Called to Hope: Bishop Mariann’s 2021 Convention Address

by | Jan 30, 2021

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.
Ephesians 1:17-18

Friends, it is my honor and joy to address you, the elected leadership of this diocese, to reflect on what we’ve learned in the past year, where we are now, and what our diocesan priorities will be in the year ahead. 

Before going further, let me say that the text of my address will be available immediately after the Convention. As I speak, it might be helpful to write down what resonates with you. I welcome any questions or comments you’d like to post using the chat function. While I won’t be able to respond today, know that your feedback is important to me. 

What I have learned walking alongside you this past year is that as followers of Jesus, we are a people called to hope. Yet Christian hope, as you well know, is not the product of easy living. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that the hope of Christ is the fruit of redemptive suffering, suffering that produces endurance, which in turn, produces character, which in turn, produces hope. This hope, he says, does not disappoint us. It is not ours to manufacture or to feign. It is God’s hope poured into our hearts.

To be clear, Christian hope is neither wishful thinking nor naive optimism. This hope demands that we see the world as it is, and ourselves as we are. Hope, in itself, is not a strategy or a plan. Rather, hope is a grace given to us, an orientation to our lives and the world that informs our strategies and plans–a firm persuasion that no matter what happens or doesn’t happen, God is God, and nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus. 

What this hope calls me to, as your bishop, is a steady determination to keep going toward the mission and vision we have discerned together, while taking into account the enormity of change we have experienced. While the crises of 2020 consumed much of our energies, I am grateful to report that we were able to accomplish the first year goals of our strategic plan, which is a testimony to the grace of God, your tenacity, and the benefits of having a strategic plan as both touchstone and guide in disorienting times. 

Looking Back on 2020 

Let’s take a moment to consider the past year: how much has changed, how many have suffered, how deep the grief, how hard the work, and how dramatic the restrictions on our daily rhythms and communal practices. The list of hardships is long, longer still for some than for others. Thus there isn’t one answer to the question, “How are we doing as a diocese?”

I want you to know that I see you in all your varied contexts. I see how you are witnessing to the God of hope in your lives and congregations–hope born of suffering, endurance, and character, hope that is not the result of everything going as you had hoped, but is, instead, God’s hope poured into your hearts. 

The good news is that the majority of EDOW congregations have come through 2020 remarkably well. You have done and are doing faithful, courageous and creative ministry. You consistently speak of the grace that has sustained you and the capacity for adaptation that you didn’t know you had. Many of those adaptations are permanent. Some of our congregations, praise God, are thriving now, with a renewed sense of energy, spiritual maturity, and purpose. 

Others of our congregations, however, while making it through 2020, which was a triumph, face worrying trends. The pandemic is, as many have said, a trend accelerator, meaning if your congregation was on a path of decline, it is now more likely moving faster on that path. We are seeing that. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Bowie, Maryland, closed in 2020, the first church to close on my watch. That closure was painful and costly, a drawn-out process that could have been less painful and perhaps avoided if we, as a diocese, had had the tools to intervene. 

For some the pandemic interrupted or halted initiatives that were on the cusp of taking off, which was really disappointing. At the same time, the pandemic has been what our friends from the Unstuck Group call a holy interruption. As a result, some congregations  are experiencing Christ’s presence in new ways, with new opportunities opening before them. 

This is the spiritual truth to hold onto: in the midst of crisis, there is opportunity. God is in the business of resurrection. While we cannot deny the realities we face and hard decisions we may need to make in 2021, God calls us to hope. 

I daresay we’ve all grown, not in ways we would have chosen and never enough to make light of the cost, but our growth in resilience and creativity is real. Going forward, we take that growth with us. I also hear from every corner of the diocese expressions of gratitude for unexpected blessings, like manna in the wilderness, or the loaves and fish shared among many. 

Still, fatigue is real. Among the many ways to describe the past year, surely the image of a marathon is fitting. Given that the marathon isn’t over, we need to pace ourselves, take care of one another, and keep going.

