The Pastoral Address of the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston to the 223rd Convention


November 4, 2017
Christ Church, Richmond 

Having published a full-scale, “state-of-the-diocese” form of Pastoral Address when we met in Convention this past January, it is not my purpose to deliver yet another one for this address.  Rather, I shall take up a few topics that have particular importance for this Convention, events and subjects that have arisen this year since that January meeting.

Still fresh in my mind is the awful—and, indeed, tragic—day of rioting in Charlottesville on August 12, the result of a rally held by self-avowed White supremacists (prominently including uniformed neo-Nazis).  The worst violence erupted in the afternoon after several hours of tension between that group and a faction of counter-protestors, the two sides engaging in hand to hand fighting using various club-style weapons, improvised projectiles, and shields.  It all finally dissipated shortly after a Nazi sympathizer deliberately rammed his car into a non-violent crowd, killing one young woman and causing serious injury to numerous others.  Not only was this big news nationally but also it was covered extensively in international media.  Sadly, throughout the world, the very name “Charlottesville” is now a kind of shorthand for racial unrest and deadly violence.

Bishop Ted Gulick and I had arrived in Charlottesville early that morning to join a large group of counter-protestors, including some 25 to 30 of our Diocese of Virginia clergy who had responded to my public letter calling clergy to participate in peaceful demonstrations.  The White supremacist rally was scheduled to begin at noon at the newly re-named Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), but their day actually began around 9:00 a.m., following an evening of a torch-lit and menacing protest held on the lawn in front of the University of Virginia’s iconic Rotunda. That next morning, several small groups of White supremacists arrived early and gathered in the park, acting as a kind of “warm up” for the main-event speeches.  They shouted the most vile and obscene slogans while waving various flags (including swastikas and the familiar Confederate battle flag) as well as signs with messages of racist, anti-Jewish, Islamophobic, and homophobic hatred.  Make no mistake:  although the stated purpose of the rally was to protest the decision to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee and to rename the park, these groups of rallyers were all about their hate-speech, White triumphalism, and secession from the United States.  The park’s statue and name were only a pretense to exploit so as to promote the supremacist platform.  They showed up armed and armored to the teeth, obviously itching for a fight, equipped with military-grade weapons and gear that both state and local law enforcement admitted outclassed what they themselves carried.  Certainly, at no time did I ever see or sense any evidence of  even a bit of reasonable restraint among the White supremacist demonstrators. All I saw was raw hatred, and it chilled me to the core.

The significance of “Charlottesville” for the Diocese of Virginia is deep.  First of all, the presence of two bishops and a significant number of our clergy served notice to all that our Church will stand up to oppose the evils of racism and all hate-speech that categorically de-humanizes people.  Our widely noted participation in the counter-demonstrations on August 12 was a strong witness to our commitment to “faith in the public square.”  I simply cannot conscience silence or inaction in the face of hateful bigotry of any kind.  Moreover, I shall not become complicit in it by failing to call-out political speech that refuses to condemn it straightforwardly for exactly what it is.  Ideologies which promote hatred of entire groups simply because of their racial, religious, or sexual identities are utterly incompatible with the gospel of our Lord and thus should not in any way be glossed over by His Church.  If that is “mixing religion and politics” then I say so be it.  After all, it is an incontrovertible fact that Jesus condemned the inhumanities of the political and religious order in His own ministry. Consider, too, that the Church has learned hard lessons from its complicity with such harsh political evils as Nazi Germany and the “Jim Crow” disenfranchisement of Black Americans which was enshrined into law in our own country.  No, we must lead with the light of Christ, being grounded in the vows of our Baptismal Covenant, namely, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

The events in Charlottesville also bring a true urgency and pointedness to our own efforts toward racial reconciliation, not only in society at large but also in the Church itself.  At our Annual Council (as it was then called) in 2015, I called upon every congregation to conduct an internal inventory, a self-assessment, and then to take up something to address the facts of racism, both the overt and the more subtle, in the congregation and in the local community.  I envisioned ongoing efforts that would continue for years. Since then I have been impressed with the resolve and continuing commitments in many of our churches—often with transforming results.  During the same period, however, I heard reports from some places that it was difficult to get people to accept that racism was, in fact, still such a pressing matter besetting the Church.  The illusion of now living in a post-racial society has been growing some roots.  But if Charlottesville taught us anything, it exposed just how critically needed our best efforts are to lead our culture and greater society in building up what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.”  That means living together in a close-knit mutuality and unity for all of God’s people, all races, ethnicities, and identities:  White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Native American, and LGBTQ (to name only the most prominent communities on the diversity spectrum within our Diocese of Virginia, not to mention both Democrat and Republican, Liberals, and Conservatives).   I say again that such reconciliation must begin at home, but no less important in our day and age is to take our witness for the transformation of relationships beyond our own four walls and into our local communities.  If the Church is right to stand up to bigotry and hatred then we must have the credibility that is built up by showing others the true way—what that “beloved community” looks like in real-life and how it is achieved.  We learned from Charlottesville that when the Church shows up and takes a stand, people notice and are themselves strengthened to oppose any form of injustice or inhumanity.  That is what people expect from the Church, even those who do not claim a church of their own or, I should say, especially those who do not have a church of their own.  Today’s crises of racial, cultural, and religious divisions mean that we the Church have the opportunity to shape what is happening in our communities and to make a difference for the benefit of all.  I am convinced that we can—and must—seize this moment.

