Bishop Johnston's Pastoral Address

I am deeply honored, and yet more deeply humbled, now to address you for the first time as the XIII bishop of Virginia. There is so much that could be said, so many matters that are of real importance.  Obviously, there is the stuff of new beginnings.  And, an evaluation of our overall diocesan health would seem to be very much in order at this time. And, while there is much anticipation about vision for the years to come, ongoing controversies do press hard for attention.  So with all of that–and more–on the doorstep, I’ve chosen to restrict my scope here to as much focus, specificity and clarity as we can have in the time allotted.

I do regret that, in this address, some important matters in our common life will seem to be slighted while others are omitted, such as the several topics arising from the debate on sexuality.  But I look for us to address these issues thoroughly in regional forums in 2010. It is unfortunate that some of the weightiest deliberations that come before us cannot adequately or even justly be dealt with in the very short time allowed by Annual Council. That’s a concern to me.

My two and one-half years as your bishop coadjutor were carefully planned and fruitfully spent, gratefully working with my predecessor, Bishop Peter Lee, and our Bishop Suffragan David Jones.  Even so, you will understand that I could not help but feel that things had changed quite profoundly on October 1 when I became your diocesan bishop.  And in the wake of the high standards that preceded me for decades and centuries (not to mention the standards I set for myself), I’ve been reminded by others that I must be patient.  This is wisdom that I commend to this Council over the next day and commend it to our congregations in the year to come.  This is as much a time for patience and perspective as it is for hard work, definition and vision.

Expectations of any new episcopal ministry are a mixed bag—high, wary, hopeful, even suspicious all at the same time—and I’m sure this is the case now.  Given this inevitable reality, I have decided that the most straightforward way to proceed is for this address to respond to what hundreds of people, youth and adults, said to me as a result of the seven Town Hall meetings that were held last fall.  The purpose of these meetings was to gather input so as to truly listen and then to begin discernment for the way ahead in the Diocese of Virginia.  I’m happy to report that this purpose was well served.  The participants gave themselves entirely to the process and responded with very candid comments.  We received precisely the type of content and data that we were looking for: frank, open, honest, spirit-driven and full of personal commitment. 

Overall, the responses were surprisingly similar from meeting to meeting.  Adjusting for some variabilities, the same five priorities (albeit in slightly varying orders) topped the lists.  I’m also pleased to report that my own experience of the Diocese and my ensuing discernment wholeheartedly concurs, as do the conversations that Bishop Jones and I have had with one another. The five priorities are:

  • Youth & Young Adult Formation
  • Strengthen Existing Congregations
  • Evangelism/Proclamation (Including self-definition through media)
  • Multi-Cultural/Ethnic Ministries
  • Mission Beyond Ourselves (Local outreach; domestic & world mission).

To begin with, notice how intertwined several of those categories are with others (such as “mission beyond ourselves” with “evangelism/proclamation” and “strengthen existing congregations” with “youth/young adult formation.”)  I think these interrelationships are not so much about duplication as they are encouraging signs for how we can and will get things done.  To be sure, these five priorities will be the essential reference points for our mission over the next few years.

Other priorities scored high as well, such as stewardship, leadership, communications and clarity of mission.  However, I see these not so much as priorities in themselves but rather as means to an end, and so I’m using them in a different way.  We’ve come up with the “what” (youth, evangelism, etc.) but we need to specify the “how.”  We must set measurable goals and formulate strategies that will breathe real life into these priorities. Obviously, for us to do these things well and serve our common mission effectively there is no question but that pledging to the diocesan budget will have to be increased significantly. So, if these priorities sound good to you, then you know what it will take to make them fly.  Further, if the Diocese is to focus on youth and young adult formation, and multi-cultural/ethnic ministries, we must identify and recruit the right leadership.  All five priorities must meet the challenge of clarity of mission if those ministries are to have real integrity, including our use of first-rate, multi-media communications.  Communications kept coming up over and over. I’m happy to report that a major revisioning of our communications strategies and our abilities is well underway. You should already be seeing some results of this.