In 2020, your diocesan staff and leadership bodies redirected considerable energy and resources to assist congregations in this crucible time. You can read a full accounting in the 2020 Annual Report. Later today, our treasurer, Jonathan Nicholas will highlight our financial investments in emergency aid and congregational support.

Your bishops and diocesan staff are here for you in times of crisis and transition, for assistance with a problem that’s holding you back. Equally, if not more important, we are also here to amplify and leverage your strengths, and to invest in you and  in our collective health. The strategic plan we launched last year is such an investment. By offering clarity and purpose, the plan has guided us through the pandemic, economic disruption, racial reckoning, and political tensions of this past year. We continue to be a diocese that seeks to “draw on the gifts of all God’s people to serve Christ together and live Jesus’ Way of Love.”

Strategic Plan 

Let me turn now to the strategic plan itself. As you recall, it has three objectives–to revitalize our congregations to grow the Jesus movement, to inspire every person to grow in faith & equip our leaders to lead well, and to partner in ministries of equity & justice for greater impact in our communities. Revitalization. Spiritual growth and leadership.  Equity and justice. 

2021 Revitalization Objective 

We will engage all congregations in the diocese with health assessments and revitalization strategies, including the implementation of the Tending Our Soil initiative with 12 congregations. 

Our first objective in the work of revitalization was to articulate for ourselves the marks of a vital congregation–no matter its context or circumstance–and then begin creating assessment tools and strategies for you to grow in vitality. We’ve accomplished that. In this second year, we’re committed to engaging every congregation with these tools and strategies. 

Parish Vital Signs 

At the heart of all are revitalization efforts going forward are 7 Vital Signs for Parish Health which leaders across the diocese identified.

They are: 

  • A compelling mission and vision
  • A clear discipleship path 
  • Uplifting and inviting worship
  • Welcoming and connecting ministries  
  • Blessing our community
  • Faithful financial practices
  • Inspiring and capable leadership

These signs can serve for both congregational self-assessment and as a guide for strategic initiatives going forward. 

We’ve begun using the vital signs assessment with congregations in clergy transition and on bishop visitations. They are at the heart of Tending Our Soil, our signature revitalization effort to be launched in 2021:  

Let’s review them together now. As we do, make note of which of these signs you sense needs to be a priority for your congregation in the coming year.

7 Vital Signs For Parish Health 

Compelling Mission and Vision 
A vital parish knows why it exists. It has a vision for the gospel that speaks to the power and love of God and what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus. 

A Clear Discipleship Path 
A vital parish has a clear vision of the Christian life and helps each of its members take the next step in their life in Christ. It guides those new to the Christian life, and tends to the spiritual growth of all ages and stages of life. 

Uplifting and Inviting Worship
A vital parish has inspiring and engaging worship, rooted in the Episcopal tradition, yet open to exploring the many ways people meet God in worship. In the time of COVID, we’re learning the importance of compelling digital worship. These are skills we want to continually improve and take with us when the pandemic is over.  

 Welcoming and Connecting Ministries 
A vital parish is intentional about welcoming guests; it walks alongside those new to their community, helping them to take their next steps in faith, build relationships, and engage in ministry. A vital parish has an outward focus, helping those unfamiliar with Episcopal worship to feel at ease. 

Blessing Our Community
A vital parish is known by its neighbors for its care. This is our ministry of service, of showing up for others, and of justice and advocacy, so that those who may never be a part of our congregations are glad that we are here and would be devastated if we left. 

Faithful Financial Practices
Financial sustainability is essential for parish health, as are financial best practices. A vital parish aligns its spending with its mission and has courageous conversations about a healthy relationship with money. 

Inspiring and Capable Leadership
Vital parishes have engaging and competent leaders who have mutual respect and affection for one another. Leadership is shared and distributed according to the gifts of its members. There is mutual accountability and a willingness to speak the truth in love. 

