Welcome to the 86th Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Church in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of Rochester!
Our thoughts and prayers are with every person who has been impacted by calamities across our country and the world. Thank you for your prayers and other acts of solidarity.
When I look back at the path we have travelled together over the past nine years, it is instructive. Most of the work we have done I would characterize as pruning or Interim work. In many ways, I feel like this is my first Convention, not as an Interim, but as your Bishop! I feel good, very good, about being your bishop and most certainly about where we are and where we are going as followers of Jesus Christ in this Episcopal branch. Thank you for trusting me with the privilege and responsibility of serving as your Bishop.
Jonathan Pitts recently wrote, and I quote:
Denominations large and small report falling membership numbers, decreased attendance and faltering financial support. The decline began accelerating in the 1990s. Membership at churches and synagogues has fallen by nearly 20 percentage points since World War II, according to Gallup. More than a thousand Catholic parishes have closed since 1995.The number of Jews who call themselves culturally but not religiously Jewish is rising sharply among millennials…. more than 20 percent of Americans say they’re unaffiliated with any religion. That’s the highest number ever.
During Christendom, cultural Christianity thrived by force of a culture of church. Just by being the Episcopal Church, protected by governing systems and influential members in the high echelons of business and governance, the church had access to status and resource. While the latter is not entirely a thing of the past, what has changed is the culture of church as the epicenter of the community. The empirical impact of this change is especially seen in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of our country.
Now please repeat after me: 38! 38! 38! We had a 1.3% increase for the first time in decades! That means we increased our membership by 38 persons last year! Let us rejoice and give thanks that we, the Diocese of Rochester, are swimming against the cultural tide. Alleluia?
Look at the context. Nationally, the Episcopal Church declined by 1.6% in 2016. When we compare the Diocese of Rochester to the other 27 Dioceses in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Region in terms of Average Sunday Attendance in 2016 (vs. 2015):10 Dioceses—including Rochester—experienced growth. In total, this Region of 28 dioceses declined 1.4%; Rochester grew 1.3%. To give you a sense of the situation, the other 7 dioceses in Province II saw an overall decline of 2.6%; ranging from -6.1 % in Albany to +0.6% in Western NY. Looking back with a longer view - from 2008 to 2016, Rochester declined by 16.5%. The other 27 dioceses in our Region declined 22% while the rest of New York State fell by almost 24%. That is the sobering context of our region. I give glory to God for your faithful prayer and subsequent actions to swim against the tide!
So, what are we learning from our Rochester experiment?
I place before you three key words: Power of Narrative, Faith and Action in Christ, and Empowerment of the Laity.
As goes Kodak, so goes the Episcopal Church may not have been the articulated narrative. It certainly was a functional narrative. We had to intentionally choose a different narrative. If we were to be the body of Christ ours had to be the Jesus narrative. Jesus taught us that we had to lose our life to save it. The Jesus narrative is one that calls us to seek and expect healing and abundant life. It is clear that our growth is connected to the Gospel narrative of Jesus Christ that calls us to connect with real people in our neighborhoods in real time. Our numbers by no means are the only indicator that we are connecting. They, however, indicate the clearest connection between spiritual and missional aspects of following Jesus. We have learned that mission without Christian formation is not a sustainable part of our identity.
As your Bishop, I have been paying attention to the numbers knowing that the narrative that forms us does not always support the narrative of the culture at large. In none of the stories of the early Church do we read something like, “On that day, after the Apostles preached the Gospel, three thousand people left the church.” I believe we have declined partly because we have allowed the narrative of the larger culture to define us for too long. The sense of urgency that comes from paying attention to our number has helped us prioritize the empowerment of clergy and laity to relevantly follow the teachings of Jesus in teams. While embracing the Gospel narrative as our guide, we have been curious about the overlaps where the culture still carries rudiments of the Gospel. We have made radical changes guided by the consistent practice of joy, welcome and growth. All these priorities draw more clearly from the well and narrative of the Gospel as to why we are Church.
