Bishop's Address, Convention 91
James Hannigan, Martyrs
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
We meet today in a changed world, a very different world from the one we lived in in 2020. We have all been changed and shaped by the pandemic. Many of us live in a state of what psychologists call hypervigilance: constantly alert, constantly calculating the risk of any encounter, any store or restaurant, or meeting. This is especially true for some of us as we try to return to regular corporate worship. Do I have the sniffles? Should I stay home? Shall I drink from the cup? Should I wear a mask? Should I hug my friend?
Others of us have decided that we can’t live that way and have checked out on the pandemic, doing our best to live as normally as we can – even if, occasionally, we look over our shoulders to see if the pandemic is following us.
And, of course, it is. The pandemic is not yet endemic, and despite advances in treatment, in the US we’re still losing nearly 400 people a day to covid. Epidemiologists predict new variants will make their way through the population this winter. I will continue to monitor the pandemic and try to provide guidance in a timely and helpful manner.
It’s true, though, that many of the things that trouble us as the church: aging congregations, decreasing numbers of young people in church and in holy orders, declining incomes, deteriorating facilities – these things began long before 2020. The high water mark, the peak for The Episcopal Church in terms of membership and giving, was 1978, the year I was ordained. I have never participated in the life of The Episcopal Church when these things were not a matter of serious concern. I have never experienced a church community which felt secure in its resources or its membership.
The causes for these changes are many, but they can be fundamentally linked to a changed economic reality, to declining incomes for the middle class. What I was able to provide for my family on my own in 1978 now requires two incomes. America was founded on volunteerism, as deTocqueville noted, and every volunteer organization in America is now distressed: from the church to the library to the fire department to the bowling league. Volunteerism requires people with free time and available money, and both of these are in short supply in the world today.
All of this is to say that the change we are experiencing is real. It is long-term. And it is not our fault. Our struggles as a church are not due to our failures as church leaders but to changes beyond our control. It is not a lack of devotion or commitment or faithfulness that has brought us to this place. We are trying to be the church in a very changed world.
Where we perhaps have been remiss is in our resistance to recognizing the dimensions of the change. We have thought that a new generation of leaders could turn things around. We have thought that young people would eventually return to the church. We have thought that somehow we would find volunteers for our unchanged church operations: volunteers to teach Sunday School and provide hospitality and to support the ministries of the church. We have thought that the eternal verities of the church would finally prevail. We’ve continued to do what we’ve always done and waited for the world to return to us.
What we’ve needed to do is to acknowledge that we live in a permanently changed world and to reshape our churches to meet that new reality. We’ve needed to ask ourselves what is fundamental and what is just habit, and to make adjustments so that the fundamentals of worship, formation, and mission can be supported.
This morning I want to begin a conversation with you about how we might make some changes, might restructure the diocese to better support our churches, particularly our smaller, rural churches – churches in communities where both the population and employment are declining. The changes I’m proposing are being tried in other places. In some places, they have been the norm for a while. For us, these changes will require significant cultural change and a willingness to experiment. They will be hard work.
The strategic task before us is to maintain the presence of The Episcopal Church in our rural communities, to ensure that public worship is offered, and to strengthen the vitality that exists in the ministries of our congregations. I believe the reasoned, inclusive voice of The Episcopal Church is needed across our eight counties. Where do we want to have worshiping communities? How will we ensure our continued presence?
My first proposal is that, while we increase our efforts to attract clergy to our diocese, we recognize that some of our congregations will not be able to call a resident priest. It is clear that we are facing a genuine and long-term clergy shortage in The Episcopal Church and that some of our smallest congregations cannot pay the living wage necessary to sustain a priest and family. Instead of constantly disappointing expectations, I propose that the Diocese create some regional priest-in-charge positions using funds that have previously gone into grants to support resident clergy salaries. These regional “vicars” would provide groupings of our smallest congregations with pastoral oversight and leadership. Such persons would not be able to lead worship every Sunday in every place, but they would serve as priests-in-charge for their churches.
A move toward regional oversight might mean that some congregations would need to seek mission status, a process available to our congregations under Diocesan Canon 13. (I encourage everyone to read Canon 13.) The advantage of mission status is that the burdens of administration and management are shared with the diocese. I have begun a yearlong experiment with the Rev. Mary Ann Brody and St John’s, Sodus, to see if the move to mission status makes it easier for that church to function and to focus on its ministries. St John’s has important ministries to the migrant farmworker community that need to be sustained. The move to mission status means that the Bishop is more involved with the congregation and that the Trustees of the Diocese have oversight of the property and assets. It means significant cultural change. I’m sure there is a lot for all of us to learn as we discover the pinch points in such a transition, and I’m grateful that Mary Ann and St John’s are willing to experiment. If it seems this is a helpful change, then at next year’s Convention we will take the necessary actions to make St John’s a mission.
