Thursday, November 1, 2018

Diocesan Convention Address

Bishop’s Sermon
To the Forty-eighth Annual Convention
of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota
October 20, 2018

Jesus said: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16).

There are exceptions to every rule, but generally-speaking, this is a time of tremendous challenge for the institutional church, not only in North Dakota, but across western civilization. Our culture is changing and becoming more and more secular and materialistic, and less and less spiritual and faith-oriented. I had to chuckle at a recent Church Pension Fund cartoon where a young football player speaking to his coach says, “Coach, I’m really sorry but I can’t play in the game on Sunday morning because I’m signed up to serve as an acolyte.” 

And yet despite this, we are still chosen by Christ to bear fruit that will last. 

Before he was Pope Benedict XIV, Joseph Ratzinger predicted the changes in church and culture we are seeing today some fifty years ago when he said in a German radio broadcast: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. … But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.”[i]

And, yes, even in this context, we are still chosen by Christ to bear fruit that will last. 

And it is not only a loss of members, financial resources, and influence the church is experiencing, it is an erosion of the substance of the Christian faith itself. Rod Dreher in his important book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, cites a 2005 study conducted by two sociologists to examine the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. In most cases, they found the youth believed in a quasi-Christian spirituality the researchers termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” 

“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has five basic tenets: 

·         A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life.
·         God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

·         The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

·         God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.

·         Good people go to heaven when they die.”[ii]

I don’t know about you, but I also know many adults who believe in this religion. As our culture becomes more pluralistic, it is essential that we be clear about what the Christian faith teaches and believes.

But that’s just one more opportunity to bear fruit that will last.

The spiritual director I have been seeing is a member of a Roman Catholic community of Benedictine Sisters. Her community is in decline and facing many of the same challenges as we are. When I ask her about it, she shrugs her shoulders and says: “It just means that God is doing something different.” That “something different” is what I want to foster and serve with however many more years I have under the sun, as I know you do as well. But this “something different,” this “power flowing from a more spiritualized and simplified Church,” to borrow a phrase from Pope Benedict, will require new ideas, vision, and experimentation. Fresh expressions of church require fresh leadership.

Our diocesan motto is Deus incrementum dat. In English, it is translated “God giveth the increase” or “God gives the growth.” It comes from one of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians where he writes: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). In part, Paul is reminding us that as church leaders we are called to take our turns tending God’s garden, and when the time is right, to turn those responsibilities over to others, mindful that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. For some time, I have been in discernment about my future through prayer and by consulting with family, colleagues, a spiritual director, and the Presiding Bishop’s office. I believe the time is right for me to make way for fresh leadership. Therefore, today I announce my retirement as Bishop of North Dakota, effective May 1, 2019.

As I said before, the cultural context in which the church exists is changing. Practically speaking, with a diocesan budget as small as ours, it is extremely difficult to make changes in terms of reorganization for mission and ministry with the incumbent bishop in office. My retirement, along with the approaching retirement of Canon Zanne Ness, will make room to discern and support a renewed vision for the Diocese of North Dakota in the face of ever-increasing challenges for the institutional church.

In his sixth century Rule for Monasteries, St. Benedict encourages disciples “to attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself, but to recognize always that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself” (RB 4.42-43). I think we can also apply this wisdom to the “successes” and “failures” we have experienced together these past fifteen years.

Thank you for the honor and privilege of serving as your bishop. Let us keep one another in prayer as we move into a season of transitions, never forgetting that we have been chosen and appointed by Christ to bear fruit that lasts. 

[i] Tod Worner, “When Father Joseph Ratzinger Predicted the Future of the Church,” Aleteia, June 13, 2016, accessed October 16, 2018, 

[ii] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 9-10, Kindle.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Christmas Eve Homily by Bishop Michael Smith

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral + Fargo, North Dakota
December 24, 2017

Isaiah proclaims: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. During this darkest, cold time of year, we are drawn to light, are we not? The beauty of Christmas lights, the soft glow of candles, the warmth of a fire in the fireplace, provide us with a sense of security, a perception of well-being. I imagine that our ancient ancestors knew the same experience huddled around a fire in some cave, telling stories during the long nights of winter. The prophet continues, on those who lived in a land of deep darkness light has shined (Isaiah 9:2).