Today, by the grace of God, and the efforts of faithful people, we have a new congregation come into our union in the South Wedge Mission. The general belief is that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. It is serendipitous that just days before the 500th anniversary of that symbolic intention of reform we have received an Evangelical Lutheran congregation into the fellowship of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester! What a beautiful day for the Church! Re-forming ourselves more and more into the likeness of Christ is a timeless narrative of the Church over the centuries and it is humbling to practice this blessing in our time.
The South Wedge Mission is the first new mission to be welcomed into the union of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester in recent memory. It is a vibrant and growing congregation of mostly millennials following the Jesus way under the leadership of their Lutheran pastor Matthew Nickoloff. They are uniquely a federated congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran and Episcopal Churches. By inviting South Wedge Mission into our union, we are simultaneously inviting a new congregation into the fellowship of our Diocese while also fulfilling one of Jesus' most poignant prayers, "that they all may be one." It authenticates our full-communion status with the Evangelical Lutheran Church! TBTG!
Many in our culture have been approaching decline as the new normal. Not us! I notice a living faith in following Jesus. I believe we have bishops in our church, among other reasons, to pay attention to matters of faith concerning the Longview of the church. I am encouraged that 10 of 28 dioceses in the East Coast/mid-Atlantic region grew last year. This is evidence of apostolic succession where the apostles teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers are dancing together to equip the saints as we connect with those outside.
A faithful Eucharistic community celebrates the Eucharist and hence always start with Jesus. Because it starts with Jesus, it also starts with gratitude. Eucharistic community lives out its dynamic faith in Christ with generosity and joy, where love and liberation are always aspirational. Here, Jesus is embraced as living presence more than creedal belief. We know it is Eucharistic community when love, Joy, Peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are practiced in real time. Here, forgiveness is real. Eucharistic community has an active faith in Jesus and looks like his living body.
Putting our faith in money, endowments and pension plans is symptomatic of a misplaced faith. Such faith is more concerned about self and institutional preservation than about pouring out ourselves for the sake of the Gospel. All the blessings from God are so that we can live fearlessly for the sake of the poor and stand with those who are vulnerable. Bishop Desmond Tutu. I take inspiration from the band of peacemakers and water protectors from the Diocese of Rochester who braved a blizzard last winter as an act of faith. They stood in solidarity with the people of Standing Rock, North Dakota on our behalf. At the Eucharist, I invite you to give generously to support ministry among native youth of the Guich’in people in Alaska and the ministry with children and youth out of Good Shepherd, Savona. GS was made a parish at last Convention after having been a mission for 95 years. Today they are functioning joyfully and have just called their new priest.
Our ethics of racial and other reconciliations and creation care must have the purpose of evangelism. Without inviting people to right relationship with God, each other and all of creation we would be sporadic do-gooders without a costly discipleship. We would engage, as Richard Niebuhr famously said: "A God who brought humans without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." My sisters and brothers, Resurrection is countercultural! That’s why we proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
Finally, in the engagement of growth, I see a focus on the empowerment of healthy lay leaders to serve in the Jesus Movement. Lay people make up 99.9% of our churches. When lay leaders in our congregations are intentionally engaged in the work of visioning the future of our society and congregations they are wise and bold in pursuing paths of authentic, healthy, joyous and vibrant leadership. This impacts their decisions from the kind of priest they raise, call and sustain, to the kind of people they elect for the governance of our Church at every level and especially the kind of people they are between Sundays. Not everyone who seeks to lead is skilled to lead in a specific area. As I encounter our leadership teams across the Diocese I am struck by the deep commitment and a spirit of faith, joy and wisdom that is palpable in most places. While we are welcoming of all we should be very selective about the people we call to be our leaders. I am encouraged to find that many of our vestries are made up of fresh leaders with fresh eyes of faith and fresh courage. I am encouraged that many of our nominees for election at this and the past few Conventions are new to Diocesan office. The blend of time tested wisdom and courageous fresh faith is healthy and wondrous.
