It’s our custom in the Diocese of Springfield to hold the annual Chrism Mass on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. This year, that occasion coincided with St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), which happens to be the anniversary of my consecration to the episcopate in 2011. So it wasn’t just an anniversary, but one that could be considered nodal, the fifth. In my homily on that day, I remarked to the assembled clergy and laity that my episcopate can now be considered “middle-aged.” I’m three years and a few months from qualifying for what the Church Pension Fund considers “full retirement,” and seven years and few months from what the canons of the Episcopal Church consider mandatory retirement. So, yes, middle-aged.
I suspect that most who are ordained to the priesthood at least privately try on the idea of becoming a bishop. I know I did — and, yes, quite privately, and, yes, always with the addendum that it would require some sort of parallel universe where it might have the possibility of happening. But in the three or four years prior to my election, there were hints. People said things to me — odd, stray remarks — that invited me to quietly hold the matter in discernment while I went about my real life.
When it actually happened, of course, it was an utterly surreal experience. Once I was in place, during the weeks leading up to consecration and for a good while afterward, it was like trying to drink from a fire hose. There are programs at a churchwide level that attempt to smooth out the transition into episcopal ministry; some I found helpful, and others not. But nothing can adequately prepare a person for the experience.
In some ways, the ministry of a bishop is like parochial ministry writ large. In this respect, many of the skills and instincts acquired and honed in parish ministry are transferable, scalable. The habit of “working the room” at Sunday coffee hour and other social events has served me well. The nature of routine administrative chores is different (a lot less emphasis on “making Sunday happen”), but the pattern of attending to them is similar. Preaching is preaching, and the shape of sermon preparation has remained pretty much what it was when I served a parish. I’ve always had a robust teaching ministry, and while it has taken a little more intentionality to create teaching opportunities than might be required of a rector, I’m grateful that the clergy and laity of the diocese have responded well to my efforts.
Pastoral care of clergy can be more challenging than looking after parishioners, mostly because of distance. Funerals still happen, though with less frequency: I’ve buried, on average, about one priest per year on my watch (all but one retired). It does appear that I’m out of the marriage business for the time being: I haven’t officiated at a wedding since December 2010, right before I left my last parish. And, for one who has, shall we say, “developed” ideas about liturgy, it’s a little odd that I have less control over my Sunday-to-Sunday liturgical experience now than I ever did as a parish priest. That has inculcated, I think, a certain flexibility that I hope might be virtuous.
One of my favorite scenes from the inimitable TV series The West Wing was when President Bartlett was mentoring his aide and protege Sam Seaborn in his political and leadership instincts. They’re playing chess, and Bartlett counsels Sam to “see the whole board.” That may be what I enjoy the most about being a bishop: the opportunity to “see the whole board.” While I am involved at various time very deeply in the “stuff” of any particular parish, my perspective, by job description, cannot be merely parochial. Fortunately, I am an intuitively systemic thinker. I enjoy connecting dots, putting pieces together, seeing patterns emerge. Many in the Diocese of Springfield have been here a great deal longer than I have. But I am literally the only one who has been physically present in every one of our churches. That is a positional sign of my ability, should I never become willfully blind, to “see the whole board.”
Of course, that positional perspective is a matter of stewardship, something that has been entrusted to me for the sake of the Church’s mission in central and southern Illinois. History will tell whether I have been a wise steward. But, seeing as how my stewardship is now middle-aged, I am having to face the reality that some of the hopes and dreams I began with five years ago are not going to come to fruition before the clock runs out. I’ve already had to deal with envy. Some of my colleagues were elected at a younger age and have more years in office available to them. Since the beginning of the discernment and election process, I have been consumed by an awareness that this is a watershed moment in the history of Christian communities like the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Springfield. What has served us well as “standard operating procedure” for decade after decade is not up to the task of adapting to the rapid cultural change that is de-privileging Christianity and Christian churches, in which the Christian narrative is no longer part of the bedrock on which societal institutions are built. I had hoped that I would bequeath to the 12th Bishop of Springfield a diocese that is fully conditioned and capable of thriving in such a changed environment. The task has proven more daunting than I imagined, and my aspiration now is simply to make incremental steps in that direction.
Springfield is a small diocese. Geographically, we are (I was told) the size of the entirety of Ireland. Yet we only have 35 worshiping communities. Despite the perks enjoyed by some of my colleagues who oversee dioceses three, four, or five times the size of mine, I would not trade jobs with any of them. When I walk into any of our churches, I can greet many of the laity readily by name, and ask after their health and their family members. This sort of makes me feel like their pastor, which, of course, I am. Why would I give that up? As I try to take in this “middle-aged” moment, I am ever more aware of my vocation not merely to be a bishop, but to be the bishop of Springfield. (Other bishops have said the same of their own dioceses.) I love the big sky and corn and soybean fields of central Illinois. I love the magnolia-blossomy southern-ness of the narrowing southern tip of the diocese, closer to New Orleans than to Chicago. I love these people.
The custom of bishops adopting the name of their diocese as a surname is an ancient one, but can come across as a pretentious affectation. I know now that it isn’t. I close pastoral letters as “+Daniel Springfield,” and sign confirmation registers in the same way. It is a sign that, for this season, my life is for these people in the context of this land, these 60 counties.
The prospect of retirement, whether it happens sooner or later within the time frame mentioned above, is increasingly concrete, no longer just an abstraction. My wife and I are beginning to develop a mental list of potential retirement venues. But I’m nowhere near ready to start phoning it in. I love this work. I particularly love the weekly rhythm that culminates in a Sunday parish visitation, which is always a surpassingly sweet experience for me. After I retire, I will, of course, continue to be a bishop. I hope to remain active in ministry, somewhere at some level. My ring and mitre and pectoral cross will not just get tucked away. But I will have to let go of one piece of my array — my crozier. I will still be a bishop, but I will no longer be the bishop. Despite all the blandishments of retirement (I’m picturing a beach scene here), handing off the historic crozier of the first Bishop of Springfield to my successor will be bittersweet indeed, But I have no doubt that grace will abound — and, besides, it’s a long way off.
The featured image was supplied by the author.