See, I am doing a new thing.
Ten years ago last November, we began our journey together. Here’s a bit of nostalgia–10 years ago this weekend, presiding at my first Diocesan Convention, I began with these words:
I am among you as a disciple of Jesus, and as one who has come to understand my life’s work in service to the spiritual renewal and structural transformation of the Episcopal Church. We have been entrusted with an expression of Christ’s gospel that is priceless, and particularly well-suited to our time. For us to fulfill the dreams that God has given us, we need greater spiritual confidence and capacity for ministry.
Think of what it means for you to have a spiritual home with both an appreciation of mystery and the rigors of scientific inquiry for discerning truth, with faith experienced in the creative tension of polarities—heart and mind, word and sacrament, prayer and action. Think of what it means to be part of a church that does not ask its members to agree on theology or biblical interpretation, but trusts in God’s grace to unite us, in appreciation of our differences and the conviction that all are welcome at Christ’s table.
I still live by these words. To them I now add:
Think of what it means to be part of a Church that’s willing to go first, that does not shirk from hard truths, but inspires us to face them with courage.
I believe that God wants us to be a strong and compelling example of what it looks like to follow Jesus–drawing upon the best of our tradition and adapting it to meet the world in which we live.
Today, I recommit myself as your bishop to the spiritual renewal and structural transformation of our church, which includes an honest reckoning with our history, strategic investment in ministries for today, and a hopeful vision for the future.
Thankfully, I didn’t come into this work expecting it to be easy, quick, or with a guarantee of success. 18 years of parish ministry in one place taught me the value of taking the long view, moving forward incrementally, as our spiritual forebears did, in stages. I knew that my learning curve would be steep; I would make mistakes; and we would experience setbacks and storms. I also knew that God would be faithful, new opportunities would present themselves, and I would come to love you. Ten years ago this knowledge was in my head. It lives deep inside me now. I am proud to be your bishop. Thank you for your faithfulness; for holding me accountable; and for the countless ways you inspire and bless.
Looking back, one of the more striking aspects of the past ten years has been the constancy of transition. Of our now 86 congregations, all but 8 have experienced a change in clergy leadership, and some more than one. Some of the transitions have been smooth; others less so. All have required tremendous energy on your part. We begin 2022 with 34 congregations in transition, which is to say with an Interim Rector, Priest-in Charge, or Supply. There have been equivalent transitions in staff and lay leadership. Transition has been a reality on the diocesan staff as well.
The Church is not unique here. In recent years, we’ve witnessed a large turnover in leadership and staff everywhere. Add to that the more dramatic social upheavals we’ve gone through, and small wonder that a common refrain is one of weariness.
We’re entering a third year of world-wide pandemic. As communities centered in Jesus, you have gone the extra mile to assist your neighbors who are experiencing food insecurity or homelessness, loneliness or grief. You’ve done this amid the intense pressures of holding your own lives and families together.
The pandemic helped bring to the surface hard truths about who we are as a nation. You have remained steadfast in facing those truths, examining our historic and ongoing complicity in racism, even after the public outcry after George Floyd’s murder faded. Then, on top of everything else, when refugees from Afghanistan began arriving into our region by the thousands, you responded with generosity and compassion, ably led by our wondrous cadre of deacons.
Finally, in worship and Christian formation, you’ve had to adapt to continually changing levels of risk caused by covid, pivoting back and forth, and learning new skills in order to keep people in your communities connected to one another. While this was and remains a steep learning curve for all of us, look how far we’ve come.
For all the goodness that has been gleaned in this crucible time, we are understandably tired. But as the Rev. Glenna Huber recently reminded those of us gathered for an ordination service, when we are wearied by the chances and changes in this life, we can find rest in God’s eternal changelessness. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
She told us of a conversation she had in a city park with a person experiencing homelessness. He lamented the many hardships he’s endured and Glenna listened. She offered a blessing. He thanked her, and then blessed her in return. He said, “Never forget that when things get tough, God does not abandon. God will carry us until we can walk again.”