Another moment the Church across the United States must face squarely is an internal matter, but it is of existential importance.  Congregations are changing rapidly in terms of numbers, personal commitment and involvement, and with respect to the clergy who will—or won’t—be available to serve them.  We see that these changes are just now beginning to affect us here in Virginia, and demographic studies show that the disturbing trends extend through the next twenty to thirty years.  And what happens after that is anybody’s guess.

In my judgment, the Diocese of Virginia remains quite strong and healthy, generally speaking, both in terms of congregational viability and in the recruitment, education, and ordination of clergy.  I note especially our numerous younger ordinands.  What this means is that, more than most other dioceses, we could continue to conduct “business as usual” for the foreseeable future.  But that begs the question:  “Should we continue with institutional business as usual right now, when we know that we will indeed face hard times within the next generation?” I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I do mean that these are issues and questions that really should be dealt with from a position of strength rather than one of necessity.

Even though we remain a strong diocese, over this year we have been experiencing an unusually high number of congregations in transition, with respect to clergy leadership and/or budgetary sufficiency.  Even more transitions are in store as “Baby Boomer” priests begin to retire in greater numbers.  All of this means that the ways in which we, as diocesan leadership and staff, support our congregations is changing as well.  We are trying to be creative and flexible in how we work with all of our congregations.  We also make a point of coming to understand special circumstances which might call for exceptional processes.  All of this is particularly true regarding our smaller churches, some of whom are finding that it is becoming difficult, if not impossible, to call and sustain a full-time priest.  It is my intention as bishop—and my direction—that in light of these new realities we are coming to face more frequently we must focus primarily on the missional aspect of the community of faith.  The traditional matters of institutional concern—calling and supporting full-time, resident clergy, buildings and grounds, etc.—then become secondary questions, issues that must go to the support of the mission and ministry of all the baptized.  While I am deeply sympathetic to congregations that are undergoing profound change in their ways of life and ministry, I am convinced that this primary focus on mission is the most faithful course, rather than trying to find ways to prop-up fading models from the past years.

But let me be clear:  such a “missional” focus must, in my view, provide adequately for every congregation’s ministry of worshipThis is not the same question as to whether or not a congregation can afford its own priest.  But it is a question of the rites and sacraments of the Church being available to our communicants.  And it is likely more and more to become also a question of identifying and training laypersons to lead appropriate services of worship. 

We do not confuse the Christian life of worship with those aforementioned “institutional concerns” that in some cases may become second-tier.  No, worship is the very “DNA” of the Christian life; it is how we are formed and nurtured in right relationship with God and one another.  I maintain that worship is “missional,” being the heartbeat of how Christians are called and equipped to go about mission faithfully in the first place.  Otherwise, congregations are little distinct from a social-services agency, and the Church of Jesus Christ is surely different than that; indeed, we are more than that.

One way that our diocese will not continue “business as usual” concerns the fair compensation of all of our clergy.  Specifically, we have noted that there is a significant disparity in compensation that is based primarily on gender.  We cannot run away from the plain facts:  female clergy are paid less than male counterparts in similar positions of responsibility.  I am grateful for the work of the Pay Equity Task Force, which has been documenting this problem.  I look forward to the ongoing work that is seeking solutions that balance the financial realities of our congregations with the ethical requirement for just principles in how compensation is calculated for women.  Moreover, it is also evident that women do not enjoy the same level of competitive access to more prominent—and higher paying—roles of responsibility.  It seems to me that the exceptions here only serve to prove the rule.  And so I am committed to continue working with all search processes to ensure that women, both ordained and lay, are given truly equal opportunity for such positions of leadership in the Church.