The light, kindled in Bethlehem, is evident in the St. John’s Bible illumination of the familiar Nativity story. There, gold leaf, used throughout the bible as a sign of the divine, emanates from a crib-like image, a brilliant ray of light shooting from a particular point to places beyond itself. The light cannot be contained; it must shine beyond to enlighten the darkness around it. The illumination is a piece of art intended to bring us peace and comfort.

And on this radiant night, the scriptures also bring us comfort. In addition to the word light, we hear words such as: joy, peace, justice, righteousness, grace, salvation, hope, glory, good news, praise. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Truly this night celebrates the grace of God, the undeserved kindness of the Holy One, peace among those whom he favors (Luke 2:14). But is there more? Why would the Father give us such a gift as his only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ?

I believe part of the answer is to be found in the reading from Paul’s letter to Titus we heard tonight: He it is who gave himself for us the he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14). A people zealous for good deeds, a forgiven community which is enthusiastic about being a force for God, a force for goodness in the world. We are called to be a people who take the light of Bethlehem from this place to the circumstances of darkness we encounter around us.

And, OMG, we don’t have to look far, do we? Wars and rumors of war; politicians who seem to have lost a sense of the common good; racial tensions; murder, violence, oppression; school shootings, bullying, sexual harassment and assault, and the list goes on…  OK, I know at this point, some of you are thinking, “lighten up, Bishop. After all, it is Christmas.” I get it, but I think it essential for us to understand that it was into such a world that God took on flesh and dwelt among us, and it is into such a world that Christ still comes through the likes of you and me.

There are some people in our culture today who mistakenly believe that God is first and foremost concerned about our happiness and sense of self-worth. No, that is not what Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation, the celebration of God becoming human in the person of Jesus, is about. There are others who erroneously think that God is like some “elf on the shelf” to be brought out when we get ourselves into trouble and need help. No, Christmas reminds us that God is particularly concerned about the well-being of the poor and down-trodden, and that the Holy One desires to be part of every aspect of our lives.

In the prologue to the Gospel of John are written these powerful words: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). As Christians, we believe that Jesus is that Word. The gospel-writer goes on to say: And the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). God in Christ became flesh and lived among us. Biblical scholars tell us that in the Greek these words are more vivid and could literally be translated as “God pitched his tent among us.” An even more colorful interpretation is provided in the dynamic paraphrase of the scriptures known as “The Message,” where we read: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

The God who moved into the neighborhood and pitched his tent among us has a gift for us this Christmas. It is the very gift of the Divine Self. It is to be accepted, received with gratitude, and opened. It is a very practical gift, one not to placed on a shelf to admire, but to be used every day. Again, from the Gospel of John: [Jesus] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:10-12).

To all who receive the gift of God in Jesus, who believe in the name of Jesus, he gives power to become children of God, to become adopted brothers and sisters of Christ. A great privilege and honor, yes, but as part of God’s family, there are chores to be done. Remember, the children of God are “redeemed from all iniquity and purified as a people who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).

To what good deeds or works are you being called in 2018, a New Year of God’s favor? I challenge you to begin to listen this holy night and throughout the next twelve days of Christmas to the voice of the Holy Spirit calling you to particular works of goodness in the coming year. How are you being called to make the world a better place? How will you proclaim “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) to a people who are desperate to hear it? This is how we say “thank you” for the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bishop’s Sermon To the Forty-Seventh Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota

October 21, 2017
Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant 
(Mark 10:43-45).
As an aging baby boomer and hippy wannabe of yesteryear, I actually used to state as one of my life’s goals “to be happy.” (Wow, man, that’s deep.) Life certainly looks and feels differently in my sixties than it did in my twenties.  And one of the important lessons I have learned is that “happiness” is not an appropriate life goal, but rather happiness is a by-product of a well-lived life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was not known for his Christian faith. (After all, even the Unitarians were too much for him.) But no one has said it better than he when he wrote in the nineteenth century: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). Jesus, the servant, calls his people to follow in his footsteps as servants as well.

