Becoming Good Soil: 2019 Diocesan Convention Address

by | Jan 26, 2019

‘Listen!” Jesus said. “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
Mark 4:1-9 

I speak you today about the work of becoming good soil.

In December 2017, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited a small group of leaders to help him think through an issue on his mind. This was six months before his sermon at the Royal Wedding made him the most famous Episcopalian on the planet. But his sermon wasn’t news for us. Bishop Curry has inspired the Episcopal Church with his preaching for years. Since his election as presiding bishop in 2015, he has been a one-man revival, traveling around the country and the world, calling upon us and every member of the Episcopal Church to renew our commitment to Jesus and his gospel of love.  

The Presiding Bishop describes himself as our C.E.O.– Chief Evangelism Officer. He speaks of following Jesus with passion and joy. That’s what the world is responding to–his joy in following Jesus, even as he unflinchingly engages the most challenging and controversial issues of our time. He’s not afraid to talk about race, about gun violence prevention, about the scandal of separating children from their parents at the border, but he does so in the context of his commitment to follow Jesus in the way of love. “The church is a movement,” he says any chance he gets, urging us to think of ourselves the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. Every time he says that, we all cheer.

But the reason he wanted to meet back in December of 2017 was that he realized the Episcopal Church was, in many ways, stuck, and that his preaching alone would not make us unstuck. Our church needed a revival of faith embedded in our personal lives, in our structures for the church’s ministry, and an outwardly focused commitment to love, as Jesus loves, our neighbors, and foreigners, and our enemies.

So the Presiding Bishop wanted to talk evangelism strategy. For two days, a dozen of us prayed and wondered together how best to be faithful to Jesus and his movement. What more could the Presiding Bishop do? What could we do, not just to ensure the survival of our churches, but  that we as a people might become more joyful, loving, and compelling in our witness as followers of Jesus?

Part of the problem, we told ourselves–maybe you’ve told yourself this–is that we Episcopalians, in general, don’t like to talk about our faith. As a whole, we don’t invite our friends to church very often. And while every Episcopal congregation likes to think of itself as warm and welcoming, the data suggests otherwise. We acknowledged that, as a denomination, we can be rather inflexible when it comes to our preferences in church. Our preferences may be fine, but starting with them may not be the most fruitful approach to evangelism. On and on we talked about what we could do better, how we might try harder.

Finally, someone asked the Presiding Bishop what was his greatest concern. He was quiet for a moment. “As I travel around the church,” he said, “I worry that the majority of our people don’t know for themselves the unconditional love of God. I worry that the reason they’re hesitant to speak of Jesus is because they don’t know him, really. I know that we need to learn to be more welcoming, to stand for justice, and do all sorts of things,” he said, “but I wonder if our people could use a bit more Jesus.”  

He didn’t get any argument from us. There wasn’t a person around that table who didn’t need a bit more Jesus, including me. I found myself thinking about a passage I had just read in a book by the Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton about the power of the Holy Spirit: “I think that many Christians live Spirit-deficient lives,” he writes, “a bit like someone who is sleep-deprived, nutrient-deprived, or oxygen-deprived. Many Christians haven’t been taught about the Spirit, nor encouraged to seek the Spirit’s work in their lives. As a result, our spiritual lives are a bit anemic as we try living the Christian life by our own power and wisdom.” I know what it’s like to try and live the Christian life by my own power and wisdom. It’s exhausting.

At the end of our meeting the Presiding Bishop told us that he wanted to spend the rest of his tenure helping Episcopalians experience the love of God, and to deepen our commitment to follow Jesus in the ways of love. We said that we wanted to help. The circle soon grew wider to include many gifted teachers and writers in the Episcopal Church. From this rich collaboration was born The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focus life. At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention last summer, the Presiding Bishop asked every Episcopalian to adopt the Way of Love as our personal rule of life.

There’s nothing radically new about the Way of Love. It’s a gentle reframing of ancient spiritual practices that have formed the church from its earliest days and point us back to the promises made at our baptism. They are practices that help us remember that the church is not a building, but is a gathering of people who experience God through the spiritual presence and teachings of Jesus and have chosen to follow him in his ways of love for the world. You each received a small card with the practices described inside. They are to turn, to learn, and to pray; to worship; to bless and to go, and finally to rest.

The Way of Love is the presiding bishop’s invitation to us to invest in our spiritual growth and ensure that all we do as the Episcopal Church is rooted in a love relationship with Jesus. Our diocese was the first in the country to offer liturgical resources to explore the Way of Love as part of  Sunday worship which nearly thirty congregations in the diocese have offered or are offering now.

Wouldn’t be amazing if we all focused on core spiritual practices, not just once, but on a regular basis, as part of what it means for us to be church? There are many to do this: you might read in small groups Bishop Curry’s latest book, The Power of Love, this Lent or at another time, copies of which we have on sale at the Way of Love table. You might host a Way of Love retreat, as St. John’s, Lafayette Square and St. Albans Parish are doing this Lent. You could ask members of your church to give their testimonies on how one of the spiritual practices informs their life, as Church of the Good Shepherd, Silver Spring is doing now. The possibilities are many, and there is a large and growing body of spiritual resources that we will continue to curate on the diocesan website.

