Who Do You Say That I Am? A Bishop’s Testimony

Jesus asked  his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Matthew 13:13-16

This spring, we piloted an Alpha course at Washington National Cathedral, an introduction to the Christian faith that comes from an Anglican Church in London, Holy Trinity Brompton. Each session focuses on a question that gets to the heart of the Christian faith. A speaker addresses the question for about 20 minutes, followed by an hour of open-ended, small group conversation.

Giving talks for two of the Cathedral Alpha talks has inspired me to prepare talks for all ten Alpha sessions. And I’ll start with the first: Who is Jesus?

While I’ve read my share of books and know my Bible pretty well, the heart of my answer to this foundational question of the Christian faith isn’t academic. It comes from my life experience. In the final version of my talk, I’ll start with the biblical witness. For today, I give you a piece of my testimony.

A little bit about my religious upbringing, which was spotty. I was born in New Jersey; my parents divorced when I was an infant. My mother, a Swedish immigrant, worked hard to raise my older sister and me alone. At some point she found an Episcopal Church and she started attending there, in large part because two other divorced woman raising children alone went to that church.  

Shortly afterwards, however, my sister and I went to live with our father in Colorado. He didn’t attend church and was rather hostile to religion. But a friend invited me to her church on Easter Sunday; it was a church with an altar call, and at the end of his sermon, a kind young minister invited those who wished to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was drawn to step into the aisle and make my way to the front. The minister gently prayed for me, his hands resting lightly on my head. I don’t remember feeling the kind of power that some people describe at the moment they accepted Christ, but I felt something. I’ve never turned back.

My prayer life deepened in those years, which was a good thing, because my family life took a tough turn. I came to associate the feeling of being loved, of sensing that someone was with me even when I was alone, with Jesus. I still do. When I pray each day, both in quiet at the start of my day, and on the run–which is where I do most of my praying–I feel his presence. And if I don’t feel his presence when I pray, I remember what he said about being with us always even to the end of the age. I hang on to that promise.

When my dad and step-mom divorced the middle of my junior year, I went to live with the minister of my new church. To live with a Christian family was an amazing gift. They were warm, loving, generous people–and very human. I noticed a real difference between the minister who preached on Sundays and the man he was at home. He wasn’t awful at home, but he was human. I realized that even he wasn’t living according to what he taught at church. It confused me that we couldn’t talk about the gap between who we are called to be as followers of Jesus and who we are.

Eventually I returned to live my mother in New Jersey. The Episcopal priest of my childhood welcomed me, and intentionally mentored me in faith. He helped me make sense of what had happened to me, both personally and spiritually. He helped me appreciate the gifts I had received from the church in Colorado and the gifts available to me in the Episcopal Church. And my faith and love for Jesus grew.

In college I worshipped as a Catholic, as it was the service on campus where I felt most at home. In those years, I was profoundly inspired by nuns and priests who were serving the poor and dying alongside them in Central America, and lay Catholics I met who were committed to voluntary poverty through the Catholic Worker movement. It was in college that I first learned about the Civil Rights Movement in this country, and how Christian leaders–Martin Luther King, Jr. and others–were at the helm of that great work of justice. I wanted to be that kind of a Christian–brave, compassionate, willing to put everything on the line for Jesus and those whom he called the least among us.  

After college I worked for the Methodist Church for two years as a lay missionary–not an evangelist, but one working among the poor. This was in Tucson, and our ministry served both the dislocated poor of the East Coast and Midwest, families that packed everything they had in cars and drove to the Southwest in search of work–1980s version of the great Dust Bowl migration–and those fleeing violence from Central America during height of the terrible wars there. As much as I loved my Methodist colleagues,  on Sundays I found my way back to the Episcopal Church. It was in those years that I discerned the call to ordained ministry. By then I was spending most of my time with what might be called “social justice” Christians, those whose faith is guided more by Matthew 25 than by John 3.16.

I always assumed Jesus was calling me to live and serve on the margins of society, among the poor and disenfranchised, perhaps even in another country. My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Central America, in part to test that call. But in ways that both surprised me then and make all the sense in the world in retrospect, after seminary and marriage, I found myself drawn to parish ministry. To my amazement, I loved it.

