I speak to you in the thirteenth year of my episcopate and as we begin the fifth year of a strategic plan. This is the final two-year stretch of a journey we began in 2020, intentionally investing diocesan resources in mutually discerned areas of focus.
As you know from your own experience, any long-term, vision-driven endeavor goes through stages. It begins with the early enthusiasm of mountain-top clarity; then back down into the valleys of reality. What typically follows is a middle stage marked by setbacks, unanticipated complications, an unforeseen circumstances. In the “messy middle”–a phrase coined by Scott Belsky to describe what he calls the “hardest and most crucial part of any bold venture”1 — your understanding of what’s possible changes. It can be a discouraging time, and tiring, because you’re working hard with little as yet to show for your efforts. You’re tempted to quit. But if by grace and with perseverance you keep going, a new energy can emerge, as your steady efforts gain momentum. You’re working just as hard as before, but at last you see the first fruit of your labor.
Author Jim Collins calls this shift in energy and momentum “The Flywheel Effect,” borrowing from the image of turning a massively heavy metal disk on an axle, one rotation at a time. In the beginning, it takes all your effort to turn the flywheel one rotation. The second time is just as hard, and the third. But as you continue, the weight that once held you back begins to work in your favor. Amazingly, there isn’t one moment or thing you did that alone can account for the shift—the breakthrough comes through the cumulative result of countless small steps.
In Scripture, this same process is described as the fruit of faithfulness and the virtue of perseverance. What’s more, Scripture teaches that a spiritual transformation takes place within us as we keep going, by faith, toward a vision that initially we were not capable of fulfilling. By the grace of God, we become people now capable of doing what was once impossible.
It takes more than courage to keep going; this is work of the heart.
I pray daily for the flywheel effect to take hold in the Diocese of Washington. In a moment, I’ll remind you of our strategic initiatives, which you may not be aware of or have forgotten about. That’s completely understandable, given your necessary focus on your lives and the work that God has set before you.
So let me begin with you, your lives and ministries, with a word of gratitude and awe. I give thanks for the Holy Spirit, whose power working among and through you is a wonder to behold. I thank God for you, the members of this body and the communities you represent. It’s a privilege to be with you—each Sunday in a different congregation, each month with the elected leadership bodies, each day meeting with different groups focused on specific concerns, regularly in services of celebrations and public witness, sharing meals, and in one/one conversation.
All of us on your diocesan staff feel that same sense of gratitude and awe when we witness what God is doing among and through you, and your courageous response.
We’re also honored to be with you in the harder times, when you experience disappointment or loss, face painful issues for which there are no easy answers, experience a sudden change, gather in communal grief, or as you attempt to address suffering so vast that any effort feels like a drop of water in the desert. Thank you for allowing us to accompany you through the terrain of wilderness. Sometimes the way forward is through death, when the way of the cross is no longer an idea, but our reality. Even there, Jesus promises to be with us, with the hope of resurrection. There, Christina community, we show up for one another.
Tending to Our Hearts
The Scripture passage that kept coming to me as I was preparing for today is from the Gospel of Luke. It’s a simple introductory sentence to a parable, to make sure that we don’t miss its meaning.
Luke writes at the beginning of Chapter 18: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
The story that follows is of an unscrupulous judge worn down by a persistent widow who keeps badgering him for justice against her enemy. I love the fact that Jesus tells an outrageous story as a way of encouraging us not to lose heart, to “guard our hearts,” as is written in the Book of Proverbs, “for everything we do flows from them.”
Then I began to explore places throughout the Gospels where Jesus speaks directly to our hearts. On the eve of his arrest, he says to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” There were many things to be troubled by that night, as there are for us now. Jesus’ disciples are not spared trouble. What he gives us in times of trouble is a deeper well from which to draw, a peace surpassing understanding, and love that is the antidote to anxiety and fear. He gives us one another.
Elsewhere Jesus warns against what he calls “hardness of heart,” an image found throughout Scripture to describe what happens when we withdraw into ourselves. Hardness of heart is a survival response, a way we try to protect ourselves from the pain of a broken heart. Here Jesus seems to be saying that our hearts need to break sometimes, or we risk turning to stone. Surely the pain of this world breaks Jesus’ heart, too. In our broken hearts, united with his and one another’s, lies the hope for this world.
