Stonewall Strong

Stonewall Strong


John-Manuel Andriote, a former member of St. Thomas’ Parish (DC), who also served as a longtime member of the Diocese’s Southern Africa Partnership Committee, has published a book about the resiliency of gay men. Andriote, who has worked as a health journalist for more than 30 years, says he wrote Stonewall Strong after being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2005. “I briefly saw a psychiatrist then to help me come to grips with my new reality as an HIV-positive gay man, after reporting on HIV-AIDS as a journalist by that point for 20 years,” he says. Andriote went on to chronicle, as the book’s subtitle describes it, “gay men’s heroic fight for resilience, good health, and a strong community.” Read Church House staff member Richard Weinberg’s interview with Andriote below.

What led you to write Stonewall Strong?

I wrote Stonewall Strong because I became interested in the subject of resilience after my 2005 HIV diagnosis. I briefly saw a psychiatrist then to help me come to grips with my new reality as an HIV-positive gay man, after reporting on HIV-AIDS as a journalist by that point for 20 years. He told me it was natural to feel sad in the face of suffering, including my own. This was novel to me as I had been brought up to put my needs—my suffering—aside and be strong for others. He told me I needed to be present to my own suffering, because my new medical reality had upturned everything I knew about myself and believed about my place in the world and my future in it. He also told me I was very resilient and that this was an “exciting” time in my life because it would give me the opportunity to reexamine nearly everything. That’s what got me thinking about resilience, and reading more about it.

I have always been very interested in psychology and mental health, so it was natural for me to explore the subject. In my exploration I found in new research that in fact most gay men are amazingly resilient in spite of the profound traumas most of us experience beginning in our boyhoods. I wanted to know how that could be, and so I explored the subject further by interviewing researchers, reading books and journal articles, and talking with other gay men. All that led eventually to writing Stonewall Strong.

What is the book about?

As the book’s subtitle describes it, it’s about “gay men’s heroic fight for resilience, good health, and a strong community.” What distinguishes the book from any other book I’m aware of is that it starts from a very positive place in telling stories from gay men’s lives. We are familiar with the “victim” narratives, that focus on how abused and wronged we gay men are. I flip the narrative on its head, telling our stories from the vantage point of strength—looking through a different lens to focus on the bravery, courage, resilience, and strength gay men have exhibited even before the 1969 Stonewall riots and as we particularly demonstrated in the AIDS epidemic. I like to say the book celebrates gay men’s remarkable resilience, because it really does frame our experiences as tales of survival and strength rather than weakness and defeat.

What memories of resilience do you have about your time living in Washington?

I first moved to Washington in the fall of 1985, while I was working on my master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University. I participated in the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program where I was a working reporter for a Wisconsin newspaper in the school’s Medill News Service. That fall I met a man who changed my life through his passion and commitment to helping our gay community’s efforts to address HIV-AIDS. Bill Bailey became not only a mentor, but also the love of my young life. He told me it was my duty as a gay man who was a journalist to use my skills to chronicle and document our community’s valiant efforts to address the epidemic.

Through Bill I made many professional contacts, in Washington and across the country, who became important sources for my reporting as I focused on writing about HIV-AIDS. Being involved professionally with the issue meant I also knew many gay men who were diagnosed with, and killed by, AIDS. It was a gut-wrenching experience to live through what gay men call the “dark years” of the 1980s, before there was effective treatment for HIV. Everything I had been taught about putting aside my needs and my fears to be strong for others came to the fore as I comforted friends and attended multiple memorials.

I lived in Washington when I was diagnosed with HIV in 2005. I had to learn to apply to myself what I had learned in my many years of being strong for others. I really had to dig deep into my heart and soul to affirm myself and resist the shame and stigma that, even in 2017, too many people still expect someone living with this particular virus to bear.

A cornerstone of my spirituality is my belief in Incarnation, the idea that God took on human flesh and thereby validated our existence as physical beings living in a dangerous world. One of the many dangers we face is lethal microbes such as HIV. Of themselves they have no meaning whatsoever, but many humans insist on attaching meaning to them as a way of protecting themselves against their own fear that something like HIV infection could happen to them or someone they love. I choose to embrace compassion and love for my fellow humans regardless of the medical misfortunes that befall them precisely because I believe that as incarnated beings we simply must make the very best of our time on this earth. As such, judging others for their medical challenges is wrong.

