(To watch Bishop's Address, CLICK HERE for video)
Great is thy faithfulness! God is good. All the time! All the time! God is good! I am grateful to stand as a guest of the Haudenosaunee, Seneca Indians and other ancestors who have gone before us, in this land which is home to us all.
I started my episcopate among you and preached at my first Convention, the 77th Diocesan Convention in 2008. I remember quoting an Alice Walker book title as a biblical inference: WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR, made popular by the black women’s ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. Jesus constantly reminded his leaders that the kingdom/kin-dom of God was within them. On this the 90th Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, I wish to give thanks for all the agency I have witnessed by leaders over the past nearly 14 years. I wish to highlight the stewardship of our resources, material and otherwise, to help steady our ship. Finally, I want to close with the relationship we have shared through our loving, liberating, and life-giving God with each other by reminding you of my story and bless you.
I want to give thanks for all the agency I have witnessed by leaders over the past nearly 14 years. Some of these were well differentiated leaders and others did their best with what they knew. Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in each environment, and choose not be a bystander. I am grateful to all lay and clergy leaders who have served in the Diocese during my tenure as your bishop. Some have gone to the nearer presence of God, and some are still serving diligently on this side of eternity. Let me begin by lifting the names of lay leaders like Bob Van Niel, Terry Butwid, Lyn Omphroy, and Bliss Owen, the Treasurers and Assistant Treasurer of our Diocese, and Phil Fileri, the Chancellor of the Diocese. Neil Houghton, Lesley Adams, Jim Adams, Brad Benson, Laura Despard, Carmen Seufert, Chris Moore, Jan Farnsworth, Sarah Peters, Michael Hartney, Rob Picken, Carolyn Mok, Cam Miller, who served as Presidents or Secretaries of the Standing Committee. Nancy Bell, Susan Woodhouse and Andrea Stridiron, served as Secretary of Convention. Tom Marullo, Susan Scanlon, Lyn Omphroy, Les Kernen, and Ron Young, who served as Vice-Chairs of Trustees. Cynthia Sever, Richard Frey, Charles Tyo, Jennifer Zogg, Ken Pepin, Rob Ferris, Jimmie Sue Deppe, Ellen Ralston, Georgia Carney, who served as Chairs of Commission on Ministry. Carmen Seufert, Christopher Cleveland, Sarah Peters, Gwen Van Laeken, Paul Frolick, Julie Syracuse, and Elizabeth Harden, who served as Vice-chairs of Diocesan Council. Susan Woodhouse, Christa Levesque Moore, Greg Kremer, who served as Secretary of Diocesan Council! Each of our governing bodies has also had subcommittees and several leaders have served on them!
I am grateful for all who served on diocesan staff, especially former Canons like Karen Noble Hanson, Al Keeney, Denise Yarbrough, Peter Peters, Julie Cicora, and Johnnie Ross. I am grateful for all who have served as District Deans over the years and most recently as Diocesan Deans. Several generous leaders have served on bodies like Human Resource, Oasis, Racial Reconciliation, Healing and Justice, Disciplinary Board, and ad hoc bodies like the Task Force for Apportionment, Retiree Healthcare, and Thriving in a Covid world. Last and most importantly, I am grateful for past Diocesan Staff over the years, especially Carolyn McConnell, and the current Diocesan staff Cathy Shoemaker, Kristy Estey, Todd Rubiano, Steve Richards, Donna Rea, and Sarah Herzog! Please forgive me if I missed anyone, which I surely have. I am so grateful that Bishop Steve Lane is open to serving among you as the Bishop Provisional. He is terrific and I am sure you all will have fun. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
Let me now highlight the stewardship of our resources, material and otherwise, to help steady our ship.
Where were we?
Coming out of the Great Recession, the Diocese faced several financial and spiritual challenges:
- Declining membership, pledges, and attendance: the annual decline in attendance averaged 4% per year for a decade before the Great Recession. If we had allowed that rate of decline to continue, we would have about 20% fewer folks attending than we did in 2020. Let’s extrapolate that decline to understand. By saving 1,117 members, we prevented closing eleven churches at the rate of about 100 members per church.
- Some small congregations had shrunk to the point of spiritual exhaustion. Between 2009 and 2020, we have closed seven churches—East Rochester, Mt. Morris, Friendship, Belmont, Lyons and Bolivar, and Montour Falls. Today, we will close St. Peter's in Bloomfield. We pause to grieve with them.
- Many congregations felt squeezed by the inevitable financial pressure of shrinking membership and growing costs, including apportionment and diminished endowments.
- Most significantly, there was little sense of Parish empowerment. There was more of a sense that "The Diocese will solve it – they have all the resources."
- Everyone was doing the best they could with the tools they had at the time.
What did we do?
- We reduced admin costs for staff, governance, and office expense by nearly 40%.
- We increased our investment in program/ministry modestly, shifting focus towards Missional, Congregational & Leadership Development.
- We’ve maintained administrative expenditures at about $ 1.1 M. for the last five years and kept total spending at around $2 M.
- These actions allowed us to bring down our current draw from investments to 4.6%, almost half of it after the Great Recession.
- We moved our Parish Apportionment towards a 10% or Tithe—while continuing to advance our draw from investments towards 4%--leaving more resources in the parish for missional growth in their community.