Keep in mind that Jesus almost always speaks to the disciples, and to us, collectively. We’re not meant to do heart work alone. In this Convention and beyond, I ask you to stay in relationship with one another, to cheer each other on, celebrate each other’s joys and help carry each other’s burdens. Today, listen respectfully as we discuss matters about which we are not collectively of one mind. Tend to one another’s hearts as well as your own.
The theme of this Convention is Courageous Discipleship, an acknowledgement that our time calls for courage in nearly every sphere of life, and that what we have in common is our commitment to follow Jesus. We also do well to remember, as Brother Curtis Almquist reminds us, that Jesus calls us to be his disciples not because we’re amazing. God’s grace is what’s amazing, working through our weakness.
So what does it look like to be a disciple of Jesus?
That question that came up repeatedly in the diocesan-wide conversations leading up to the strategic plan. Our people told us that they longed for a clearer path of discipleship in the Episcopal Church. Other Christians seem to be much clearer than we are, they told us. We say a lot of words in our liturgies, they said, but in actual practice, we don’t know how to grow in faith. Truth be told, we’re not sure that we want to, if it costs too much. But what do we say to our adult children, many of whom have left the church? What do we say to those who join us in worship as visitors and guests? We welcome them–or we think we do– and we certainly want them to continue coming, get involved, make a pledge, but how do we speak to them about matters of faith?
In 2024, courageous discipleship is a primary diocesan focus. We got off to an inspiring start when nearly 40 leaders, lay and ordained, gathered for an entire day to share ideas and resources, of which there are many.
Last evening one hundred and thirty of us participated in an online gathering to experience Being With, one such resource designed to create a space for exploring the deeper questions of faith, led by our preacher, James Fawcett.
Given our diversity, there isn’t one resource that will serve our 86 congregations. Moreover, discipleship isn’t something that can be reduced to a program, for it is a way of life. But there are resources to help us that don’t require a lot of money or formal training. I daresay all gathered in this Cathedral are seasoned disciples already, or at least we want to be, and we know that discipleship is a lifelong journey, We simply aren’t as clear about it as we could be; we don’t take the journey as seriously as it deserves; and we don’t talk about it enough. I believe the Spirit is moving among us to change that.
The Rev. Anna Olson, Director of the School for Christian Faith and Leadership, is championing our discipleship efforts—meeting with leaders and gathering resources, so that we might learn from one another. In the Easter season, she and I will pilot a diocesan-wide offering of Being With for those who would like to experience it. If the pilot is fruitful, we’ll do the same with other discipleship resources.
I’ve been talking to you for a while now. Let’s take a 3 minute stretch break, during which I invite you to share a thought or feeling about what it means for you to be a disciple of Jesus.
The Strategic Plan: Revitalize. Inspire. Partner.
Thus far I’ve been speaking of one focus area of our strategic plan—inspiring our people to grow in faith. Now let me remind you of the plan in its entirety.
The three most words to remember are:
Each word encapsulates a core diocesan priority, with aspirational goals and specific effort. In each, faithful ones among us are working through that process of early enthusiasm and messy middle. They are turning their flywheels, praying for that gift of momentum and fruitfulness. Let me briefly go through each one.
Revitalize our congregations to grow the Jesus movement.
There are many paths to revitalization, and across the diocese a good number of our congregations are experiencing renewed energy and hope.
As a diocese, we’re three years into a five-year comprehensive initiative known as Tending Our Soil with 26 EDOW congregations. The first group of twelve will complete the Tending Our Soil this year, and the two remaining cohorts will continue on—one finishing next year and the third in 2026.
We’ve learned a lot through Tending Our Soil, and we’re beginning to adapt its resources for wider use, breaking it down into smaller modules, suited for specific congregational learning goals.
One important step we need to take this year, under the leadership of the established Black Church Ministries Committee and with our Spanish-speaking congregations, is to adapt what we have or find other resources suited for the particularities of our varied ministry contexts.