Why was it important to you to include a chapter on the resilience of gay men’s faith during the height of the AIDS crisis?

Partly because of what I just described about my own beliefs, but more importantly because of the erroneous belief that “all” gay men and other people in the LGBTQ community reject religious faith and that “all” religions reject LGBTQ people. It’s simply not true, as the studies and national surveys I highlight in the book bear out.

The interesting thing is that as fewer Americans identify with particular religious institutions, or as people of faith, the trend is the opposite among LGBTQ people. This may be surprising if you don’t believe—as I do—that LGBTQ people tend to be quite spiritual even if they don’t identify as “religious.” The pioneering gay activist Harry Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950 and later the gay spiritual group called the Radical Faeries, certainly believed strongly that gay people are very spiritual. In fact he described us as “spirit people” as he explored the questions that intrigued him: Who are we (gay people)? What are we for? What role do we play in society? Hay believed our role has much to do with saving heterosexuals from straight men’s tendency toward violence and domination.

What role can the Church continue to play?

The Church, broadly defined, can play a powerful role by being a beacon of light and love in the world. As I note—and quote from the gay and lesbian religious leaders I interviewed for Stonewall Strong—the Church runs into problems when it focuses on being an institution rather than a force for good, when people get hung up on, say, the rules and protocols of the liturgy rather than the power of a loving community that embraces all of us. My understanding of Christianity, as Jesus modeled it, is that by loving and affirming us to become all God created us to be, we are prone to rise to become our best. No one wants to be chastised and told we are evil and sinful. Jesus didn’t judge others, even those noted for their sin. He embraced them, welcomed them, dined with them, and by doing so made them feel loved to the point that they wanted to be good, ethical people.

What do you say to people who feel that HIV-AIDS advocacy is a thing of the past?

I say that they need to pay attention to current politics and see how fragile all our gains really are. It’s wonderful that we have effective treatment for HIV that lets people like me live with the virus rather than get sick and die like too many of my friends did in our young years. It’s exciting that the HIV drug Truvada, used as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), can help people to remain uninfected while they hopefully explore the reasons they choose to have unprotected sex. I report in the book how PrEP has created a new level of comfort among gay men in San Francisco, reduced fear and allowed men to enjoy one another without the fear that this one or that one might be “the one” who gives them HIV. But these wonderful things are contingent upon people having access to them, the ability to pay for them and use them properly. Sadly, there are still too many people—and too frequently claiming to have a mandate from God—who would prefer that LGBTQ people return to our closets of shame and silence so they won’t be troubled by our existence. When those people are in power, they are able to inflict their views on the rest of us through government policy. This is why we must constantly remain vigilant and guard against those who would not hesitate to undo our hard-earned gains, whether it’s legal same-sex marriage or access to lifesaving HIV prevention and treatment.

What do you feel the younger generation of the LGBTQ community has failed to understand about the generation you represent? And conversely, what is something you think your generation doesn’t appreciate about the new generation?

First let me say I am 59 years old, and not afraid to say so. I saw too many of my friends and age peers die in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, to be concerned about others’ stigmatizing me for being an “older” gay man. The penultimate chapter of Stonewall Strong is called “Defining ‘Old’ for Ourselves” with the subtitle “The open secret is that most of us already do.”

There is terrible ageism in the gay male community, probably because most gay men do not have children and therefore do not have the expectation that someone will be there to care for (and about) them as they age. We tend to be “in the market” sexually and romantically speaking than typical heterosexuals. In a culture that overly values youth, it’s too easy to internalize the message that as we age we lose our value as partners and members of the community. This is harmful to us as individuals and to our community. Real communities value their elders, and elders in real communities respect their own roles as keepers of history, lore, and wisdom. It’s time for older gay men to claim our role as elders. Whether younger men will feel less terrified of aging when we do is up to them as individuals, as are most of the choices we each make about how to live our lives. I say that “most of us already do” define for ourselves what it means to be older or old because that is my experience—and the experience of an exceptional number of gay men, some of whom I profile in the book.