Let me tell you something of what I’ve seen and experienced around these five priorities for ministry, and what I hope for in the next two to three years.   It is fair to say that strengthening existing congregations is a source of considerable energy (even anxiety) in our diocese.  This priority ranked a very strong #2 on no fewer than five of the seven meeting tallies, tied for #1 on another and placed #3 on the last one.  The context here is a sharp contrast with the priority from some years ago of establishing new congregations.  Given our recent experience with many of our new congregations leaving the Diocese (having received tremendous spiritual, personal and financial support), it is obvious that many of us across the Diocese feel a deep sense of loss, grief and, yes, betrayal and are thus quite “gun-shy” about new congregations. It should be no surprise, therefore, that church planting ranked last on all but one tally, where it was next-to-last. The sense is that with resources being spread very thinly the resources could be used for more stable and proven ministry, such as for our already established congregations.  I certainly do understand this, but can you truly affirm our diocese abandoning any vision for starting new churches?  I don’t think so. I know I can’t.  Rather, I want us to learn from the past and bring our best planning and execution to the table.  And surely one way to meet several of our identified priorities, such as evangelism, multi-cultural/ethnic ministry and youth/young adult formation, is to start new churches.  So, roll your sleeves up for this.
And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

The issue at hand, however—strengthening existing churches—remains a major focus for the work ahead of us.  What does it mean, “strengthen existing churches”?  How does a diocese go about it and what is our appropriate place in such efforts?  Would diocesan guidance, programming and personnel be truly welcome locally?  Since the needs will vary from place to place, and the goals that will require case by case strategies, how will we organize an effort for the organizational structures and staff resources of the Diocese to take a lead in strengthening local churches?  These are essential questions that must be answered before we go charging out with good intentions.  Therefore, I shall immediately begin this inquiry by taking up such questions with the regional deans and presidents.  It may prove helpful to appoint a special commission.  In any case, one goal will be to develop a proposal as to how the diocese might partner with our congregations more intentionally on their own front-lines of life and ministry.

And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

The very top priority, youth and young adult formation, ranked #1 on all seven Town Hall tallies.  This unanimity arises both out of affirmation of the present diocesan youth ministries and from concern for the future of the Church itself.   There is very strong support for our camping programs at Shrine Mont and so much enthusiasm for our Parish Youth Ministries (PYM) leadership in ministries with our younger communicants.  Indeed, our youth ministries are an absolute signature of the diocese itself and they are a primary reason for diocesan support.

We can always do better, and nothing can build real strength more quickly than working from what is already strong.  We will not rest on our successes and we will not shrink from challenges to do more.  I ask you to consider that a vibrant, broad program of youth ministries is great medicine for the ills of malaise and controversy in the Church.

And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

As well as we do for our youth, we do so relatively little (and dare I say “poorly?”) for young adults.  With some notable exceptions, a great many of our churches are almost entirely lacking in “twenty-somethings.”  I believe that this is a critical shortcoming, not just for ministry opportunities today but also in leadership development for tomorrow in each and every one of our congregations.  To begin to meet this challenge, this year I’m going to convene Saturday conferences of “twenty-somethings” so that we might listen and learn and encourage.  It is my hope that such conferences will result in a continuing body within the diocese that will keep us on our toes and accountable for young adult formation.  In fact, our work here has already begun with a young-adult mission trip to Haiti, conceived and coordinated by young adults–Cathy Gowen and Paris Ball from my staff.  While necessarily postponed due to the earthquake there, we will (repeat, WILL) be going to Haiti as soon as they are ready for us to come.

Evangelism!  Evangelism, evangelism, evangelism, evangelism and proclamation.  In essence, this is the theme of our Council.  “Go,” “preach,” “teach,” “baptize.” These are part and parcel of the Great Commission we have straight from our Lord Himself.  This is the fundamental mission of the Church and in my judgment we need to lay hold on it more than we do.  Public data and statistics today tell us that some 60 percent of the American population is unchurched.  And it’s not just the unchurched who need to hear the proclamation of the faith and who need to be taught.  In my travels and Sunday visitations I’ve had many people (and I’m talking about full-fledged adult communicants, even leadership) confess or “joke” to me how little they actually know about the basic teachings of Christianity. Still others know more about the faith and what they value but are admittedly quite ignorant about the Episcopal Church itself and our ways.  Surely, inadequacies of knowledge about faith and the Church are not the status quo that we want to hold for our life together. I’m calling on our clergy and our educators to re-evaluate the teaching you offer and the attendance you have, primarily for our adults—that’s a good a starting place as any.  What I’m getting at is that there must be a place in church life where some ongoing and substantive “faith and Church 101” is both attractive and respected.

