Hello Welcome to Taking the Next Faithful Step, Part 2.
2023 marks the beginning of my twelfth year as your bishop. It’s the fourth implementation year of a strategic plan we launched the last time we gathered in this Cathedral for Convention, just two months before the COVID pandemic changed everything. Although we couldn’t have anticipated the context we suddenly found ourselves in, the priorities we set and the disciplines we adopted then helped your diocesan leadership forge a path. Other seismic events have occurred in our nation and the world since our last in-person Convention, all within a context of political polarization and a global climate crisis. It’s been a time.
But friends of the Diocese of Washington, we are still here.
Each of you has a story to tell about what life has been like for you. Each congregation and ministry represented here has a story to tell of what you’ve been through and what you’ve learned. You are still here. So am I.
Will you turn to your neighbor and say, “We are still here!”
We are among those who have come through these great ordeals, by the grace of God, and the fact we are living here as opposed to more ravaged parts of the world.
We are still here, and our lives are God’s gift to us and our gift to others. We each have a unique vocation to live as best we can. Despite our sins and through our gifts, we are among those through whom God can work to realize what Jesus taught us to pray for: “the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth,” what Dr. King called “the Beloved Community.” We who have heard Jesus call us by name are among those He asks to embody His love.
In these past three years, I’ve watched in awe as you have persevered, adapted, and did what was hard. You have every reason to feel tired. But you’ve come through, with courage and generosity. You’ve supported one another in grief. You are reclaiming occasions for joy. You refuse to allow fatigue and your own struggles to stop you from loving your neighbors, caring for the earth, working for justice, and showing up to make life better for someone else.
Will you turn to the person next to you and say, Thank you for being here!
The Episcopal Church is still here. And God is not finished with us yet.
Using our Convention theme of taking the next faithful step, I will address the three areas of diocesan ministry that we identified in 2020 as our core priorities:
Let me begin with what we originally named as our second priority, for it has become my first:
Friends, we can only inspire others to do what we do ourselves, so let’s take a moment of personal inventory. How has my faith, how has yours grown in the past year or several years?
– How has God been present for you in the trials and blessings of your life?
– What has Jesus said to you through the words of friend or stranger, in your private prayer, or the sermon you thought was being preached just to you?
– What was it like when you felt stretched beyond your means and the Spirit met you in that place and saw you through?
I am persuaded that tending to our lives in Christ, personally and collectively, is the most important thing for us to focus on now. We’ve all had to spend enormous energy on institutional maintenance, and we still do. All of you are working so hard to keep things going, on what we might call the chores off church. I have no doubt that God is grateful to you for these efforts, and also concerned for you.
I’ll speak to the institutional maintenance side of things in a moment, because I must. But the reality is that tending to our spiritual lives is often the first thing to be sacrificed when workloads increase, right alongside self-care. Sometimes that can’t be helped, when we’re facing a crisis or when we’re responsible for another’s care. But we can also get accustomed to ways of living that are not life-giving. I know that I can. That’s why it’s on my heart to linger here, because it’s so easy to lose sight of what we need to stay rooted in Christ and draw our strength from Him. And because we cannot lead others on a path we aren’t walking ourselves.
Thankfully, it’s not all up to us. Jesus is drawing closer to us all the time, whether we call on Him or not. The Christian life, as you know, is one of response. Personally, this means taking the time to listen for His voice. Collectively, it means creating hospitable spaces for people to share their lives and explore the deeper questions of faith; it means teaching practices of prayer, forgiveness, hospitality and other ways we receive His living presence as the One who heals and forgives.
On my Sunday parish visitations, I often carry with me a Path of Discipleship card deck.
I use them to prompt spiritual conversations with vestry members and in forums. Typically I give everyone three cards and ask them to pick one whose question they would be willing to answer.
Here are a few examples:
-How does knowing that you are made in God’s image impact how you relate to others?
-Share an experience when your faith sustained you in a difficult time.
-When do you like to pray, and why?
