Folks in Hutchison, Kan., are likely to see Rev. Michael Milliken walking about town in his normal priestly attire—a pair of Levi’s, boots and a ball cap. The 1992 master’s in theology graduate and former adjunct professor believes a church leader must connect with the people in his flock by experiencing life the way they live it. And in Kansas, that means comfortable clothes, lots of good barbecue and conversations about cattle and wheat.
For Milliken, connecting with his congregation is an expansive prospect. As the newly elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas, he has the entire western two-thirds of the state to cover—about 55,000 square miles. That includes 28 congregations serving about 2,000 people, of whom his own parish, Grace Episcopal Church, comprises nearly 500.
Because of the shortage of newly minted priests, Milliken says, the diocese is returning to a practice implemented after the Civil War when parishes in the vast American frontier, including Kansas, were asked to elevate spiritual leaders within their congregations to serve as lay ministers. For his part, Milliken is continuing as parish rector at Grace while also serving as the fifth bishop of the diocese.
Asked how he’ll accomplish both, he replies in his folksy nature, “I have no clue.” Elected in August and formally approved in February, Milliken is relying on committees at both the congregational and diocesan levels to keep him on track. And on the bright side, he says, he won’t be like the bishops of the past who, by virtue of the job, are too readily removed from the people in the pews.
“One of the things I always thought about bishops was they tend to lose the faith community around them,” he says. “As a parish rector, I’ll still have that faith community of prayer and support that has been supporting me for 12 years. I’ll keep that direct connection.”
Which, of course, comes in handy when making the weekend rounds of barbecues.