Bishop Johnston's Pastoral Address

The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston

At last year's Annual Council, we experimented with some changes to several aspects of Council's events and programming. One of the experiments was my Pastoral Address: rather than give the traditional, "full length" report on happenings, programs, statistics, and vision, I was asked to give a relatively brief "overview" which then introduced a goodly number of stories about mission and ministry occurring throughout the diocese--exciting and inspiring stories that, really, could only be told--could only make their fullest impact--if they were told first-hand by those involved. After those presentations, I gave a "wrap-up" (again, brief) concerning various diocesan matters. From the Council evaluations that were submitted, it was quite obvious that this format was a BIG "hit," certainly because the whole of Council was captivated by, indeed enthralled and much inspired by, those stories of ministry in our congregations of all sorts--large and small, rural, urban, and suburban, some rooted in past centuries and others relatively new.

Your diocesan staff knows how much this meant to Council last year, because, over and over, throughout all of 2014, we heard from virtually countless congregations about those presentations about real ministries happening in our diocese that were making a real difference.

But, a number of those same evaluations also said that many people "missed" the traditional Pastoral Address--that they wanted to "hear more," directly from the bishop, about the state of the diocese and about vision for ministry to come. Fair enough! We heard--and I understand--those wishes, and so you can look forward now to a more fulsome address. This won't be so much a "year-in-review" presentation; no, I want to speak about the work we have to do right now, here at this Council, and I want you to hear about and ponder--deeply-- ministry and program to come in this coming year, initiatives that will invite each and every one of our congregations to enjoin.

Nonetheless, I will begin by saying that the state of the Diocese of Virginia is strong. I hasten to say that this is not simply in terms of “numbers." In fact, although we remain one of the largest dioceses of The Episcopal Church, our numerical strength has seen a very slight decline in some key measures over the past few years. But we certainly can be encouraged by the vitality of our ministries. The quality and personal commitment of strong lay leadership, serving in local congregations as well as on Commissions, Committees, and other ministries of the diocese remains a hallmark of this diocese. I’m deeply impressed with the enviable depth and breadth of our clergy--both priests and deacons--who serve so very faithfully and conscientiously. Our mission and outreach efforts are stepping into the growing gap of income disparity There's our nationally-acclaimed camping ministries, serving hundreds and hundreds of children and youth from all walks and stations of life, whose lives are quite literally being transformed by the Christian story and the Gospel's vision in each one of our nine various camps. And then there's our sheer "reach" in sharing the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ literally around the world, giving rise to deep and lasting friendships and mutual formation in faith across oceans and continents. Yes, in all of these realities (and in so many others) we are indeed “strong" and very effective in what we all do together as a diocesan Church. We are indeed "clicking on all cylinders!”

In and through it all, the diocesan infrastructure is solid and well managed, moving along without missing a step. And here, I would be remiss if I didn't note that so much of this is due to the extraordinary efforts of our highly gifted and indomitable DIOCESAN STAFF. I can quite honestly say that I believe that our staff team is surely the best that can be found anywhere. I only wish that more of you could actually see and know how they make every day something special. We managed some very significant transitions in 2014, some very high-level positions--and we've come through all of that with flying colors.

To borrow a term from presidential history, it can be said that 2014 was “an era of good feeling.” Yes, we are—by and large,—a HAPPY diocese! Your three bishops see this Sunday in and Sunday out, and we receive very gracious notes, cards, letters, e-mails, and conversations giving testimonies of great personal fulfillment in Christian life. We hear again and again about a sense that RENEWAL is happening across our diocese, many clergy and laypeople saying that they have noticed this ongoing for the past two and even three years. I've also come to sense that there is a stronger sense of "diocesan identity" than was true even just a few years ago, a feeling in a growing number of our congregations that they belong to "something larger" than their own particular community of faith, and that this actually means something--brings something more, perhaps ineffable but nonetheless REAL, to one's Christian life. ALL of what I've said so far is ample proof that this year's Council theme, "Working Together, Reaching Beyond," is indeed well chosen and is proven TRUE.

So, this is an exciting time to be an Episcopalian in the Diocese of Virginia! I must note that 2015 will be the first time in eight full years that we are not carrying the burden, expense, and anxiety of litigation, stemming from very sad divisions over doctrine and disputes over properties. Of course, we give great thanks that our case, our claim as an hierarchical Church, was fully and irrevocably vindicated in the Courts, rulings that stand not only for our own diocese, but also for those of Southern Virginia and Southwestern Virginia. It may not seem to matter so much to the average "person in the pew," but the fact that the Commonwealth of Virginia has—in effect—codified our Church’s ancient order (dating from the year 325) holding that a diocese and not a congregation is the fundamental and authoritative unit of The Episcopal Church is, in fact, of definitive value.

