Bishop Johnston's Pastoral Address
By The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston
222nd Annual Convention - January 26-28, 2017
Not to be dramatic, but I will say that the year 2016 was something of a “breakthrough” year for me as your bishop. To begin with, my prayer life (and my spiritual compass generally) became increasingly insistent that I must be more of a public activist about the values to which I feel called by my faith in Jesus as the Lord of life and by the whole record of the sacred Scriptures. I’ve been calling this awareness “faith in the public square,” and it compels me not only for my ministry and role as a bishop but also simply as an individual Christian person. As I said, this has come to me from promptings in my prayer life, but I believe it is related to three factors: First, the “mainstream” Protestant churches have become more marginalized than ever, our voice being all but drowned-out by the hard-Right fundamentalists and politically-charged evangelicals. The very label of “Christian” has been virtually hijacked in the larger media by the so-called “Religious Right.” As a result, our secularized culture is not truly aware of a more moderate and broader voice from the Christian tradition. This is unacceptable to me as an Episcopalian. The same goes for the ultra-Left. The second factor moving me into a more activist-style of our Christian faith is the alarming polarization in our public discourse as the American society. If ever our nation and world needed the Anglican tradition of a “big tent” community, our ability to forge consensus around “both—and” as contrasted to the highly toxic and (in the end) destructive “either—or” it is now. Finally, I’m raising the bar for my Christian voice because it is now apparent to me that here in the United States (although certainly not limited to our country) a fear-driven, isolationist nationalism seriously threatens the Gospel’s vision for human life and community by propping up self-interest as nothing short of an idol. Jesus never said or exemplified “self first.” Quite the contrary: We follow a Lord who said “Love one another as I have loved you.” In my book, that means “selflessly” and “unconditionally.”
Faith in the Public Square
Of course, the very word activist can evoke many different feelings and images because it means different things to different people and so I want to be clear that I don’t intend to become a rabble-rouser! My Oxford English Dictionary defines that term as “a person who stirs up popular opinion, especially for political reasons.” That’s not for me at all. Rather, I shall seek to articulate and bring a concrete witness to our Christian values as declared with unambiguous specificity in the Baptismal Covenant. In my view, this will most often involve our promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” As I wrote in the Winter edition of The Virginia Episcopalian, I believe that it is a matter of knowing what Gospel value is at stake, and—given that such a value is indeed at stake in any given moment or issue—insisting that the Church (the “Jesus Movement” as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry so simply but so powerfully calls us) must and will be heard. Therefore, I heartily ask you to consider what your own “faith in the public square” might look like—and sound like: what would prompt you to step-up and speak out? I very much hope that you will do so! I ask this of each and every one of you, both laity and ordained.
I quite understand the validity of the concern that arises whenever I’ve spoken about my conviction that the Church is divinely charged with witnessing in the “public square.” After all, religious organizations are forbidden by statute to engage in political partisanship—and we should be thus forbidden. So, the question becomes: “When or how do we reach the point of political bias?” My answer is that we must never be explicitly biased for the sake of politics. No, but we are charged with a bias for Jesus’ Gospel vision of human life, striving for the realization of God’s Kingdom in this life. So, if-ever and whenever you feel called to enter the arena of a public issue from the point of view of your Christian faith, my strong counsel to you is that you must be very sure indeed to be able to articulate, clearly and unequivocally, precisely what in the matter at hand offends an imperative from Scripture. In this, the point becomes not so much a “political” bias but rather a specifically religious bias. I’m struck by the impression that, in my own experience and perhaps your own, only a relatively few people will—or even can—argue their political convictions from the viewpoint of their personal faith. Maybe this is why so many people like to invoke that often misunderstood phrase “separation of Church and state”—they want to shield their political opinions and/or their economic well-being from their professed faith! I’m sharply reminded of the time when I was a parish priest attending a diocesan Convention which took up a resolution to pray for our enemies. When I noted to my parish’s delegation that Jesus Himself said that this is what we must do, one of my particularly patriotic parishioners replied, “Well, Jesus was wrong!”
I fully realize that there is inevitably—and unavoidably—a subjective element at work in my premise. No doubt, many points might be argued either “pro” or “con” from a Scriptural point of view by persons of opposing opinions. My point is that it is not necessarily a bad thing for people to interpret Scriptural truths differently. It’s really a matter of beginning with—and then maintaining—good faith and goodwill with one another. We then have a case of healthy—even holy—debate, which may well produce an answer which could not have been imagined without that debate and discernment. I point out that the history of the Church has always been marked by discernment between differing arguments, and yet, here we are still: no less vibrant and just as committed as before. I maintain that differing ideas make the Church a stronger, more vibrant, and more honest community of faith.