Rather than living on the margins of society, I have served all of my ordained ministry at the center of our society, 25 years as a parish priest and now as bishop. My sense of call is to the spiritual renewal of the Episcopal Church and our collective service to Christ’s mission of healing, reconciliation and justice. I often feel as if God is asking me to stand in the gap between Christians who feel they have absolutely nothing in common with each other and help create pathways for us to learn from each other’s strengths and fill in each other’s blind spots. I also believe that as Christians we are called to love others as Jesus loved and if we did, this world of ours would be a much better place for all of God’s children.

One thing I have learned in my life’s wanderings and experiences is how many different ways there are to be a Jesus follower. That diversity of expression, worship and understanding is a gift, both wondrous and enriching. It can also be really challenging–for so many core issues are at stake for us. But Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the Council of Jerusalem was recorded in Acts 15, not to mention the blow up Paul had with Peter as he recounts in his letter to the Galatians.

There is always something to learn in the conflict–in some cases because one side is clearly right and just and the other clearly wrong and even evil. But more often than not, the real spiritual maturity comes in the tension itself and what we learn from it about ourselves, about the truths others see that we do not and the truths that we hold, and about God who is right there with us, in the place of tension and discomfort.

I’m convinced that much of the conflict we experience in life is not necessary, that we live in a culture that fuels conflict and exacerbates division in ways that do not serve a God of love. But I’m also struck that  Jesus also assures us in the midst of the conflicts we cannot avoid, or that he asks us to face for the sake of his truth, that he is with us in the midst of it. I hold onto that promise. I also strive to remember that in the end, when we know fully, as St. Paul says, as we are now fully known, that what will be revealed is faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.

Beginning in September, I’m going to be focusing the core questions of Alpha course. My hope is that my reflections will prompt you to go deeper in your own exploration of them, so that together we grow in faith and in love. And if between now and then, you’d like to share with me some of your testimony–or the questions that keep you up at night–I’d love to hear from you.

Acknowledging Jesus Before Others: A Bishop’s Testimony

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,  and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 10:24-39

When I was in high school, the Episcopal priest of my church was the greatest spiritual influence on my life. He was the kind of preacher who made me feel as if he had been following me around all week and then was able to speak precisely the word that God wanted me to hear. He was also an intentional father figure, meeting with me regularly to talk through issues of life. He encouraged me in my personal growth as a Christian and as a lay leader in the church. He taught me about prayer, the study of Scripture; about tithing and living a life of generosity. I also confess that he intimidated me. I hated to disagree with him or counter his counsel, because it felt as if I were disagreeing with God.

I must have been on some kind of planning committee for our graduation, because somehow it came up in conversation at school that we needed a speaker for our baccalaureate service. I suggested my priest and the school agreed. When he came to school for a planning meeting, I was so intimidated by his presence that I could barely say a word. I couldn’t even make eye contact with him, much less speak directly to him in that setting.

The next Sunday in church, he asked, “Mariann, why did you ignore me at your school? Why didn’t you acknowledge me?” It hurt and puzzled him. “I thought you loved me,” he said. And I felt so ashamed. He didn’t intend to invoke shame in me–he was genuinely curious, and a bit sad, for it caused him wonder if he was as important to me as he had thought.

Jesus said “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

I’d like to speak to you today about acknowledging Jesus.  

I’m aware Christ Church is among the many churches that have used the Alpha Course, a tremendously influential introduction to the Christian faith created by an Anglican Church in London–Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Brompton. Alpha is designed for people who have no experience, or no positive experience, of the Christian faith. At its best, the Alpha course is offered freely, with lavish hospitality. There is no pressure to become a Christian, although its approach is clearly evangelical, telling the good news about Jesus as convincingly as possible. Thus it’s also a way for seasoned Christians to practice sharing their faith in a respectful, loving way.

We piloted an Alpha course at Washington National Cathedral this spring, as did several other congregations throughout the diocese. I gave two of the Alpha talks for the Cathedral gathering, an experience has inspired me to prepare talks for all 10 Alpha questions:

Who is Jesus?
Why did Jesus die?
How can I have faith?
How and why do I pray?
How and why should I read the Bible?
How does God guide us?
Who is the Holy Spirit?
What does the Holy Spirit do?
How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?
How can I make the rest of the most of my life?
How can I resist evil?
Why and how should I tell others?
Does God heal today?
What about the Church?