I ask you to take the vital signs description  to an upcoming vestry meeting. Review the vital signs together and do your own informal parish assessment. Where is your congregation strong and how might you build upon your strength? Where does your congregation need to address something that’s holding you back? Where might investment in potential yield the greatest fruit? We spend a lot of energy in areas that bear little fruit. It’s time to redirect those energies.

I also ask the regional deans to bring the Vital Signs to upcoming regional clergy and wardens meetings for a discussion of collective strengths and growing edges, so that congregations might explore collaborative efforts. 

Tending Our Soil  

Let me take a moment here to describe Tending Our Soil, the signature initiative in our work of revitalization for the next five years,  made possible by a $1 million Lilly Endowment grant awarded this past fall. Tending Our Soil will help us walk with up to 36 congregations in a three-year process to make headway in parish vitality. 

Tending Our Soil will provide participating congregations coaches, learning summits, resources and opportunities to collaborate with other congregations to work on the 7 Vital Signs. We’ll show a promotional video and describe the application process for congregations later today. Now is the time to consider whether your congregation might be ready for this opportunity. We’re looking for 12 congregations for the first cohort, followed by an additional 12 congregations for each of the next 2 years. 

Under the topic of revitalization, I’d like to briefly address the Proposed Canon for Diocesan Stewardship and Congregational Vitality.

Though not explicitly part of the strategic planning process, you recall that last year the Convention voted to establish a committee to consider ways to assist congregations experiencing precipitous decline. The full report of the committee’s work is in your Convention Booklet. Later, we will hear an update from the Rev. Dr. Sheila McJilton, the chair of the Committee, and we will consider the proposed canon at a special convention later this year. 

I turn your attention now to the second of three strategic goals: to inspire our people and equip our leaders. 

2021 Faith and Leadership Objective 

We Will Expand the School Christian Faith and Leadership And Strengthen Its Foundations 

Establishing the School for Christian Faith and Leadership was a cornerstone of the strategic plan, as a catalyst for faithful discipleship and adaptive leadership. The School is committed to offering trusted resources and learning journeys that equip individuals for baptismal living and lead faith communities into greater vitality. 

The first year was a “soft launch,” in the classic sense of building the plane as we were flying, and it was a remarkable success. The timing of the school, as with much of the strategic plan, felt Holy Spirit driven, for in this year of COVID restrictions and newfound flexibility, we all needed to learn new skills fast. We realized that we could learn together. The response from the people in the diocese and beyond has affirmed the need for this kind of learning platform and resource hub. The school offered 18 courses this fall with over 700 people participating. 

In 2021, we’ll continue to strengthen and develop the school, building a strong foundation for the future. In its full expression, the school will be a comprehensive resource for individuals and congregations across the diocese and beyond, and a platform for our gifted teachers to broaden their reach. 

Here is my request: sometime today visit the School for Christian Faith and Leadership Page on the diocesan website. Look at the offerings to see if any would serve your leaders or offer spiritual food to your members. Look for yourselves as well. Moreover, if you have an offering in your congregation that is bearing good fruit, consider sharing with others through the School. Watch  for the official launch, with a new website, learning management system, and comprehensive curricula in the coming year. 

This brings to me the third of our strategic goals in the realm of equity and justice.

2021 Equity and Justice Objective

We will bravely uncover, understand, reckon with and act to dismantle racism within ourselves, our faith communities, the Diocese and our localities.

Our baptismal covenant is clear that striving for justice is no less important in the life of a Christian than reading the Bible, saying one’s prayers, growing in faith, and serving others. Justice is not a partisan issue, it is the expression of love in public life. We who are called to follow Jesus in his way of love are to strive for justice and seek the dignity of every human being.

As in other pivotal moments in American history, events in our country last summer laid bare deep racial inequities and injustices, bringing the social movement for racial justice to a crescendo. All this stirred diocesan-wide conversation about our commitment. With broad based consensus, our leaders determined that anti-racism must be our first diocesan-wide focus. It has been a priority for some in the diocese for generations. Now it is ours together. 

Other justice issues are not lost to us–advocacy and care for persons experiencing homelessness, addressing gun violence, food insecurity, the needs of immigrants, and care for creation. We will look at all these issues, and all our diocesan life, through the lens of racism and our efforts to dismantle it. 