May this man’s faith be our inspiration. For nothing can separate us from the love of God. Jesus is with us, as he promised he would be, to the end of age.
Jesus is here. And so are we.
Our friends at the Unstuck Group encourage us to view where we are now as our starting point for future ministry. That doesn’t mean that everything before the pandemic is lost to us. But it does mean that the pandemic is changing some things permanently. We are being changed. I think of the biblical patriarch Jacob, who forever walked with a limp after his night of wrestling with an angel. The change for us is that big, and there is pain involved. But God is doing a new thing.
As we cast our collective gaze to the year ahead, I have some things on my heart to say. Please take from this whatever resonates for you and is helpful.
My first word to you–and to myself– is rest. Many have told me that they have all but forgotten how to rest, some honestly acknoweldging that even before the pandemic they weren’t all that good at it. But they are really tired now.
I realize that calling for rest can seem tone-deaf when so much is demanded of us, like the time my asthmatic infant’s pediatrician told me that I needed more sleep. There are times in life when rest is elusive. I feel that way now. Yet if we don’t take time to rest, it will be forced upon us in the form of a crisis. The theologian Howard Thurman, who was no stranger to the harsher realities of life, once wrote: “One thing we can and must do is find sources of strength and renewal for our own spirits, lest we perish.”1
In early February, I will send a letter to congregational leaders, asking that they give everyone in their church’s employ a week of paid Sabbath leave, not counted against vacation or sick leave. Some have already done something similar, and I’m grateful for your example. For those congregations with little or no paid staff, consider some kind of rest period for your volunteers. There are many ways this can be done, and your diocesan staff and regional deans–from whom this request came to me–are here to help. This is a request, not a mandate, but it’s important. Sabbath, as the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, is “ time to mend our tattered lives.”2 For many, life is tattered now.
I wish I could suggest the same for everyone in your places of work, and give all parents and care-givers a week to rest. What I can do is remind us all to be kind to one another and realistic in our expectations. The Rev. Jenifer Gamber’s words to our Tending Our Soil congregations are worth repeating for all: “We aren’t falling behind. We are responding to the world as it is.”
Similarly, in her New Year’s Blessing, the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber prayed that we all might lower our expectations in 2022–lower our expectations of ourselves, so that we be might be grateful for each tiny accomplishment; lower our expectations of people around us so that we might cherish them as they are; and lower our expectations of the supply chain and service industry so that we might focus more on what we do get and less on what we don’t. With lower expectations, she writes, we are free to celebrate every blessing that comes to us, however small.3 Now I’m a high expectations kind of person, and Nadia’s blessing has been a godsend to me, even as I strive to do my best.
In the same vein, the second word I propose for the year ahead is simplify. Surely part of the new thing God is doing includes an invitation to focus our energies on fewer things, the most essential things, and whenever possible, to share one another’s burdens.
You don’t have to do everything alone. As you plan your ministry offerings, for example, remember that we now have a robust School for Christian Faith and Leadership that you can turn to, with a wide range of resources. Among those offerings is a series on the foundations of faith called Discover. Embrace. Become. With it you can encourage your people to drink from the deep, restorative wells of faith. There are also on-demand trainings for new vestry members and treasurers and many other practical resources.
As you look for ways to engage or deepen in works of justice and mercy, remember that there are many with whom you can collaborate. Also, as you plan worship, you can lean on other congregations, including our Cathedral. It’s okay to rest as a congregation, even on a Sunday morning. Please don’t feel you need to exhaust yourself during Holy Week this year. However you choose to worship, God is with you. Simplify your offerings and collaborate with one another.
The third and final word I offer today (actually three words): stay the course. Rest and simplicity are in the service to what God is doing. Trust that the One who has begun a good work among you will bring it to completion.
We will stay the course with our strategic plan. While the pandemic initially felt like a setback, I’m now persuaded that through the hard work of planning God was preparing us to navigate through what lay ahead. Fixing our eyes on a few strategic goals each year has served us well.