Now, I can happily say that for the first time in my years as bishop in Virginia, we are now free to live fully into our true potential, to see and seize the opportunities that are right in front of us. Some of that is already happening. For example, in 2014, we recorded more "Mustard Seed" fund donors than we have ever had at any time since I became a bishop. This will affect a great many of our own congregations in their "quality of life" every day as a community. We are now looking at new models for starting new congregations--ministry that is evolving so quickly that the larger, more conventionally "institutional" Church is having to run to catch up to the phenomenon. We've established the "Fear Not" fund, that--in time--will allow us to endow and thus continue our signature program of world mission and outreach for many generations to come. Our many contacts in West Africa have enabled us to respond to the Ebola crisis, particularly in Liberia. We are squarely facing some dangerous and, simply, sinful issues of injustice and degradation, such as with the Faith & Females group that is devising new ways to respond as the Church to the continuing issue of gender violence against women within the bounds of our diocese. And that makes me think of our "Women to Women" ministry, linking Virginia and the eastern Congo, teaching and empowering women who find themselves on their own to STAND on their own, through micro-financing programs.

 We're working, at home and far abroad, in ministries to bring the vision of the Gospel into living and breathing reality, even one life at a time. As part of The Episcopal Church, a missionary society that proclaims and avowedly inclusive approach to ministry, we as the Diocese of Virginia are exceptionally well-equipped and disposed for ministries of healing and reconciliation.

How so? Well, we in this diocese are traditionalists, centrists, and progressives TOGETHER--and no minority, no matter how defined, is to be excluded, denied a place at the table in any part of the Church's life, witness, and ministry. This is very personal to me, because depending on what the issue at hand may be, I can readily be identified as a "traditionalist" (such as my conviction, specifically set forth in our Church's canon law, that only those who are baptized should receive the Holy Communion), a "centrist" (in my insistence that it is of crucial importance for us to learn how to "agree to disagree" respectfully, and stay committed to one another as a community), AND a "progressive" (as in my support for the Church’s blessing of same-sex unions and now for marriage equality, particularly given the law of the Commonwealth allowing gay and lesbian couples to be legally married).

 Clearly, there is much to do in the work of reconciliation in our larger society. But, in my judgment, this work must begin with reconciliation amongst ourselves, in our congregations and as a diocese as a whole. Even with the many positives now going for us as the Diocese of Virginia, we are surely not immune to the ills that are deeply embedded in civic life, both here in Virginia and across our nation. So, I believe that we must do all we can to put our own house in order before we can have real impact upon the problems of society. In other words, it is when we can witness and minister out of the reality and integrity of our own healing and wholeness that we can make the most difference in our communities.

A key example in our “Working Together, Reaching Beyond” so as to bring a much-needed witness to society is racial reconciliation. The daily news from cities and towns all across our country over the past several months shows us that this haunting issue has reached an absolutely urgent point. Simmering racial tensions are now boiling over into the streets. What’s been happening is all symptomatic.

In our Episcopal Church, and specifically in our own diocese, I quite regularly hear—in particular—our African American and Latino communicants and their clergy speak of their painful experiences of the scourge of racism. It is often “subtle” but too often is more explicit, and it affects their daily lives, yes even on Sundays.

Surely, as communities of faith we as a diocese are especially suited, and divinely charged, to be facilitators of reconciliation, both within our own walls and in the broader community. Therefore, I am now announcing a major initiative for this year of 2015 that will focus on gaining a better understanding of rising racial tensions. We will begin this effort by holding a series of “listening sessions” in the mid-year around our diocese. These sessions will be the same “Indaba” style gatherings that were so successfully used here a few years ago to address tensions and divisions regarding the Church’s ministry in the quickly evolving matter of human sexuality. “Indaba” listening sessions involve no debate, no cross-talk, but rather give every person present the opportunity to speak their hearts and minds in a safe, non-reactive environment. That’s what is most important. With “Indaba,” there are no “wrong” things to say, no frustrating political-correctness driving the process, only the honest expression of experiences, questions, observations, and convictions. I was so very proud of how we did this before; a great many participants were deeply moved, telling us how they were helped to learn and understand in ways not otherwise possible. Frankly, they were also surprised at how transforming the sessions were, changing the way we as church people were in relationship to the issues together rather than being so concerned with changing minds. I can tell you from many experiences of “Indaba” style sessions that something actually mysterious happens when it is faithfully engaged. It is, indeed, a Holy Spirit phenomenon.