So let’s talk to one another right now. On the screen are three sample questions from the Path of Discipleship deck for adults. If you’re willing, pick one to talk about in conversation with two or three people sitting next to you. (If you’d rather not, that’s fine, but you might stay and listen to others.)
– How would you describe your journey of faith?
– What is the common message that Christ wants us to take into the world? Share a time when you felt faithful to that call.
– Share a time when someone did or said something that helped you more than they’ll ever know.
We have samples of these decks on one of the tables in the back, and information on how you can order more. They are one of many simple prompts to help us go deeper with one another.
However you do it, I encourage you to tend to your faith, and to foster as many ways as possible for your people to grow in faith. Congregations who do this well tend to grow numerically as well as spiritually, because they are cultivating a vital center from which all ministry flows.
As a diocese, we’ll continue to make resources available through the School for Christian Faith and Leadership–one of the most fruitful outcomes thus far of our strategic plan. Members of the diocesan staff are continually searching out new resources, and with gifted teachers throughout the diocese, they are creating more.
The Presiding Bishop’s office is also investing in free resources for these sacred conversations.
Here is one example: Intro video to Centered
Perhaps you noticed one of our own, Mildred Reyes, featured. Centered is available in English, Spanish and French.
In a moment, I’ll suggest ways that congregations might inspire people to grow in faith together. But to bring this section to a close, and to underscore the importance of growing in faith, beginning in 2023 I’m establishing a requirement for those brought before me or any bishop in this diocese for the sacraments of Confirmation, Reception, and the Renewal of Baptismal Promises. For those preparing people for these sacraments, I ask that you ensure that they are able to tell, in their own words, the story of Jesus.
I’d like those affirming their commitment to Christ to know His story as it’s told in Scripture, beginning with His birth; a few highlights from His teaching and healing ministry; an understanding of why He was controversial among the religious and political leaders of His day and what led to His crucifixion; and finally, what happened on the day Resurrection and when He appeared to His disciples. Knowing things about Jesus isn’t the same as having a relationship with the living Christ, but we can’t follow HIm if we don’t know about Him and His teachings.
The reason that I’ve decided to make this request is that I’ve come to realize how few of our people can tell His story with confidence. I’m sure most know more than they do, but His story isn’t accessible to them; it doesn’t dwell with them. Rest assured that there isn’t going to be a test that people have to pass, and I’m not asking you to totally re-work your preparation process. But all who follow Jesus deserve to have His story inside them in such a way that they can see their lives through His.
Because faith backgrounds and exposure to Scripture vary, this learning will be different for every person. There may be resistance, given our people’s reluctance to read the Bible and how badly Jesus is caricatured in the culture, which is all the more reason for our people to know Him well. We’ll work together, sharing resources and ways to help make Jesus’ story come alive. I welcome your suggestions, and I’ve asked the Rev. Amanda Akes-Cardwell, Missioner for Faith Formation and Development, to serve as a resource gatherer and source of encouragement in this endeavor.
I want our people to be confident in their faith, and for others to know that we in the Diocese of Washington are committed to growing in faith and inspiring others to do the same.
Before I turn to the second priority, let’s take a stretch break for 3 minutes, and I ask you to ponder what said thus far.
I turn now to revitalization.
Obviously, not all are in the same place. There has always been a wide spectrum of congregational life and real inequities among us. Broadly speaking, whatever trends of vitality or decline our congregations were experiencing before the pandemic have accelerated. There are a few exceptions, but not many.
The next faithful step for the more robust EDOW congregations may be one of pruning, letting go of some things that were once life-giving but are less so now, so that you can invest more in initiatives that your people are responding to. That’s one group among us.
