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Bishop Kirk Smith Episcopal Diocese of Arizona Ignatius of Loyola Jesuit Order National Cathedral

What’s a Canon to the Ordinary? One Year Later.

It strikes me as almost inconceivable that one year has passed since my leaving Greenville, South Carolina, and St. James Episcopal Church, to join the staff of Bishop Kirk Smith in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, but today marks that anniversary. My, that year seems to have gone quickly, and in many respects it has. But on the other hand, it has been a slow, deliberate process of settling into this ministry, learning the dynamics of diocesan leadership and how to serve as the bishop’s chief clergy assistant. What a rewarding year and life changing, growing experience.

In rereading my blog posts from last year, writing about when I started, I noticed that I failed to mention that I actually started this new ministry last year by flying to Washington, D.C. and attending the Gathering of Leaders conference (GOL) at National Cathedral. What a surreal experience that was—not the National Cathedral; I’ve been there before and love the opportunity to go any time that I can, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you.

What struck me as surreal was that on Sunday, September 30, 2007, I woke up as rector of St. James Episcopal Church, in Greenville, SC, and the next morning, I was no longer that priest, that rector that I had been for a little over seven years. No, on Monday morning, October 1, 2007, I woke up as the bishop’s Canon to the Ordinary in Arizona, would be representing him and the people of Arizona at this conference, and I wasn’t yet living there, and had only been there twice before, both times during the July and August just past.

It was all a little overwhelming, to be honest—surreal, in one sense of the word, “the irrational juxtaposition of images.” The image I had of myself didn’t match up with the image I had stepped into; I felt a little awkward at the GOL, because I didn’t feel like I knew what the Canon to the Ordinary did well enough to represent Arizona properly.

It didn’t matter; people understood I was brand new, and I relaxed a great deal. Then, on October 6, I arrived in Phoenix, and began my work in the diocese proper.

Now, one year later, I am more relaxed about this role and ministry position, and I have to tell you, I am having a wonderful time doing what I do and with those whom I work on a daily basis. Bishop Smith has assembled a top-flight staff of talented people committed to his vision for the diocese, and together, under his leadership, with the clergy and people of the Diocese of Arizona and with God’s help, we are working hard to bring it about, to spread the kingdom of God in this state.

For this, I give thanks to God. I thank God for the spiritual growth that has taken place in me; for the spiritual growth, maturity, and excited energy taking place in congregations with whom I have had the privilege of working; for bringing my family safely here and having them grow into a new life in the valley of the sun. I thank God for the amazing clergy that I have met in congregations located around the diocese, for the talented and dedicated lay leadership that serve in our churches, and for the many, many committed youth and young adults who want to grow in their relationship with Jesus and want to share his transforming love with others.

Much work remains to be done; I go to bed each night knowing that work will be there for me the next day, but I can leave it alone as needed for the sake of my family and my own health. I have personal goals of improved physical health and conditioning, and for spiritual growth and disciplines, goals toward which I take steps everyday and week—well, most days of the week.

Yet being here has shaped me, has challenged me, and has brought about growth in me in ways unexpected, and in ways I have been praying for over months, if not years. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve here, and for the blessings that have come our way—even amidst the challenges of resettling into a community where we knew no one. Sometimes, it is very lonely still.

Thank you, Bishop Smith for calling me; thank you to Chuck who asked me to consider this ministry; thank you God for asking more of me and my life, for that is really all I want to do—to serve as You would have me serve.

There is a prayer from the Ignation tradition (Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order) that has been a part of my personal prayers ever since I became an Episcopalian. It goes like this:

Wherever your glory be best served, whenever, however, there, then and in that state let me your servant be; only hide not from me your Divine Love. Help me to trust you to the uttermost. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give, and not to count the cost; to fight, and not to heed the wounds; to toil, and not to look for rest; to labor, and not ask for any reward save that of knowing I am doing your will. Amen.

In a nutshell, that’s what my walk with God is about for me. It’s about being that available to God, being responsive to God’s call, being responsible with my tasks given or assigned to me. It’s about knowing that I am doing God’s will. That’s the number one goal I ever hope to accomplish with my life.

How can we know that conclusively? I don’t know how you can know that, it might be different ways we know this from person to person. But one rule of thumb for me is asking: Do I have joy in what I am doing, even in the most difficult and menial tasks? Not joy as in “ha ha!” but the joy that comes in understanding that “this responsibility is yours to do; therefore, do it to the best of your ability.” When we rise to that task, and do it, there is joy there—at least for me there is. Some people might term it as job satisfaction, but I call it joy because I sense that I am doing this for God, to further God’s mission. What better use of my life could there be, really?

So if it means I drive eight hours round trip for an important two hour meeting with a congregation’s leadership in the middle, I have joy if that meeting goes well, and the parish and clergy find it was worth their time to attend and receive something of value from it. Yes, I did spend eight hours in the car, but look what they got in return—real benefit, a renewed purpose or sense of mission, the sense that the diocese knows and cares that they are there and supports them in their work and ministry. Great! Happy to do it to further the missio Dei—the mission of God—for this is what our bishop is about. Extending the mission of God in Arizona. And if that brings benefit to the Episcopal Church in Arizona, well that’s a nice benefit, as well.

It is this striving to do God’s mission first and foremost that we must attend to, while serving our Episcopalians, along with the unchurched who need to know of God’s love and care for them as much as any of us—and in these rough economic times, probably even more so.

It has been a great year here in Arizona, and I look forward to the personal growth and ministry opportunities that await me in the coming year. And actually, I feel that—as “Big Al” said in Scent Of A Woman—“I’m just getting warmed up!”

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Canon to the Ordinary Episcopal Diocese of Arizona servant leadership servant ministry

What’s a Canon to the Ordinary?

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 other 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 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 the 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, to further 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 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 to be 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 lowest 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.