Stewardship in numerous places across the diocese has been seeing something of a revitalization over the past couple of years, thanks to the popularity of the workshops conducted by Julie Simonton, Director of Congregational Development and Stewardship.  Also spurring this renewal of interest has been the remarkable enthusiasm for Julie’s coordinated, diocesan-wide stewardship campaigns, “Walk in Love,” last year’s theme, and this year’s “All Hearts Open” program.  Of special note is the fact that the “All Hearts Open” materials are being used not only by congregations throughout our diocese but also in several dioceses in other parts of the nation.  Reports have raved about how well-received these campaigns have been and so it would be logical to hope that this success would translate into meaningful increases in proportionate giving from our households and thus in actual dollars pledged to support the budgets of our congregations.  With that hope in mind, I have sent a letter to each of our churches—and especially those not meeting the guidelines of our “Virginia Plan for Proportionate Giving”—asking for an increase in the amount of 2.5% over the dollar amount of their pledge last year to the diocesan budget. This is a modest request, only $25 for every $1,000 currently pledged to the diocese, and so it is my hope that certainly most churches will be able to afford this increase which, given our large pool of contributing congregations, will make a very big difference in our diocesan budget’s ability to increase funding for vital ministries that make our life together as a diocese stronger.  

This is the first time in my eight years as your diocesan bishop that I have made such an asking, so this was an “unusual” thing to do—to make such a specific ask—but the time is ripe because of the unique opportunities and challenges that are now before us.  To begin with, many of you will remember that raising the bar for every one of our college campus ministries is a dear priority of mine.  Currently, we have only one full-time campus ministry chaplain (at James Madison University), so there is certainly much to give to support our ministries and programming at the other schools.  I have an ambitious vision of the Diocese of Virginia employing a full-time college Chaplain at every one of the universities where, thanks to the commitment and generosity of the local congregations, we now offer part-time ministries.  This area of ministry is absolutely crucial to the life of our Church, not only now but also to meet the challenges of “Baby Boomer” decline in our churches over the next generation.  In my estimation, campus ministry is the single most important investment we can make right now.

Further developing the life and ministry of our mission congregations is another priority.  Remember, these churches are largely dependent on the diocesan budget.  They are a major ministry of every one of us together.  I worry that we support them only enough for them to “survive.”  But it is our responsibility that they should thrive.  I want our mission churches to become more missional, to increase the scope and effectiveness of their ministries so that they make a bigger difference in their local communities.  It is in having such an increased impact that they will be able to grow numerically and thus realize more life for the Gospel of Jesus.

We must also have increased funding for our diocesan budget so that I am able to compensate our dedicated and accomplished diocesan staff more adequately, more fairly, more effectively.  Compared to other dioceses and to the non-profit sector we are significantly underpaying our employees, and our current budget doesn’t even allow for a simple cost-of-living raise in compensation.  This is a very serious issue for me in my responsibility to recruit and keep talented and accomplished staff members.  As I speak, I very much fear that we will be losing key staffers to a better-paying market. 

Given the fact that we are sorely understaffed as things are now, we cannot realize more cash to go around by cutting staff; there simply is no more staff to cut if we are to continue to operate in the ways a diocese of our very large size requires.  I urgently ask you to provide the resources to pay our staff fair wages.  I can attest that we cannot pay them what they are worth, so at the least we should be able to pay them what they can accept.

Moving now to one of the real marquee topics of this Convention, with the impending retirement of Assistant Bishop Ted Gulick at the year’s end, I announced some time ago that I am calling for the election of a second bishop suffragan.  That resolution is filed as R-4 on our agenda, and so this matter will come up for discussion following this address. Perhaps, also, you have had the opportunity to read my letter which outlines the case for electing a third full-time bishop in the most recent Virginia Episcopalian magazine.

The bottom-line is that this diocese, like other dioceses of comparable size, not only needs a third bishop but also needs that bishop to be full-time.  I know that many of you were surprised to learn that Bishop Ted, who I appointed in 2011, was supposed to serve in a part-time capacity.  His remarkable ministry has been anything but part-time!  As things quickly proved, the need was considerably more than strictly part-time hours allowed.  For all of these years, +Ted has been working very much overtime every week.

With the advice of the Standing Committee, I decided that if we were to have a full-time third bishop it is better to elect that person rather than to appoint another assistant bishop. An appointed assistant bishop must, by canonical definition, already be a bishop who is either willing to work after formal retirement (as Bishop Ted has done) or who will transfer as an active bishop from one’s current ministry.  The vast majority of bishops who are willing to accept a call as an assistant have already retired, and therefore wish to work part-time for part-time compensation.  At any given time, there are very few active bishops who would be willing to work full-time as an assistant, and so our field of options would be very limited.

Thus, electing another bishop suffragan is clearly the better option, all the more so since I will be specifying from the beginning of the search process the particular areas and responsibilities of ministries that our third bishop will undertake.  So, we will be able to elect a person from a set of nominees who all feel called to those ministries.  This will help to ensure the selection of a new bishop who would be the best match for our specified needs, including the responsibilities for our Northern Virginia office, as with Bishop Gulick.  It is also important to consider that an elected bishop has more of a mandate, reflecting the will of the diocese in a way that an assistant, being appointed by the diocesan bishop, cannot fully do.

