As the Diocese of the Southwest is now taking steps toward the election of a new bishop following the retirement of Bishop Mark Zimmerman, I was asked and am honored to share some words of encouragement to this diocese.
First, my wife and I used to live in Midland, Texas, and we vacation often in Ruidoso, NM. We consider this area of the country so beautiful as New Mexico is called the ‘land of enchantment’. It’s a different beauty. But a real beauty indeed. We’re praying for the Diocese of the Southwest and this process.
Secondly, as the Chief Operating Officer of ACNA, I get the joy to see the vast breadth of the province and its leaders. Many of the bishops are not only friends but heroes. This is quite an unprecedented time we live in as followers of Jesus and citizens of this world. But yet, the church doesn’t stop.
In this brief article, I want to encourage you with one beautiful tradition of the church: apostolic succession while exhorting you to search for apostolic success as well.
“And… so… the church thrived in centuries past in the face of obstacles because they had a message of life and death. To quote CS Lewis, 'Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.' One significant mark of the Christian faith where it thrived even when thriving conditions were elusive is that a greater share of people in the church did a greater share of ministry than just the clergy. The clergy served to equip the saints for the work of the ministry but they weren’t professional Christians with a nice office hosting a few nice ‘events’ in the week. They discipled, they trained, they empowered and they assisted their people to be ‘the church’. That will be a non-negotiable in the decades ahead (as it always has been in decades past).”
What is Apostolic Succession and what is Apostolic Success?
Succession is the doctrine that the Bishops are the continuation of the apostles. As Bishop Ignatius of Antioch once wrote to Polycarp's (a second generation of disciple of St. John) church at Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), "Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be, even as wheresoever Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic church.” This statement has been often shortened to “Where there is a bishop, there is the church.” Many of us ordained ministers have had lots of time and courses to consider the great teaching of the church that bishops follow the apostolic ministry of Peter, James, John, et al. While Apostolic Succession is remarkably profound, the church also has a history of bishops in moral error, political compromise and even heresy. But isn’t that the remarkable dynamic of the church: that God uses frail and broken people to accomplish his purposes? She is not the savior nor the message but the vehicle of the message about the savior. As a low church, evangelically-minded Anglican, I really do appreciate this doctrine of apostolic succession in both theory and reality. It is a treasure of our Anglican heritage.
Yet, I remember with great fondness, Bishop FitzSimons Allison, the retired Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina and still an active participant in the church and ACNA. I was in a living room with Bishop Fitz when he joked, “I really do appreciate the doctrine of apostolic succession, but we also need to consider apostolic success as well.” That comment was ten years ago and still is as relevant today as then. One very well could argue that apostolic success is expected in apostolic succession. And I think that very fair.
However, the bifurcation of apostolic success from succession for purposes of this article only serves to highlight the need gospel faithfulness and gospel fruitfulness together. In his excellent work Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, Dr. Tim Keller mentions the four ways “success” happens in ministry which are through the faithfulness of the leader, the fruitfulness of their work, the soil they minister, and the weather of their time.
The following serves as explanation of these concepts:
- A disciple who is faithful (not perfectly) to the Gospel believing the truth of the scriptures, has healthy habits of formation, accountability, and personal sense of renewal in their life. The Apostle Paul writes, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16). You cannot look at a person’s outward ministry without considering their inward fidelity. On the other hand, I have seen leaders who manifest very little growth of their church but extol “being faithful.” So true faithfulness may not result in growth but actually the closing of a church, pruning a once famous ministry, or even persecution. But it would be immature to only appeal to faithfulness.
- Just as faithfulness is important so are the results of a disciple who bears fruit. The prophet Isaiah reveals an agricultural indictment against the fruitlessness of the people of God. He writes, “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” (Isaiah 5:1-2). Fruit isn’t just internal qualities of the spirit (Gal. 5) but also results. Shouldn’t we expect Bishops to create environments and raise up teams where evangelism and conversion happen in their area (see)? Shouldn’t we expect that the positive ministry of racial reconciliation occurs, and where the church looks as much as possible in its locality like every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 7:9)? Shouldn’t we expect our bishops to help us serve, love, and value the vulnerable? Shouldn’t we expect the fruit of our bishop in seeing that new congregations are formed reaching and including more people in the faith? In my college biology course I took at Oklahoma State University, I learned this simple basic truth: healthy biological systems grow. Healthy leaders bear fruit and that fruit is manifested in the inner life and outward extensions of ministry. Healthy churches see a progressively increasing number of new baptisms, conversions, confirmations, and ordinations. And healthy bishops foster healthy dioceses. Keller’s point is clear, you cannot just talk about faithfulness without fruitfulness.