And what shall we do about that statistical 60 percent of the population around us?   Here, I don’t think that programming or expertise is the best answer. Of course, these things are vitally important but something more fundamental is at stake. A few years ago, a study was done that examined a 10-year period in which unchurched persons became active in a congregation and lapsed members “came back” to church.  The study showed that fully nine out of every 10 people came to church simply because someone they knew or had an association with asked them.  That’s up to each and every one of us, and I hope you find it encouraging to know how much opportunity and how much power you have to make such a difference in someone’s life.

And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

We can also take a strong lead in evangelism and proclamation by making use of the public media, rather multi-media.  Just as it has long been said of the Episcopal Church that our liturgy is our best evangelism (and think what that says about the need to tend energetically to our worship!) I think that self-definition to the general public could be some of our best proclamation.  In an age when the very word “Christian” is being widely used as a media code-word for narrow political and social categories we must step forward with who we are at our best—a broad community of faith spanning Left to Right, sharing a common commitment to Christ and to one another.  In these times, that all too rare witness is real evangelism and proclamation!

And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

With respect to multi-cultural/ethnic ministries, we have several exciting Latino, Asian and African American congregations and I’m proud of the witness that they offer in and from the Diocese of Virginia.  We have dedicated clergy in these places who work extremely hard, usually without anything near adequate resources at hand.  Frustratingly, ordained leadership can be difficult to secure at times. So, as the movie “The Ten Commandments” put it, in many ways we’re asking these clergy and congregations to “make bricks without straw.”  Surely, we must come together to provide for and strengthen these existing churches, and just as surely here is one area where planting new churches presents energizing opportunities.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Pray the Lord to send laborers into His harvest.”  Whatever your own reality where you are, this is perhaps the most important and fruitful mission field for the Church now, and by the next one or two generations multi-culturalism and ethnic identity will be dominant factors in much of our diocese, if not most of it.  I promise our relevant committees and commissions that I will be right there with you in your work, and I trust that we all know that we will have to raise the stakes and our sights considerably.

And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

My firm conviction is that ministry beyond ourselves, through outreach ministries and domestic and world mission is, like evangelism, at the very heart of the Gospel.  I also know that such ministries are the best ways to heal the divisions among us.  The lines we draw between one another are swept away by mission to others.  Over the past years, I’ve been mightily impressed by the really wonderful local outreach ministries offered by many of our churches.  What a difference we’re making all across the diocese.  And around the world, I doubt that any diocese of the Episcopal Church is more engaged in giving and receiving ministry in other Anglican provinces than is Virginia.  Our many links and partnerships are towering examples of how God’s grace and power are at work in our lives as the Church in Virginia.

It is in the area of domestic mission, however, that I’d like to see more coordinated commitment and growth.  Yes, we do have a strong number of congregations sending teams to various parts of the country (such as to the Gulf coast for Katrina relief) but our broader resources as a diocese can and should take a leading role in these ministries as well.  I’ve always been clear about the fact that I am enthusiastic about ministry with Native American peoples.  Notice I said “with” since I think one of the best things we can do in ministry with Native Americans is to learn from them.  I am aware that some of our congregations have been working on various reservations in the west, and I think it is time to expand that work.  In my view, we should begin this by bringing such ministry closer to home.  It seems likely that we can do more ministry and quite exciting things right on our own doorstep with the Native population so nearby and across the Commonwealth.

And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

Furthermore, here is an arena of ministry that gives our diocese an excellent opportunity to work with the other Virginia dioceses, since we share this checkered history with the Native Americans and have such promising prospects for renewed and renewing common relationships.  It is certainly my view that the three Episcopal dioceses in Virginia should work more closely together, and I can’t think of a better way to start.  I’ve already conferred with Bishop Hollerith of the southern diocese and Bishop Powell of the southwestern diocese and they are just as enthused about the possibilities here.  For other possibilities, and branching out farther afield, I’ve also spoken to my friend the Rt. Rev. Ed Kornieczny, the bishop of Oklahoma, about his diocese being able to host us in mission with Native populations there, and he graciously affirms the possibilities.