So, we will first listen to one another in ways that help us to understand the divisions over race that still have an impact on our lives. Then, we will be better equipped to go out into our communities to “move the needle” on reconciliation.

Actually, some of this work is to be put before us at this Council. After a year of study by a specially-appointed task force that was called for by our 219th Council last year, a resolution has been submitted to change the name of our annual meeting as a diocese from “Council” to “Convention.” This may seem to be an unlikely matter in seeking to move us toward reconciliation. After all, as our diocesan registrar and historiographer Julia Randle shows in her meticulously thorough and insightful research on the use of both of these terms in the Diocese of Virginia (and in other dioceses around the United States in both the 19th and 20th centuries), the reasons why the name “Council” came to be used in various places are not always explicit or completely clear. The nomenclature was considered and evolved over time. Several quite distinct issues are involved, some of which appear to have little to do with matters needing reconciliation among us here and now.

BUT, as we focus on our history here in the capitol of the Confederacy, I am convinced that we simply cannot ignore that chapter in the life of our diocese that is rooted in the Civil War. Thus, I believe that this resolution does appropriately call us into some serious and substantive deliberation. Given the fact that the name of our annual meeting was changed from “Convention” to “Council” in 1862 with the formation of the Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America, we are being asked to consider what that specific legacy might mean today. Of course, there will be divergent points of view; different people with different backgrounds will inevitably end up with different perspectives. We must work respectfully with one another’s very personal realities. At the bottom line, it seems to me that the real—and deeper—question before us is: “What does our history in the 1860’s have to say to us about the sensitivities that are necessary to address racial tensions in 2015?”

I’m very much aware that this debate, and our broader focus on racial tensions throughout this year, will not be easy work. We must recognize that in some fundamental ways, this form of reconciliation may be the most difficult to achieve. There has been decade upon decade of efforts to bridge racial divisions in our nation, and yet emotions stemming from such issues are still obviously raw. Indeed, some very bitter and volatile words from parishioners in this diocese have already been expressed or conveyed to me, regarding both the matter of race in our society and in reaction to this very resolution to be put before us. As your bishop, and in my capacity as president of this Council, I urge us all to be considerate and careful in the upcoming debate of this resolution as well as in our ongoing efforts to understand and address our various tensions as the Church. Be mindful that all that we do as the Church is dedicated to the glory of God and to advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, we must remind ourselves that “reconciliation” is a core value of our Christian faith. It is at the heart of who we are and what we are to do. Holy Scripture is explicitly clear about this. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that through Christ, God “reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” Likewise, our Book of Common Prayer declares that “The Mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Therefore, the very fact that reconciliation is so hard to achieve is all the more reason we are called as Christians to make it happen!

We now stand on the shoulders of those countless faithful Episcopalians who have ministered for so many decades—even centuries—to reach out and build bridges. We are recipients and now stewards of what has been accomplished before us. And we are called to be reconcilers in these trying times. I have chosen to make reconciliation a priority for 2015 not to advance some political agenda and not to indulge in staged rounds of good-deed discussions that fail to address the underlying issues. I have chosen this because I’m convinced that what we—Church and society alike—need today is the nurturing of a trust that depends on listening, really listening, to each other. That’s the kind of trust that will build community far more than any piece of legislation.

Reconciliation is very much about “going outward” and it will surely take its toll in terms of spiritual energy. For the engaged spiritual life, it is just as important that we “turn inside” to explore our own depth and learn how to keep ourselves spiritually healthy and well grounded. So, another priority I’ve worked for in 2014 and now for 2015 is to expand the ancient ministry and discipline of spiritual direction in our diocese. From the very beginning of my ministry as a bishop in this diocese I have received numerous inquiries about “who” and “what places” were available for regular spiritual direction. Of course, I’ve always known that training spiritual directors and making that ministry available is a mainstay of ministry at Richmond Hill here in this city and I’ve made quite a lot of referrals there. And then there is the program available to students, and others, at the Virginia Theological Seminary. But interest in various forms of alternatives persisted, whether it be in setting and environment, or in the several different schools of thought and training, or concerning differences in the particular emphases and “personal styles” of a given spiritual director. Also, a number of our clergy travel to places outside of this diocese, sometimes rather far away, to make multi-day retreats but are now looking for something closer to home. And so it became evident that we could supplement what is already available and working here in Virginia. I had an idea.