We will continue on the path God has set before us. We now have key practices and lasting tools that we will turn to again and again, among them, the 7 Vital Signs for Congregational Health. Tending Our Soil remains our most comprehensive investment in congregational vitality and we’re now accepting applicants for the second cohort of 12 congregations. The School for Christian Faith and Leadership will continue to inspire our people to grow in faith and equip our leaders to lead well. And we will continue to partner in ministries of equity & justice for greater impact in our communities.
In staying the course, we turn our attention to two goals of the strategic plan for which we are now able to give focused priority. The goals aren’t new, for God has already placed them on our hearts, and work on them is well underway. What is new is that we are naming them, adding them to our established rhythm of 90-day Action Plans, and holding ourselves accountable for moving forward.
Both goals are future oriented and give priority to rising generations.
The first of these new goals for 2022 is to promote Creation Care practices in all our communities.
The compounding realities of climate change and other environmental concerns are cause for alarm. Yet for many–myself included– the problems sometimes seem distant. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is at work across the globe and in our congregations, inspiring many to action for the care of God’s creation in concrete ways. This year we will create the means to amplify and expand the efforts of our creation care leaders, share best practices among us, and establish regional and diocesan goals for reducing waste, preserving natural resources, and lowering our carbon footprint. Later this morning we will commission the Diocesan Creation Care Team to lead this effort. Its first 90-Day Action Plan is to take stock of all our congregations. Please pray for them and join them. To learn more, please contact Hazel Monae, our Missioner for Equity and Justice, or a Creation Care team member directly.
The second of our 2022 goals is to launch or relaunch up to three worshiping communities focused on rising generations, so that we become a spiritual home for our children and grandchildren.
This goal emerged from the recognition that the average age of nearly all congregations in the diocese is significantly higher than that of their surrounding neighborhoods. While we intend to equip all congregations that seek to grow younger–about which I’ll speak in a moment–it’s clear that the churches with the greatest success in growing young are those that make reaching rising generations their top priority. We intend to establish up to three worshiping communities for whom that is the case.
This year we’ll begin with a time of listening to identify where it would be most fruitful to invest in worshiping communities for rising generations and then cultivate that soil. In the first 90 days, we will create working teams to study demographics, get out in the neighborhoods, take stock of resources, and identify those who God is calling to this work. This past December, we met with 15 such leaders for an initial conversation, and those conversations will continue and grow. For this will not be a diocesan staff driven effort alone, but one undertaken in deep consultation and partnership with regional leaders.
The diocese has planted several congregations in the not too distant past: St. Nicholas Germantown in the 1990s, and all our Spanish-speaking communities, mostly within and in partnership with English-speaking congregations. We are blessed now with three Latino clergy serving as rector or priest-in-charge of mutli-cultural congregations worshiping in two languages. In 2017, with support from the wider Episcopal Church, we began Misa Magdalena in Silver Spring, within the parish bounds of St. Mary Magdalene. Going forward, Misa Magdalena seeks to be a mission of the diocese, focused on the large Latino-Hispanic community in the eastern side of Montgomery County. It is a young church for a young population of mostly 2nd and 3rd generation Latinos who grew up in this country speaking both languages with broad, eclectic cultural influences.
Breadth of cultural influence is the norm among rising generations.
Here is my invitation: If your church is in or near a region or near people who are significantly younger than your current membership; if young people are finding their way to you; if you are a young leader, or if you, no matter your age, feel called to join in this early-stage work of ministry with rising generations, please let me know.
The primary focus here will be on the needs, aspirations, and worship preferences of young people who are not currently engaged with us. Given the diversity of life experience, cultural background, racial identity and socioeconomic realities of people under 35, we can expect these communities to be different from one another and from what we’re offering now. For if what we were offering now was successful in reaching rising generations, we wouldn’t need to do anything new. God is doing something new here, and so must we.
Let me speak now to the desire to grow younger in congratulations across the diocese. To be sure, some congregations are places with high percentages of mostly older generations, and their ministries understandably reflect their context. Yet for those whose context is younger, and who wish to learn and grow young, we will provide resources and encourage collaboration in ministries with and for young people. It will take time, and our work will begin, as we heard powerfully in the testimonies last evening, with listening.
