The heart of ministry: the death and life of Jim Kelsey

June 8, 2007

Ecclesiastical orders melted at the church door in Marquette, Michigan, on Friday, June 8, as 600 people touched by the life and stunned by the death of Jim Kelsey, an Episcopalian in the Diocese of Northern Michigan, gathered for his funeral. Concurrent services were celebrated at his former parish of Holy Trinity in Swanton, Vermont, and at the cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Also celebrated on the same day was a funeral mass at St. Joseph Church in Lake Linden, Michigan, for Michael Charles Wiita, the second man killed in the June 3 auto accident. The father of Wiita's fiancée, Jessica Slavik who was injured in the crash, came to Marquette to sign Kelsey's guest book and extend the family's respects.

At Kelsey's funeral, there was no liturgical procession for the nearly three-dozen bishops who traveled from across the Episcopal Church and sat with family or friends in St. Michael Roman Catholic Church. Save the presider, Bruce Caldwell, bishop of the Diocese of Wyoming and Kelsey's close friend, and the deacon, Teena Maki of Northern Michigan, no one wore vestments and there was no special seating. Some priests wore neckties with others in street clothes.

Even in their deepest grief, the people of Northern Michigan invited the Episcopal Church to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for an intimate look at how they live their theology -- as they had done often with Kelsey's leadership when wave after wave of delegations came for a taste of the diocese's approach to leadership development.

Their grief was palpable, too.

"There is no one to step in and replace Jim. It is a loss we cannot replace," said Tom Ray, who preceded Kelsey as Northern Michigan's diocesan bishop. Recounting the feeling in the room when the Standing Committee and the Core Team met one day after Kelsey died, Ray said, "this must be how the disciples felt after Jesus' crucifixion."

But even in their grief, explained Rise Thew Forrester, editor of the diocesan newspaper The Church in Hiawathaland, on the afternoon of the funeral: "We still believe this is a gift we can give the Church. We sit together. We are deeply appreciative for so many bishops coming from so far, but we sit together as baptized people."

Kelsey, 54, came to Michigan's Upper Peninsula as ministry development coordinator in 1989 to help develop what has become a world-renowned approach to leadership formation that focuses on one's baptism as the call to ministry and relies on one's local community for discernment and formation. A graduate of General Theological Seminary in 1977, Kelsey previously worked with the model, referred to as Mutual Ministry or Total Ministry, in the dioceses of Vermont and Oklahoma before coming to Michigan.

Following his mentor and friend Tom Ray, who also was committed to the theology and practice of Mutual Ministry, Kelsey was elected to serve as bishop of Northern Michigan in 1999. Despite his election into the ranks of the House of Bishops of the traditionally hierarchical Episcopal Church, Kelsey's commitment and that of his diocese toward non-hierarchical forms of leadership deepened. Not only did he continue to nurture and encourage local church communities to look to themselves for pastoral and sacramental leadership -- 21 of the two-dozen congregations in the diocese exercise the model -- he also formed what he referred to as the Core Team, consisting of the regional missioners, the non-ordained diocesan operations coordinator and the bishop, which serves as a collaborative episcopacy.

"It's so you don't rest it all in one person," explained Thew Forrester. "We are taking what we do in the congregations and bringing that to the episcopate."

The gentle teaching for the Church was not lost upon those who came to eulogize Jim Kelsey, who lay in repose at St. Paul's Episcopal Church preceding the funeral with his baptismal certificate planted at the base of the baptismal font and his casket draped with only a St. Francis stole and his pectoral cross.

"Anybody who spent time with Jim knew very well that the conversation would find its way to the [Baptismal] Covenant," said Jack Croneberger, the retired bishop of Newark. "Ministry of all the baptized, mutual ministry, collaborative ministry, shared leadership, restoration of a full and equal claim for diaconal ministry, all of this and more stems from the anchor of baptism." Croneberger explained that Kelsey was ordained as the Episcopal Church was revising the Book of Common Prayer and refocusing the Church's attention to the Peace and the centrality of the Eucharist.

"Yet more than these, Baptism and the Baptismal Covenant captured his heart and gave him his marching orders. Jim knew that it was not enough to say that you believed in God. It was at least as important to describe what you plan to do about your belief in covenant with God," Croneberger said. "I've come to Marquette to give thanks to God, thanks for bringing into this world a person who lived, who loved and witnessed with passion and patience. [Jim had] passion for life and things that mattered most and patience for those of us who took longer to 'get it.'"

