By Mark Michael

The Sunday after the Ascension, May 24, marks a century and half since the death of the Rt. Rev. Jackson Kemper, the Episcopal Church’s first missionary bishop. The current crisis won’t allow for a proper celebration, though perhaps a few pilgrims will gather by his tomb at Nashotah that day for reverent, if socially distanced, prayers of thanksgiving.

The Sunday readings include Jesus’ parting charge to his apostles, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:6). Few others in the history of the Episcopal Church have received the grace to respond so fully to this call as Kemper, long known as the “apostle of the Northwest.”

The Rt. Rev. George Washington Doane, Bishop of New Jersey, could not have drawn the parallels more clearly in the charge he delivered to Kemper at his consecration on September 25, 1835. Bishop Doane’s sermon, The Missionary Bishop, laid out the scriptural warrant for this “new office in this church, … a Bishop sent forth for the Church, not sought for of the Church — going before, to organize the Church, not waiting till the Church has partially been organized — a leader, not a follower, in the march of the Redeemer’s conquering and triumphant Gospel.”

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The theory was sound, Bishop Doane said, but it would lie to the rather slight, town-bred man before him, already 45 years old, to make it a reality:

You are to go out, in the Saviour’s name, the first missionary bishop of this church. Going with the office, go in the spirit, of an apostle! … Fear not, dear brother, though the fainting flesh and sinking spirit admonish you how frail the earthen vessel is in which you bear this precious burden. The God you serve is greater than your heart; and, like the Apostle Paul, with Christ to strengthen you, you can do all things.

The new bishop’s starting place, his “Jerusalem” for this new work, were the churches of Indiana and Missouri — only two of them, as he was shortly to discover: one congregation in Indianapolis with a minister and no church building, and one in St. Louis with a building and no priest. Kemper took charge of the St. Louis congregation and soon headed off to preach and organize congregations in other parts of his seemingly unbounded diocese. By his second autumn in the field, he was leading services at Fort Leavenworth in what is now Kansas, on the very edge of the frontier.

Kemper wrote extensively of his travels in a series of journals and in many letters to family members and associates back East. He vividly recalled travel by stagecoach, horseback, and on foot, sleepless nights in bug-infested lodgings, and corn pone and salt pork suppers spread by simple “church people” at their rough-hewn hearths.

Kemper led the first services in Omaha when it was still a “canvas city,” all tents and booths. He wrote excitedly of the prospects for the first church in “Milwalky, Ouisconsin,” and administered confirmation in a log cabin in Council City, Kansas — without Communion, as there was no wine to be had in the town. He established the Episcopal Church’s first permanent mission work among native Americans, laying the cornerstone for the initial church in the Oneida settlement at Duck Creek, Wisconsin. He founded a college and a seminary, in hopes that clergy for the Western mission could be trained locally, from among men already accustomed to the hardships of the frontier.

By the time of his retirement in 1868, Bishop Kemper had left behind a truly remarkable legacy. He had traveled 300,000 miles, perhaps more than Saint Paul, who had the advantage of better roads. He had consecrated 100 churches, ordained 200 to the ministry, and confirmed around 10,000 people. Six dioceses were founded out of his mission territory, and his vision of apostolic ministry deeply shaped Episcopal Church institutions across the Old Northwest, including our own publication, founded just eight years after his death, which once prided itself as the organ of “Western Catholicism.”

Bishop Kemper was a high churchman, by the marks of his age, a pupil of John Henry Hobart. He believed firmly in the divine origin of the sacred ministry, the value of reverent worship, and the centrality of the sacraments. He was patient about Methodists, but had few kind words for the freewheeling, unlettered revivalism of the frontier, and detested Mormonism altogether. A builder of institutions, Kemper’s correspondence reveals characteristic concerns with recruiting capable priests, securing church property, and constructing noble buildings, though he was very cautious about large mortgages.

The Oxford Movement’s watchword, “magnify your office,” spoke deeply to him, and Kemper’s aim was, in part, to vindicate the truth of Anglicanism’s Catholic inheritance. By his labors and sufferings, he hoped to reveal apostolic succession as a living reality, not just a theory of origins. The Anglican Newman took particular notice of the possibility in a long 1839 essay on the “full and unreserved development of the apostolical principle” on the American frontier. Imagine the consequences for the movement of Catholic Anglicanism had Newman left St. Mary’s for Bishop Kemper’s new seminary at Nashotah instead of Littlemore in 1842.

But Kemper was no mere buckskin prelate. One need not look far in his correspondence to see how deeply his work relied on the nurturing and empowering of gifted lay leaders. He writes appreciatively of General Albert Ellis, a land agent who singlehandedly organized the congregation at Stevens Point, Wisconsin; of small groups of Episcopal families from Ohio who settled together in Iowa to form the nucleus of new congregations; of the ladies of the then-booming river port of Weston, Missouri, who paid for the building of their church with “ice cream parties.” At so many points on his journeys, Kemper writes of faithful Sunday School organizers, generous land donors (including future president William Henry Harrison), and the church people who kept the lamp of faith burning within their own families by reading out the offices and a sermon on Sundays and teaching their children the catechism.

Several years into his episcopate, Kemper made it his rule to spend a full week visiting from house to house when he made a visitation. He wanted to know more deeply the people God was raising up to serve alongside him in the mission field. Some he marked out for seminary, others for congregational leadership. Kemper encouraged his priests to do the same, visiting not just their own communicants but venturing out regularly to neighboring settlements to establish preaching stations that might eventually grow into full-fledged congregations.