Now, what shall I do with my newly-recovered conviction for “faith in the public square?” I shall be more open and communicative about my perspectives and convictions with regard to political, economic, and communal issues whenever such affairs intersect in some way with the Baptismal Covenant. This means that I shall offer more position statements, both written and in video, than has been my practice up to now. An essential component of these statements will be to explain “why” I believe a given issue is a matter that should be addressed by the Church. Moreover, since to teach theologically is one of the highest responsibilities of a bishop, it will be necessary for me to detail precisely “how” I have reached my conclusion. I strongly believe that this is very much at the core of true leadership, not with the expectation that everyone should agree with me but rather to call everyone to the table of ideas and deliberation. My hope here is that we will all help one another to grow as witnesses to the values of Jesus’ Gospel, able to go deeper and do better for our faith’s relevance in real, day-to-day life.
It is my intention also to become more directly involved in the respective arenas of federal, state, and local government when I believe that the Church has something to contribute that is specifically appropriate to political discourse. In Federal and Commonwealth affairs, it is clear to me that our efforts will prove more effective if we work together with the other two Virginia dioceses (Southern Virginia and Southwestern Virginia). Therefore, I shall coordinate with Bishop Hollerith and Bishop Bourlakis (respectively) so as to bring a stronger voice and more weight to the Episcopal Church’s witness in Virginia and beyond. The same principle applies to our full-communion partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are two Lutheran jurisdictions within the bounds of our diocese and I shall be working more closely with these Lutheran bishops toward common goals in public witness. It is also important to work ecumenically, especially with and through the Virginia Council of Churches and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the two largest and most influential networks which promote public advocacy from a faith-perspective. Finally, we must remember that we do, in fact, share common interests and values with the other two great monotheistic, Abrahamic traditions of faith, Judaism and Islam. I maintain very good, consequential, and personal relationships with leaders in those communities, and I am sure that there will be any number of occasions to work together toward a more just and harmonious society. I have already been personally active in promoting closer and better interfaith relations, in particular to oppose the unacceptable phenomenon of Islamophobia and simply anti-Islam sentiment.
Again, none of this is about being politically “partisan;” rather, it is about being present, being taken seriously, and being counted—not so much as Republicans or Democrats, but rather as people of faith who seek to make a difference in this world. In my view, we must remember and take to heart that Jesus was put to death not only for upsetting the religious status quo but also for threatening the larger political order. Thus, I think that to maintain that the Christian faith must never cross into “political” territory is actually a cop-out. One has only to take stock of the history of white churches that stayed silent or openly supported racial segregation during the Civil Rights movement to understand my point.
A solid example of what I’m pointing to is the “Service of Light and Hope,” a liturgy sponsored by our diocesan office of Intercultural Ministries. This was held to offer support to our Latino/Hispanic parishioners who fear drastic measures might be taken against them by the new Presidential administration. On Sunday evening, December 4, Iglesia de Santa Maria was filled to overflowing with congregants, clergy and other leaders from across the diocese, as well as representatives from other denominations and organizations. All three of your bishops were in attendance, and each one of us made public commitments to stand with our Latino/Hispanic brothers and sisters to fight for their rights, including fair immigration and national residence policies. This is grounded in one of the most-mentioned of all Godly imperatives—it’s spelled out for us literally hundreds of times in Holy Scripture—which is hospitality to the stranger, the immigrant among us. In my remarks, I promised to organize peaceful civil disobedience should they be subjected to mass deportations or any unjust treatment. I remain absolutely committed to this witness, and will gladly risk being arrested if and when that will lend meaningful support to those who are somehow on the margins of our society.
I also feel called to be more vigorous in my opposition to the death penalty, and in support of comprehensive measures to reduce gun violence. I’ve already acted in being a founder of the Church-wide network “Bishops United Against Gun Violence,” and in April I shall be attending a national conference and public witness in Chicago that will bring a very pointed focus on the horrible ravages of this utter scourge upon American life, culture, and urban society. I ask you to consider the real-life issues that call out to your own faith in Jesus as your Lord. Whatever the issues, I suggest that we Episcopalians run the risk of hiding our light under the proverbial basket. In my judgment, the time has long-since come to proclaim our faith within the public square, wherever you are, whoever you are.
Another kind of “breakthrough” for me during the past year is of a different sort for my ministry as diocesan bishop and our life together as a diocese, but “important”—indeed crucial—it most certainly is. From the time that I was elected bishop coadjutor in 2007, I have been vexed by the complicated and thorny problem of how to emphasize our community and identity as a diocese. I’m sure it’s not news to most of you that the strength of our Diocese of Virginia is diluted by an insistent current of unabashed and sometimes unabated congregationalism! The authority—even the very relevance—of the diocese is called into question by some, while others resign themselves to accepting that the diocese is something that must be tolerated. I dare say that it wouldn’t be far off the mark to guess that perhaps the majority of our communicants (and even some clergy) don’t think of the diocese as a defining part of faith and church-life. For me, one way this problem is manifest—the “tip of the iceberg”—is the rather superficial quality of a bishop’s visitation to our churches every Sunday. Please don’t get me wrong: for me, the highlight of every week is my Sunday visitation. I greatly enjoy being with our clergy and communicants week after week. It is very important to me that I experience you in your own places—to see something of what makes each congregation “tick” the way it does. But therein lies the problem. Given that almost every Sunday requires both morning and afternoon visitations, I don’t get “enough” of any place I visit. That makes me wonder whether or not you’re getting enough of the bishop from a visitation.