It’s going to take me awhile to prepare all these talks, but I’m starting today with you, as I begin to answer the question for anyone who might ask me, “Who is Jesus?”  

This is not the final version of what will eventually be my Alpha talk on Jesus,  but merely the beginning, as I seek to be one who acknowledges Jesus before others. In essence, I’d like to give you part of my testimony.  I would be thrilled if  any of you, in response, feel moved to share your testimony with me.

A little bit about my religious upbringing, which was spotty, to put it mildly. I was born in New Jersey; my parents divorced when I was an infant. My mother, a Swedish immigrant, did her best to raise my older sister and me alone, as she worked full time and went to college in order to be certified as a physical therapist in this country. I was christened at the Methodist Church in our neighborhood, but I don’t remember our family ever attending there. At some point my mother found  an Episcopal Church and she started attending there solely because two other divorced woman raising children alone who went to that church. Divorce was rare in the early 1960s and something of a scandal. My mother was grateful for the friendship and solidarity of these women.

I remember singing the children’s choir and attending Sunday School. I have one particularly vivid memory of lying to my Sunday school teacher about my family (I don’t remember the lie) and my mother asking me about it afterwards. It hadn’t occurred me, I suppose, that they would ever talk to each other.

The priest of that church was the same man I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, but his influence on my life as a young child was interrupted when my sister and I went to live with our father in Colorado. How that came to be is a painful story, for which I carried considerable guilt for a long time. Suffice to say that age 11, I hurt my mother deeply, as did other significant adults in my life.

My father didn’t attend church and was rather hostile to religion. One summer my stepmother enrolled me Vacation Bible School  and I remember loving the songs we sang.  Another summer, the year I was caught shoplifting, I wound up having a thoughtful one/one conversations with a Christian man who took an interest in me–I’m not sure how or why.

I wasn’t among the popular kids in high school, but I had a few good friends who were instruments of grace in my life. One invited me to her church on Easter Sunday. It was a church with an altar call, and at the end of his sermon, a kind young minister invited those who wished to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was drawn to step into the aisle and make my way to the front. The minister gently prayed for me, his hands resting lightly on my head. I don’t remember feeling the kind of power that some people describe at the moment they accepted Christ, but I felt something. I’ve never turned back.

I attended Young Life as a teenager, a Christian gathering organized in schools. The leader of our school choir was a Christian and he invited a minister from a new church in town to recruit singers for a summer touring choir that would perform in churches from Colorado to the Mexican border and back. That sounded amazing to me. I was accepted into the choir and sang my heart out for Jesus that summer. When we came back, I joined the church.

That church also had an altar call every week, and even though I had already accepted Jesus, every time I heard the invitation, I felt as if I should go up again,  because whatever was supposed to happen to me when I became a Christian hadn’t yet happened. So one Sunday, I surprised everyone, including myself, when I came forward for prayer. Afterwards the minister suggested that I be baptized. I had been baptized as a child, but this church didn’t believe in infant baptism. So I was baptized again, full immersion in the swimming pool of the apartment complex where the minister and his family lived. I wish I could say that I rose from from the water a new person, but I was still me. I did, however, feel loved, and my commitment to follow Jesus grew.

My prayer life deepened in those years, which was a good thing, because my family life took a tough turn. I came to associate the feeling of being loved, of sensing that someone was with me even when I was alone, with Jesus. I still do. When I pray each day, both in quiet at the start of my day, and on the run–which is where I do most of my praying–I feel his presence. And if I don’t his presence when I pray, I remember what he said about being with us always even to the end of the age. I hang on to that promise.

When my dad and step-mom divorced the middle of my junior year, I went to live with the minister and his family for a time, until I could figure out what next to do. My dad was drinking a lot and living in an apartment alone. My stepmom didn’t like me very much, and I knew I couldn’t live with her, although leaving her meant  abandoning my younger half brother, a regret I carry with me to this day.