Though rarely recognized at the time, apostolic ministry was just as strongly marked by the task of equipping the saints for ministry as it was by prodigious travel, earnest preaching, and the spirit of sacrifice. It is no accident that St. Paul lists so many fellow-workers in the closing chapters of his epistles. Kemper relied on many such lay colleagues to fulfill his vocation, those who joined with him in witnessing to Christ and sharing the gospel with those who do not yet believe.

Bishop Kemper and his army of lay workers came to mind more than once for me as I read Part Time is Plenty, the newest book by TLC’s long-time correspondent, Jeff MacDonald. Built on years of careful reporting, much of it published here, MacDonald focuses on smaller mainline congregations that are thriving while not depending on full-time clergy leadership. He acknowledges that “part-time” is an unhelpful and often denigrated term, perhaps especially by diocesan authorities. He makes a strong case that when gifts are discerned, responsibilities firmly established, and leaders carefully trained, congregations with part-time leaders can sometimes be even more fruitful in serving their communities and preaching the gospel than those that can afford a full-time pastor, especially when the pastor is inevitably tasked with nearly all meaningful ministerial work.

In fact, MacDonald demonstrates that part-time ministry, in which category he includes full-time clergy serving across several congregations, has been the Church’s historic norm. Nearly all the congregations in Bishop Kemper’s dioceses would have fallen into MacDonald’s “part-time” category, with clergy serving multiple cures, or operating schools alongside a primary parish. Thriving lay leadership was absolutely essential, and Kemper worried that a “settled ministry” on the Eastern model might well bank the fire of mission. To be sure, there was nothing part-time about the good bishop himself, apart from his rectorship in St. Louis. He lived in rented lodgings there because he was so often on the road.

The “pastoral congregation” model of a parish with a single full-time cleric only became popular in America after World War Two, as communal disorientation created a need for pastoral counseling and social engagement, and newfound prosperity provided the means to pay for it. Consumerism, MacDonald argues, casts a long shadow over the development, the more as it leads to complacency, even in the face of financial unsustainability.

Today, of course, part-time ministry is increasingly the norm. MacDonald calculates that 46 percent of Episcopal congregations are not served by a full-time clergy person. Despite what one often hears, MacDonald insists that such congregations can grow, can avoid overburdening their ordained leaders, and that the clergy themselves (MacDonald is among them) can find the work catalytic for creative mission.

A crucial factor, says MacDonald, is careful planning. Congregations are much more likely to thrive when they decide to use part-time clergy for the sake of new opportunities, not just because they can’t afford the alternative. Clergy, for their part, need to believe they are called to this work, and must have other financial means to provide a secure and sustainable living for their families. Partnerships with other congregations and community organizations can help with this.

But surely unmet expectations loom heavily, as does the burden of educational debt carried by many young clergy. MacDonald wants to believe that vibrant part-time ministry is more than the Church logging into the gig economy with its troubling injustices. He thinks the model can function well within canonical bounds while also unleashing the faithful for mission. That said, one observes a mild anticlericalism in some of his interviewees, and the kind of mission envisioned tends more toward social service than discipleship.

Bone of us knows how the current pandemic will shape the future of ministry in our churches. There are signs of spiritual curiosity and hunger, and many congregations report drawing crowds to their new digital offerings. Bishop John Bauerschmidt finds in Philippians 1:12 an apt word for our day: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.”

Many of us among the clergy have needed to ask for more help from our lay leaders than we usually do. All across the Church, services are being live-streamed, elderly congregants contacted, sanitation protocols investigated, and regathering plans drafted, with gifted lay people doing most of the heavy lifting. We’ve seen engaging creative adaptations of homeless ministries, food pantries, formation classes, and church choirs, much of it organized by volunteers — that is, by the people of God, taking up their part in the apostolic mission.

It’s hardly a time to cut clergy from church staff, but full-time ministry isn’t getting cheaper. I’m wincing already in anticipation of next fall’s health insurance premium quote. Many congregations have very slim financial reserves, and we may be looking at many months, if not years, of economic uncertainty. Now is the time for some small and mid-sized congregational leaders to read MacDonald’s book carefully and to lay out some plans for partnership or shared responsibilities in the future. Maybe the quarantine skill you need to develop is proficiency in an essential task that will free up your clergy to build relationships beyond the parish and to proclaim the gospel in new ways.

What would it mean for us to see such plans as a faithful step forward and not a shameful regression? Could it be that the current crisis presents a truly apostolic opportunity for ordered ministry, sacramental life, and missionary sending? May this time make our church, by God’s grace, “a leader, not a follower, in the march of the Redeemer’s conquering and triumphant gospel.”

Fr. Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.

About The Author

Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. A native of rural Western Maryland, he is a graduate of Duke University and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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Kudos for Mark Michael’s fulsome reflection on Jackson Kemper, whose gravesite I frequented during my teaching tenure at Nashotah Hs. The marks of Kemper’s apostolic charism continue to serve the institutions he established for the glory of God, The House among them. Through frequent ups and serious downs in the seminary’s history, Kemper’s charism chastened the careless and hastened those restless for Gospel life! Today The House is on stable ground again, not accidentally because of a daring willingness to transcend regimental Anglo-catholicity for a greater universal Catholicism represented in the priesthood of all believers! The present dean is a… Read more »