As for my fellow gay men “of a certain age,” I think that we can find ways to relate our experience to younger men that don’t smack of reverse-ageism and condescension by looking for common ground. I’ve heard young people say what they’d like to hear us talk about how we have dealt with being “different.” Whatever label we use for ourselves—gay, queer, cisgender, transgender, whatever—we in the LGBTQ community are each and all “different” in our way from the predominant heterosexual man or woman. I expect we have all had to deal with being bullied or mistreated in some way because of it. We’ve had to wrestle with finding for ourselves a way to live our truth in the face of others’ disapproval. We can support one another across the generations by relating the truth of our experience without weighting it to favor or slight a particular generation. Young people offer new ways of thinking about things, and of course their marvelous energy and enthusiasm, and those are valuable in our community and in showing the world a positive image of who we are today.

What role do you think gay men should play in advocating for the rights of other oppressed groups?

Gay men, when we are in touch with ourselves at a deeper level, have the capacity to empathize with other people to a degree that isn’t as common among heterosexual men. In fact, the men I interviewed for Stonewall Strong who work in the corporate sector—Todd Sears, founder of OUT Leadership in New York City, and Brian McNaught, one of the country’s best known corporate diversity trainers—point out that large companies today recognize the unique value that gay men bring to their work precisely because of their strong ability to empathize with an array of different people. I believe that our experience of being bullied and stigmatized for being “different” gives us the ability to relate to other oppressed people in a real and profound way.

An example from my own life was in my first visit to Africa. I was in Nigeria with my former job as senior editor for FHI360, known then as Family Health International. I was part of a training conference for community-based HIV-AIDS service providers. I was the only white person there, which for most white Americans is a pretty rare experience. During our lunch break, all of us went outside the hotel for a group photo. I was asked to sit in the front row because I was treated like an honored guest. There, against the rows of dark-skinned Nigerian men and women, dressed in their beautiful, colorful clothing, you see my shiny bald white head. I treasure this photo because for me it represents what it is like to be the “only one,” the only one who looks like you. As a gay man, I know very well how that feels, but this was the first time I had the experience of being different from the majority because of my skin color, too. From that experience, I took away a greater sensitivity to others I encounter who likewise stand out in a room because they are different—and it makes me want to welcome them because I know how that feels.

Advent Inspiration

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
Mark 13:37

In recent weeks I’ve been part of conversations that, while different in topic, circled around a common theme. In each, people have expressed gratitude for the blessings of their immediate lives while voicing real concern, discouragement, and even fear when considering what is happening in our country and the world.  

The common theme, as I hear it, is a haunting question, not unique to us, but one with increasing urgency in our time: “How are we to live?” Those of us who follow Jesus might ask the same question another way, “Where is Jesus making his presence known and asking us to join him there?”

This is our Advent–a season of watching and paying attention. Scripture teaches us that faithfulness is needed most in unsettled times, when we do not know what each day will bring.

The first week of Advent happens to correspond with my second week on an intentional practice of gratitude. I’m learning that giving thanks for the small, often unnoticed blessings of each day helps keep me grounded in all that is good. And that in the midst of all for which I am decidedly not grateful, there is always someone or something for which to offer thanks. That awareness strengthens my desire not to simply bemoan what is wrong, but to be part of a creative, life-giving response.

So I am on the watch, now, for Advent inspiration. I’m not avoiding the harder realities, but as I face into them, I’ve resolved to keep awake and pay attention to those whose faithful examples I want to emulate.

Next week I’ll write of two such people. I invite you to be on the watch for your Advent inspirations, and share them with us.

The American Holiday: Thanksgiving Message

The American Holiday: Thanksgiving Message

Across our nation, people of every background and tradition celebrate Thanksgiving as a distinctly American holiday, rooted in gratitude. In the great diversity of faith traditions, we gather at table to give thanks for our many blessings. We pause to thank our Creator and, at the same time, celebrate our freedom. Thanksgiving is not only an historical celebration, but a present reality in which even the most recent arrival in our nation rejoices.