That the minister and his family welcomed me was an amazing gift. It was instructive to live with a Christian family. They were warm, loving, generous people–and very human. I noticed a real difference between the minister who preached on Sundays and the man he was at home. He wasn’t awful at home, but he was human. I realized that even he wasn’t living according to what he taught at church. I didn’t get angry about that, but I  felt confused that we couldn’t talk about the gap between who we are called to be as followers of Jesus and who we are.

Eventually I decided–or my mother decided for me–that it was time for me to return and live with her in New Jersey. She still attended the Episcopal church that had welcomed her as a divorced woman. The minister of my church in Colorado didn’t think it was a good idea for me to attend an Episcopal Church church, as he didn’t have the sense that Episcopalians believed in Jesus. I was pretty sure they did, but I didn’t know what to say.  I knew my mother believed in Jesus–in fact, in the years I had been away, her faith and love for him had grown, and also her strength. She had experienced healing in the years my sister and I were away, which allowed her to live with both joy and generosity despite the struggles of her life. I felt blessed and grateful that she was willing to welcome me home.

The priest of my childhood also welcomed me back, and he very intentionally mentored me in faith. He helped me make sense of what had happened to me, both personally and spiritually. He helped me appreciate the gifts I had received from the church in Colorado and the gifts available to me in the Episcopal Church. And my faith and love for Jesus grew.

In college I worshipped as a Catholic, as it was the service on campus where I felt most at home. In those years, I was profoundly inspired by nuns and priests who were serving the poor and dying alongside them in Central America, and lay Catholics I met who were committed to voluntary poverty through the Catholic Worker movement. It was in college that I first learned about the Civil Rights movement in this country, and how Christian leaders–Martin Luther King, Jr. and others–were at the helm of that great work of justice. I wanted to be that kind of a Christian–brave, compassionate, willing to put everything on the line for Jesus and those whom he called the least among us.  

After college I worked for the Methodist Church for two years as a lay missionary–not an evangelist, but one working among the poor. This was in Tucson, and our ministry served both the dislocated poor of the East Coast and Midwest, families that packed everything they had in cars and drove to the Southwest in search of work–1980s version of the great Dust Bowl migration–and those fleeing violence from Central America during height of the terrible wars there. As much as I loved my Methodist colleagues,  on Sundays I found my way back to the Episcopal Church. It was in those years that I discerned the call to ordained ministry. By then I was spending most of my time with what might be called “social justice” Christians, those whose faith is guided more by Matthew 25 than by John 3.16.

I always assumed Jesus was calling me to live and serve on the margins of society, among the poor and disenfranchised, perhaps even in another country. My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Central America, in part to test that call. But in ways that both surprised me then and make all the sense in the world in retrospect, given my upbringing and deep desire to create a different kind of family life for our children, after seminary and marriage (my husband is a practicing Roman Catholic who was discerning his own call to priesthood when we met), I found myself drawn to parish ministry. To my amazement I loved it and was rather good at it.

Rather than living on the margins of society, I have served all of my ordained ministry at the center of our society, 25 years as a parish priest (18 of them in the same church) and now as bishop of this diocese. My sense of call is to the spiritual renewal of the Episcopal Church and our collective service to Christ’s mission of healing, reconciliation and justice. I often feel as if God is asking me to stand in the gap between Christians who feel they have absolutely nothing in common with each other and help create pathways for us to learn from each other’s strengths and fill in each other’s blind spots. I also believe that as Christians we are called to love others as Jesus loved and if we did, this world of ours would be a much better place for all of God’s children.

One thing I have learned in my life’s wanderings and experiences is how many different ways there are to be a Jesus follower. That diversity of expression, worship and understanding is a gift, both wondrous and enriching. It can also be really challenging–for so many core issues are at stake for us. And there are times, as Jesus said, that feels as if he has come among us not to bring peace but a sword and that our greatest foes are among our own household. But Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the Council of Jerusalem was recorded in Acts 15, not to mention the blow up Paul had with Peter as he recounts in his letter to the Galatians.

There is always something to learn in the conflict–in some cases because one side is clearly right and just and the other clearly wrong and even evil. But more often than not, I think, the learning, the growing, the real spiritual maturity comes in the tension itself and what we learn from it about ourselves, about the truths others see that we do not and the truths that we hold, and about God who is right there with us, in the place of tension and discomfort. For the same Jesus who said, For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household was the one uniquely moved to compassion when faced with sin and suffering as Fr. Vander Wel expounded upon so compellingly for you last Sunday.