This time next year, our Chief Evangelism Officer will be our preacher at Convention, and he will lead a diocesan revival the night before. I’m confident that the event will be compelling enough for us to invite our friends. But surely we also want to invite those same friends to visit our joyful, healthy, compelling faith communities. Practicing the Way of Love together is but one way we can work to tend to the spiritual soil of our lives and our congregations. Then when others ask us what it means to be an Episcopalian Christian, we can not only point to the Presiding Bishop, but describe how we, as communities and individual disciples, are walking in Jesus’ way of love.  

There are other ways we can to tend to our soil. One of the reasons I wanted you to hear Nancy Beach is because the kind of relationship health and alignment among congregational leaders that she describes is foundational for everything we do. To the degree that congregational leadership is healthy, ministries can thrive, even in the most adverse circumstances. Conversely, to the degree that our leadership is languishing or conflicted and relationships are strained, ministries are diminished, no matter how hard we work at them. We all have room for growth and improvement here–none of us, I daresay scored a “ten” in every area of congregational health. These are important conversations to have, honestly and courageously. And we, your diocesan staff, are here to help.

What other ways can we tend to our soil? I learned long ago as a parish priest that spiritually healthy and well-resourced congregations are more joyful and fun to be a part of than conflicted, struggling, or under-resourced congregations. We’ve spent considerable time and energy in the last few years addressing the resourcing of congregations, and that soil-tending work will continue. It is the driving impetus behind all our collaborative endeavors, the establishment of the diaconate, congregational growth grants, internship placements for new priests, the financial resources committee, and the investment in diocesan staff who can be of concrete assistance during times of leadership transition, the cultivation of new ministry opportunities, and congregational care.

From the beginning of my episcopate, my primary vocation has been to strengthen the spiritual vitality and structural capacity of our congregations. I’ve dedicated my life to this work because, like you, I love the Episcopal Church and I don’t believe that institutional decline, or even maintenance, is God’s preferred future for us when we have so much to offer. The Episcopal Church is a spiritual treasure on the spectrum of Christianity, a sacramental and generous way of living the Gospel of Jesus that is of priceless value.

There are amazing expressions of hope and vitality throughout the diocese, for which I give thanks to God, and there are places where we are, in one way or another, are a bit stuck, and sometimes overwhelmed by the challenges we face, not to mention the challenges in our communities and the nation as a whole.

All these things were on my mind when, not long after that gathering with the Presiding Bishop, this wonderful diocese granted me a three-month sabbatical. During that time I studied non-Episcopal churches throughout the geographic boundaries of our diocese, churches that are thriving within the actual soil that we share with them. I introduced myself to their leaders, studied their offerings, learned all that I could about the way their ministry is structured. In every church, I was met with warmth, respect, and an eagerness to share.

I could speak at length about what I learned and how much we have to learn from our siblings in Christ from other traditions. But my learnings, important as they are, were not the most important fruit of my time apart. That fruit was more personal.

Jesus wanted to have some conversations with me about our relationship. You would recognize from Scripture some of the questions I heard him ask–questions I have circled around all my life: “Do you love me?” “Who do you say that I am?” “What do you want me to do for you?”

In long stretches of silence, Jesus and I looked back together on the seven years I had served thus far as your bishop, which was an exercise in both humility and gratitude–humility for my mistakes and all that I am still learning, and gratitude for the privilege of this work and for you. “Did I still feel called to this work?” I’m not sure who asked the question first, Jesus, or me, or my sweet, long-suffering husband Paul. But it was an easy question to answer.  Yes, without hesitation. Because I love Jesus. I love the Episcopal Church. I love serving as your bishop, and I love you.

Then Jesus and I looked toward the future. “What kind of bishop do you need me to be?” I asked him. “What kind of bishop does the Diocese of Washington need now?” I had a strong sense that the diocese needed a different kind of leadership in the next seven years, but could I be that leader? How did I need to change and grow?  

“You’re trying to do this too much from your own strength and power,” Jesus told me. No surprise there; it is, to quote St. Paul, “the sin that lives within me.”  “Abide in me,” Jesus said, “and ask our people for help.”

What came to me was not that I needed to make a change in direction or initiative, but rather that Jesus was inviting me to rededicate my life to him and to the spiritual practices that keep me close to him. And that I needed your help in clarifying our vision and priorities for the next season of ministry together.

Thus when I returned from sabbatical, I asked diocesan leaders to help establish a process of taking stock of where we are now–our strengths and challenges, where we see fruitfulness in our ministries and where we struggle–and then together commit to a mutually-discerned vision of God’s preferred future for our diocese. I am persuaded that this work is best accomplished taking into account the distinctive contexts of each geographic region and constituency, building upon the work we have begun, so that we can establish particular priorities and goals for each and direct resources and energies accordingly.

This is the work of strategic planning, which In some ways is an organizational expression of a rule of life, a way to focus our energies and practices toward greater health and vitality. Several of our strongest congregations engage in this work regularly; some of you are in a season of planning now. Our schools do this work as a matter of course. Washington National Cathedral has just completed the discernment phase of its strategic plan, and is now setting up structures for implementation.