The majority of EDOW congregations are doing okay–and okay is not bad–but you’re not seeing a return to pre-pandemic levels of engagement–most notably in worship attendance, financial support, and other metrics of vitality. Fortunately, you’ve learned through the pandemic how to offer worship and other gatherings via technology, which is a tremendous blessing for those who would have otherwise lost their connection to the congregations they love. But it also means that the work of maintaining your congregations rests even more heavily on you, and that your future depends on creating the kind of spiritual community that other people, not yet a part of you, would find compelling. And who may that be? It’s an important question for all of us.
In the diocese, we will continue to invest the lion’s share of our resources into congregational revitalization efforts. But these resources aren’t as helpful when limited leadership capacity works against your ability to do the very things needed for renewal. Those of you who are overcommitted tell us that you need a break, and you do. But as Carey Nieuhof observes, “the cure for an unsustainable pace isn’t more time off or a week at the beach. The cure for an unsustainable pace is to create a sustainable pace.”
These realities are greater than many EDOW congregations can successfully address on their own. Leaders of some of our Black churches told us that at last year’s Convention, when they asked for the creation of a Task Force on Black Ministries, made up of members from Black congregations, to collectively address their situation and explore ways that they could thrive. They also wanted the rest of us to acknowledge the reality of racism in this diocese and its impact.
Two weeks ago Canon Jeffrey and I had lunch with the six full-time rectors serving congregations in the region of Southern Maryland. To provide a bit of context for the rest of you, there are twenty EDOW congregations in southern Maryland, located in St. Mary’s and Charles Counties and the southern portion of Prince George’s County. The majority are served by part-time clergy. There are currently five southern Maryland congregations in clergy transition; two have been advertising their clergy position for months with no applications.
When I asked the clergy what was hardest about their work, they spoke of the isolation, and how they would love to work on a team. Some have that sense of team with the deacons of Southern Maryland, for which they are grateful, but even so, loneliness is real. They spoke of the weight of church maintenance–be it the care of buildings, the out-sized list of expectations placed upon them or they place upon themselves, the desire to be able to do more of actual ministry when their days are consumed with chores.
Then I asked them what they loved most about their ministry, and their eyes lit up as they spoke. What was surprising to them was the variety of loves around the table–teaching, pastoral care, leadership development, the planning and leading of worship. Listening, I thought, surely we can find a way to create some kind of team approach here, allowing clergy to lean into their strengths and support one another, rather than being disparate solo operators responsible for everything.
I asked, “What if we invited your vestries to come together to hear you speak of what ministry is like for you, and to consider how they might partner so that all might benefit from your strengths and collectively address areas of weakness?” They all thought their lay leaders would be open to an exploratory conversation, which we will schedule for later this spring, and include interested vestries and clergy of neighboring congregations. I’m not talking about mergers here, but partnering through strength to build greater strength.
The experience of the Southern Maryland clergy is not unique. We could have the same conversation in every region, or with congregations across regions. This isn’t for everyone, and many resist even having the conversation. The most consistently expressed fear is the loss of parish identity, which I understand. Yet if we don’t do something to ease the burdens we place on our lay and clergy leaders, we can’t expect as fruitful a return from all our efforts in revitalization, nor can we realize our visions of justice. The trends of decline will continue.
With those willing to step out in faith in this way, we will explore how to build ministry capacity across congregations. It could result in joint efforts to create small group gatherings across a given region, to strengthen youth and young adult ministry, or to address the spiritual questions for those blessed to live past their 60s and beyond. You might discover efficiencies in building use and maintenance, or–the bane of every solo priest’s existence–the churning out of weekly bulletins.
These conversations are in keeping with a goal of our strategic plan to develop stewardship strategies so that congregations are less constrained by maintenance concerns. It is also an expression of pastoral concern for you, our leaders, so that you can live healthy Christ-centered lives.
Two final notes regarding revitalization. First–and this is a hard topic–we need to have an honest conversation regarding debt, with particular concern for those congregations carrying debt burdens beyond their assets or ability to pay, and those for whom deferred building maintenance expenses far exceed their members’ financial capacity. Taking on debt is necessary at times. Most congregations that do, typically during capital campaigns, have the means and a plan to meet their obligations. But there are some with burdensome debt that they’ve been carrying for decades. The diocese is a co-signer for four of these loans.
