector) and served St. Patrick’s for five years.  Those were years of great joy, sense of purpose and challenge. The point was this:  The Bishop sent me where I was needed, and we went. There was a call.

There was a short interlude at St. George’s Church, Nashville – one of great challenge both to me and my family.  Yet together we perceived that call and responded to it.  Together we discerned there were additional steps we needed to take.

I know that somewhere in my deep, red-and-blue background, I had uttered (with curled lip), “I will never move to Starkville.” Such was my snide attitude about the “other” university town in Mississippi. But, by God’s grace, we were called there, and life could not have been fuller.

It was a source of amusement among my friends and parishioners that this Ole Miss Rebel had been called to the community in which my alma mater’s arch rival was located. An ultimate irony came when, during my first year in Starkville, Nora and I were the invited to sit in the President’s Box at the Egg Bowl.  I saw the humor in the whole thing, and began to quote St. Paul to those who raised the issue: “I have become all things to all people that some might be saved.” Including myself.

But the point was clear to me: The Call may be to some place we would never expect.  We may be called to go to places that are not on our “bucket list.”  And, finally, God’s work is to be done in all places.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Calling of a Bishop

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.