Diocese of Rupert’s Land Bishop Donald Phillips plans to retire in the fall after the election of a coadjutor bishop this June, saying that it’s important to “go out on a high note.”
Phillips, 63, says the decision was “more personal than diocesan,” coming as it did after his wife’s retirement last summer. “I’m thinking, 18, 18 and a half years—that’s a good long run.”
Phillips says that though the diocese would likely have had no qualms with him staying on a few more years, it is “probably time for some fresh leadership, a fresh pair of eyes,” adding with a laugh, “fortunately no one was saying that to me.”
Phillips says that he has worked for the past year or two to put “people and programs in place for sustainability,” and that he feels he will be leaving the diocese in “reasonably good shape.”
Phillips, who was elected bishop in 2000, says, “I’ve really enjoyed the ministry here.” Of his 18 years as bishop, he considers the last six his favourite, due to both his greater wealth of experience and a slow shift in the “culture” of the diocese. “I would say the diocese is less anxious, less fearful and more trusting than it was when I began.”
When asked what he had learned from his time as bishop, Phillips points to this notion of “culture,” citing the Peter Drucker adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
“You can have all the best strategies in the world, but if you don’t have a positive and constructive culture in your organization, you’re not going anywhere,” he says.
He also reflected on the changing nature of the episcopacy, saying, “In these postmodern times in which we live, relational leadership is key. It’s not just that you wear a purple shirt or you have the title of bishop—they’ve got to know you and know they can trust you.” When he first became bishop, Phillips felt, people “tended to see the bishop as somebody who said yes or no to things,” a final voice of approval or disapproval. During his tenure, Phillips says he has employed a more collaborative, relational style.
“It’s funny, because often I think people perceive bishops as being almost autonomous leaders who have very little accountability, because in certain areas they can almost do what they like. I would say, from my own experience in the episcopacy, I don’t think at any time in my work in the church have I ever felt held as accountable as I do in this role.”
Throughout the past 18 years, Phillips says he’s been glad to see the achievements of his diocese in the area of Indigenous ministries and reconciliation—“There’s a lot more to do, but I’m pleased with where that has gone”—and collaboration with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s Manitoba/Northern Ontario Synod, which shares offices with the diocese of Rupert’s Land. He is also proud of the diocese’s emphasis on discipleship, which it began to stress in 2012.
Moving forward, Phillips sees the challenge of maintaining stipendiary ordained ministry as pressing for the diocese of Rupert’s Land and the Anglican Church of Canada. “Increasingly now, we’re having parishes that can’t afford to close, but they can’t afford a full-time priest…the way that [clergy] are deployed will hopefully start to change.”
As for Phillips, he says he won’t just be “going off into the sunset.” He hopes to teach some theology courses part-time.
Electing a coadjutor bishop while the diocesan bishop is still in office will allow the search committee ample time to find a candidate, says Phillips. It is also “the best way both to ensure a smooth transition and also help to orientate the incoming bishop,” Phillips said in a letter announcing his intention to retire.
A coadjutor bishop has the automatic right of succession to the office of the diocesan bishop.
Phillips plans to step down one to two months after the incoming coadjutor bishop starts work, which will mean retiring in “mid to late fall” of 2018.
During his time serving as bishop, Phillips says he has been “awed and humbled by God’s continued faithfulness and abundant grace in helping us deal with what sometimes seemed to be huge challenges.” He adds, “I think more than any other time in my ministry, I have felt sustained, guided and occasionally ‘rescued’ by God’s grace at work in my daily life.”
Phillips was born and raised in London, Ont. He received an honours BSc from the University of Western Ontario, followed by an MDiv with honours from Huron College, and was ordained as a priest in the diocese of Athabasca in 1981. He has served in parishes throughout Athabasca and the diocese of Qu’Appelle; he served for eight years in the diocese of Qu’Appelle as ministries development co-ordinator and, later, executive archdeacon. He received a PhD from the University of Durham, U.K., in 2015.