I’m convinced that much of the conflict we experience in life is not necessary, that we live in a culture that fuels conflict and exacerbates division in ways that do not serve a God of love. But I’m also struck that  Jesus also assures us in the midst of the conflicts we cannot avoid or that he asks us to face for the sake of his truth, that he is  with us in the midst of it. I hold onto that promise, and I also strive to remember that in the end, when all that is in darkness is revealed and we shall see and know fully, as St. Paul says, as we are now fully known, that what will be revealed is faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.

When I ultimately complete my Alpha talk on “Who is Jesus?” I’ll spend more time in the Scriptures, presenting “the evidence” as the founder of Alpha Nicky Gumbel puts it, that Jesus is who he says he is. But I wanted you to know something of my heart, and my faith, and that as your bishop, I would love to know something of yours.

I want you to know that I pray only the best for Christ Church, Accokeek, that your lives and ministry will thrive. And I covet your prayers, not for me alone, but for the 87 other congregations in our diocese, as we strive to know and love Jesus, and share in his love for the world Jesus died to save.

 

Priesthood: What It Takes To Thrive

Priesthood: What It Takes To Thrive

Ordination June 17, 2017


What follows are excerpts from the sermon Bishop Mariann preached at the ordination service on June 18, 2017: The sermon in its entirety can be found here.

A luminary bishop of the 1970s and 80s, John Coburn of Massachusetts, was once asked if he had a motto in life. He hadn’t thought about it before, he said, but upon reflection he realized that he did: You never can tell.

He used two illustrations to make his point. “I’ve presided over dozens of marriage ceremonies,” he said. “I know that a percentage of those marriages ended in divorce. But if I were to have guessed which marriages would make it and which ones wouldn’t, at least 50% of the time I would have guessed wrong. Some of the couples that seemed ideally suited for each other didn’t make it past 5 years; others whose relationship seemed rocky at best have gone on to have long and healthy marriages. You never can tell.”

“I’ve presided at many ordination services,” he continued. “Some priests whom I assumed would be mediocre at best have gone on to serve with faithful and fruitful distinction. A few of our brightest stars are now in jail. You never can tell.”

The Diocese of Washington has identified seven qualities and attributes that we believe the Episcopal Church needs now in its ordained leaders. These seven qualities have one thing in common: they are indicators of resilience.

The first quality is without question both the most important and painfully insufficient on its own: a compelling spiritual life and a passion for the Gospel. We need priests who know and love God, who know and love Christ. We need clergy with a vision for the Episcopal Church and desire to guide others into a deeper relationship with Christ. There is nothing more important for Christian leadership.

But it’s not enough. The assumption that it is enough has brought down many a priest and stalled many a congregation. And it’s pervasive. The Methodist pastor Tom Berlin describes a meeting of church and seminary leaders gathered to answer this question, “What is your ideal picture of the excellent pastoral leader of the future?” One person responded, “The ideal pastoral leader is grounded in the faith tradition, strongly connected to God, steeped in on-going prayer, and faithful in taking weekly sabbath time.” Many nodded in agreement.

But Tom gently pointed out that something was glaringly missing: “Thousands of congregations across the country are struggling right now. That means that children are not being taught the faith, disciples are not being made, lives are not being transformed, the poor are not being blessed, communities are not being redeemed. And in most cases the problems have little do with the pastor’s prayer life or whether the pastor takes weekly sabbath time.” (Tom Berlin and Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2011))

The church needs more from its clergy than a strong personal faith.

The second quality we look for: the ability to communicate the Gospel in ways that people and communities find engaging and relevant to their lives.

The scriptural mandate for expansive, creative communication is clear. The Rev. Patricia Lyons calls this “the Pentecost Pedagogy” in her case for teaching the Christian faith through the stories of Harry Potter. Even in the most seemingly homogeneous context, there are many languages spoken.

Remember rule number one: communication is a function of relationship. As Rabbi Friedman used to say, “People can only hear you if they are moving toward you. They can’t hear if you are chasing them, or if they are moving away.”