This downward mobility goes against the grain of our culture, but within it one finds a kernel of wisdom for life in the Kingdom of God, and dare I even suggest a well-lived life with accompanying happiness? In another place, Jesus says that, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [his] sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). That oftentimes surprising paraphrase known as The Message says it another way:

Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself?
How have we as a local church, as the Diocese of North Dakota, been doing in our call to imitate Jesus, the servant, as we serve him by serving others? Reviewing issues of the past year from the diocesan newsletter, The Sheaf, gives us a glimpse:
  • The Youth Group of Grace Church in Jamestown began last fall with a goal of reaching out to other youth in the area in working within the Five Marks of Mission. What are the Five Marks of Mission? 1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. 2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers. 3. To respond to human need by loving service. 4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation. 5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. (Now, there’s something there for everyone’s passion.)

  • St. Peter’s in Williston continues to provide monthly community suppers for the elderly, homeless, and needy. They serve 50-80 people each month

  • The churches at Standing Rock provided a Christmas celebration for 400 people from the DAPL protest camps, as well as meals and shelter for those suffering from the winter cold at St. James’ in Cannonball and St. Luke’s in Fort Yates.

  • The East Africa Scholarship Committee has been sponsoring students in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan for almost 20 years.

  • The “Piece-makers” at St. George’s, Bismarck made 27 quilts and 43 pillow cases to give to the Charles Hall Youth program, the Burleigh County Child Protective Advocacy services, and as a fundraiser for scholarships for six students in South Sudan.

  • A group of ten from the Diocese visited Haiti last summer and have been instrumental in building hand-washing stations at a school without running water using resources from the North Dakota Episcopal Foundation, St. George’s Church in Bismarck, and the Diocese of Dallas.

  • Grace Church in Jamestown partnered with the University of Jamestown to sponsor Patrick Atkinson’s presentation on human trafficking. And their youth partnered with Bread of Life Episcopal ministry to serve Ministry on the Margins in Bismarck by stocking their food pantry and serving breakfast to the hungry.

To what other forms of service is the Lord calling us in the year ahead? Small numbers and shrinking resources are no excuse.

Admittedly, the mainline churches such as ours live in a time of institutional decline. While there are places that are blessed to be able to be exceptions to the rule of decrease, most of our congregations, and not just in North Dakota but throughout the Episcopal Church, are unable to afford to support full-time clergy and live with the reality of aging members and dwindling numbers. (At a recent diocesan council meeting, someone remarked that we collectively seem to be moaning because of sore knees a lot more than we used to as we walk down the basement steps to the meeting.)

Before we become too depressed, however, perhaps it is time to remember what God is able to accomplish with small, committed groups of people. Remember, there were only twelve apostles, Jesus himself said he would be in the midst of two or three people gathered in his name, and stories of “the remnant,” or those remaining faithful people are told time and again in the Old Testament. This morning we heard God speak of such a remnant through the prophet Zechariah:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me? … Here shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of the people to possess all these things (Zech. 8:6,12).

God’s future belongs to someone, my sisters and brothers. I believe it belongs to the remnant who follow Jesus, the servant, as servants to those in need. Who knows? Such service might even bring us a little happiness.

Monday, August 28, 2017

North Dakota School for Ministry

Dear Friends in Christ:

The Episcopal Church teaches that every baptized person is a minister of the Church: “The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church” (BCP 855).

Most lay ministers carry out their ministries primarily “in the world” where they work, study, play, and live. Some serve in the church, officially licensed by the bishop as Pastoral Leaders, Worship Leaders (Lay Readers), Preachers, Eucharistic Visitors, Eucharistic Ministers, Catechists, and Evangelists.

In an effort to encourage and equip lay ministers in the Diocese, as well as to form Deacons, the North Dakota School for Ministry is offering three courses during the next school year: “Christian Ethics & Moral Theology,” and two quarters of “Practice of Ministry.” Some may wish to take these courses simply to learn more about our faith and our church; others may pursue these studies for eligibility to serve as a licensed Evangelist or Pastoral Leader in their congregations.

These three-month long courses will be facilitated by clergy in regional study groups across the Diocese: Mark Strobel — Red River Valley; Christian Senyoni – East Central; Zanne Ness & John Floberg – South Central; Mary Johnson – North Central; Ellery Dykeman – Southwest; Michael Paul – Northwest. Specifics about where and how often study groups meet will be determined by the facilitator and students of a region, based on their circumstances. In addition, two (or three) weekends per course will be shared at Assumption Abbey in Richardton. Please see the course listings below for specific dates.