Among the blessings Americans share is the gift of freedom. We celebrate its many expressions, including the freedom to practice one’s faith. Another is our freedom of speech and the liberty to express ourselves. We recognize, however, that freedom of expression carries the responsibility to do so with mutual respect and civility. As Americans, we are all free to speak what we believe to be the truth, but we are also challenged to do so in love, in the spirit of universal kinship recognizing the dignity of every person.


For both the freedom and the challenge we give thanks. And we wish a peaceful, happy Thanksgiving to all.

The Solidarity Table

Bishop Mariann Budde

Episcopal Diocese of Washington


Imam Talib Shareef

Masjid Muhammad – The Nation’s Mosque


Rabbi Bruce Lustig

Washington Hebrew Congregation


Cardinal Donald Wuerl

Archdiocese of Washington

Speak Lord, I’m Listening (St. Andrew’s Day/Confirmation service)

Moses said to the people of Israel: Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. 
Deuteronomy 30: 11-14

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 
Matthew 4:18-22

There’s  a story in the Bible about a young boy, Samuel, whose mother had sent him to live with the priest of a nearby town, an old, wise and holy man by the name of Eli. One night, as both were sleeping, Samuel heard a voice calling him by name: “Samuel!” He got up, ran to Eli’s room, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli said, “I didn’t call you my son. Go back to sleep.” So Samuel went to his bed and fell back asleep. Later that night, he heard the voice again, “Samuel!” So he go up, went to Eli’s room again and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli said again. “I didn’t call you, Samuel. Go back to sleep.” When it happened a third time, Eli realized that something important was happening, that it was God speaking to Samuel in the night. So he said to Samuel, “Go back to sleep, and when you hear the voice call your name, don’t come to me. Stay put and say this: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  

I have something to say to those being confirmed and received into the Episcopal Church today. But I’m also speaking to all who are here with you, and I’m also speaking, as I often must, to myself.

There is one thing you can do that has the power to change the course of your life for the better, to guide you through your most perplexing times, help ground you when life gets crazy busy, sustain you with strength when you need it most, validate your gifts and encourage you to take them seriously, give you assurance that you are not alone in this world, challenge you to be all that God created you to be, and to love others as God loves you.

This one thing is well within your capacity and mine. As we heard from the Book of Deuteronomy, “This is not too hard for you, nor is it far away.” It doesn’t require you to step out of your life as it is. If you forget or stop doing this one thing, it’s easy to get back on track, without a lot of unnecessary guilt or concern that you’re a bad person, because you’re not. You don’t have to be an expert at this one thing–in fact, there are few such experts, and I am not among them. And this one thing doesn’t take a lot of time.  

Are you ready? Here it is:

Find a small bit of time each day to sit, or walk, or ride your bike, or drive in your car in silence. No ear buds. No radio or TV. No video games. No texting. No Facebook. Start with 10 minutes if you can. After a while, you’ll want more than 10, but 10 is a good place to start.

And in that 10 minutes–or 15 or 20–do two things.

First–empty your mind by saying out loud all the things that you’re thinking about, are worried about, that you want to have happen, wish were true, and are grateful for. Ask, specifically, for what you want or need. Ask for help. Ask for guidance.   

This is the first step of an honest, open relationship with God–personal prayer. It’s important to be completely honest; there’s nothing to gained in trying to be more religious than you are. Nothing you say or do will be shocking to God. There is no topic that’s inappropriate in prayer. You don’t have to clean up your language, or pretend to be someone you’re not.

Nor does it matter if you aren’t sure that anyone is listening as you’re talking. In other words, you  needn’t worry whether or not you happen to believe in God on a given day, or wonder, as all do sometimes, if God is for real. If you aren’t sure how to imagine what God is like, maybe I can help.

For those of us in the Christian faith, there are two images of God that Jesus wanted us to keep before us as we pray. The first image is the one he used when he went off to pray, which he did quite a bit, and that is as a loving parent: He addressed God in his language as “Abba,” which translates to something like “Papa,” or  “Dad.” And he wanted us to think of this heavenly parent as one who always loves us, no matter what. I don’t think this means that God is a man, as your biological father is a man. So if it helps to think of God as a really kind and generous and unconditionally loving mom, that’s fine, too. Jesus used feminine images of God as well. Male or female, the image is simply one of someone who really, really, really loves you. And who is always willing to meet you way more than half way.