Throughout last year, we ran a pilot project bringing my own spiritual director over the past twenty-three years to the Roslyn Retreat Center here in Richmond once a quarter, to be in residence at that beautiful and comfortable place for three weekdays. We put the word out specifically to clergy but also being available to any layperson to gauge what level of interest there might be. I was very pleased with the response; just about all of the available slots of times were filled throughout the year. Now, with those “regulars” being committed, we’ve set the vision for other spiritual directors, all personally and vocationally “different” from each other to come to be in residence at Roslyn. We will have three or four directors each take three or four months of a year, with the result being that every month offers a residency of several weekdays. My own director is a lay woman who lives in Atlanta, and so I’ve now asked a retired male priest from within our diocese who specializes in spiritual direction to join the program. Next, I’ll be talking to a Roman Catholic nun who lives in a Virginia convent who is very highly recommended to me. And maybe then I’ll try to sign up a monk from one of our orders in the Episcopal Church. There will even be spiritual direction for groups, such as Vestries or congregational discernment committees that are working with someone who is exploring a call into the ordained ministry. So now you’ve got the whole picture—and remember that this will be open to anyone who might be interested, whether ordained or lay.

I believe very strongly in the ministry of spiritual direction. In fact, I even think that every Christian who is truly interested in understanding more about his or her faith and who wants to grow in faith by exploring “how it all works” in one’s particular life should have a spiritual director to meet with regularly. “How often” can certainly vary; some people meet with a director monthly, but others find this quarterly arrangement to be sufficient. I work with my director for several hours over a two-day period each quarter of the year. There are many ways to work things out; the important thing is to find the right director for you and then stick with it. As bishop, I certainly urge every priest and deacon of this diocese to be in regular spiritual direction, however you arrange it, wherever it may be. This is surely one of the most important of all resources for spiritual health and well-being, not to mention the wisdom that grows in you as a result, for the benefit of your own ministries where you serve. Look for further information and features about this program for spiritual direction we’re building at the Roslyn Retreat Center on our diocesan website and through the other regular means of diocesan news, such as The Virginia Episcopalian magazine and the e-communique.

To conclude, but continuing the theme of spiritual wellness, I announce that I am going to take a sabbatical from September through December of this year. I am now nearing the completion of the eighth year of my episcopacy in Virginia and so it is time. I am so grateful that our beloved retired Bishop Suffragan, David Jones, has agreed to support me during this time by stepping in to cover Sunday visitations for me. Moreover, we certainly can all be confident that Bishop Suffragan Susan Goff and Assistant Bishop Ted Gulick will provide strong and wise leadership during my absence. By Canon law, I remain as the Ecclesiastical Authority for the Diocese throughout the time of my sabbatical. This means that I shall be available for any matters which are judged to require my personal attention.

The very word “sabbatical” is rooted in the Biblical term “sabbath,” meaning rest on the “seventh day.” From this, I have always believed that a true sabbatical is not a time to take off so that one can “produce” something (unless that is what renews you) but rather is a period set aside to press the “reset” button—to reflect, regroup and, yes, to rest, and re-charge. And, in the year that Ellen and I celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, we will have some much-needed time together without the daily and weekly schedule always crowding us out. We will travel some, but most of our time together we be simply at home (as she will still be hard at work leading the new Center for Liturgy and Music at VTS). I do plan to read a lot, including several books that will help to fortify and educate me for my ministry as a bishop. And a great part of this sabbatical time will be spent “re-connecting”—spending time with family and dear friends who live in other states and who I hardly ever get to see, even if only briefly once every year or two. I’ve come to realize that there are a good number of people who mean the world to me—and have for decades, even my whole life—and yet I do little or nothing to enjoy that or even to show it. I very much look forward to breaking that poor pattern, putting—and keeping—relationships back into the “priority” category in my life. I think I’ll be a better person for that.

So, speaking of relationships, thank you. Thank you one and all for “being there” for the Church in this diocese, serving the Gospel of our Lord in so many exemplary ways. Thank you for the very great privilege of serving as a bishop in this truly iconic diocese. And thank you for your many kindnesses and your thoughtful expressions of support and appreciation that I receive day by day. I am blessed by you in our life and ministry together, and I am so eager to find out just how God will continue to bless us all in the year to come. Enjoy the ride!