Bishop's Writing / Enews October
Dear People of God,
One of the great things about being an Episcopal bishop is the canonical expectation that a bishop will visit each and every parish at least once in three years. For me, parish visitations are the highlight of my ministry. I enjoy seeing places and meeting people and engaging with them about things that matter. I’ve now been visiting the churches of the Diocese of Rochester since March and, on each visit, I’ve had the opportunity to preach and to sit with the Vestry. In this letter, I’d like to share some impressions from my visits.
I was a priest of the Diocese of Rochester for 30 years, exercising my ministry in Corning, Palmyra, and as part of Bishop McKelvey’s staff. I actually began working in the diocese earlier, as a youth minister in the Southwest District from 1971 to 1975. I think I knew the diocese very well. I prided myself on knowing the back way to every parish.
I’ve been struck by how much the diocese has changed. (Trying the back way home from Addison, I got lost! The roads have changed – or my memory is faulty!) When I was elected Bishop of Maine, there were 54 parishes. Now there are 44. The clergy have almost completely turned over with only 4 or 5 who are still in place. I’ve discovered some parishes that are no longer able to elect a full vestry. I’ve discovered some that are unable to hold services every week. About a quarter of our congregations are currently seeking a priest. I’ve discovered that supply clergy are in short supply.
The pandemic has also changed us. Online worship (hybrid worship) is a new norm. In-person attendance is recovering, but slowly and unevenly. And leaders, both clergy and lay, are tired. Some are wondering if they can carry on.
At the same time, so much is unchanged. Many lay leaders have continued to lead. There are familiar faces wherever I go. And there is a determined spirit to continue our ministries. We love our churches. I have been deeply touched by the worship services I’ve experienced. We love our buildings, even if they give us a headache. We love our communities and want to serve them. We are willing to try new things. We are hoping for better days.
The issue for us isn’t the will to continue. The issue is how. What’s the strategy for going forward? How will we sustain and strengthen our congregations? How will we provide clergy presence and oversight when there aren’t enough clergy to go around? What can we safely let go? What are the core things that must continue? Is there a better approach to supporting our congregations than grants which are available only if there is a priest present?
In my Address to our 91st Diocesan Convention, I will present some proposals for a new strategy for supporting our churches. I’ll make that Address available to the diocese as a whole at the same time. I believe it’s time for a conversation about a new approach to being The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Rochester. It will mean some important changes, but I think we’re up to it. I look forward to the opportunity to continue the conversation with all of you.