Morning visits are up against the clock from the start. When arriving an hour or even more prior to the service time it seems that there is precious little time for meetings with a Vestry or another group. If we can manage a forum for teaching or “Q&A” we have to cut things short, not being able to go into much depth. Time is invariably rushed for the important meeting with a baptismal party and the candidates for confirmation, reception, and reaffirmation. Only very rarely can there be quality personal time with the clergy. Then, I have to dash off after a service with only a relatively brief stay at a reception since I must get to the afternoon visit with some sufficient lead-time.
What I find when I make an afternoon visitation is that there is a similar shortage of time for a meaningful activity before the liturgy, attendance is virtually always down for the service due to the different—and inconvenient—time and, afterwards, people are anxious to get home. There’s also the reality that my often-long drive back to Richmond cramps available time in the later afternoon. Not to mention that parishioners object to, even resent, being given the afternoon time slot because they feel this signals that their church “rates” only the second-tier priority. None of this helps to make for a quality visitation for either bishop or people!
Obviously, what I’ve been describing isn’t true for everyone, whether lay or ordained. To be sure, there are Sundays when both visits are just fine from my own point of view. A lot of people do indeed “get it” when a bishop visits their congregation, and maybe most of our congregational leadership feel that a strong relationship with the diocese is important. Nonetheless, for the big picture, I have come to believe that our current system of scheduling bishops’ visitations is not working for the best in our diocese. It actually reinforces the feeling of a lack of real connection with the bishop’s ministry. In turn, that confirms a weak sense of relationship with the diocese as a whole. Consider as well that we bishops often drive away without much improving our in-depth knowledge and understanding of a congregation, its clergy, or its mission and ministry, and neither have we always had adequate opportunity to impart what we might offer. I’m not betraying any confidence to tell you that I know both Bishop Goff and Bishop Gulick have something of the same experiences and they feel the same way. The bottom line is that all three of us want the most connecting and most meaningful time possible when we make a visit and—by and large—that simply isn’t happening.
What are we to make of this picture? What is the answer to the problem? I begin by telling you that we’ve been talking to our clergy and laity about Sunday visitations for several years. Over all that time, we’ve learned that the people of the Diocese of Virginia agree: there is a real problem in the morning-and-afternoon schedule. We bishops have learned this from consulting with the Deans who, in turn, have been discussing the visitations with the clergy of their Regions and reporting back to us. Clergy and communicants have shared their feelings with us in countless reception-time conversations and in letters and emails sent to our diocesan offices. We’ve discussed the issues at the Spring Conference and at the Fall Clergy Retreat at Shrine Mont. It turns out that the strong majority of you have many of the same frustrations with a rushed visitation that only scratches the surface. And you don’t want an afternoon visitation! You’ve told us that you do want a stronger sense of connection and relationship with the bishops and with the diocese as “the Church.” And, you’ve told us that you’re willing to try to fix the problem.
Now that you’ve got the context and background information, today I’m officially announcing a major change in our system for the bishops’ Sunday visitations to our congregations. This has not been a secret by any means; we sent out a detailed letter to all congregations last year. We are shifting the entire paradigm. Starting with the first Sunday of September of this year, we are moving to one visit per Sunday for each bishop. That visit may be for just a single liturgy or it may include multiple services. This way, a bishop will be able to spend several hours on-the-ground with every congregation, so there will be ample time for whatever activities you design. For example, I’ve said that I will arrive at an agreed time in the morning and stay until 2:00 or even 3:00 in the afternoon if you’d like. During that span of time we can do whatever the clergy and congregation feel is necessary and important as long as I celebrate and preach for at least one liturgy.
Given that we have 180 churches to visit, this means that we shall be moving from the current two-visit, morning-and-afternoon norm, in which every congregation receives a bishop during every calendar year, to a schedule in which most congregations will receive a bishop every-other-year, with the provision that there will be Regional services so that every congregation has the opportunity to present candidates to a bishop for baptism, confirmation, reception, and reaffirmation every single year. Our larger congregations, which typically present classes of, say, twenty-five or more for baptism, confirmation, reception, and reaffirmation, will continue to receive an annual visit, and that visit can also last over the span of a morning and into the afternoon.