- Every disciple lives in a local place. There is the undeniable reality of local soil, or better said “context.” Preaching the gospel and doing ministry in Iran is vastly different soil from the very Christianized East African context of many of my friends. The Southwestern US has a different soil spiritually than North Carolina where I live. So, the soil of a place matters. Soil can certainly imply history. It is impossible to not escape discussions of America’s racial history but in some places that conversation is more intense and painful than others. Archbishop Foley Beach gathered with Christian leaders at the top of Stone Mountain outside Atlanta, Georgia and prayed in repentance with hundreds over the founding of a racist organization at the turn of the 20th Another friend ministers in West Virginia where opioid abuse is very high. Different places and different soils, but the core problem is the same; broken humanity ravaged by the fall. The answer is also the same, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21). One of my friends was a part of an orthodox and evangelical church in Paris, France (which is not fertile soil for the Christian faith) of 100 adults and kids. He said that is a megachurch in France. You cannot separate the soil from their fruitfulness and faithfulness either. Some leaders are more effective in certain soils just as some plants grow in the desert but not the tropics.
- Lastly, “The weather outside is frightful”, so the Dean Martin holiday song goes. But right now, the weather, which in Keller’s construct is the external conditions such as the economy and in our case today a global viral pandemic is very frightful. Things have changed and it will take us considerable time to see how deeply they have changed. Leading a church under this weather (and not to mention a diocese) is really challenging. A friend was leading a growing church plant in Charlotte North Carolina before the mortgage bust of 2009 happened. His church which had steadily grown (they were even considering buying a building), lost 5 of the top 7 givers in a matter of weeks. These families and members were transferred out of the state. The church slogged on for another season but eventually shut down. Weather changes. Apostolic success is the combination of a leader’s faithfulness to the “faith once delivered” (Jude 3) and their fruitfulness in the context and in the weather they live. The weather has a tremendous impact on gospel ministry.
What could be some marks of Apostolic Success for a bishop candidate to be considered given this list above?
I want to share 3 things that I believe are going to be needed for apostolic success in the days and years to come and particularly in the Southwestern US and Mexico.
First, a bishop/leader who helps the clergy and churches raise up, expand, and release a new wave of lay ministry. To some degree the professionalization of clergy is on a downward trend. The trends indicate major challenges to the church going forward. Less US households are single income households so people have less time. The generations below the Baby Boomers have less economic instruments. The impact of consumerism reigns in all of us. The US is more spiritual and less Christian in religious preference. And… so… the church thrived in centuries past in the face of obstacles because they had a message of life and death. To quote CS Lewis, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” One significant mark of the Christian faith where it thrived even when thriving conditions were elusive is that a greater share of people in the church did a greater share of ministry than just the clergy. The clergy served to equip the saints for the work of the ministry but they weren’t professional Christians with a nice office hosting a few nice ‘events’ in the week. They discipled, they trained, they empowered and they assisted their people to be ‘the church’. That will be a non-negotiable in the decades ahead (as it always has been in decades past).
Second, a bishop/leader who is committed to seeing “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” be manifested in our dioceses and churches because this is gospel ministry. Again, the Apostle Paul, “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Eph. 2:13b-18). The context is gentiles and Israel and the wall of division that existed between them. But the export of this passage is clear, God is building one big beautiful and bold body of people from all the nations. Multi-culturalism is not an end but a means to the end of this beautiful picture (that appears 5 times) in the book of Revelation. John Piper writes, “Jesus’ primary concern—the very first petition of the prayer he teaches—is that more and more people, and more and more peoples, come to hallow God’s name. This is the reason the universe exists. Missions exists because this hallowing does not.” (Let the Nations Be Glad)
Lastly, a Bishop who inspires a greater growth of the church not only in depth but also breadth. We need missionary bishops who catalyze and foster our dioceses to become church planting engines. When I started serving the province, I was the Vicar for Anglican 1000, a bold audacious “put a person on the moon” vision from Archbishop Robert Duncan to plant 1000 churches. We need missionary bishops to think expansion as well as orthodoxy. We need missionary bishops who labor diligently to find the people and resources to see new communities of faith emerge in towns such as Lubbock, Amarillo, Sante Fe, Albuquerque, Artesia, and our favorite Ruidoso as well while also laboring to manage the Constitution and Canons with care. The diocese of the Southwest has and is poised for a tremendous opportunity this next season.
As a province we are praying for the diocese that you will see both apostolic succession as well as apostolic success in your midst. We are grateful for your life and witness as a diocese.