When Father Jim Stewart's archbishop told him, "You have my condolences," the average passer-by might have thought some awful tragedy had occurred in the life of the pastor of Payson's Anglo-Catholic parish, the Church of the Holy Nativity.
And in a way, a tragedy did occur. If the 72-year-old Stewart ever hoped for an early retirement of fishing, reading and napping, well, it isn't going to happen. Because the archbishop who offered his sympathy two weeks ago at a synod meeting in Hollywood, Calif., had just appointed Stewart as the new Bishop Ordinary of the ACA Diocese of the West.
"This is my third career," Stewart said. "I never expected to be a bishop, never looked toward it, had no intentions of ever being a bishop ... But they decided they wanted somebody 72 years old rather than somebody else. So here I am with a surprise!
"What it means to me is that people have a lot more faith in me than I really thought. I've never looked at myself as being a leader in the church. I've never sought a job like that, and for it to be handed to you is a great surprise and an honor."
In the spring, once Stewart is "enthroned" (he doesn't like that word much, but that's the only word used to describe this particular ecumenical transition), he will have oversight responsibilities for parishes in the states of Arizona, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana and Nevada. Holy Nativity, as the seat of the Bishop Ordinary, will also make a transition to the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Nativity.
What his responsibilities will boil down to, Stewart said, is "To be the shepherd of all the flocks in those seven xx
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states, to oversee everything that takes place, and try to lead them beside cool waters."
Although Stewart will be traveling to those far-flung places regularly, his home base will "absolutely" remain in Payson.
"My congregation doesn't want to see me replaced, so they expect me to remain the pastor of the church here in Payson as well as being the bishop for the seven western states."
Can one person do all that?
"This one person is going to try it," Stewart said. "I may have to step aside from some other things I do. I spend a great deal of time at the hospital, and I'm a member of the Gila County Sheriff's Posse here in town. You won't see me directing traffic as much as I used to. I'll just have to carve time out of my schedule."
In addition to running his church and the volunteer work he's already mentioned, Stewart actively serves with the Payson Marine Corps League, the Payson American Legion, the Payson Masonic Lodge, and the Payson Elks Lodge affiliations which only hint at the life of variety Stewart has led.
A military brat born in Alexandria, VA., Stewart spent his early years moving from base to base. He served in the Marine Corps from 1949 to 1976, and worked at the Arizona State Capital from 1976 to 1992 as the senior analyst for the house and senate on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
"I got shot up on three different occasions in the military, during Korea and Vietnam, and every time it should have been a fatality but wasn't," Stewart said. "I kept thinking, 'Maybe there's something else I should be doing.' It's like the old farmer with the mule; it takes a two-by-four to get the mule's attention. I decided that attending the seminary was the course of action I should take."
Stewart was in his late 40s when his church bishop reminded him of a vow he'd made: that he would give the last half of his life to the church. Eventually, Stewart earned sufficient confidence that he was offered pastorships in Southern California, Southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Tennessee. Stewart selected Tennessee. But first ...
"It was 1992, and they had a two-month opening here in Payson, so I was sent here before we were supposed to go to Tennessee. Obviously, I never made it to Tennessee. Payson is just too beautiful to be drawn away from. And now, since I've spent more time here than anywhere else, I consider it to be my hometown."
Of his unexpected career success, Stewart can only wager a guess as to why he has managed to come so far.
"I've lived in the gutters, and I've lived beyond the gutters," he said. "I find I can relate to people very easily no matter their walk of life or where they stand. Because, basically, I've been there and I've done that."