By John Bauerschmidt
The coincidence of this summer’s Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops from all over the worldwide Anglican Communion, and my 16th year as a bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, gives me a chance to think again about the nature of episcopal ministry. In my experience, a bishop’s ministry differs from the work of a priest, though as one pulls back to a wider frame it is the common themes of pastoral work that are most striking. You may not be a bishop, or even ordained at all, but I hope you will be able to catch in these reflections a glimpse of your own ministry as a Christian.
The Bishop Is the “Program.”
We sometimes think of a diocese, headed by a bishop, which has a program (vision, system, goals), existing in the interstices between the two. Ignatius of Antioch gives us another perspective when he wrote, “Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8:2). Bishops in Ignatius’ day, in Asia Minor, were essentially local pastors, leading individual churches that had their characteristic form in meeting together for the celebration of the Eucharist. The bishop presided at the celebration, providing necessary order for the community’s practice of baptism and the sharing of the eucharistic gifts, and the proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection that was implicit in its liturgical practice.
Ignatius’ own ministry, however, had more than local scope. The letters that he wrote to other churches pointed toward a larger ministry of oversight, if not necessarily a formal one. His ministry was one of encouragement to the other churches in a time of persecution. The point of persecution in Roman times, especially when sponsored by the emperors, was the disruption of the eucharistic assembly. Roman authorities were not really concerned with what Christians believed, but more about the fact that they gathered in counter-cultural assembly.
Ignatius’ letters follow the New Testament pattern of apostolic guidance, mirroring St. Paul’s ministry of correspondence and visitation. Later bishops, like Irenaeus and Hilary, built upon this pattern in longer works which provided guidance to their fellow Christians in the midst of theological controversy. These works and those of others were quickly seen as providing theological ballast to a larger community life. The Romans may not have cared what Christians believed, but the bishops of the church certainly had a care for orthodoxy, for the right belief.
This apostolic ministry of preaching and teaching, set within the presidency of the Eucharist, is the heart of the bishop’s work. The bishops I know consider the Sunday visit to the local congregation as the best day of the week. Our work is primarily relational. More than any external program or set of diocesan goals, this internal pattern is the chief matter at hand, the real “program” of the diocese. The bishop’s regular presence in the local congregation, for baptism, confirmation, preaching, and celebrating the Eucharist, in communion with the priests and deacons and lay leaders, and in communion with bishops elsewhere, sets the stage for the ministry of the congregation. The diocesan “program” is not something grafted on as an addition to the parish’s own program or goals, but exists at its heart.
In the Diocese of Tennessee, our calendar of prayer is keyed to the regular round of the bishop’s visits. In other words, when we pray for St. Swithun’s parish on a particular Sunday, everyone who is present for worship that day, in whatever congregation of the diocese, knows that St. Swithun’s is the keystone. That is where the eucharistic assembly of the diocese is taking its characteristic form. The liturgies held elsewhere in the diocese, so essential to the church’s presence in multiple places and contexts, are in communion with and an organic part of that celebration. Even as they gather at St. Blaise’s Church, or elsewhere in the diocese, the local Christians are mindful of their own role in fleshing out our corporate life, which goes beyond the limit of any single congregation.
Discernment Is the Form of the Bishop’s Work.
Description of the bishop’s ministry tends to oscillate between pastoral and administrative characterizations: the pastor whose proximity to the flock leaves more than a whiff of the “smell of the sheep” (in Pope Francis’s formulation: Chrism Mass, March 28, 2013), and the distant episcopal functionary or grand potentate who is far removed from pastoral matters. The dichotomy between the two is overexaggerated: as my late bishop Charles Jenkins used to say, administration is a necessary form of pastoral work.
As I have engaged in this ministry, I have come to see it, not as oscillating between these two poles, but rather as a work of discernment; a ministry that encompasses a corporate form of spiritual direction that requires the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the classical form rooted in the enumeration found in Isaiah 11:1-2, those gifts are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord. “Teach me discernment and knowledge” (Ps. 119:66), the psalmist prays, and this has become my constant prayer.
Discernment requires hearing God’s call so that we can be obedient and act. We attempt to discern what God is doing in the world so that we in turn can respond faithfully. Discernment involves looking beneath the surface, beyond what is obvious and apparent at first glance. To discern is to discriminate between one thing and another, a necessary part of the act of judgment. It requires reflection, that necessary preliminary before any move to action.
Discernment is an authentic part of leadership in the New Testament. The typical example comes from the list of positive virtues of leadership found in St. Paul’s Letter to Titus: “For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be … hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled” (Titus 1:8). Built into prudence is that reflective moment of deeper discernment.
Sometimes the bishop is called to discern simply because it is part of the process: approving the loan, advancing the candidate, issuing the license. But often the bishop’s gifts for discernment are called upon in matters where there are no easy answers. It is uncomfortable to realize that the reason colleagues in ministry (priests, vestries, parishioners, etc.) have brought this matter to you is precisely because the issue cannot be resolved! If the answer were easy it would never have made it to the bishop’s desk. It rests there because discernment is the bishop’s chief business.
I now understand that in these cases my own perplexity is actually a form of grace because the very format of a “problem” that needs a “solution” is a temptation that should be resisted. What God is doing in that uncomfortable moment may not be readily apparent. What may be required of us is the patience to sit with the matter and endure in spite of it. Patience, as we too often forget, is a word rooted in the Latin for “suffering.”
Discernment is work that is done in concert with others. This happens in the regular course of diocesan life, as the bishop consults the Standing Committee, chairs the Convention or Council or Executive Board, seeks recommendations from the Commission on Ministry, or engages in any consultation with members of the church. Bishops even confer with each other, as they do at Lambeth, where “mutual loyalty [is] sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference” (Lambeth Conference 1930, Resolution 49). Discernment in concert with others is not only the form of the bishop’s ministry, but part and parcel of the Christian life.
The Bishop’s Work Is Provisional.
For this last insight I am indebted to Charles Henery’s observation in his fine book Yankee Bishops on the development of the American episcopate in the early days of the Republic. Those early Episcopal leaders, making their rounds by horse, steamboat, and later by train, and writing countless letters, were aware that the bishop’s work defies completion. Its enduring characteristic is “deferred hope” (262). In those days, the task of securing local pastors, resourcing congregations, and providing the connective tissue of diocesan life, was endless and never completed. Our own context is different, but this characteristic is unchanged.
Building upon St. Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 3:10, as Henery points out, part of this ministry is harvesting what others have planted, and sowing seed whose fruit will be reaped by others. Episcopal ministry exists on a continuum, which cannot be encompassed or managed by any individual bishop. In doing this work, we are dependent on others, both colleagues in the present, as well as those in the past and in the future. It is a responsibility held only for a time. It is an ongoing task that firmly resists legacy-building on the part of its holder. Humility is built into the program. The bishop’s true legacy will be assessed by others, and will emerge only with time.
Seed-planting is work undertaken in hope, with an eye to the open-ended future. Though it is humbling to acknowledge our limitations, there is also liberation in this realization. If we have challenges in this ministry, our chief regret may be that we did not scatter seed more prolifically. Bishop Lay of Easton wrote that a bishop “may succeed tolerably well in keeping a Diocese in good order, gathering an annual harvest of Confirmations … and yet, when he comes to the end of his work, he may look back regretfully, if he has planted no seed of larger and better things” (262).