Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Canon Pastor?"

On January 25th, during the celebration of my 25 years as a priest, my Bishop, Bishop Paul Marshall of Bethlehem, announced that I have been appointed “Canon Pastor to the Bishop.”

One of the more common responses was “Congratulations!” (Long pause.) “What’s a Canon?”

Former Roman Catholics can think of the title “monsignor,” but I don’t know what this is, so I don’t even know if I’d believe it. In England, I suppose, I would be called a “non-residentiary canon” since I am not on the staff of a Cathedral and yet I have a specific job to or for the Bishop.

Bishop Paul’s description of my duties, while written in a lighthearted manner, describe a serious purpose: “the maintenance of the spiritual health of the bishop through stated retreats and repeated checking in, even when such checking might be unwelcome.” He also wrote that “the Canon Pastor has the task of assisting the bishop in maintaining perspective, hope, and a sense that God always works the divine purpose out, despite or through our best planned efforts.”

As I understand it, this is a role that is not that different from what I am supposed to do with my own congregation. Be a pastor. Check in with how things are going. Reflect with you on how we perceive God at work in our lives. Pray for you and with you. Offer pastoral support when times are tough, including offering and coordinating the services of the church. Sometimes ask possibly uncomfortable questions about your prayer life or spiritual health. Listen.

(There are other things Rectors are to do: Teach, preach, lead worship, chair vestries and take part in the councils of the church, etc. etc.…and these won’t change. But I am talking about what we in the States call the “pastoral” role.)

Obviously, this appointment was not a total surprise. We had been discussing this since about a year after the previous Canon Pastor, the Rev. Cn. F. Bryan Williams, died. Bishop Paul and I had been trying this role on for size for about that long.

I see myself following much the same pattern that I followed back in my hospital days, especially when I was chaplain to staff who were higher up the “food chain” than me. I am neither a confessor nor a spiritual director, but as a person who accompanies another person through this portion of his spiritual journey.

As a Clinical Chaplain, I was professionally and ethically bound to undertake regular supervision with a colleague of equal or greater pastoral experience. The idea was that by discussing ones ministry with a trusted colleague, one could gain “super” vision—see the big picture—and also perhaps hear the voice of God that might get obscured in the noise of everyday work. Just so you know, I have a spiritual director with whom I meet about once every other month for this very purpose. From time to time, I have entered into supervisory or coaching relationships as well. I meet with a peer supervisory group.

This is why you have heard me suggest in my sermons that people who are going deeper in their spiritual life should seriously consider working with a spiritual director. Part of the pastoral role of a parish priest is to offer some of that same “super-vision” to parishioners.

Bishop Paul said that “Alone among the clergy, the Canon Pastor to the Bishop has the right and duty to nag the bishop.” Well, it is not my style to nag, but you get the idea. I am happy to say that I am not alone in this. The Bishop has surrounded himself with others who support him in various ways. My counterpart, the Rector of Trinity, Bethlehem, Mother Laura Howell, helps the Bishop maintain hope and perspective by serving as the “Foole to the Bishop.” An modern update of a medieval office, this person speaks truth to power, often in humorous or ironic ways. Mother Laura is also a clinical chaplain, so we bring some similar skills. I guess I am just not that good with a joke.

The truth is that all clergy need to gather around themselves trusted, skilled, honest and compassionate people to help maintain perspective, give a sense of hope and equilibrium in what can be a very stressful ministry. It is good for the parish that they be intentional about this practice.

Bishop Paul once told us (clergy) that our parish’s prayer life or stewardship will never rise above the level of our own. A challenging thought. He has not said this, but I expect he is demonstrating something when he does in public what could have been easily accomplished in private: that the prayer, stewardship, and self-care of the clergy—or the congregations as a whole—cannot rise above the level of their bishop.

Read: Father Gerns named Canon Pastor to the Bishop


PseudoPiskie said...

The Dio of NWPA could use both positions to help our very young bishop. The appointment seems to be quite an honor for you. I hope our bishop has someone he can trust as much as yours trusts you to be supportive, perceptive and honest.

Peter Carey said...



Peter Carey+