Communication also involves more than words. People often say that preaching is a priest’s most important task. But I’ve come to realize that what matters most about preaching is the relationship between what I say in the pulpit and how I lead in every other facet of ministry.

Communication is a tender subject in our church these days, particularly communication in worship. Many faithful Episcopalians seem truly puzzled by our congregation’s declining membership. “If people only knew what we have here,” they lament, “surely they would come.” I suspect people do know and don’t come, or come once and leave. Remember that the point of our communication is to share the love of Christ with people. The languages we choose to speak determine which groups of people we have the potential of reaching. It’s important not to confuse our preference, or that of our church, with the message itself.

The last of the seven qualities I’ll mention here is actually three-in-one: spiritual maturity, self-awareness, and authenticity. Which is to say that we are all works in progress and we must work at our progress.

Here are a few core practices that promote personal growth:

Self reflection. We all need time and space alone, and a standard within ourselves to which we hold ourselves accountable.

Seeking the feedback of others. Unless we ask, we will never know how our actions affect other people.

Asking for help. I can’t encourage clergy enough to find a mentor, someone who is a bit further down whatever road they feel called to walk or who know something they need to learn.

These practices reinforce a commitment to learning and growth. They help enable us and the communities we lead to thrive in challenging circumstances. For while we never can tell where the road will take us, we can determine the kind of leaders we become along the way.

Sermon for the Ordination of Priests

June 17, 2017

Priesthood: You Never Can Tell

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ Isaiah 6:8

When I met with the seven soon-to-be priests this week, I asked about you, those who would be here today to pray God’s blessing and celebrate with them their ordination. They spoke of you with such gratitude and love. On their behalf and that of all who will benefit from what you have helped them claim for themselves and offer in service to Christ, I thank you. They also spoke wistfully of those who cannot be there today and those who have crossed over Jordan and are here in spirit. May we pause to give thanks for them as well.

With your blessing, I’d like to remind Kyle, Cara, Marcella, Eva, Serena, Teresa, and Richard of the qualities and attributes we see in them that give us confidence in their priesthood. I’d also like to suggest a few disciplines that will hold them in good stead no matter where their lives and vocations take them. You are, of course, welcome to listen.

A luminary bishop of the 1970s and 80s, John Coburn of Massachusetts, was once asked if he had a motto in life. He hadn’t thought about it before, he said, but upon reflection he realized that he did. His motto was, “You never can tell.”

He used two illustrations to make his point. “I’ve presided over dozens of marriage ceremonies,” he said. “Statistically and anecdotally, I know that a percentage of those marriages ended in divorce. But if I were to have guessed at the ceremonies themselves which marriages would make it and which ones wouldn’t, at least 50% of the time I would have guessed wrong. Some of the couples that seemed ideally suited for each other didn’t make it past 5 years; others whose relationship seemed rocky at best have gone on to have long and healthy marriages. You never can tell.”

His second illustration was of the ordination of priests. “I’ve presided at many ordination services. Some priests whom I rather uncharitably assumed would be mediocre at best have gone on to serve with faithful and fruitful distinction. Others that I thought were among our most gifted stalled out after only a few years. A few of our brightest stars are now in jail. You never can tell.”

You may remember that from the outset of the long discernment process, before you said a word, we who were given authority to decide if this diocese would sponsor you for ordination assumed that you had been called by God into ministry. Your call was a given. The only question before us was whether or not you sufficiently demonstrated the qualities and attributes that the Diocese of Washington believes the Episcopal Church needs now in its ordained leaders.

I won’t rehearse all seven here, but I want you to know, without a doubt, that we see them in you–in varying stages of development and fruition, to be sure, but they are there. And those qualities, we believe, will help you thrive in ministry no matter the circumstances. That doesn’t mean you’ll always have a full time job in a healthy, thriving congregation. But what it does mean is that your vocation will be both sturdy and flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and that your resilience and creativity will enable you to thrive in challenging situations.

The first quality priests need to thrive in ministry is without question both the most important and painfully insufficient on its own: a compelling spiritual life and a passion for the Gospel. We need priests who know and love God, who know and love Christ. We need clergy with a vision for the Episcopal Church’s ministry and a desire to guide our people to greater faithfulness and spiritual depth. Each of you, in your own way, has that passion; and it is compelling. There is nothing more important for Christian leadership than a deep love of God — and a lifetime cultivation of that love so that it not grow stale or rote.

