Jim Kelsey: A voice that will not be stilled

By Howard Anderson

When I heard of the tragic death of Jim Kelsey, Bishop of Northern Michigan, I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. He was to do his daughter Lydia’s wedding this coming weekend. It just seemed like an impossibly tragic event. He was a strong voice for justice in the world, and radical inclusion in the Church. As I tried to take in what I had heard, I began to hear his voice, clear and articulate in my head saying things which schooled me in mutual ministry, and doing justice. His friend and my bishop, John Chane, has spoken of Jim as a true leader in the Church’s search for a more just and peaceful world.

I first met him in the mid 80’s when he was working with a cluster of four congregations in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He was a rising star in the ministry development world, and it came as no surprise when Bishop Tom Ray of Northern Michigan called Jim to be his ministry development staff person. These were heady times in ministry development, and people like Bishop Wes Frensdorff, of Nevada, Bishop George Harris of Alaska, ministry developers like Lynne Davenport Wilson, Chuck Wilson and Deacon Phina Borgeson were crafting a revolution in our understanding of the Church that has forever changed the face of much of the Episcopal Church in dioceses with sparse populations spread over great distances. Jim was a very young priest, who had grown up at General Seminary where his priest father worked, and with his twin brother Steven became a priest himself.

I remember being very impressed with Jim’s creativity, his energy, his ability to stand firm even when others were trying to press him back into the old patterns of ministry. Jim strove to create a Church that was like Wes Frensdorff’s dream of “a Church which was a ministering community, rather than a community gathered around a minister.” Tom Ray and Jim, after Wes Frensdorff’s death, carried on the legacy of these pioneer ministry developers and the Diocese of Northern Michigan began to break new ground in living out the dream of a Church where all of the baptized are equal in their ministries. They embraced a practice of ministry that harkened back, as does much of what is best in Anglicanism, to the early church. Under Jim’s leadership the Diocese of Northern Michigan went “back to the future.” In the Diocese of Northern Michigan there is no clerical status, no classes of Christians. Rather, all know themselves to be a part of the Body of Christ. All know that they are in ministry by virtue of their baptism. Clergy, whether paid or unpaid, seminary trained or locally trained and affirmed, have to be elected delegates to the Diocesan Convention. Under Jim’s leadership the Diocese of Northern Michigan has shown that mutual ministry in not a maintenance or survival ministry, but the way the entire Church can empower the ministry of each and every member.

After Wes Frensdorff died, Chuck Wilson and some of other ministry development friends pulled out excerpts from Wes’s sermons and talks. It is called “The Dream,” and because I know of no one, Wes included, who lived more fully into the reality of the this dream for The Episcopal Church than Jim Kelsey, I will recall a few of these dreams which say better than I ever could, what Jim Kelsey stood for.

Jim stood for a Church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love, and each is certain that in the divine heart we are all known by name–a Church in which Jesus is very Word, our window into the heart of God, the sign of God’s hope and God’s design for all humankind. In this church the Holy Spirit is wind and fire in everyone, gracing the Church with a kaleidoscope of gifts and constant renewal for all. Jim knew how to help worship be lively and fun as well as reverent and holy; and we might be moved to dance and laugh; to be solemn, cry or beat the breast. In Northern Michigan people know that the Eucharist is the center of life and servanthood the center of mission; the servant Lord truly known in the breaking of the bread, with service flowing from worship, and everyone clear about why a worship is called a service.

Jim helped Northern Michigan move beyond its sense of being a struggling little diocese with too few clergy, to become a diocese in which the sacraments, free from captivity by a professional elite, are available in every congregation regardless of size, culture, location or budget. It is a place where every congregation is free to call forth from its midst, priests and deacons, sure in the knowledge that training and support services are there to back them up. It is a place where all the sheep share in the shepherding.

Jim dreamed of the Church being a place that strives to affirm the beauty of diversity, abhorring the imprisonment of uniformity a place where people are as concerned about love in all relationships as they are about chastity, and where we freely admit that we do not have all the answers but are asking the right questions. Jim dreamed of the Church becoming so deeply rooted in gospel and tradition that, like a living tree, it can bend in the wind and continually surprise us with new blossoms. That is what the Church is becoming in Northern Michigan.

Jim, as a bishop, was a sign and animator of the Church’s unity, catholicity and apostolic mission, and not a prelate. He was electrically brilliant, but always humble about what one can know about the mystery that we call God. And he was helping to create in Northern Michigan a model of the Church that is so salty and so yeasty that it would really be missed if no longer around; where there is a wild sowing of seeds and much rejoicing when they take root, but little concern for success, comparative statistics, growth or even survival. It is a Church becoming so evangelical that its worship, its quality of caring, its eagerness to reach out to those in need cannot be contained.

As I continue to hear Jim’s voice in my head, I realize that each one of us can embrace this dream, because as the prophet Joel reminds us in our Pentecost lessons that God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh and that our sons and daughters shall prophesy, the old shall dream dreams and the young shall see visions. Jim Kelsey dared to dream of the Church that Christ calls each one of us to help create. He did justice, loved mercy and walked humbly with his God. He will be dreadfully missed, but he inspired others by the dozens to be partners in carrying out God’s dream for the Church. His voice will not be silenced. We must not let it be silenced.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral.

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