"To me, Jim was a natural Franciscan," said Brother Clark Berge, SSF, a member of the Society of St. Francis, an Episcopal religious order in which Kelsey became a novice in the third order in 2006. "Franciscans were always to be poor, rejecting titles and honors, living in simplicity. Imagine our delight to meet a bishop who worked all his life with poor congregations, small groups of people who had the temerity to claim they, too, had the Spirit. We have no money, lots of ideas and always looking for the main chance to advance the Gospel. Mutual Ministry never sneered at little groups of people. Jim showed me how it is all about changing the structures to serve people rather than the other way around which is the death knell for the work of the Spirit.

"Fostering vocations and empowering people to create vibrant Eucharistic communities was Jim's work," Berge said. "We Franciscans are a tiny group of misfits, dancing on the margins of the church."

Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire also spoke of Kelsey's work at the margins of the Church and his passion for justice.

"How did Jim come to have such a passion for justice?" Robinson asked. "Jesus listened with his heart, and in doing so, he touched the untouchables, he drew in the outcast, he raised up the downcasts, and he loved those not unloved by society but those unloved by themselves.

"Jesus and Jim listened with their hearts and then believed the truth that was spoken and then reached out," Robinson said.

Fredrica Harris Thompsett, faculty member at Episcopal Divinity School, rose to speak to "a powerful legacy, the abundance of grace in our midst at this tender [time of] heartbreak and celebration."

Speaking directly to Kelsey, Thompsett said, "You incarnated among us an unpretentious grace."

She credited Kelsey, who has a twin brother Steve, for learning to share space even before birth, and said, "We were reminded by your presence, Jim, that flexibility, making room for another, inviting other ways and sharing space are connected to ministerial vitality.

"I know of nobody who is better, Jim, than you at playing in the fully inclusive waters of baptism," said Thompsett. "Your legacy paradoxically reminds us that one person can make a huge difference, especially when that person insists on working along side and valuing others."

In days and years ahead, she said, many others will extend and pass on Jim Kelsey's legacy, "a shared mission of vitality among the baptized. What an abundant legacy of grace. What a truly amazing grace has been revealed for each of us to carry forward in days ahead."

"We are the people that Jim served," said Kevin Thew Forrester, missioner in the Diocese of Northern Michigan, as he asked the members of the diocese to stand. "We are the people that he loved with that diaconal baptismal heart of his. And he died with us. We are a beautiful people and we mourn. And part of our beauty is that we can mourn together.

"Jim had an amazing heart, a tender heart, but it was a damn ferocious heart as well. He knew where to stand. That's who he was; that's who we are. We are beautiful and we are broken and we know it," Thew Forrester said. "James Arthur Kelsey was one beautiful incarnation of God. And we will miss him."

Kelsey was also remembered by three family members -- his twin brother Steve, his eldest son Nathan, and daughter Lydia.

Steve sang to his brother -- or for him. He also captured the essence of his brother's personhood, insisting that "saying what needed to be said is essential in community."

"It is perfectly natural and right to wrestle with people you love, and care only more for them when it's done. That's how you grow deeper," he said. "It's not just alright, but it's holy. And God's made us strong enough for that."

Nathan spoke of a father who was quick to rescue him when he called from the highway with a flat tire. And quicker still the following day to teach his son how to change a tire. (The beauty of a discerning and empowering Mutual Ministry.)

He also highlighted the deep and abiding love between his father and his mother, Mary.

"He gave her his heart and his soul," Nathan said. "I have never seen two people more in love, the kind of deep, profound love that can survive anything. I have never seen two people who are better complements to one another."

Lydia, who had planned her wedding for today, June 9, with her father presiding, said, "Here gathered today are we, an extended family and friends in grief, because Jim has died so young. That even with a life too short, it is complete. Even with many things unfinished, it is now a whole. Left behind are broken hearts, yet hearts that have loved more deeply because of the birth and the life, the journey and the companionship of this one man.

"For good and for ill, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health -- all of it comes together in some mysterious whole. And here we stand together to give thanks for his life, even through the tears of this impossible [loss]. Now God's promise is that the tears will be wiped away because death will be no more. This is so not because of what we see and hear and feel during the troublesome days of the journey, but...because of the conversation and the companionship we know in those precious moments along the path. Life doesn't have to be perfect to be precious.

"Just consider how deeply loved was this man we remember today," she said. "And how he loved."

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