“I wasn’t born an Episcopalian, but I was born to be one,” said Bishop Stacy F. Sauls, sixth bishop of the Diocese of Lexington. Raised in the United Methodist Church, Sauls explained that he was “looking for a church that would nurture [a] sense of mystery” and that he found it in the Episcopal Church during a time of intense loneliness that grew out of his parents’ divorce. At age 15, he said, “It was the first time in my life when I was conscious of having a personal relationship with Jesus.”
If Sauls’ faith was seeded in the loneliness of his youth, it took root when he was an undergraduate at Furman University in South Carolina, where he was drawn into the Collegiate Educational Service Corps and influenced by its founder, Betty Alverson, who left a lasting mark on his faith journey.
“She tutored me in relationships with people who were poor and, in doing that, reshaped my value system,” Sauls said. “And she did it from a deep place of faith.”
Sauls attended the University of Virginia law school and practiced law for five years before entering General Theological Seminary in New York in 1985. He graduated cum laude, was ordained deacon in 1988 and priest in 1989 and served three churches in Georgia.
Sauls, 50, was elected bishop of the Diocese of Lexington in 2000. He brought to the eastern Kentucky diocese of 36 congregations and 8,696 members a commitment to mission that was grounded in his college experience and exercised in parish ministry. Sauls calls it “the sacrament of the poor, [and it] is hugely important in how I view ministry.
“My whole ministry has been about creating opportunities for people I am serving pastorally to have their lives transformed by being in relationships of mutuality with people who are poor.”
Focusing on mission
“Stacy has really focused the eyes of this diocese on mission,” said Dana Hardwick, priest at St Patrick’s, Somerset, and chair of the Commission on Ministry in the Diocese of Lexington. “That has been his strongest desire, and he’s done incredible work.” Sauls launched a Reading Camp for children and introduced Mission Corps, a yearlong opportunity for college graduates to explore ministry and vocation. He also named the new diocesan center Mission House and planted it in an underprivileged and underserved Lexington neighborhood.
Another example of placing the diocese on the side of the underserved was the opening of All Saints’ congregation in Lexington. The blossoming church, which held its first service in January 2005, is a congregation composed principally of Episcopalians in their 20s who grew up in the Episcopal camp program and approached the bishop about opening a mission around their passion.
The new congregation, however, was planted at the location of the former Church of the Apostles, which voted to leave the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Lexington earlier that month and which represented a measure of discontent across the diocese that erupted over the issue of human sexuality.
Church of the Apostles, a conservative congregation launched in 1997, and its founding priest broke with Sauls over his vote to consent to the election of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop, although disagreements predated the 2003 General Convention.
A number of people were upset after Robinson’s consecration and threatened to withhold financial support from the diocesan budget, said Standing Committee President Joe Pennington, who is rector of Trinity, Covington. The diocese established an appeals process and an alternative way for churches to support mission work.
Explained Sauls, “It allowed people who were poor not to bear the price of this decision so we could continue to send money to Haiti, for example, and it allowed people to have enough room to work themselves back into being more connected.”
“Especially with Church of the Apostles,” Hardwick said, “because they were upfront about what they were doing, Stacy stood on his head to be open and generous. He offered to bring in bishops, he forgave their diocesan assessment, he did everything he possibly could have done — short of going back on his own conscience — to hold them within the diocese.
“He is willing to compromise everywhere he can to hold the communion together, but there is a point past which he won’t go,” said Hardwick. “There are two other churches that actually tried to take the [property],” but the bishop moved expeditiously to stop that from happening.
A breach at St. John’s, Versailles, also had its origin before 2003, but the decisions at General Convention intensified the conflict. St. John’s and the bishop hit an impasse at the end of 2003 over a search process during which the bishop was not informed of the vestry’s choice until after an offer was extended and accepted.
When an interview with the candidate was arranged, Sauls said, “the person they wanted to call told me he intended to leave the Episcopal Church and he expected to take half the congregation with him.” Sauls blocked the call. The bishop said he also discovered that the parish bylaws had been inappropriately and secretly altered.
The dust continues to settle in that rift — a lawsuit is pending over a church trust fund — but Senior Warden Ann Cox, who also serves on the diocesan Executive Council, expressed appreciation for how Sauls handled the crisis. A lifelong member of St. John’s, she said that, even in the midst of the struggle, the bishop turned her attention and that of others toward the church’s broader mission.
“He made it a different issue,” concluded Cox. “It is beyond just a gay issue; it is how we treat everybody — those who can’t read, those who can’t eat, those who can’t pay their bills. It makes you recognize what the church is about.”
As a member of the Episcopal Church Executive Council, Sauls advocated that it was in everyone’s interest for the Episcopal Church representatives to withdraw from the Nottingham meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in June 2005 while maintaining financial support of the council’s work.
“I think it is very important to send the signal that we intend to be full partners,” he said. However, Sauls added, “asserting that we get our vote and our will and our way is asking what is good for us. We need to pay what we are being asked to pay for the good of the whole, which is more important than our individual good. At the same time, I don’t think we can be somebody different than who we are. That’s actually not in anybody’s interest.”
Sauls said he envisions “a moment of unparalleled opportunity for systemic change” in the Episcopal Church and believes that Episcopalians must “rethink how we are going to be the church in the 21st century.” As presiding bishop, he would work toward the 2009 General Convention as a time to retool the church into one “that is focused outward, that is focused on how we give ourselves away and that never asks what is in the interests of our survival.”