Of course, we will have to cover for the vacancy that will exist upon Bishop Ted’s retirement until the new suffragan is elected and ordained to the episcopate, no more than eighteen months.  Here is the right opportunity to appoint an assistant bishop, who would take up that ministry as soon as possible in 2018, and serve only until the new suffragan is in place, most likely sometime during the first-half of 2019.  I have already been discussing such a possibility with two retired bishops, and there are other possibilities as well.

But, how can we afford a second bishop suffragan?  Having just made the case that we are not adequately paying our current staff, surely this is a question that must be answered here.  I put this question to our treasurer, Ted Smith, and his conclusion is that we will be able to afford a third full-time bishop with our current resources:  Specifically, from Bishop Gulick’s current salary, reduced administrative overhead, and savings we are realizing from a recent realignment in our current staffing structure. Primary in this realignment is the merging of the Mission and Outreach office (formerly headed by Buck Blanchard, who resigned last month to move to Colorado) with our Office for Intercultural Ministries, which has been directed over the past two years by Aisha Huertas.  Aisha will now lead the new Office of Mission, Outreach, and Intercultural Ministries. She will be working with twenty-year staff veteran Mary Anne Bryant, who has for many years been the ace assistant to Buck Blanchard.  This combined office will become one of the “hands-on” responsibilities of either the newly elected bishop suffragan or Bishop Suffragan Susan Goff.  This new structure will result in significant savings which will be allocated toward support of the third bishop’s compensation.

Treasurer Ted Smith, Chief of Staff Ed Jones, and I are confident that these combined resources will adequately support the new bishop, while having only a neutral impact on money available for staff compensation.  According to our best estimates and projections, we have a solid and responsible pathway to bring a second suffragan on board. 

I am calling for the election of a second suffragan because I strongly believe that this addition will greatly enrich our diocesan ministry. The need is obviously there (as has been amply demonstrated in this diocese since the mid-1990’s) and the added capacity of a third full-time bishop will build strength on strength.  A second bishop suffragan will certainly be a strong benefit to our whole staffing structure because the stability inherent in an elected suffragan will help the whole staff to be more consistently cohesive.  Moreover, a second suffragan will provide the time and room to continue to move the ministry of the episcopate closer still to our congregations in more meaningful and more knowing support of both our clergy and laity.  The timing for such an election is exactly right, being very much in step with the very well-received promise of our new schedule for the bishops’ Sunday visitations to our churches.  We will be able to live into that new model even more fully and successfully, particularly with mid-week evening visitations to congregations during their “off-year” for a Sunday visitation.  We bishops are seeking to support your congregations more and more personally and fulsomely, and I have no doubt that electing a second bishop suffragan will prove to be a major step in that progress.

Finally, I conclude with my deepest thanksgiving, respect and affection for our beloved assistant bishop, The Rt. Rev. Edwin F. Gulick, “Bishop Ted.”  As he will continue his ministry until the year’s end, there is good time available for our more personal and specific expressions of gratitude, but we would surely be remiss if we didn’t show our appreciation here in this Convention.  As Bishop Susan and I have written in the most recent Virginia Episcopalian, we have indeed been richly blessed in having +Ted as such a close colleague and great friend. 

Of course, we would count Shrine Mont as a particular beneficiary of +Ted’s boundless energy and commitment, but I shy away from trying to point out all of the many ways that +Ted Gulick has served the Diocese of Virginia with great distinction.  And I know from so many of you, through your various stories and smiling memories of +Ted’s ministries and presence, that there must be thousands upon thousands of examples of what a gift he has been to all people who have crossed paths with him. Fortunately for us, +Ted won’t be going away as he retires to his farm, and after some months of rest and reorientation he will still be serving from time to time in a few of his signature ministries, including pastoral care and holy conversation at his homestead, working with clergy and vestries in congregational life, and the occasional church visitation.  If we all had champagne right now, I’d ask us to raise our glasses in a toast of tribute to our most faithful assistant bishop, but since we don’t I’ll simply ask us to raise our hearts and hands instead.  Thank you and God bless you, +Ted Gulick!

And we also express our great thanks and affection to Barbara Gulick for her uniquely loving role in sharing +Ted with us in this diocese.  Barbara has been selfless in supporting +Ted’s wide-ranging ministry, and has herself been a most gracious hostess for the many guests who have spent time at the Gulick’s farm.  Thank you so very much, Barbara!  Thank you for the gift that you are to the Diocese of Virginia.  Now may you enjoy “real” retirement together with Ted.

My last word is one of thanks to all of you:  thanks for your time and effort here at today’s Convention, and thanks for your commitment to your church congregation.  You are making a real difference by being part of the life and ministry of our iconic diocese.  Thanks for the many ways you bless me in my ministry as your bishop.  And so I say, God bless each one of you, and may God continue to bless the Diocese of Virginia.