Revitalization is slow, steady heart work, turning that flywheel. As we’ll hear from several congregations throughout the day, progress is not only possible– it’s happening.
In 2024, we’re also going to step up our collaborative game, under the ongoing leadership of our regional deans. The ministry of regional deans, begun in 2020, is meant to strengthen relationships of geographic proximity, so that the Holy Spirit has more to work with among us. These are leaders with a pastoral heart for their colleagues. As part of the strategic plan, we modesty compensate our deans for their ministry above and beyond their own congregations.
We’re also prepared to provide more diocesan support when teams of congregations want to experiment with shared staff and clergy leadership. In Southern Maryland, we have two examples of shared clergy leadership, and in Central Montgomery County, a fruitful collaborative youth ministry among three congregations. In equity and justice ministries, collaborations are everywhere. This we know: it’s getting harder for many of our congregations to go it alone. We also know partnerships cannot be coerced. It only works when congregations enter into them freely, overcoming the fear of loss with a spirit of adventure.
First Core Priority: Revitalize Our Congregations – Implement Stewardship Strategy for Building Use And Finances
One of the great obstacles to revitalization is the cost of building and property maintenance. Last year, I asked Andrew Walter, Canon to the Ordinary, to research and make recommendations regarding the stewardship of our buildings so that they are an asset to our ministries rather than a liability. He will speak to us later this morning.
The last revitalization effort I’ll mention here is our commitment to plant new worshiping communities, with a particular focus on rising generations. We’ve begun that work in earnest in Bowie, Maryland, a strategic location with great potential for a new expression of Episcopal worship rooted in the Black Church tradition.
First Core Priority: Revitalize Our Congregations – The Well
Leading this endeavor, known as The Well, is the Rev. Rondesia Jarrett-Schell, (whose smiling face you see). We have committed training, support and resources for The Well from a fund set aside for new worshiping communities from the sale of diocesan real estate. If you’d like to know more, or better yet, you know people in Bowie that might enjoy being on the ground level of a brand new church, speak with Rondesia.
To summarize, these are some of the flywheels we’re turning this year to revitalize our congregations: Expanding the reach of tending our soil resources, collaborative efforts to greater ministry capacity, the stewardship of our buildings and property, and a new expression of Episcopal worship in Bowie, MD.
Now to our second core diocesan priority: to inspire every person to grow in faith and equip our leaders to lead well.
Second Core Priority: Inspire Every Person to Grow in Faith/Equip Our Leaders to Lead Well – The School for Christian Faith and Leadership
The major flywheel here is the School for Christian Faith and Leadership. The discipleship initiatives I mentioned earlier are but one part of the School that we established in 2020.
With the lifting of COVID restrictions, we’ve seen a renewed energy for in-person gatherings to share ideas and resources. As I mentioned, 40 leaders spent an entire day together discussing discipleship. Just last week, 27 Christian Formation leaders from EDOW and neighboring dioceses spent four days together at the Claggett Conference Center.
We plan to offer more of these gatherings regionally, on topics most helpful to you.
The school’s other focus in 2024 is to establish a core curriculum for congregational leaders, with resources for stewardship, vestry, wardens and treasurers training, curated materials for worship planning, Confirmation preparation, Christian education, and Bible study.
Second Core Priority: Inspire Every Person to Grow in Faith/Equip Our Leaders to Lead Well – A Core Curriculum
One example of a curated resource we’re made available for Lent is a worship-based curriculum on faith exploration entitled Wandering Heart: Exploring Faith with Peter.
Thus far, eleven congregations signed up to pilot this offering. This is the kind of sermon series with home-based resources that other Christians traditions use to great effect.
Now let briefly mention here several initiatives championed by the Rev. Amanda Akes-Cardwell, Missioner for Faith Formation and Development.
Second Core Priority: Inspire Every Person to Grow in Faith/Equip Our Leaders to Lead Well – Campus Ministry
Under her leadership, we are renewing and refocusing our efforts in campus ministry. Rather than hire full or part-time diocesan chaplains to serve campuses as solo practitioners, a model that hasn’t worked well for us in recent years, now we will provide grants for congregations that feel called to serve their university neighbors. Look for more information about the funding grants in the coming weeks, or speak directly with Amanda.