The second image Jesus wanted us to have when we talk to God is of himself, the one who gave his life for us. At supper for the last time with the disciples, he said to them, “You are my friends.” Think of  me, he says, as you would a really good friend, one who always has your best interest at heart. After the resurrection he told them, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He is with us, too.

So again, in that first part of your quiet time, put to words what is on your heart and mind. If you’re feeling great about something, let God know, and offer thanks. If you’ve got a big decision to make and need guidance; if you’re feeling embarrassed or ashamed or foolish or worried, give voice to whatever is inside you.  

Then–here’s the second part–stop and say your version of what Eli said to Samuel: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And wait.

If your experience is anything like mine, waiting in silence takes getting used to. You may not “hear” anything at all. You won’t often receive an immediate response, although it can happen. More often, what we hear comes over time. And “hearing” may not be the right word for the experience. It can be more like a sensation, a feeling, even a source of tension. Pay attention. Also, it may not come during your allotted quiet time, but later, while you’re doing something else. But whatever you feel or hear, whenever you feel or hear it, pay attention.

This “speak Lord, for your servant is listening” part of the conversation is also challenging, in my experience, because when I allow myself to be quiet, a lot voices in my head suddenly get very loud. Many of those voices are harsh and judgmental; some are self-justifying. Most are not positive, I have to say. Many are the fruit of anxiety. So I need help, sometimes, when determining which, if any, of the voices in my head are from God. I’ve learned that it’s good to talk with someone who is wise and experienced in these matters. Reverend Beverly could be that person for you, or anyone else who has walked the path of faith.

Here’s one thing that the wise people in my life consistently say to me that I’m happy to pass on to you: If the voice you hear is not one of love, then it’s not the voice of God. I repeat: If it’s not of love, it’s not  of God. That doesn’t mean God is a pushover, or fooled by your self-deceptions and mine. But God’s voice, Jesus’ presence with us, will always be one of love. It will also call the best forth from us and will gently chastise us whenever we settle for a lesser version of ourselves. That happened to me just yesterday, when I heard myself, in conversation with someone,  say something unkind about another person that we both know. What I said happens to be true, in my opinion,  but when I said it, I heard a voice inside me say, “Was that kind? Was it necessary? How would you feel if that person heard what you said and the way you said it?” And I resolved to be more careful with my speech.  

Something else you will hear in your quiet time, is what in religious language we describe as a call, not unlike Andrew and Peter heard Jesus’ call them. It feels more like a summons, Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Like for Andrew and Peter, it will be for you and for a particular call. There is nothing abstract or ambiguous about it. As you answer the call, it becomes the  guiding light of your life. It is always explicitly religious in nature, and it can take many forms. Again, as an example from my life, last summer, at the worst possible time for me to leave work for 2 weeks, my mother got really sick, and there was no doubt in my mind where I was meant to be.

What I have been describing to you is a simple practice that doesn’t take a lot of time, but like most things that matter in life, what matters in this kind of prayer is consistency over time. It’s not so different from things like brushing your teeth: if you brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes, you will, by and large, have teeth to last a lifetime. You can skip a day or two, or even a week. Skip a year, and your teeth are at risk. Personal prayer is like that.  

There will be times, whole seasons likely, when it will be impossible for you to find even 10 minutes a day. Or when you have the time but can’t bring yourself to sit still long. It is certainly true for me. What I know is that God understands, doesn’t judge, and will gladly meet us on the run. Most of my praying is prayer on the run. What you can do in those times is take what you’re already doing and make it your prayer time: you’re walking the dog; you’re driving to school; you’re practicing a sport or instrument. Offer that time as your prayer.

It’s not the only practice that informs a life with God, but it’s one of the most important, and the one we have most control over. It’s never too late to start or begin again. It will help you understand why a life of faith matters, why we do and say all that we do and say in church. Because you will have your own relationship with God, with Jesus, one that will grow and deepen over time. You will learn to recognize Jesus’ voice.