As I said, these five priorities will be the touchstone for our common mission for the next few years.  Naturally, we must continue to develop the vision for current ministries of ongoing importance, such as for our centers at Shrine Mont and Roslyn.  I see these places as key, absolutely key, to our ability to live into our priorities. I could not be happier in my relationships with these great centers for diocesan life.  Under Kevin Moomaw, Shrine Mont is taking great strides for securing its future, updating and improving facilities and maintaining its excellence as a host for programming.  As for Roslyn, with director Kass Lawrence and a committed Board of Trustees and Directors, we have been working hard to produce a new vision for ministry there.  The exciting news is not yet ready for full publication, but I can announce that we will be creating a ministry at Roslyn that seriously and substantively aims at being the premiere center for personal spirituality and congregational best-practices in the mid-Atlantic.

And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

Stay tuned for more on that development in the very near future.

If mission is the “life-blood” of the Church then its heartbeat is worship, surely.  As your bishop I can say nothing with more urgency and conviction.  I implore this diocese to re-commit to the defining importance of the Sunday service. Simply put, Christians are not people who get up on Sunday and try to decide whether or not to go to worship.  Being at worship on Sunday is at the very essence of what makes us who we are as those baptized in Christ.

I emphasize this because I am rather shocked by what the numbers tell us.   Since 1990, although the number of our communicants in good standing has grown from 53,000 to 64,000 (nearly 21 percent increase), our average Sunday attendance (which is the most telling statistic in the Church’s ongoing life) has actually decreased by 19 percent.  In other words, we’re growing with people who support the Church but fewer and fewer people are actually attending worship with regularity.  With a current Sunday attendance average of 24,200 and a “good-standing” communicant strength of 63,900, we show a discouraging 37 percent of our people at worship on the Lord’s Day.  This is not mere bean counting because we’re actually talking about prioritizing worship, and that goes to the heart of our discipleship of Jesus.

These figures suggest to me that we are, as the Diocese of Virginia, something of a sleeping giant. The encouraging thing about this idea is that we can wake up!  Consider that season ticket holders of sports or artistic events surely do much better attending what they are committed to. Well, don’t forget that as a disciple of Jesus Christ you have a “season ticket” and it’s called eternal lifeDon’t neglect to show up for it!  I love you and this diocese too much, and my responsibility as a bishop is too pointed, not to tell you that how we’re doing now in diocesan life in attendance at worship, and it is alarming and it should be unacceptable to us all.  Addressing this reality must be a major piece of the work we do together to strengthen existing congregations. To start, I call on our clergy and vestries to set a three-year goal of having 50 percent of communicant strength at worship on Sundays.

And don’t you doubt that we can do it.

These statistics are in strange contrast to what I’ve encountered in my Sunday visitations.  I have to say that what I’ve experienced on Sundays is really most impressive.  From one end of this diocese to another, there is true devotion to Jesus Christ that shows up in lives.  Large church or small, there is an extraordinary love for the Episcopal Church that is absolutely palpable.  I’ve seen a commitment to ministry and to one another that is inspiring, and I have been so warmly greeted and richly hosted everywhere I’ve been.  When I get home on late Sunday afternoons I am utterly exhilarated.  Thank you so much for that, one and all.

I am often asked what I think the mission of the Diocese of Virginia is, or even “why” the diocese exists.  So I conclude by telling you what I’ve seen and come to understand after nearly three years as a bishop:  The mission of the Diocese of Virginia is to worship our Lord Jesus Christ, building up our unity even in diversity, and to serve the world in the power of the Gospel as a part of the Holy Catholic Church.

The Diocese of Virginia looks like the Church as it exists across this country and, yes, the whole world.  I hope that we continue to build a diocese that looks like the entirety of the Episcopal Church in our Anglican tradition, and Anglicanism in its historic norms is a microcosm of the whole of Christianity–Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, low church and high-church, traditional and modernist, evangelical and tempered.  This is messy, and it is both good and not-so-good.  Encouraging in its catholicity, it is nonetheless a recipe that makes for discomfort.  It is not likely to be someone’s personal notion of the “ideal Church.”  But this is who we are and I believe that we should strive to maintain and build upon it.  Unquestionably, such comprehensiveness means that we have something unique and invaluable to offer as part of the Body of Christ.  Let’s do it.

And don’t you doubt that we can do it!