About the new position: Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. The “ordinary” of a diocese is the diocesan bishop; Canon to the Ordinary is “Episco-speak” for “assistant to the bishop.” As assistant to the bishop the canon offers counsel and support, and performs all duties assigned by the bishop, giving particular focus to the work of congregational development, church planting support, stewardship, conflict management, leadership development, and administration of the Alleluia Fund (a church planting and growth initiative). The Canon also works in conjunction with the bishop and Deployment Officer to oversee clergy deployment.
Being called to prayerfully consider and be interviewed for this new ministry was as much a surprise for me as actually being called to do it by Bishop Kirk Smith and accepting that call. It came completely out of the blue, and sometimes that’s not so bad. I liken it to a burning bush kind of experience.
In some ways, one could say I was a little like Moses, tending the sheep there in Midian—er, Greenville—minding my own business, when something off to the side captured my attention, and I was invited to turn aside and see what it was. Could it be the voice of God calling? Let me draw closer and listen more intently.
How does one discern the voice of God calling? Good question; difficult for some, especially the inexperienced—like me. You’ll be relieved to know that I do not actually hear God’s voice; God has not chosen to speak audibly to me (yet), but I have no doubt that internally I have heard a voice that is not mine move me, heighten my intuition, and bring thoughts forward that did not originate within me.
It almost feels like a dialogue at times. It certainly felt like dialogue when I discerned the call to enter the process towards ordination, and as I was discerning to “pop the question” to the woman who is now my wife of seventeen years. But what about now?
In accepting the call to leave a parish where for seven years the community and I have grown together and shaped one another into a vibrant, energetic yet prayerful, powerful worshiping community and clergy leader: did I hear the voice of God call me away from that? Well, yes and no, not exactly that. Let me try to explain.
For several years now I have been hearing God woo me to a new place of growth in my Christian faith and expression, to learn and embrace the concept of servant leadership, the ministry of the towel, not the scepter. If you recall in John’s Gospel, on the night before he died for us Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and calls us to “wash one another’s feet. For I have set an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13: 14b-15 NRSV).
I actually don’t believe that Jesus wants us to literally go around and wash one another’s feet (unless that in fact needs doing!) but that Jesus does wish for us to serve one another in their moment of need, even in doing the most menial of tasks. Foot-washing was a menial task in Jesus’ day. Servant leadership begins with Jesus, and he is our example, our guide into they way of truly serving the “Other.”
But the idea of servant leadership as a way of life and ministry was first introduced to me several years ago (I don’t remember which year) when the late Bishop Bennett Sims came to Camp Gravatt, near Aiken, SC, to lead our clergy pre-Lenten retreat in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. That particular retreat was a watershed moment for me, for in two and a half days, speaking off the top of his head, using virtually no notes, this gentle, Godly man explained for me quite plainly what it meant to be a follower of Jesus by being a servant leader, just as Jesus was a servant leader.
Bishop Sims calmly introduced and encouraged me in the direction—the heading, if you will—that will shape the remainder of my ministry in the church; that it’s not about me, and my cause, my agenda, but about Jesus, and furthering his cause, his agenda. There is a collect for mission (a prayer) in the Book of Common Prayer services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer that succinctly describes the agenda that Jesus has and our role in it:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for
the honor of your Name. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer is full of gems like these, prayers that reset our compass, that sharpen our focus, that remind us of why we are here, and what this life is all about. And prayers that help deepen our relationship with God. To me, this prayer describes servant ministry for we who follow Jesus. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, though it is not simplistic. It is a call to extend the love of God on offer in Jesus to all who need it; our love, not scolding, judging, berating, guilt-tripping others, but loving them into the kingdom.
So, this past June and July, when prayerfully discerning this opportunity to speak with Bishop Smith about the Canon to the Ordinary position on his staff that he needed to fill, I didn’t feel God was calling me to leave parish ministry in order to be a “bishop’s assistant”; rather, I heard God calling me at this time in my life to a new expression of servant ministry and servant leadership.
This call that I have accepted it isn’t about me, about having a funky new title, or hanging out with the bishop on a daily basis (though he is fun to hang out with). It’s still all about Jesus, and furthering his cause from this new position of serving a bishop and clergy and the people of a diocese, and furthering Jesus’ agenda as a servant leader in a new place.
For me, accepting this call was embracing God’s higher call to a lower place, the place of a servant, and all the risk and sacrifice that that demands. And it’s still about parish ministry, but this time I’m serving many parishes and helping them improve their servant ministry and reach their goals for growing and sharing God’s love in Christ Jesus.
More than once since accepting this call and resigning as rector of St. James Episcopal Church, in Greenville, SC—a community of pilgrims dedicated to following and serving Jesus that will always remain beloved in my heart—the story of Abram has come to mind. Abram was called to leave his people, his family and friends, his familiar and comfortable setting, and go to a place that God would show him. Later, the author of Hebrews recalls it rather tongue in cheek: “and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8b).
In many ways, we who dare to follow Jesus do not know where we are going when accepting a new call. Clergy accept calls on the faith that God is guiding us and God knows what God is doing (and what we’ll be doing). We also know and understand that if we focus on our ultimate destination—to know God and make known God’s love on offer in Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified and Risen One—then it really doesn’t matter what we find when we get there, wherever it is God that has called us. God is there and has something for us to do. As servants of Jesus, we discern needs and respond to them; we do what we see needing done to further the Gospel. We love, we pray, we give away God’s great love in word and sacrament, inviting others to join us on this pilgrimage that we call “life.”
So, having moved to the desert Southwest, it is my privilege and joy to take the lower place, to truly learn what it means to set aside temptations to power and prestige, and daily dedicate myself to serving all others, prayerfully growing into the image and likeness of Jesus, with God’s help.
I don’t know about you, but that’s what I call living fully. And that’s what I’m here to do.