Those present at last evening’s gathering heard the compelling story of how our mother Diocese of Maryland took up the good and necessary work of historical reckoning with slavery and reparations. It’s our turn to gather up all that we know and can learn about our past, and set about the work of becoming an equitable and just church, committed to building an equitable and just society, which is God’s dream for all humankind. 

Staff Transitions 

As I bring this address to a close, let me acknowledge that this is a time of significant transition on the diocesan staff. Earlier in the year we said goodbye to the Rev. Daryl Lobban and Mr. Don Crane. Now we celebrate the retirements of the Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin and Ms. Cheryl Daves Wilburn, and the election of Canon Paula Clark as the next bishop of Chicago, all of whom we will honor later today. 

As hard as it is to say goodbye–and it is really hard– we were expecting these transitions. For while they are young in spirit, both Sarabeth and Cheryl are at retirement age. And we always knew that Paula was destined to be a bishop. 

So be patient with us in the next few months, as we’re down a few hands, but know that your remaining diocesan staff is deeply committed to serving God and serving you.  

I’m delighted to officially announce that the Rev. Andrew Walter will assume the role of Canon to the Ordinary, with a primary focus on finance, administration, and strategic planning.

We’ve issued the call for a new Canon for Congregational Vitality to complement the excellent senior leadership team we have in Canons Robert Phillips and Michele Hagans, and the wondrous Bishop Chilton Knudsen. We are also searching for a  Missioner for Equity and Justice, and persons to serve in key administrative roles. 

Rest assured that you are in good hands with The Reverends Jenifer Gamber, Todd Thomas and Yoimel Gonzalez-Hernandez, The Ven. Sue von Rautenkranz, Ms. Mildred Reyes, our new Latino Missioner, Ms. Araceli Ma, Ms. Kathleen Hall, Ms. Keely Thrall, Mr. Peter Turner, Mr. Kelly Cooper, Ms. Kimberly Vaughn, and Ms. Lynn Chernik. A word of special thanks to Dr. Jordan Rippy, who has served in a volunteer capacity with us this year, and to Mr. John Van de Weert, who generously gives his time and expertise in the role of Diocesan Chancellor. The love and dedication of this staff is palpable. Please join me in thanking them. 

The 10 regional deans commissioned at last year’s convention have also served us well: the Reverends: Peter Antoci, Greg Syler, Melana Nelson Amaker, William Stafford-Whittaker, Linda Kaufman, Rondesia Jarrett-Schell, Dana Corsello, Cricket Park, David Wacaster, and Beth O’Callaghan. Their foundational work of relationship building among congregational leaders has the potential to establish transformative collaborative possibilities between your congregations. Please lean into that work with them. Strengthen the pathways of shared ministry so that we may build a diocese of thriving congregations. We aren’t meant to be islands unto ourselves. 

I end now where I began, with the prayer from Ephesians, which is my prayer for you: 

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.

The hope to which God has called me enables me to rise each day, sinner that I am, to follow Jesus and serve you, the people of this diocese. Together we embody Jesus’ love for the world. We are, as St. Paul says, earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and does not belong to us.  

My own sense of call to this work is strong, and I commit to God and to you my whole hearted effort. 

As your bishop, I commit to turning toward Jesus every day, and I invite you to do the same.

I commit to follow Jesus and his Way of Love, and I invite you to do the same.

I commit to the mission, vision, and strategic goals we have collectively discerned, and I invite you to do the same.

You must hold me and the diocesan staff accountable to the goals we’ve set, but if this work is only for the bishop and her staff, we will fail. I need to hold you accountable, too. 

And so I ask once again: 

Will you rededicate your life to Jesus? 

Will you commit to a way of being church together that will help us realize the dreams God has placed on our hearts? 

If so, then I am confident that the God who has begun this good work in us will see it through to completion. 

May the God of hope bless and keep us all, as we follow Jesus and his way of love.