The reason I’m stressing for you, and for all of us, the power of personal prayer, is simply this: it has the power to change the course of your life for the better, to guide you through your most perplexing times, help ground you when life gets crazy busy, sustain you with strength when you need it most, validate your gifts and encourage you to take them seriously, give you assurance that you are not alone in this world, challenge you to be all that God created you to be, and to love others as God loves you.

I want that for you. As you say your words to confirm or reaffirm your faith, ask yourself if you might commit to this one thing. I hope you do. It will make a difference in ways you may never know, not only for you, but for everyone around you. You will become a robust, loving, spiritually grounded person, the kind of person others turn to for strength and courage, forgiveness and love. You will hear Jesus call you by name, as he called his first followers, and ask you to follow him. Then he will guide you on the path that is uniquely yours.


Ordained Leadership (Deacon Ordination)

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”, for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’
Jeremiah 1:4-9

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:-6

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

Luke 12:35-38

Let me begin with a word of admiration and gratitude: Marilyn and Diana, those of us who have shared even a portion of the journey that has brought you to this place are rightfully in awe, not only of what you have undertaken, but the way in which you have opened and challenged yourselves, intentionally placed yourselves in environments sure to stretch and, by the grace of God, transform you. And you have done so with grace and grit.

I  know your hearts are full to the brim with gratitude for all who have supported and loved you along the way, many of whom are here to celebrate this particular marker, the day God places upon you a mantle of spiritual leadership. We are here to witness and celebrate with you, and pray this may be for you an occasion of unambiguous joy.

The Danish writer Isak Dinesen once suggested that there are three occasions for such joy in human life: when there is an excess of energy; during the cessation of pain; and when we possess the absolute certainty that we are doing the will of God. The first of these, she said, belongs mostly to youth, and the second is, by definition, brief. The third, however, is open to anyone at all times.(Quoted in Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations  by Robert A. Johnson.)

Now, rarely can I say with absolute certainty that I am doing the will of God. But I do know what it feels like when God seems to honor and bless the best of my intentions with an experience of affirmation and love. I think that’s what Jesus experienced when he rose from the waters of baptism, and several years later, when he stood on a mountain coming to terms with his destiny in Jerusalem. Both times he heard a voice, saying, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Diana and Marilyn, we have no doubt that you are God’s beloved, and that with you God is well pleased. I daresay God is grateful and so are we.

On this, the first of your ordinations, I’d like to speak briefly about the difference between ordained ministry and ordained leadership. The two share a common foundation, but they are not the same vocation. One isn’t better than the other, but there are times, places, and entire seasons when there is greater need for one or the other.

I’m not entirely sure if the distinction holds up entirely–in other words, I may not have this exactly right. As a preacher on occasions like this, I often feel as if I should give the disclaimer included in the welcoming address given to those entering medical school: “50% of what we will teach you here will one day be proven wrong. The problem is we don’t know what 50%.” So take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

Here is the common foundation for ordained ministry and leadership: a life-changing encounter with God, our version of what Jeremiah experienced when God said to him, “I am with you wherever you go.” For Christians, the divine encounter is through the living presence of Christ, one that compels us to dedicate our lives to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the gospels, follow him in the ways of love, and take our place in the community of Jesus followers across time and space.

That is the spiritual touchstone for all in ordained leadership, but it is not just for us. As Isak Dinesen said, the experience of knowing God and feeling the power of divine affirmation is open to everyone. Jesus, of all people, stood for that–he was determined to break down the barriers that professional religious people who look like me, and in short order like you, are tempted to put up that intentionally or unintentionally communicate a kind of spiritual caste system.

But that experience is the foundation for ordained life: knowing ourselves as being known and loved by God, and wanting to love God back which always involves loving other people as Jesus loved and loves us still.

Another dimension of that common foundation is a sense of call, the experience of  feeling a claim placed on our lives, a beckoning, a path opening. Again, this experience is not unique to ordained life, as you know from other times in your life when you felt called to something, and as you observe others whom God is clearly calling in particular ways. But it is an essential part of this life, which is important to remember when things get tough. If you’re called to a particular path, you don’t stop when it’s no longer fun or when the lights go dim and you can’t see where it’s taking you.