- We surrounded our new leaders with Circles of Support made up of clergy and lay leaders
- We discerned engaging uniquely gifted lay leaders with the pastoral leader model in certain places
- We launched an Annual Bishop's Appeal to provide future growth of the most critical Leadership Development initiatives without increasing apportionment. We focused the Bishop's Appeal for an investment of attention and resources on:
- College for Congregational Development
- Formation of Children, Youth, and Young Adults,
- Campus ministries
- Deaf ministry
- Seminarian scholarships
- I thank those of you who have given generously and invite those who have not yet given to please consider making an intentional donation to strengthen this annual appeal in the years to come.
- We adjusted our loan policies to reduce parish debt and replenish our revolving Sibley Fund for future church loans.
How is it working concerning our vision and mission?
- While pledges and attendance are still declining – the rate of annual decline has slowed down considerably. In the last decade, our decline in membership was 9.8%. During this time period, we were the only Diocese in our province that declined under 10%, which is less than a percent annually.
- Our membership numbers increased fractionally in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Last year, membership declined 1.5%, as the pandemic impacted new membership.
- Entire parish operating revenue—excluding draws from investments—increased 10%, from 2010-2019, before dropping by 4% in 2020.
- Entire parish operating deficits have fallen about 20%.
- Total parish debt has reduced by 60%
- We have reduced the average Apportionment rate from 14% to 12%, and Council is moving more of our churches to 10% each year. For 2022, 63% of our congregations are at about 10%.
Why are we doing these things?
- To build leaders and create a culture of leadership development. In 2015, we started exploring ways to support Diocesan Council and Convention's investment in Congregational Development Partnership Grants over the previous five years. We invested in lay and clergy leadership development through the creation of a College for Congregational Development. Since its launch in 2017, over 170 lay and clergy leaders from Rochester and neighboring dioceses have attended this program. We are learning to develop healthy, faithful, and sustainable congregations, growing as self-differentiated leaders, and beginning to build a common language and community of practice around congregational development. We instilled practices of term limits for most of our appointments, such as District and Diocesan Deans.
- To fulfill the essential purpose of priests, deacons, and bishops to empower our laity to become more fully engaged as the Baptized in society and church.
- To continue diversifying our clergy leadership in the Diocese of Rochester: currently, among the active clergy with full-time or part-time cures, twenty-two of our priests are women, and twenty-four are men. Thirteen of our priests identify as gay or lesbian. We also have priests with blended vocations who work professionally in institutions and serve the church from time to time, in addition to our retired clergy. In addition, we invest in retaining younger clergy.
- To grow spiritually and in missional leadership. It isn't easy to quantify the impacts on spiritual growth and missional leadership. But there are clear examples of more and more congregations boldly experimenting to find a relevant role for the church in their local communities. For instance, we have several responsive spiritual formation initiatives that extend to communicate care for neighbors, such as Community Gardens, which are a part of most of our congregations. We also have food pantries, community meals, baby and sundry closets, winter clothes closets, outreach with Episcopal Senior Life Communities and other not-for-profits, locally and globally.
In 2018, the Church Pension Group moved our Diocese up from the fourth to the third Quintile based on the increased number of full-time clergy leaders, total clergy compensation, number of congregations, and the sum of total congregational revenues.
Finally, a story. She was a single mother working as a social worker at the YWCA where she coordinated the adult literacy project. Her two boys 17 and 13 had recently moved in with her after staying with their grandmother for two years. They had been forced to move in with their grandma because their dad had walked out on them leaving them with little more than the clothes they were wearing. The house they had moved into was on a city highway. Due to a highway expansion plan the Public Works Department had issued notice that their house was going to be leveled to the ground. Their house had two almost identical parts separated by a wall. The night they got this devastating news, the family of three prayed, as was their custom, and was ready to go to bed when the 13-year-old noticed something unusual. Lying on the floor was a sparrow’s nest, which had been nestled on the dividing wall where the roof peaked. Being the precocious one he climbed up a ladder and put the nest right back where it was supposed to be. The next morning, the sparrow was back working on the nest. That afternoon the mother got a phone call to say that there had been a miscalculation and that only half the house was going to be brought down. The sparrow’s nest and the family were safe for now! That 13-year-old boy couldn’t contain his joy and was smiling from ear to ear, just like I am 46 years later, because I was that little boy! It has been quite a journey from that simple home on a highway in Madras (Chennai), India, to the Diocese of Rochester, New York, and now perhaps Eastern and Western Michigan.
Let me close with the top twelve lessons I have learned during my time with you.
12. Leadership is hard, and the most pastoral thing often looks and feels like the least pastoral thing
11. An administrative solution like clustering is expedient but will take away agency and stewardship
10. Leadership is lonely, cultivate good friends outside the church
9. Diversify your toolbox
8. Creating safe spaces involves empowering others, relinquishing party lines and laughing at yourself
7. Triangulation is an addiction and the root of most evil
6. Beware of comfort in company; just because some are doing it doesn’t mean it is good for you or your context
5. Choose discernment on the ground over organized cookie cutter solutions and flavors of the season
4. If you want to be a bridge be prepared for people to walk all over you
3. There is nothing great about the trains running on time if they are empty
2. We cannot staff our way to address the challenges of our church
1. Guard your integrity and choose Joy always!
The most important lesson I have learned, however, is that you are good people. You have helped me grow among you as a brother and a bishop. I have made many mistakes. Forgive me. I will miss you. I will always love you. If the saints of Eastern and Western Michigan call me to accompany them, I will go as one sent by you, saying, “more snow?” joyfully giggling at God’s sense of humor. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. All we have needed God’s hand has provided, great is God’s faithfulness, unto us! I Bless you! Alleluia!