My second proposal is that we take a serious look at the licensed ministries available to the baptized. I’m particularly interested in the ministries of worship leader, preacher, catechist, and pastoral administrator. We would need trained persons in each congregation to work with the regional vicars to provide adequate worship and administration in the churches. The lay leadership in all of our congregations is experienced and well-practiced, and some folks might simply need their ongoing ministries recognized and strengthened. Some might need new training. Such training is a long term process and would, again, mean a significant cultural shift, and a new way of being church. But I think we’re up to it. What we’ve been doing hasn’t provided some of our congregations with the support they need to thrive. I think it’s time to try something new. We will be talking about this with diocesan leadership bodies and other gatherings, and I’ll keep in touch with all of you through Enews.
I want to reiterate that this is the beginning of a conversation. Many people will be involved, including the members of the Trustees, Diocesan Council, the Commission on Ministry, and, most importantly, the leaders of the parishes involved. We have much to learn. Training would need to be created. Budgets would need to be restructured. But I believe this is the work God is calling us to in this diocese, and now is the time. I also want to acknowledge that a major undertaking of this sort is not what any of us imagined for the time of a Bishop Provisional, but I don’t think we can wait. Time is of the essence.
Switching gears, I want to speak briefly about the Episcopal Transition Process. You will hear from the Standing Committee about the particulars of that process. What I want to say is that I think it’s a healthy thing for the Diocese of Rochester to take more time to consider who we are and where God is calling us. We are fortunate to have significant financial resources available to support our ministries. Despite the volatility of the stock market, I think that resource provides us with some essential stability.
At the same time, we have a number of fragile congregations about which strategic planning and action need to take place. That work, which we are beginning now, needs to be a part of the Profile of our Diocese and the Discernment for the next bishop. A truthful description of our common life is essential for grabbing the interest and attention of the people with the skills and character we will need in our next bishop.
I commend the Standing Committee for its thoughtfulness and patience and for beginning with listening rather than pushing ahead. I think this bodes well for the ultimate outcome of the Transition Process.
All of you, clergy and lay leaders, have labored faithfully through the pandemic. You’ve had to learn new skills. You’ve had to worship in new ways. You’ve had to find creative ways to support one another and keep the church community together. Much of that work is now a permanent part of our reality. There are, for example, a number of online congregations. Some of you, perhaps many of you, are tired, and the task of organizing to discern and call a new bishop seems overwhelming. I want to first thank you for all you have done. A great deal of good work has been accomplished these last two years. And I want to say that I believe the Standing Committee will consult with the parishes, organize the necessary committees, and get the work done. It may take a little longer than we expected. We will need to adapt the process to our local realities. Yet, I believe we will get there – together.
I also want to take a moment to thank the diocesan staff. A time of Episcopal transition is particularly stressful for those who work for the bishop. Questions about working relationships and continuing employment loom large for employees. Your staff has been incredibly gracious and flexible in welcoming me into the diocese and learning to work with me. They have taught me a great deal very quickly, and they have kept the essential work of the diocese moving forward. I want to thank those who have served as Diocesan Deans, Virginia, Debs, and Johnnie, for working with me to adjust the program staffing of the diocese. I want to thank Keisha and Gretchen for picking up diocesan youth ministry. And I am deeply grateful for the attentiveness and thoughtfulness of Sarah, Todd, Kristy, Steve, Donna, and Cathy in helping navigate the last nine months and for their continued faithfulness as we face the days ahead. I hope you are feeling that we are available to you and responsive to your concerns. If you do not feel that way, please be in touch with me so that we can connect.
I want to conclude with a personal word. The expectations I had for my retirement have been utterly transformed by the changes I have experienced in the last three years. I did not expect to be your bishop, but I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to be with you on this journey. I plan to stay with you until the transition concludes. As I’ve traveled around the diocese, reacquainting myself with places I once knew very well, I find myself surprised by how much things have changed, but also reassured by the spirit I see in our congregations. We love our churches and are devoted to them. We have vital ministries in many communities, ministries that make a difference and that would be deeply missed if they went away. We are tenacious about doing what we can and about continuing to be a presence in our communities. As a Vestry woman at St Paul’s, Angelica, said one bright Sunday morning, “We aren’t going anywhere.” I think it’s my duty to help Angelica – and Cuba and Wellsville… and Savona and Catherine and all our parishes – to flourish and to do all they can in their places. I think it’s our collective responsibility to adapt our resources and our leadership so that as many of our churches as possible can bring the good news of God’s love to their communities. It’s hard work. It’s perhaps the cross we’ve been invited to lift. But, as we remember on this feast of the martyr James Hannington, our little bit, even a cup of cold water, will not lose its reward.
God is faithful. And God walks with us. Our job is to do our part, however small, to care for the world and the people God has given us. I hope that, as we listen to one another and talk with one another, we will together see the path ahead both for now and in the years to come. And I pray that God will give us joy in one another and in following Jesus.
May it be so.