What distinguishes ordained ministry from ordained leadership may be as simple as this: in ordained ministry, our primary focus is on individuals and the ways we might be of service to them, in concert with the Spirit of God working within them and in us in a moment of encounter. It’s a wonderful experience; perhaps the greatest joy for most of us in ordained life. Most clergy I know–and I include myself here–wish that we could spend most of our time focusing on individuals. Many in our congregations want the same from us. I see it all the time in parish profiles. People want their clergy to love them, care for them, show up in the hospital, be there in the hour of need, inspire and encourage them as individuals from the pulpit.

In ordained leadership, the focus shifts to the collective–who are we as a people, as a church? Where is God leading us, what might God be calling forth from us. It’s a different focus, a different responsibility, and frankly, it’s a lot harder than ordained ministry and the possibilities for failure are greater. Because leadership involves collective movement in a common direction, and all the dynamics of collective human behavior come into play, some of which are not pretty.

You two have been called into ordained life when in the Episcopal Church there is a disproportionate need for leadership, because as an institution, as the Episcopal expression of the Body of Christ in our time, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, there is need for collective spiritual renewal and structural transformation. While there are certain pockets of health in the Episcopal Church, the collective indicators of vitality are worrisome for those of us who love and have found our spiritual home in this church. Our church needs leaders. You are here today because in the screening and discerning process of this diocese we have seen in you the potential for leadership.

So I say to you, as your bishop, colleague and friend: from the beginning of your ordained life until you retire, you must be a student of leadership. Not many of our clergy, frankly, are interested in leadership. They felt the call to ministry and want to spend their time ministering to individual people. They don’t like to be evaluated on the scales of leadership. None of us does. So we’ll say things like, “It’s not about the numbers.” How on earth can it not be about the numbers if numbers represent people, and our church isn’t reaching very many people?

I often think in this context of a literary character: the Presbyterian minister in Norman MacLean’s story, A River Runs Through It. He had two sons and loved them both. One, however, did not want his love in the way the father tried to give it. At his son’s funeral, he said it was the greatest sorrow of his life–to have love to give that is not wanted. How do we, as a church, adapt what we have to offer so that it can be received by those around us?

There are many things I love about the Episcopal Church, far too many count. There are many reasons why I believe this particular expression of the Christian faith is of priceless value in our time. I’ve dedicated my life to the task of its spiritual renewal and structural transformation, so that our church might thrive in the mission fields we find ourselves in.

But one thing I don’t love about our church is our tendency to criticize and distance ourselves from other Christians that we don’t like or understand. We spend a lot of collective energy defining ourselves over and against other Christians, even those who clearly know things we need to learn. Now, I am the first to take offense and speak out against the caricatures of Christianity masquerading in our culture right now, but as a people we could use a little more humility and curiosity about the expressions of Christian community that are, in fact, reaching people and why–not to become something we’re not, but to learn from those who have something important to teach. We still seem determined to continue to offer what the vast majority of people are telling us that they do not want or need. There’s purity in that. But is it wise?

Diana and Marilyn, the three of us are close in age. I came to ordained life as a young adult and have lived my vocation in the church; you have lived your vocation thus far in other institutions from which you have garnered  important experiences of leadership. You are now persuaded, and so are we, that God is calling you to offer your leadership in the church.

The three of us will share, God willing, a season of leadership in this diocese together. On our watch, we are responsible, as all leaders are, not only for the present, but the future, not only for those in our churches now, but those who might experience the love of God and the claim of Christ because of our church’s witness and vibrant expression of the Gospel.

The next decade is critical in the life our church. It’s also critical in the life of our country, and for the future of our species. Even as you strive to follow the one who calls us all, to be a servant among us, do not be afraid to lead. You will need all the ministry skills you have and can develop, so that others will trust enough to follow you.

The foundation beneath you is sure: God loves you unconditionally. Christ is with you always. You have been called to this.

Do not be afraid to lead.