Now, I first heard Tony Morgan utter the phrase “holy interruption” at a leadership conference in 2017. He stood on a stage in front of nearly 2000 people, and on a whiteboard drew a simple bell curve.  

“I am the founding director of an organization that helps churches get unstuck,” he said. “We’ve worked with hundreds of churches of all sizes, denominations, and in varying settings. What we’ve learned is that all churches experience a similar life cycle.” He proceeded to describe the phases of that cycle: Launch/Momentum, Growth/Strategic, Growth/Sustained, Health/Maintenance, Preservation/Life Support.

As Tony described what churches experience and how they function in each  stage of the life cycle, I recognized our congregations in both their opportunities and their struggles. I was intrigued by the specific, practical suggestions Tony offered to support congregations in stages of momentum and health and to move out of stuckness and decline. There is always hope for transformation and new life, no matter where a church is in the life cycle, but to move from maintenance and preservation to momentum growth and sustained health requires more than hope, more than trying harder at the things that are no longer bearing fruit.

I invited Tony to address our clergy conference last spring, and many responded positively to his ideas and shared them with their vestries. Several asked if we might bring Tony back and organize learning cohorts. Based on that response, we decided to invite Tony to speak at the pre-convention event last night–all of this in hopes that you might find hope and inspiration and concrete suggestions for moving toward or sustaining momentum and health.

As we began in earnest looking for professional guidance to help us in the work of strategic planning, the Unstuck Group submitted a proposal, which was the one we accepted. I was drawn to them because of the reality-based practical nature of their approach. Working with them will give every congregation that chooses to engage an opportunity for self-assessment and collaborative learning.

Wouldn’t it be amazing for us to be able to say in three to five years, “Here are the fruits of tending to our soil, fruits of spiritual growth, more vibrant congregations, and deeper engagement in our communities, in faithfulness to Jesus and his mission of love?

My friends in Christ, I invite every congregation represented here to participate in this season of collective discernment and strategic planning. I ask for your help, excited by the possibilities of what could be true for us in the years ahead. I also want to be the kind of bishop who is held accountable by God and by you to the mission, vision, and collective priorities that we discern together.

Among the first steps: all congregational leaders–clergy, wardens, and vestries–will soon receive an invitation to take an online assessment to determine, in broad strokes, where your congregations fall on the life cycle. You’ll also be given free access to an online course sponsored by the Unstuck Group, to learn more about their process and specific suggestions for each stage of the life cycle. For those who’d like to make a deeper commitment to your own work as a congregation, there is the option of a year-long strategic process for you, and the opportunity to form learning cohorts with other congregational leaders.

We’re in the process now of establishing leadership teams in each region of the diocese. In the next two months, each team will determine the best way to engage the regional congregations and convene a discovery session. It’s an opportunity for congregational leaders to pray together, share their experiences, and listen for God’s call.  

When the discovery sessions are completed sometime in late spring, one or two leaders from each region will join diocesan staff for a 2-day retreat, to pray and reflect on all that we’ve learned in the discovery process. That group will begin the process of articulating the core mission for congregations in the Diocese of Washington, a collective vision of God’s preferred future for us, and identify specific goals for the next three to five years. We’ll then go back to each of the regions for your feedback and  refine goals for each of the regions. God willing, we will complete this phase by the fall of 2019 and begin structuring and equipping ourselves for the work of implementation.

The success of our efforts depends on the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and on our collective willingness to engage. “We will walk into the Kingdom of God together,” in the words of Daniel Berrigan, “Or we won’t walk in at all.”

Friends, it is not our responsibility to sow the seeds of new life. That is God’s work. But we are responsible for the quality of our soil.

Every Sunday as I make my visitations to the congregations of our diocese, I ask God, first, to allow me to see every person as God sees them, so that I might lift up and encourage all whom I meet. Then I ask for a glimpse of God’s preferred future in that place. Invariably, what I see, and hear, in the beautiful diversity of our people, is joy. I see our leaders free to invest themselves in ministry, with buildings and structures well-suited and resourced in service to that ministry. I hear people speak confidently of their journeys of faith and relationship with God in Jesus. I always see children, and elders and all ages in between, and obvious signs of an outward focus of active service, community engagement, and the necessary work of justice.

There is already, in every place, the fruits of  good soil, cultivated over the generations, and in every place, there is the need to further tend to our soil. The same is true for every one of us: we each have parts of ourselves that are like the good soil in Jesus’ parable and other parts in need of tending. The same is true for our diocese as a whole.  

May God guide and sustain us all in this season of taking stock of our soil–individually, in our congregations, and as diocese–and working together to tend to that soil. In this next season of ministry, I pledge to God and to you my whole-hearted effort to be among you as a co-gardner in the cultivation of good soil.

Let’s not do this work from our own strength and power, but by relying on Jesus, He is the source of our strength. He is the strength of our life. He is the good news we have to share. And his promise to us is this: If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit and all will know that you are my disciples.

He also commanded us: Love one another, as I have loved you.   

The world will know we are Christians as we follow Jesus in the Way of Love.