Bishop Richard Ellena by Kate Tyler

Ministry Corner

For this edition of Stimulus, we sat down and had a conversation with Richard Ellena, who retired at the end of 2018 after serving as the Anglican Bishop of Nelson for twelve years.

Stimulus: Can you introduce yourself, and tell us a little about the people you share life with?

I’m Richard Ellena, the former Anglican Bishop of Nelson. I was Bishop for twelve years, in ministry for over thirty years, and am now retired. I have been married to Hilary for almost fifty years, and we have two grown-up children. Our son Tim is in Nelson and is a theatre nurse, and he has four children with his wife, while our daughter lives in Washington DC with her partner, and works for an organization that works with fragile democracies around the world.

Stimulus: What was your journey into ordained ministry?

Growing up in the Anglican Church, my Dad was an organist and choir master at a very traditional but very lively church in Christchurch. Much of my faith in the early days was centred around music and being in the big choir of young people – it was our social life as well as our spiritual life. In terms of a journey into ministry, we had a series of young curates come through the church in Christchurch who I really looked up to. I think my early sense of call was that I wanted to be like them, rather than wanting to be in the ministry for theological reasons or anything else. I admired them, I liked their way of life, I liked the decisions they made – something about them appealed to me very strongly as a teenager. However, I initially became a teacher and enjoyed it, although I don’t think I was a good teacher – I wasn’t organized enough! The whole time while I was teaching, I had this feeling that there was something else I had to do. I remember putting my application for ordination into a letterbox and feeling at peace, knowing that this is what I needed to do. That was my call and pathway to ministry. It wasn’t a huge decision.

Stimulus: Reflecting back over that journey, what influences have been particularly significant for the shape of your journey?

In the early days, it was very much involvement with Māori. I was ordained into the Christchurch diocese with a double licence. I was licensed to the Pihopatanga as Māori Missioner for South Canterbury and loved being immersed in the Māori culture. At the same time, I was at a parish that had been touched by the charismatic. After a difficult start to ministry where I’d embraced a lot of ‘God is dead’ theology, and the historical-critical method which caused me to question everything, I suddenly found myself in a situation where I was with people who had an absolute awareness of the presence of God. The power of the Spirit was evident in their lives, and in the life of the Church. I had a transforming experience in that parish, with Māori involvement on one hand, and spiritual renewal on the other. I had a hunger and thirst to learn, to read, to study. That was where my faith and my ministry really developed, in this little church in South Canterbury with Māori on the one hand, and this absolute passion for Jesus and the work of the Spirit on the other.

Stimulus: What about later influences?

God has given me a number of significant spiritual experiences every ten years or so, where I have experienced a new awareness of the love of God, of the gospel, and of the work of the Holy Spirit. When I was first invited by then-Bishop Derek Eaton to work in Blenheim, the thing that hit me was through the ministry of Willow Creek. It was an awareness of the church as the body of Christ and wanting to do everything I could to build that body, to encourage that body, and to help people see that Christianity is not just an individualistic faith but a faith that is worked out in community. That was a sort of conversion experience; conversion to the body of Christ, even though I’d been ministering in it for ages. At Nativity Parish in Blenheim, my faith was worked out in community with others. I loved being in corporate worship – that was the time when I was fed. As a bishop, I knew I wasn’t going to have that, because I needed to be in a different place each week and didn’t belong to any one fellowship. I realised that if I was going to have any effect at all, I had to nurture my own relationship with God. So, in the mornings, I’d study the Bible and journal. I just kept going through Scripture, each day reading two chapters of the Old Testament, one Psalm or a chapter from one of the wisdom books, two chapters of the prophets, one chapter from the Gospels, and one chapter from an Epistle. I just kept working through. I don’t know how many times I went through the Bible.

Stimulus: Did you continue that practice throughout your time as Bishop?

Yes, the first thing each morning. By 6am I was in my study with a cup of tea and the Bible open. I read my seven chapters and then I’d go for a walk and do my prayer walking. I found I couldn’t just sit and pray; I had to go and walk. I became very aware of the importance of spiritual disciplines.

Stimulus: What advice would you give to those who are reasonably new to leadership or ministry and still working out what it looks like to sustain themselves for the long haul?