Second Core Priority: Inspire Every Person to Grow in Faith/Equip Our Leaders to Lead Well – Youth Ministry Visioning Committee, Forma, and Young Adult Gatherings
Also under Amanda’s leadership, a newly-appointed Youth Ministry Visioning Committee is working to implement diocesan-wide youth gatherings to complement congregational ministry. It was once a strong feature in diocesan life that we’ve lost and that we hear is needed. It’s also impossible to organize without the involvement of congregational leaders.
To that end, Amanda is creating a community of support among diocesan faith formation and youth leaders. When our leaders know one another and work together, what was once impossible becomes something we can do.
The last thing I’ll mention under the core priority to inspire is our commitment to deepen relationships among younger adults throughout the diocese. Praise God, we’re seeing a growing number of young adults in our congregations. We want them to know one another, so we’re creating a network. Periodically, we’ll invite young adults from across congregations to meet each other and explore areas of faith. One such offering is coming up in Lent.
Third Core Priority: Partner for Equity and Justice for Greater Impact in Our Communities
Our third and last core priority is to partner for equity and justice for greater impact in our communities.
In the work of justice, it’s obvious that our impact is greater when we work together. We’re getting better at partnering every day, thanks in large measure to our ten regional deans and our growing cadres of deacons. We now have thirty active deacons across the diocese, six deacon candidates who will be ordained in October, and six deacon postulants. The impact of their ministry is transformative.
Third Core Priority: Partner for Equity and Justice for Greater Impact in Our Communities – The Power of Diaconal Ministry; Missioner for Equity and Justice
So that we might express our gratitude, I ask all deacons and deacons in formation present here today to stand, so that we might express our gratitude, along with their leader, Archdeacon Steve Seely.
An identified need in the strategic planning process was for a diocesan staff member dedicated to our justice ministry. Mr. Rudy Logan now in this role, amplifying the work of those with a passion for justice throughout the diocese. Here are some of the fruits of our collective efforts.
Third Core Priority: Partnering for Equity and Justice for Greater Impact in Our Communities – Refugee Response Ministry and Creation Care
Dozens of congregations are involved in refugee response ministry, working to welcome and resettle those wrenched from their homes in Afghanistan, the Congo, Central America, Venezuela, Ukraine and elsewhere.
Creation care endeavors abound across the diocese, including carbon footprint reduction, compost and recycling, and tree planting. Tomorrow, the congregation of St. Peter’s in Poolesville will be the latest to celebrate the installation of solar panels.
The Holy Spirit continues to inspire us to address local needs such as food insecurity. As is the case in southern Montgomery county, one congregation takes the lead, inviting others join in.
Third Core Priority: Partnering for Equity and Justice for Greater Impact in Our Communities – Committee on Diocesan Reparations
A major equity and justice initiative came up alongside our strategic planning in the last few years, thanks to a group of clergy and lay leaders who took the initiative to educate themselves on the history of anti-black racism and white supremacy in our diocese.
Last January, this Convention established a Committee on Diocesan Reparations and charged its members with two distinct tasks: to encourage us all to delve into the racial histories of our congregations and their surrounding communities; and to bring specific recommendations for diocesan-wide reparations in 2025. We’ll hear a report from the Committee on Diocesan Reparations today and what we can expect in the coming year.
Responding to Crisis
We didn’t put “respond to crisis” in our strategic plan. But every year, crises occur on every level of life, and we simply must respond. Suffice to say that we’ve weathered a number of crises since 2020, most dramatically the COVID pandemic. It’s remarkable to talk about that crisis mostly in the past tense, though its impact is still with us in very real ways.
There have been other crises–some known only to those involved, others affecting groups more broadly, and those that dominate the national and global stage.
Each year, it seems that a new global crisis claims our collective attention. For a time, we think of little else. Two years ago, it was the enormous influx of refugees from Afghanistan; last year, it was the buses arriving daily from our southern border with migrants from all over the world.