We’re blessed that the Rev. Amanda Akes-Caldwell will be joining Diocesan staff next week as Missioner for Christian Formation and Development. Amanda comes to this position with a passion to build on the resources and relationships throughout the diocese to create strong intergenerational ministries in our congregations. She will work collaboratively with you to offer regional and diocesan-wide gatherings for students, and young adults. Alongside others, she will help anchor our Rising Generations initiatives.
Among the resources that the Rev. Jenifer Gamber is preparing to offer through the School for Christian Faith and Leadership is Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. It’s based on a national study of over 250 congregations of different denominations, sizes, geographic locations, and racial/cultural identities–50% were congregations of color. From that research the investigators identified 6 core commitments of congregations that have successfully engaged 15-29 year olds and as a result are growing spiritually, missionally and numerically.
You’ll be glad to know that the six commitments do not require your congregation to become something it’s not. But they do invite you into deep relationships with the young people in your life and to reach out to the young people in your neighborhoods. For those of us who are no longer young, they ask us to gracefully give up our primacy in congregational life. The commitments are:
- Share leadership to receive the gifts of others, especially young people.
- Empathize with today’s young people, stepping into their shoes.
- Take Jesus’ message seriously and welcome young people into a Jesus-centered way of life.
- Nurture warmth in your community and aim for meaningful peer and intergenerational relationships.
- Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere and look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource and invite them in every facet of your congregation.
- Be good neighbors, and provide opportunities for and support young people to serve others, locally, nationally, and globally.
If you would like to gather in a small group to read Growing Young, the School for Christian Faith and Leadership will provide up to four books for each congregation. Our only stipulation is that you identify the group of readers first, tell us what your hopes are in reading it together, and when you are finished, share with what you learned and how you will implement one or more of the six strategies. The Rev. Jenifer Gamber will send a survey to clergy next week to indicate their interest.
I realize that many of our congregations that enjoyed ministries with lively youth, young adults and families before COVID have seen a decline in their engagement, which has been discouraging. But that doesn’t mean we can give up.The needs are great, and we are learning ways to reach out, with open and listening hearts.
I believe that congregations made up of mostly people my age or older are uniquely equipped to succeed in growing young. For we who are over 60 are in the season of generativity, a time for taking an active and participatory role in the world through teaching, mentoring, and sharing wisdom with people besides ourselves and our immediate family. It’s our time to encourage younger leaders and contribute to the needs of the next generation.
Eldership involves sacrificial love, letting go of some of the things we hold dear in order to make room for the new thing that God is doing with and for our children and grandchildren. The good news is that as we do this, we grow into the elders that young people want to be around, and the vibrancy they bring to our congregations will give us great joy. Indeed, we are transformed by these relationships.
Let me close with a word about my tenure as bishop. As I said earlier, I began this work with the expectation that I would be bishop for at least as long as I had been a rector. That is still my hope, with your consent. During my annual review last year, I told the Standing Committee and Diocesan Council that, with their blessing, I would commit without reservation for five more years. By 2026, we will have completed the five years of this first strategic plan and be in an evaluation phase, positioning ourselves for a new strategic process. At that 15 year mark of my episcopate, we’ll need to prayerfully determine if it’s best for us to continue together another five years. If the answer is yes, that’s what we’ll do. If not, we will begin the process for a smooth leadership transition, which for bishop positions usually takes two years. My goal, for whenever I give the crozier to your next bishop, is for the diocese to be strong, healthy, and well-equipped for its next season of ministry, with rising leaders in place throughout diocesan and congregational life.
To that end, I rededicate myself to God and our ministry, and invite you, as you feel called, to do the same. May God give us the grace and courage to rest, simplify and stay the course. For God is doing a new thing, and we are blessed to be part of it.
Thank you for listening.
1Howard Thurman, Deep is the Hunger (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), p.41
2Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New Your: Ferrar, Straus & Giroux, 1951), p.18.
3Nadia Boltz-Weber, https://thecorners.substack.com/p/a-voice-memo-blessing-for-a-new-year