Huge question! I think I’ll start to answer with describing my own spiritual discipline. Everyone needs to find a time when they can be alone with their Father. It’ll be different for different people. The concept of the devotional pathways was an eye-opener for me. I like being still and being quiet first thing in the morning, but other people like to talk over a cup of coffee and connect with others. You’ve got to find your own spiritual pathway and use it to nurture your own faith. I think that it is important to do the thing that you’re least attracted to as a discipline. If you’re an extrovert who finds themselves bouncing off people, you need to do the very opposite. Find a time to be quiet and still and know God is God. If you’re a person that likes to be still the whole time, you need to go and mix with others and explore faith. I think spiritual disciplines are not just doing what comes naturally to you but to actually do the very opposite one and to begin to practice that as well.

It is also really important to keep reading. I’m aware now as I’ve moved into retirement how little I actually know and how much more there is still to learn. Always keep a hunger and thirst to be open to discovering more about God, who he is, how he moves, and what his plan is for you. I think that’s so important to keep that hunger alive – if you don’t have that hunger, don’t go into ministry.

I’m also finding myself at this stage, having a renewed enthusiasm for the liturgies of the church.

Stimulus: What about liturgy has made it come alive for you?

I think the liturgy draws you through the whole expanse of worship. We start by giving glory to God, rather than the notices. It’s not about us, it’s about God. Then we have the confession where we still ourselves before God. We recognise who we are and who God is, and how loved and forgiven we are. Then we listen to the Word read, have that explained, and have communion which focuses us right back upon the cross. I find this so refreshing and if I go to a service that has chucked all that away, I come away feeling as if I’ve missed something. I’d encourage people who are keen on ministry to explore the liturgies, look closely at them, and look closely at the words that are being said and realise how much Scripture is packed into them.

Stimulus: Music has been a significant part of your ministry; do you have any musical preferences that might surprise people?

Not too much. I’m an old Pink Floyd fan still – I was very tempted by a collection of old LPs the other day in Wellington. I also love Coldplay – I remember travelling around the South Island with the Bishop of Oxford and discovered that we were both Coldplay fans. Our wives sat in the back talking while we had Coldplay going in the front. I also love Kings College London doing the Psalms of David, so I’m very eclectic in my music tastes.

Stimulus: What were a couple of highlights of your time as Bishop of Nelson?

I think that walking the boundaries of the Diocese on the 150th anniversary in 2009 was one. Knowing that I was walking where some of those early bishops had walked, and also knowing that I was walking streets that many of the people who live in the area haven’t walked around. I felt at the end of that walk as though I really belonged to the people of the Diocese. There was something very special about the people who I encountered on the trip, as well as the people who came and walked with me. The conversations I had were amazing. It hit me that Scripture often talks about Jesus being at work ‘as they were walking,’ yet I don’t see us out walking so much these days in ministry. We’re shut behind our social media devices or our desks and yet it was ‘as they were walking’ that ministry happened.

The other thing that I started was a biennial retreat for clergy – going away with key ministry leaders for a time of reflection and worship with small groups of clergy. I really appreciated that. Additionally, in my last years in ministry, I met with groups of younger clergy, many of whom were in their first parish. They set the agenda and invited me to comment if they wanted me to. That was one of the best things I did – mentoring or supporting of leaders. I wish I’d done more of that.

Stimulus: What would the biggest changes for the church of New Zealand be that you’ve noticed over your time in ministry?

I think the attitude of the world to the church, with the issues of abuse and rise of a more militant atheism, have all had a huge impact on the role of the church in society. Whereas once upon a time, some in the church might have felt like they had a privileged place in society, no longer is that the case. I think the church has to find new ways of showing its authenticity by the way it lives, by the way it responds to things, by the way it behaves.

Stimulus: What would your hope be for the Church in ten years’ time?

I hope we will have a reduction of institutionalism and a greater sense of fellowship across denominational boundaries. I think that the potential of the growth of small groups and a Christianity that flourishes beyond institutional boundaries or church structures will be the way of the future. I think if the structures themselves don’t change, and institutions don’t change, then they’ll be forced to change through such a decline in numbers they can no longer sustain themselves. It would be great if the Church could see that in advance and begin to plan and prepare.

Stimulus: Has the Church traditionally been good at looking forwards to anticipate change?

No, but it’s really important for us to look back in order to walk forward. I think we can look back and see many times of incredible growth and times of incredible revival and renewal. Where these have happened, it has happened in smaller groups, through movements not through structures. Movements tend to become institutionalized. If we can stop that happening and just encourage movements to flourish, it’d be good.

Stimulus: Now, retirement – what does the future hold for you and Hilary? What’s the shape of life?

Enjoying waking up every day and looking out at the marvellous view, and – who knows! Part of me would love to be involved in music in some way but I know I’m getting older, but I’ve still got a bit of musical ability there. I’m just open to being used. I want to take a break and then be used in whatever way God wants to use us. He’ll open doors.