But it’s also not enough. The assumption that it is enough has brought down many a priest and stalled many a congregation. And it’s pervasive. Some of you know Tom Berlin, the lead pastor of Floris Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, Tom Berlin, who also serves as a Trustee at Wesley Seminary. He’s written several books on fruitfulness in ministry, which I commend to you. In one, he describes a meeting of church and seminary leaders gathered to answer this question: “What is your ideal picture of the excellent pastoral leader of the future?” One person responded, “The ideal pastoral leader is grounded in the faith tradition, strongly connected to God, steeped in on-going prayer, and faithful in taking weekly sabbath time.” Many nodded in agreement.

But Tom gently pointed out that something was glaringly missing. “Thousands of congregations across the country are struggling right now. That means that children are not being taught the faith, disciples are not being made, lives are not being transformed, the poor are not being blessed, communities are not being redeemed. And in most cases the problems have little do with the pastor’s prayer life or whether the pastor takes weekly sabbath time.” (Tom Berlin and Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2011))

The church needs more from us than the tending of our own spiritual lives. The good news is that you have more.

The second quality we see in you: the ability to communicate the Gospel in ways that people and communities find engaging and relevant to their lives:

Communication, we all know, is multifaceted. No matter the context, if we want to reach people with good news, we need to speak multiple languages, both human and technological. And we need to speak in a variety of settings: from the pulpit, in personal conversation, and through social media to name only three.

The scriptural mandate for expansive, creative communication is clear. One of own priests, Patricia Lyons, calls this “the Pentecost Pedagogy” in her case for teaching the Christian faith through the stories of Harry Potter (Patricia Lyons, Teaching Faith with Harry Potter: A Guidebook for Parents and Educators for Multigenerational Faith Formation (Church Publishing, New York, 2017)). Even in the most seemingly homogeneous context, there are many languages spoken. For some gathered here today, their primary faith language is intellectual; for others, it’s emotional. Across generations, those who speak one language have different meanings for the same words. And it only gets more complicated from there.

Thus, communication, while one of your gifts, will require your vigilant attention. Remember rule number one: communication is a function of relationship. As Rabbi Friedman used to say, “People can only hear you if they are moving toward you. They can’t hear if you are chasing them, or if they are moving away.”

Communication also involves more than words. It’s often said that preaching is a priest’s or pastor’s most important task. It is important, which becomes painfully obvious for clergy who aren’t very good at it. I used to believe that preaching was the most important thing I did. But I’ve come to realize that what matters most about preaching is the relationship between my words from the pulpit and how I lead in every other facet of ministry.

Communication is a tender subject in our church these days, particularly communication in worship. Many faithful Episcopalians seem truly puzzled at our declining membership, “If people only knew what we have here,” they lament, “surely they would come.” I suspect people do know and don’t come, or come once and leave, because the way we communicate doesn’t actually speak to them. Remember that the point of our communication is to share the love of Christ with people. The languages we choose to speak determine which groups of people we have the potential of reaching. It’s important not to confuse our preference, or that of our church, with the message itself.

The last of the seven qualities I’ll mention today is actually three-in-one: spiritual maturity, self-awareness, and authenticity. Which is to say that we are all works in progress and we must work at our progress. We see the fruits of all three in you, and yet they are the endeavors of a lifetime.

Here are a few core practices that promote personal growth:

  • Self reflection. We all need time and space alone, and a standard within ourselves to which we hold ourselves accountable.
  • Seeking the feedback of others. Unless we ask, we will never know how our words and actions affect other people.
  • Asking for help. It is a requirement for ordination that you have experience with spiritual direction, and I’m glad for that. Most ordinands I know have have had a turn or two in therapy, and I’m very glad for that. Now I encourage you to find a mentor, someone who is a bit further down whatever road you feel called to walk. For many years mine was a Lutheran pastor, Chris Nelson. In the same general area of Minneapolis, the congregation he served was three times larger than the one I served. I wanted to figure out how he helped his congregation grow and what I could do to help the one I served grow, too. So I asked him to help me, and he did. He graciously and generously talked me through, and during that season of ministry, I learned more from Chris about leadership than anyone else (Chris Nelson died this week having been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. You can learn more about Chris Nelson and Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis here).