There isn’t a one-size fits all solution, nor is there a diocesan fund to pay for all loans and the millions in deferred maintenance costs that threaten the financial viability of other congregations. The hard truth is that the pandemic years have brought some of our communities to the edge of viability. Canon to the Ordinary Andrew Walter will be guiding our efforts to face these realities and work toward possible solutions. These will not be easy conversations to have, but the time has come.
Second–on a hopeful note–God continues to raise up among us those who are longing to create something new. Many of you are here today, and God has placed on your hearts visions of what could be. You are eager to experiment, engage with those you know would love The Episcopal Church if only we met them where they are instead of expecting them to come to us.
Last year, we took the first steps in fulfilling our strategic goal of growing younger, to start or restart up to three congregations with rising generations in mind. Leaders of six congregations are part of our first Growing Young cohort, exploring and sharing ways they might support, encourage and engage rising generations.
It’s important to remember that the institutional church as we know it has not been the form that Christianity has always taken. The essence and core of the church is not its outward form, which will always change over time. The essence and core is Jesus Christ–his Spirit, his teachings, his manner of life, his way of love–and the movement he founded cannot be stopped. We need our church leaders, both ordained and lay, to embrace this moment of reinvention, and the folks I see rising up are going to bring us into a profoundly different age.1
I see the same rising up. Part of our work now is to create space and provide resources for those who feel called to lead us through this moment of reinvention.
Still others of you are addressing rising food insecurity throughout the diocese, opening your churches as distribution sites and respite centers for people experiencing homelessness. Others have adopted nearby public schools or hospitals, or are working in partnership with Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington, the Bishop Walker School, and others. We’ll highlight some of your efforts throughout the day, but friends, they are everywhere
If what I have spoken of today seems like a lot, that’s because it is. Considering the whole of our diocese and discerning God’s spirit among us is a big deal. It is our work today. Thank you for being here.
When we launched the strategic plan in 2020, we envisioned it as a five-year process, meaning that in 2025, we would assess all that we had learned and accomplished. I have proposed to diocesan leadership that we extend the implementation period for one year, which gives more time for the initiatives we’ve begun to bear fruit, and takes into account all that we hadn’t anticipated. I promise a complete assessment in 2026, and an evaluation of the strategic planning process itself.
I realize that the strategic plan isn’t something you think about every day, if at all, except on days like today. That’s all right, because I do, and so does your diocesan staff–that’s what you pay us for. It’s what guides our work.
2026 is also the year that I will turn sixty-seven and will have completed fifteen years as your bishop. That is when diocesan leaders and I will discern the next faithful steps for the episcopate. In all likelihood, we will call for the election of my successor. I love my work, but it’s a big job. As I get older, I realize that the future leadership of our diocese belongs to those coming up behind me. Part of my job now is to identify, encourage and make space for rising leaders, and to provide a strong foundation for the blessed person who will be your tenth bishop. To that work I remain wholeheartedly committed.
I am eligible this year for a three-month sabbatical, but for both personal and vocational reasons, this isn’t a time for me to be gone for that long. So I’ve asked those who hold me accountable to my work if I might take a one-month sabbatical during the summer for the next three years. They’ve agreed, and thus I will be on sabbatical leave in July. My plan thus far is to go somewhere where I can take a very long walk, maybe dare to get on my road bike again, play with my grandchildren, and return ready to continue the ministry God has entrusted to us all.
I give the final word to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who recently said this:
When the church engages the community and is the presence of love and justice and compassion, the church comes alive. It may not attract great throngs, but Jesus only had 12 and look what they did. If we listen to what Jesus tells us to do and actually do it, we will make a difference in every context in which we find ourselves.2
That, my friends, is our call. Thank you for saying yes. I add my yes to yours. Together, we are still here.
May I never cease to thank God and you for the privilege of serving as your bishop.