Over the years, we have consistently looked to our mission and vision statement to discern what was helping and what was not. By the grace of God and the help of several elected and appointed bodies we were able navigate this ship called the Diocese of Rochester to where we are. We invested in the formation of leaders by starting a College for Congregational Development thus forging a sustainable future, not merely for us, but for our region. Our successful launch of the College was possible thanks to the foresight of Diocesan Council, scouts who gave us the necessary intelligence, help from other Dioceses and then the clearheaded leadership of Paul Frolick. This summer, 63 leaders gathered in learning communities of clergy and laity to engage in a week-long intensive. 18 of our congregations were represented along with four other Dioceses. They will gather again next summer for the second module. The optics of this is heartening. In the next six years, God-willing, at least one hundred and fifty leaders will graduate from the College. The impact of this investment will be felt positively for generations to come. TBTG!
We are grateful for the prayers and thoughtful actions of our forebears and yours. We are walking as children of light, following the servant Christ who endured all kinds of hardships for the sake of helping us know the deep and enduring love of God. We are learning from those who are following Jesus into our neighborhoods. Like SmSj where they have gone from a handful to 80 garden beds spread around four plots of land as a ripple of blessing in an urban food dessert. New leaders have taken the responsibility of identifying and equipping newer leaders. They have followed the method of "tag you're it" in responsible and life-giving ways. This has resulted in the Beechwood neighborhood being steadily transformed. Neighbors are mowing their lawns, keeping up their properties, refinishing their homes to be more attractive because the church is a catalyst of transformation. When we are in our neighborhoods, we build relationships, and gather strength to be risk takers. That's the story of our community gardens. They have extended us beyond the Episcopal Church and into our neighborhoods fostering greater ecumenical and interfaith relations for the sake of attending to the needs of our neighbors.
I also invite you to observe and take encouragement from Angelica and Cuba, two little congregations in Allegany county that were on the brink of closure. They are thriving because a retired priest named Rick Hamlin believed in them and encouraged them into faithful action. Winifred Collin, is the main reason we have been able to launch the Anglican Studies program at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School on our own. She is a mentor and coach to many of our new clergy. Peter Peters, a priest who holds our feet to the fire, keeps us engaged in issues of poverty, violence and racism in the city. We are grateful to Tom Gramley, Dan Pope, Sandy Cordingley, Sandy Curtis, Phil Kasey, Lesley Adams, and John Kevern who are serving congregations regularly and several others who serve as substitute clergy. These and other clergy are making a positive difference in communion with your Bishop and the vision of the Diocese years after their retirement. We are blessed by our elders in faith!
We are only as good as our leaders, lay and clergy. Joyful and faithful clergy usually make joyful and faithful parishioners. God has been good to us in bringing gifted and good clergy to serve in our varied ministry situations. Since last Convention, we have invited several new clergy to take responsibility in our Diocese. Keith Patterson, Michael Laver, Leslie Burkardt, Patti Blaine, Steve Robb, Padraic Collins-Bohrer, and Abi John. We are grateful for the leadership of David Hefling and Dahn Gandell, who served diligently as Deans of Northeast and Rochester Districts respectively. They are passing the baton to Andrew VanBuren and Ruth Ferguson. Thank you for saying YES!
To give you a sense of new Priests among us, I request all active parochial Priests who were in the last ten years, either raised by this Diocese or came here from somewhere else to please stand. We are blessed by your ministry! Thank you!
It is about leadership, saints! Children and youth are our present and our future. To nurture them in the way of Christ is the best thing we can give them as they grow up in a scary world where good and bad are not often clearly decipherable. For 2018, I will appoint a Children, Youth and Young Adult Task Force to propose a plan and design for nurturing ministries in our Diocese, especially using the paradigm of the College to nurture leaders. Canon Johnnie and I will personally attend to this discernment, and bring a design for Diocesan Council to embrace and monitor for the future. The proposed timeline is February 2018. The youth events scheduled for 2018 like, ROC the Diocese, Rise Camp, Missionpalooza, and Confirmation Encounter will go on as planned.
We have also put a few resources in place to enhance the quality of our common life. I have issued word on the Pastoral Crisis Response Resource and a clergy memorandum earlier this year. I have engaged the leadership of Bill Petersen and Carlos Mercado and will appoint a committee to help curate liturgical resources for the Diocese in the new Church year.
