Ten years ago Fran and I flew to Orlando to say some words to my former bishop, Donis Patterson. We had not been friends, but when I had heard that his health was failing I felt we had to go to see him. To thank him.
In 1985 he appointed me as ‘Missioner’ of the diocese and sent me to Plano to start a church. I was 29. He took a chance on me; he believed in me enough to risk it. Over the years, at important milestones along the way—the opening of a building or a key anniversary—I would send Bishop Patterson a program or a photograph marking the event. He always responded with a note of appreciation. He was proud of me. That always felt very good to me.
Fran and I arrived at his modest assisted-living apartment in Winter Park, Florida. We knocked on the door and his wife answered it. JoAnn had a gift of warm hospitality. We were welcomed in.
When the bishop entered the room, I first noticed his face. His hollowed eyes were beaming. He looked much more frail that I had imagined; he was stooped over a walker, dressed in his pajamas. He wore his bathrobe like part of his regalia; like a cope. He shuffled in.
He still had the impish grin that was his trademark look. He came toward me, extended his arms for a full embrace. I came to him, he pushed his walker to the side and hugged me hard. He shook with emotion. He collected himself and took charge. He slapped me on the back and invited us to sit down.
He wanted to know about our family. He wanted to know all about the churches and the Diocese; who was where and what was working. It was a trip down memory lane and we were happy to take him on it. He loved the Diocese. He loved its institutions, its clergy and the churches. He shared openly about some deep regrets when he left this role. He asked forgiveness for some of the hard feelings he finally aired with me. I was like his confessor then.
He commented on how quickly bishops are passed over and forgotten. He was not bitter or angry about that, just a bit surprised at how quickly things go on.
He had told me that he could probably give us about 20 minutes before he would need to lie down and rest. We were approaching an hour. I decided that I’d better say what I had come to say.
I told him how thankful I was for his trust and confidence in me twenty years before. He bet big on me in 1985. I told him that Christ Church had been a gateway for thousands of people to find faith and walk with Christ. Fran and I shared about what God had done over the two decades there. We had prepared a photo album for him.
He turned its pages…smiled…and beamed…and brushed back his tears.
Then he surprised me. The bishop was always an affirmer. He liked to express himself in symbolic ways…and he could sometimes be a bit ‘mushy’ in his presentations. At least he was with me on that day in Florida.
He handed me a silver dollar with the date of 1976 on it…the number of his consecration in the Episcopal Church. He told me about a previous bishop of Dallas, C. Avery Mason of Dallas, who had used a silver dollar to draw circles on a map of north Texas to show where we wanted to plant churches. Mason planted 100 churches. I have that silver dollar on my dresser.
Then, with the help of his wife, he stood. He presented me a cream colored cope and made a very rehearsed speech about it as it put it around my shoulders. “This was hand-made by Margaret Jacoby of he diocese and I want you to have it…although I don’t know if you wear this sort of thing at Christ Church. (We don’t.) The clasps on this cope are the clasps of Bishop Mason’s cope.”
I was speechless. I still am.
He sat back down and signaled to his wife that it was time for a nap. Fran and I and JoAnne placed our hands on Donis and I prayed for him. I anointed him, and asked for God’s forgiveness and strength for him. He concluded my prayer with a big, “Amen”, stood with his walker, and shuffled into the other room to lay down.
Before he left I said, “Thank you bishop, and good-bye.”
A week later, Donis Patterson, bishop number 1976 of the Episcopal Church, died.
As much as he loved the Diocese, he never really wanted to be a bishop. He told me so. He was first and foremost a pastor and priest. I think he found it easier to love people than to lead them. He hated conflict and he was bishop during a highly conflicted season in the church (aren’t they all?).
But the trip to Winter Park was a way of honoring a man who had loved and believed in me. I was able to express my thanks, to tie up some emotional loose ends, and give him one last look at the church his trust had started.
(Posted also at the author’s blog: LeaderWork.org)
Canon David has over 35 years of local congregational ministry, diocesan and national involvement, leadership, and ministry experience and is the founder of Leaderworks. He was the founding Rector/Pastor, Christ Church, Plano and currently serves as the Strategic Leader and Dean, Diocese of C4SO.