This year it is the war between the state of Israel and Hamas. While there are wars and humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world equally worthy of our concern, as a nation we are focused now on the Middle East. As Christians, we can’t help but be drawn to the land where Jesus lived and died. There are more pilgrimage journeys to the Holy Land from our diocese than any other place in the world. Many of us have close friends in both Israel and Palestine; we support the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. This war also reverberates in our country, with rising incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-Palestinian violence, and protests on our streets and college campuses.
Third Core Priority: Partnering for Equity and Justice for Greater Impact in Our Communities – Diocesan Resolutions
Our resolution debates will test our ability to listen to different points of view regarding the war in Israel. We’ll also take up a resolution regarding the treatment of migrants coming to our communities, another matter upon which people of good will disagree.
Please remember that these are heart issues. None of us has perfect knowledge; we are informed by our world views and sources of information, which can vary widely. I trust you all to honor one another, and speak from your heart. When time comes, vote your conscience.
Lastly, let me speak to you about finances. After lunch we’ll present the diocesan budget for 2024. Most of that budget is dedicated to the on-going care of congregations and their leaders. Those of us on the diocesan staff spend our days tending to matters of vocational discernment for those exploring a call to ordained ministry; the training, equipping, placement, and pastoral care of clergy; supporting lay leaders in times of clergy transitions; and congregational care and crisis support. We provide financial, administrative, and human relations assistance, as well as timely and clear communication. The budget supports the leadership of your bishop and her team. As a diocese, we pay our 15% apportionment to the wider Episcopal Church and financially support the Province to which we belong.
In 2020, we knew that implementation of the strategic plan would require additional resources, and we were blessed to receive some of them in the form of a grant from the Lilly Foundation, and a bequest specifically earmarked for education. As I mentioned, the Bowie church plant’s initial funding is from monies set aside for that purpose.
In 2020, we also were on a path of reducing our use of the largest trust supporting the diocesan operating budget, the Soper Fund, as more of our congregations moved toward a 10% tithe. That, in turn, allowed us to create a Congregational Growth Grant program from Soper income. With congregations moving toward a tithe, we anticipated fully funding our strategic priorities.
When the COVID pandemic threatened the financial stability of our congregations, we allocated as many diocesan resources as we could for COVID assistance to congregations, and we no longer asked you to continue moving toward a tithe. Many, in fact, have reduced their diocesan giving or remained at a lower percentage of giving. While some are experiencing a rebound of financial health and have returned to a 10% tithe or moving toward it, they are, as yet, in the minority. The decline in congregational giving has required some cuts in spending, including, for now, congregational growth grants that were able to strengthen congregations during the hard years of the pandemic. When we come to the end of our outside funding, we will have decisions to make.
The Diocesan Council voted this fall to establish a working-group to have a courageous conversation about money and the kind of diocesan ministry that will best serve you going forward. About this, the Rev. Jessica Hitchcock, a member of Diocesan Council, will soon speak to us. There’s no action to be taken today; we will soon be accepting applications to serve on that committee.
Let me conclude as I began with words of gratitude for the honor of serving as your bishop. With every ounce of persuasive authority I have, I urge you to tend to your hearts and your relationship with Jesus, and invite others to join you. As Evelyn Underhill once reminded the Archbishop of Canterbury, our relationship to God is the most interesting thing about us. How we live as followers of Jesus is at the heart of everything, and what will remain of our legacy long after those of us gathered here are one.
If there’s one thing I know about the Diocese of Washington is that we have an outsized impact for good in this world. For that reason, I’m convinced that growth in capacity for ministry is God’s preferred future for the Episcopal Church–not for the sake of budgets and buildings, but for the lives Jesus’ love can touch when we give the Spirit more to work with through us. I’m also aware that in life and ministry, we must face suffering and death, and place our trust in Jesus’ promise of resurrection. That is the most courageous discipleship of all.
I am grateful to renew my commitment to follow Jesus alongside you. I pray that you are inspired to do the same. We can help one another heed Jesus’ words to pray always and not lose heart. Whenever your flywheel feels too heavy, remember that you’re not alone. We’re in the heart work of following Jesus together. And that your bishop loves you more than her words can convey.