We have needed an Archivist to help curate our past and present for the sake of posterity. I am happy to announce that David Hefling and Joanne Wisor will offer their gifts pro bono as Archivist and Assistant to help enhance our common life. They will work with Kristy Estey. We remember with gratitude the work done by the Late David Sisson and Toby Smith. We are truly blessed by amazing leaders who care deeply for our work together in this Diocese.
Dear saints, we stand at a crucial crossroads where possibilities are real and plentiful. God is working in wondrous ways among us. We are growing spiritually, numerically and in missional leadership. God is providing for our needs in ways beyond our expectations. Like the experience in St. Luke’s, Branchport, when a visiting stranger came to church and decided to write a check for the balance of their Capital Improvements expenditure, just like that! Our missional investment through our congregations is inspiring. Our pledge and plate has been a steady reminder of the stewardship of faith and action to sustain the ministry of Christ’s reconciling love in the world. In 2016, our average pledge was $2,046. 2,370 pledging individuals or families helped us cross the average $2,000 mark. As you bring clarity to your stewardship efforts this fall, I urge you to consider giving generously to continue supporting our ministries in the name of Christ. As an expression of gratitude to God for the numerical growth recorded this year, if each pledging unit of our congregations increased our giving by at least 1.3%, we will raise our giving by $70,000 in 2018!
Looking ahead, over the next five years, I see us as a Diocese investing to strengthen the diversity of our Clergy leadership by raising at least ten Priests and Deacons. These will be from ethnic communities in our pews and neighborhoods: rural and urban poor Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Burmese, and others. These are currently under-represented groups among our clergy even though we have members worshipping among us. I will explore starting a Bishop’s Fund to support leadership formation of our children, youth and adults. I will also explore ways to bring our Diocesan apportionments to a uniform Biblical Tithe. We will pursue strengthening our partnership with the Diocese of Central New York and seek collaboration in areas like discernment of vocation, Disciplinary process, leadership, Deacon Formation, etc.
We will build our solidarity with St. Augustine’s University, an Episcopal school in Raleigh, North Carolina, in response to our Presiding Bishop’s call to support Historically Black Universities and Colleges. We are discerning ways to respond to the substance and opioid crisis in our region by partnering with a Halfway House. We will launch a new vision to engage and build ministry among the deaf and hard of hearing in the next program year by calling a Priest to lead us in this significant ministry. We continue our solidarity with Episcopal SeniorLife Communities, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. We welcome President Greg Vincent, his spouse Kim and their family to our fellowship from the Diocese of Texas. On your behalf, I continue to serve the greater world and Church in national and international levels. We continue our Ecumenical and Interfaith relationships and are witnesses in the Public Square on issues of baptismal significance like DACA, violence/poverty of all sorts, Climate Action, Dalit Human Right, etc. I urge you to strengthen the bonds of affection we share with our ecumenical partners, and especially with the United Methodist churches as we look toward full communion after the 2021 General Convention.
Dear friends, I look back with gratitude for all that God has helped us accomplish to bring us to this place of encouragement.
For your faithfulness as Priests, Deacons and lay leaders in the Diocese and our congregations. For always starting and ending with Jesus. Thank you!
For the best staff, I could ask for. Thank you!
For my family, friends and other support. Thank you!
Our stewardship, leadership and relationships throughout the diocese are intertwined into one strong web. They are most beautifully informed by the Gospel narrative of Jesus, who said, “I am the light of the world” and then said, “You are the light of the world.” We have travelled for 86 years as a Diocese carrying that light, and as the hymn writer, Carlton Pearson, said, “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord.”
Let us continue to move with a curious faith that Jesus is already present in our neighborhoods!
Let us move with humility and confidence in the Jesus narrative that God is with us!
Let us move joyfully as empowered disciples of Christ, and stand with those who are dehumanized!
Let us move these three ships: relationship, stewardship and leadership, to deeper places and help transform our world!
Are we ready to move? Are we excited to move? Are we moving with Jesus?
Let us move then in the light of God! Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Alleluia!
 Jonathan M Pitts in the Baltimore Sun, October 20, 2017
 Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor.