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The Diocese of Virginia

Bishop Johnston's Pastoral Address

This 217th Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia marks the fifth anniversary of my election as bishop – five years – and this pastoral address is the third that I have given as your diocesan bishop. Each one of my previous addresses has covered a range of subjects; they have been more or less state-of-the-Diocese or year-in-review “reports” concerning various activities and situations, as well as expressions of gratitude to the people who make things happen. But for this address, I shall be taking a different approach–a topical one. I would like for us to consider, broadly, some of the strengths of being a “big” diocese.
 
I think such a review is timely. As your bishop, I’ve heard a lot about the difficulties of being the size we are: impersonal, not knowing leaders and colleagues, the, shall we say, less-than-ideal, however necessary, afternoon Episcopal visitations, the sheer scale of even ordinary things. And especially, we’ve more recently been dwelling on the problems caused by inadequate funding for a diocesan system our size. And as true as all of those concerns are, I’ve come to see that we get rather hung up on those things – I know I can at times, certainly. But I want to be sure that we don’t lose perspective, and so I think it’s time to talk about what’s right about being, well, “big.” Let’s think about the opportunities, privileges, resources and strong dynamics that flow from being one of the Episcopal Church’s largest dioceses.
 
Let’s acknowledge that it’s time that we think through and live more intentionally into the particular and certain advantages we have as the Diocese of Virginia. And, mind you, I take this kind of inventory in a spirit of real humility, being keenly aware that we are so blessed by a generous and Godly heritage. Also, as we look at ourselves as a diocesan system we must never forget that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. Precisely because of the great gifts entrusted to us, the Diocese of Virginia must lead in being productive stewards of such bounteous resources, making wise use of all that we have in order to nurture growth for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God.
 
The first thing that comes to my mind is the fact that we have greater financial resources available to supply the needs of diocesan ministry. Yes, we do need more money for the diocesan budget so that we can better meet the common needs and expectations, but the fact remains that we are able to serve our congregations attentively, personally and well. Our breadth and our strength as a large diocese mean that in staffing we must continue to attract and to keep exceptional talent, as we certainly have. I simply cannot say enough about the quite exceptional personal dedication of the staff we now have for the Diocese of Virginia. Each and every one of these persons is truly remarkable. I’ve never worked with a better group. They love their work and they love their co-workers. There can be no question that they are underpaid but there is equally no question that they certainly excel by all standards. Your staff is available to congregations for stewardship development, youth programming, communications and public relations, mission trips, clergy recruitment and transition, young adult ministries, Christian education, crisis ministry, financial expertise, pastoral care of clergy, and congregational development, to name some of the resources that are tapped most often.

We are able at the same time to dedicate a goodly percentage (21 percent) of our annual budget for mission and ministry beyond ourselves – as, given our wealth, we should do. Having such a large number of pledging units for the diocesan budget means that when we all do just a little more, a whole lot more for the good of all will result. As bishop, I give great thanks that we do not have to depend on only a few to do so much. We have many who do their part to give for all and that is a sign for a healthy diocesan Church.
 
I also note that with a larger number of households and friends who are able to provide financial support, we are able to make quite substantial contributions to emergency and disaster relief efforts when the sheer number of people lending a hand makes all the difference. I can tell you personally that whether it’s in Haiti, Japan or Joplin, Missouri, the amount of aid we can raise quickly as a diocese has been most deeply appreciated by those who are in staggering distress and need.
 
Our 181 congregations comprised of some 82,000 baptized members mean that we have more than ample resources and talent to serve Christ through our diocesan ministries. This is why I am so very committed to the longer-term vision of having full-time diocesan missioners at all of the colleges and universities within this Diocese. Such ministry is critical, both for the students and in the ongoing formation of the Church, present and future. We simply must do this; there is no reason or excuse not to. Furthermore, our diocesan commissions and committees are strong. Their work can and does reach all of our congregations across the Diocese. You will perhaps experience some of their work during this Council’s workshops or, at least, consider in the exhibit space the many opportunities they present for ministry.

You see, we have a much larger critical mass of people who can step up for both leadership and support roles. We can find all the talent we need right within our midst–and we don’t have to depend on just a few, year in and year out, to do the work our diocesan ministries require. So, take this as encouragement to get involved where your gifts and interests lead you. If you don’t know how to become more involved, just ask your priest, regional dean or president, or a member of the diocesan staff. Any one of us will be more than pleased to show you the way.
 
Having so many people who can be involved points to the fact that we have the opportunity for considerably more diversity than many places in our Episcopal Church. We live in an area where the demographics with respect to various nationalities and ethnic groups are overflowing with opportunities for ministry and evangelism. Our African-American, African, Latino, Asian-American and multi-cultural congregations – one of which we will highlight – are not only potent reminders of our reach as a diocese but also great resources of wisdom and experience that can teach us to do better than we do. Are we listening? Do we see? It seems to me that one would have to be deliberately looking away to miss that tremendous reality amongst us. And I think it would be energizing to minister and evangelize in such a way as to be a microcosm of the Anglican Communion itself.
 
With more people and greater diversity we have a richer pool of persons from within the Diocese who pursue vocations into the ordained ministry and who are ordained for the Church here in Virginia. The numbers testify to the fact that our diocese has an extraordinarily vibrant culture for discernment and ordination. We have no fewer than 59 persons in formation for ordination, and another 40 who are in the exploratory stages – 99 people in some level of formation! In addition to having the largest and strongest Anglican seminary in the world within our boundaries, we also see postulants attending several other seminaries as well, raising up a variety of experiences in the spiritual formation of our clergy. And we can’t overlook the fact that the size and the impact of our diocese attract many clergy from other dioceses and regions of the country, ensuring that we do not fall prey to a kind of limiting provincialism.

Any kind of provincialism would seem to be unlikely, indeed, for a diocese such as ours. We are the most “outward” looking diocese that I know of. The Diocese of Virginia quite probably has more links, companionships and personal relationships beyond our own borders than any other Anglican diocese anywhere. The numbers tell a very compelling story. We currently have ministries with 40 international dioceses involving 75 of our congregations! That is a most impressive witness indeed – one that we should celebrate. But still, 75 is less than half of our number, and so, to me, that means there’s a lot more yet to happen in our international ministries. Within the United States, Diocese of Virginia churches made 102 domestic mission trips over an 18-month span during 2010-2011, including ministries in Appalachia, Louisiana and Mississippi, Iowa, Native American Reservations and various urban areas of the country.
 
But it’s not about quantity; it’s all about the quality and the faithfulness of relationships in mission. What we’re doing on such a large scale is a direct response to Jesus’ own commandment to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel.” Make no mistake: these ministries are an imperative of the Gospel, and make life-changing differences for the thousands upon thousands of people that we reach. But our links are also formative and life-changing for us. All true mission gives depth and authenticity to the missioners. Just think about how all of this shapes us into who we are and how we see things! And know that one primary reason that we’re able to do this work is because we can provide the organizational support that such far-flung efforts require. Frankly, here aren’t many dioceses that can do all of this. We should be very thankful indeed that we have not only the resources but also the people-power and the know-how to offer such ministries to our people.
 
I am so confident in our abilities to conduct mission beyond ourselves, and I am so committed to our Anglican Communion, that I have set the goal of our diocese having ministry relationships with every single province in the entire Anglican Communion. We’re already in 20 of the 34 provinces. If–no, when!–we make that happen, the Diocese of Virginia will be the only diocese in the entire Anglican world with such a reach.

Our size, vision and reach mean that “we can do it” close to home as well. The simple formula of strength-in-numbers means that we can be a real leader, all of us, in local and state-wide advocacy. We are blessed with a big voice–a constituency that is too large to ignore–and we are also blessed with a history that lends true gravitas to our witness. Again, we find ourselves to be stewards who are challenged to make a difference precisely because we are able to do so.
 
We can make a true impact on the governor’s office and the General Assembly. Both from my own office and in our partnerships with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Virginia Council of Churches and the LARCUM fellowship (the Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Methodist fellowship) we have done and will continue to do just that. My own view of what is at stake right now is justice for the poor and the protection of funding for the “safety nets” that ensure care for them. This is the kind of advocacy we can bring a voice to. This funding of the safety nets is now most imperiled and our voice must be heard – now. Get personally involved. Gather and join together concerned friends. Diocese of Virginia regions: organize and lend your collective voice. Get together with other regions and weigh in with a louder voice. I can tell you that I’ve personally had positive experience in working with the governor’s office and the delegates to the General Assembly. Our Commonwealth’s government listens and is responsive. I cannot but believe that this will also be true with respect to local government structures when we join our collective Episcopal voice to speak up for the Gospel’s vision of security in the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter for all who are in need. We must use our strength to hold this line on the non-negotiable value of the dignity and worth of every person.
 
Naturally, there are “close to home” topics that do not require such measures as political advocacy. But this does not mean that they are somehow less important or that they should go unmentioned in a pastoral address. These are the everyday and season-by-season matters of Christian formation that we should appreciate from the point of view of a large diocese and mobilize accordingly.
 
One very pointed example: I have spoken to many bishops who tell me of the hardships they have with respect to camping centers and conference facilities. They speak of inadequate or unattractive space, places poorly maintained and crippled by debt. Some dioceses have no camping or conference space of their own at all, and must rely on rented spaces. We are so very blessed to have not only one, but two “signature,” very special facilities. With resources like Shrine Mont and Roslyn, we might all-too-easily take this critical aspect of diocesan life for granted. But we must consider how fortunate we are in this regard. Both places have solid financial foundations and, with the strength of this diocese behind them, both places have manageable financing. But even so, this year we must rise to meet the challenge of making much-needed improvements to our facilities at Shrine Mont as well as in providing more scholarship assistance to those who cannot afford camping. We will be addressing these issues as we work toward a celebration of the 50th anniversary of camps at Shrine Mont. Shrine Mont’s unique place in the life of our diocese is such that we simply cannot let it down by falling short in our efforts to support it and secure its future. And with the number of people who have been touched and shaped by that iconic place, there’s every reason for success in reaching our goals. The stewardship of Shrine Mont and our camps there is a big challenge that a “big diocese” should be able to meet.
 
With the truly fine programming and administration at both Roslyn and Shrine Mont, we are readily able to support the formation and the faithfulness of hundreds and hundreds of our youth, and many thousands of retreatants and conferees every year at our centers. The feature of “parish weekends” away from the home church is as strong in the Diocese of Virginia as any place that I know. Camping, vestry retreats, parish weekends and personal retreats all mean having the ability to make a unique kind of impact on the spiritual lives of a significant percentage of our communicants beyond the parish, beyond the congregation. And, as many people will tell you, it so often requires a change in scenery, something as simple as that, to reset spiritual perspective or come to new understandings. Both Roslyn and Shrine Mont can provide such a change beautifully, for youth and adults, well secured in–yes–the life of a large and resourced diocese. 
 
Now, as all of you know, the matter of our size, resources and abilities has been – over the past five years – under worldwide scrutiny. Our diocese is navigating a complex set of circumstances regarding our effort to return Episcopal properties to the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia. It would be a big mistake to characterize this simply as a “legal” battle. Rather, at its core, this is (make no mistake about it) about theology, meaning who we are as a Church in relationship with Christ and the world. At stake is our polity, that is, our ancient and defining order of our being the Church. Thus, it is altogether a matter of nothing less than our very faithfulness. It will therefore take more than the courts to settle things. So far, our legal efforts are bearing abundant fruit, but that fruit at hand is making ecclesial life even more complex! Despite the recent court ruling in our favor, we simply don’t know now what the future holds. Nonetheless, we have reason to be more confident than ever that our properties will be returned. For nearly two years, we have considered and discussed such a positive outcome, and now we must move to put contingency plans in place. We will be fully prepared for any eventuality. Today, I outline something of what these plans involve for our diocese’s mission, ministry and administration (which, I remind you, St. Paul lists as a spiritual gift!).

This is exactly on point in my overall theme here of the advantages of being a large diocese. The bottom line is that just as we have been able to sustain our case throughout a lengthy and expensive legal process, I strongly believe that we will be able to do what it takes over the next months and years to be faithful to the Church’s mission with respect to each one of the properties involved. And, as I’ve here been making the case, we do, in fact, have what it takes–that “critical mass”–when we all put our shoulders to the wheels. To be sure, what’s ahead will take all of us working together as a diocesan Church and ministry. We are faced quite squarely with many questions and challenges right now, but in my mind there can be no doubt: we are up to them.
 
The future is absolutely bristling with possibilities. This is a truly historic time in the life of our diocese. It is not overstating the case to say that this is one of the most defining moments in all of our 400 year history. As such, this is a most exciting time! But, steady now, because the next several months and, for some places, even years, will be a time for discernment before decision. Still, in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we now are entering a time for clarity and confidence.
 
To ensure that clarity and bolster that confidence I’m announcing here the creation of what we’re calling “Dayspring.” This is the name of the broad, integrated effort to bring vision, strategy and execution to (1) our support of the continuing congregations; (2) our re-start of congregations where we have existing property; (3) our recruitment and placement of clergy where they will be needed; and (4) our determination of the use or disposition of other properties and assets to be returned to us. I will lead Dayspring myself, and will appoint a deputy who will work to manage three separate teams: Vision & Strategy, Resources and Messaging.

Vision and Strategy will work to put flesh on the visions for ministry, both with the Episcopal congregations and with the properties returning to us in Dayspring. Resources will address the business aspects that will inevitably go with what we do. Messaging will serve to communicate both inside the Diocese and to the world the redemptive effort, the redemptive work we undertake with Dayspring. Each team will be chaired by key leaders who will recruit and work with experienced professionals from various fields of enterprise that will be required due to the scope of our efforts. We are beginning the process of recruiting these teams and we will be announcing the membership in the near future. At that point, Dayspring will be launched in earnest.
 
Given those points about Dayspring, there remains one other point that will be as much a part of its mission as anything else: there must be a spirit of graciousness whenever and wherever possible. On the purely practical level, this means that if and when the present ruling stands and we retain the disputed properties, no community of faith, no ministry program will be summarily thrown out of its current place. We will be as open as possible to creative agreements, generous provision and true mutuality, while protecting the needs of our own ministries and the integrity of our witness. The ministry of Jesus Christ, supreme and surpassing as it is, trumps cultural differences and intellectual disagreements, even our arguments over the meaning of Scripture itself. The Gospel shows Jesus Himself doing precisely this and it is for us as His disciples to do the same. I want to have a witness to the world, particularly the Anglican world, not just an “outcome” in the court. In my view, the Diocese of Virginia is best positioned of all Episcopal dioceses to make such an epoch-shaping witness. 
 
And so, given all of this we must go back to the basics. Why are our opportunities, resources and dynamics as a big diocese so important? Why would we ever consider our size when it is our mission that is paramount? The answer lies not so much in how we’re defined as in who defines us: the Risen Christ. Jesus as Savior and Lord is both our beginning and our fulfillment. The Church, imperfect as it is, is nothing less than His Body on earth; that’s who we are. The Church exists to make His ministry incarnate in human life; that’s what we do. Our “Rule of Life” is the Baptismal Covenant, in which we clearly state our beliefs and make very particular promises as to what our day-to-day lives will look like, God being our helper. And there’s the key: God as our help, that is, our grace, our strength and our provider. There’s no denying that we as the Diocese of Virginia have been provided for bounteously and specifically. We have what we have in this diocese, we are who we are in these times, in God’s providence. That Providence is surely calling us to do big things, but even all of that must begin with making and sustaining disciples of the Son of God, who will then serve the world in His Name. First things first.
 
Everything I’ve said here about being a “big diocese,” even one with extraordinary challenges and opportunities, has roots in – and implications for – our five priorities for mission and ministry: (1) Youth & young adult formation; (2) Strengthening our congregations; (3) Evangelism and proclamation; (4) Ministry beyond ourselves; and (5) Multicultural and ethnic congregations. Even with all that lies before us we must remain focused on and defined by our commitment to these priorities for our mission. Never losing sight of the fundamentals, we will bring all of our plentiful resources to bear on both the normative ministries in the Church’s life and to the extraordinary challenges. Yes, much is expected from those to whom much is given. But be confident. God is faithful and gracious, and will continue to bless the Diocese of Virginia as we serve our Lord Jesus Christ: “For this time. For all time.”