Hear in all these practices a life-long commitment to learning and growth. For while you never can tell where the road will take you, you can determine the kind of person you become along the way.

One of ways I used to protect myself from being hurt or disappointed in the church–which happens a lot, by the way–was to always have a Plan B. I would put my name in for a position I wanted and have a Plan B in case I wasn’t chosen. I would take a risk in the congregation and have a Plan B in case I failed. I told myself having such a plan would help whenever I landed hard on the other side of disappointment or failure, which is something we could debate. It was a fruitful exercise in that it gave me a bit of emotional distance and a means of picking myself up and starting again. Those things are important.

But also important is the courage to be committed. I learned this from our younger son who chose another high security profession: theatre. While he was studying for his theatre degree, one of my well-meaning friends asked him, in my hearing, “Patrick, do you have a Plan B?” He was quiet for a moment and said, “I’ve never thought of it that way, actually. This is my Plan A, and I’ll take it as far I can. If I have to make a change down the road, well, that will be my new Plan A.”

You never can tell. But you needn’t doubt, my colleagues in Christ, that you have what you need to embark on this vocation. Should you doubt, look around at the people who know and love you. They don’t doubt the rightness of your vocation, and neither do I, in large part because of your commitment to grow, and your capacity to be flexible, resilient, creative, joyful Christians leaders.

We don’t know where God is taking you, but wherever that is, we are willing to follow. Because the church God is creating is going to be led by the likes of you.

What will that church look like? You never can tell. But surely we can trust that it is God’s next Plan A.

Gun Violence is Not Partisan

The Episcopal  Dioceses of Washington and Virginia are united in prayer for Representative Steve Scalise,  Zachary Barth, Matt Mika, and Capitol Police Officers Krystal Griner and David Bailey, that they may fully recover from their wounds. We’re praying for those who were in close proximity to the shooting,  that they may heal from the trauma of witnessing such violence.  We pray in gratitude for our community’s first responders and medical personnel who were there to protect and save lives. And we pray God’s mercy on the soul of James Hodgkinson.

Baseball brings Americans–and politicians– together. So does tragedy, as we look past our disagreements to care about those who suffer.  In the wake of violence, the nation needed President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to speak words of unity, and they did not disappoint us. Senator Bernie Sanders, upon learning that Mr. Hodgkinson had volunteered for his campaign, strongly condemned the shooting and violence of any kind. 

The shooting of a public official is a threat to our democracy, and it reverberates throughout the halls of government. “An attack on one us,” Speaker Ryan said, “is an attack on all of us.” Gun violence is  a bipartisan phenomenon. Today Representative Steve Scalise, a Republican, joins Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, who was shot at an outdoor meeting with her constituents  in 2011. 

Gun violence is also a national tragedy: more than 13,000 Americans have been injured by gunfire in  2017. Nearly 7,000 more Americans have died.  One statistic we don’t care about when counting the wounded and dead is political party affiliation.

Among these killed this year: Andrew McPaatter, a young African American father , shot dead in the Congress Heights neighborhood Southeast Washington. His grieving 7-year old son Tyshaun, featured recently in the Washington Post,  is one of the millions of American children growing up in high-crime communities where the threat of gun violence affects nearly every aspect of their lives. We won’t spend as much time publicly speculating on the shooting that killed Andrew, given that it happened on the other side of the Anacostia River, which, like it or not, is a political commentary of its own. 

Baseball diamonds are part of America’s common ground. So are night clubs, churches, synagogues, mosques; public schools, community centers, and movie theatres; parking lots and street corners. What  these public sites have in common is gun violence.  

Gun violence prevention is a civic responsibility and a spiritual vocation to which countless faith communities and their leaders are dedicated.  We refuse to believe that as a nation we are incapable of finding common ground on gun violence prevention. Our prayers for those who suffer are matched by a unified commitment to bring this national tragedy to an end.

The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of Washington
The Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, Bishop of Virginia
The Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, Bishop Suffragan, Diocese of Virginia
The Rt. Rev. Ted Gulick, Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Virginia