Costs per course, including books and Richardton weekends, are $200. However, scholarships are available and lack of financial resources should not keep anyone from participating.  Register for courses by filling out the form here.  Please contact me at if you are interested or have questions.

This letter comes with hopes and prayers for a renewing and rejuvenating summer season for you. Peace,

+Michael G. Smith

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Great Vigil of Easter Sermon by Bishop Michael G. Smith

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, Fargo ND ~ April 15, 2017

In religious news recently have been articles about the just completed renovation of the "Edicule" of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The headlines read, "Just in time for Easter" because extraordinary events happen there this time of year. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Church of Resurrection, is supposedly built over the sites of both Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and also the tomb where the body of Jesus was placed and was raised from the dead. The Edicule marks the spot of the empty tomb.

Every Holy Saturday, and I assume earlier today, the local patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church enters the Edicule and emerges with candles lit from the traditional site of Jesus’ resurrection, whether miraculous or a natural event is the subject of some argument, but at any rate, the crowd goes wild. The fire is shared with worshippers through candles, torches, and lamps. Delegates from Orthodox countries such as Greece and Russia bring devices similar to the ones used to transport the Olympic torch in order that they might take home the "holy fire" of resurrection to their respective patriarchs, who in turn spread it to the churches under their pastoral care.

Our lighting of the new fire of Easter this evening, while a little less dramatic than what occurs in Jerusalem, represents a similar mystery. That is, the resurrection of Jesus kindles a holy fire that is shared with his disciples to be taken to the ends of the earth, or at least to your neighborhood, depending on how far you travel.

The light of the new fire of Easter, kindled in darkness, reminds us that Jesus is the "light of the world" who has defeated the powers of darkness. It also reminds us that Jesus is the "Resurrection and the Life" who has conquered death itself. We who rejoice that we are graced to be counted among the people of light and life are to share this good news with others.

This evening we have recalled:
• That on the first day of creation, God said, "Let there be light, and called it good."
• That God led and protected his chosen people from captivity to freedom with a pillar of cloud and fire.
The Easter or Paschal Candle represents both these realities and will burn during the next fifty days of Easter, and at baptisms and funerals as a reminder that the "holy fire" of resurrection is to burn brightly in this life and will light our paths even as we journey to the age to come.

There is a story told from the Desert Fathers about a disciple who visited a holy man and said, "Father, I fast and pray and contemplate and meditate. I keep silence and try to cleanse my heart of wicked thoughts. What more should I do?" In response, the elder rose up and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. The holy man asked: "Why not become fire?"

Jesus himself told a story during his ministry about ten bridesmaids whose job it was to greet the bridegroom by lighting his path on his arrival with their lamps. Five of the bridesmaids were wise and brought enough oil for the task; five were foolish and when their lamps ran out of oil, they were not able to fulfill their duties. They were not able to greet the bridegroom.

Brothers and sisters, receive the oil God is offering this Easter Eve, oil when burnt that keeps the "holy fire" of resurrection burning in our hearts and beyond to the world which God created and loves. Christ is risen from the dead. The oil is plentiful and available to all who will receive it. May we all become holy fire.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Clergy Days

The Diocese has also entered into a time of transition in terms of clergy leadership. In the last few years, two-thirds of our congregations have experienced some kind of change in “priest in charge” relationships. We have a number of new clergy serving in our midst, some having come from other dioceses of the Episcopal Church and others from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Some of these leaders are exceptional and I am grateful for their gifts and the opportunity for renewed vision for all of us as they are incorporated into our community.

To that end, therefore, we experimented with “Clergy Days” held at various sites around the diocese. Clergy are invited to any and all of these. The days begin at 10:30 a.m. with Morning Prayer and faith-sharing and preaching preparation. We will share a meal together and check in about how things are going in our various contexts. Most importantly, we will share what we see God doing and what we need to pay attention to so that we can be part of it.

So, clergy, please mark your calendars for the following “Clergy Days”:
  • January 6, 2017 at Bismarck at 10:30 a.m., concluding with lunch.
  • February 10 at Jamestown
  • March 3 at Minot
  • April 7 at Bismarck
  • May 12 at Jamestown
  • June 2 at Minot
  • July 7 at Bismarck
  • September 8 at Jamestown
  • October 20 at Bismarck
  • November 3 at Minot
  • December 1 at Jamestown