But as with so many of the rituals we use to mark the stages of our lives—baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals—this one was only partly about the individual. In a bigger way, it marked a time of transition for the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts: a transition from two decades with Bishop Tom Shaw into a new era. The length of a bishop’s tenure is long, when we’re accustomed to the constant campaigning of the political calendar. Consider, for a moment: the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and the United States of America were founded almost simultaneously. Barack Obama is the forty-fourth President of the United States. Alan Gates is only the sixteenth Bishop of Massachusetts. The end of a long service marks only the beginning of an immeasurably longer relationship.
|Essdras M. Suarez / The Boston Globe|
In his sermon, Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of Ohio speculated about the size of the bishop’s chair. The bishop’s chair, he joked, is the largest in the church—because the bishop has the most growing to do.
Almost a year ago, Bishop Tom visited one of our Life Together trainings and we had the opportunity to ask him a few questions. I asked what advice he had for those of us considering a life of full-time ministry in the church. With characteristic and genuine thoughtfulness, he paused for a few moments, then answered: “Be open about the future.”
We can’t know, Bishop Tom suggested, what the church will look like a few decades down the road. We can’t steer it in the right direction; often we can’t even guess what that direction might be.
What we can do—what all of us can do, bishop or layperson, college student or experienced professional, newborn or near to death, as individuals and communities—is to choose, over and over again, a seat that’s just a bit too big for us.
We’ve got plenty of time to grow.