To help compensate for the fact that about half of our congregations will have an “off-year” with respect to a Sunday visitation from a bishop, we shall be very intentional about visiting those congregations on a weeknight for a program or forum. Perhaps you’ll agree with me that such events can in fact be very strong and personal quality-time for a bishop and those who attend a program or fellowship night. I very much look forward to these opportunities with you.
We shall try this system as an experiment over a few years and, if it proves to be unacceptable, we can always go back to the morning-and-afternoon schedule. I realize that this will take some getting used to: it seems counter-intuitive to try to deepen the relationship between bishops and congregations by decreasing the frequency of visits. That worries me as well; maybe we’re making a real gamble. But, a significant problem requires an exceptional effort to resolve. And, in the feedback we’ve already received, the idea of “quality over quantity” for a bishop’s visitation has been judged quite favorably.
You should also take into account that among the six largest American dioceses within The Episcopal Church (and, in some of those statistical categories, we are the largest American diocese), the Diocese of Virginia has—for many years—been the last diocese that still schedules annual visits for all congregations. In my judgment, it is time for us to try out the wisdom of what other, similar dioceses have tried and found preferable. And, I do believe that quality beats “quantity” any time.
Intercultural Ministry and Racial Reconciliation
Another major development aimed at improving the quality of relationship between diocesan-level ministry and individual congregations has been the flowering of our new Intercultural Ministries office. This diocesan staff office has specific oversight of our twenty multi-racial and ethnic-specific congregations. Led by Aisha Huertas (who we asked to “fly the plane while it was being designed”), the Intercultural Ministries office has taken great strides over the past year and the sum of the ministry thus far has already been a real achievement. There are two tracks of ministry in this work: (1) to provide front-lines support that will facilitate both relationships and resources for the congregations themselves, and (2) to work with all Anglo-majority congregations so that the entire diocese is as fully informed as possible about the mission and ministry of these specific communities of faith. Over the years, I’ve observed and heard that most of our congregations throughout the diocese know very little about our multi-racial and ethnic-specific congregations and so most of us have only a limited perspective and understanding of these fellow Episcopalians. Our intercultural congregations have opened their doors to Christians from Vietnam, Korea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Bolivia, El Salvador, Mexico, to name only some of the places of origin. We must own up to a problem of real dis-connection with respect to these communities. We can do better! It is important that we all become more aware of their accomplishments and goals, their needs and challenges.
In October, we held the first “Intercultural Summit” meeting at Aquia Church in Stafford. The clergy and Vestrypersons of the twenty congregations were invited to attend and discuss the opportunities and difficulties they are facing. The summit was led and supported by Aisha, Bishop Goff, and myself, along with several other leaders of the diocesan staff. Thirteen congregations were represented by forty-five people, and there was great energy and excitement about coming together in community. Feedback reported much encouragement in the promising future of this work. There are plans for additional diocesan-wide events, so stayed tuned closely for the news from the Intercultural Ministries office.
I remain particularly encouraged by the ongoing ministries which are addressing racial reconciliation across this diocese. Some of you will recall that I named this as a singular and urgent priority in my Pastoral Address at the 220th Annual Convention in January 2015, and since that time a great many of our congregations have responded in various but personal and concrete ways. Most churches that have been emphasizing racial reconciliation have generally followed the recommendations of the several diocesan conversations about race relations held during 2015 by structuring programs that, first, took an internal look within the congregation, sharing attitudes and experiences with respect to racism. Several of our churches then sought and built personal relationships with a nearby congregation composed primarily of people who are of a different race, getting to know each other on deeper levels through sharing in worship and events of fellowship. Finally, the partnering congregations found ways to shape a mission and a message to take into the larger community with the goal of promoting greater understanding and mutual respect. In some cases, this has been done by taking on a common ministry project in your local communities. Moreover, I have been contacted by a few clergy who have asked for help in building a ministry of racial reconciliation. Such requests arose from the awareness that many matters of race-relations require professional training in how to facilitate knowingly and effectively. I take heart from this. It is good to know that some of you are going that deep. For these situations, I recommend engaging a specialist Social Worker or a community organizer.
If your congregation hasn’t yet taken up this emphasis in ministry, there’s no time like the present! Surely, it’s not as if the issue has come and gone, and if you need some help to jump-start things please know that our very fine Race and Reconciliation committee is ready, willing, and able to help. So, give our diocesan staff liaison, Aisha Huertas, a call and get moving on one of the defining matters of our era. And, a big “Well done!” to all of you who are involved with what is clearly a “What Would Jesus Do?” ministry.
School for Peace and Reconciliation
Beyond this inspiring work that continues to grow in our diocese, there is another door that I hope we can open in 2017 as part of our call to be peacemakers and bridge-builders in a divided society and world. Over the past two years, we have been having discussions, prayers, and shared meals that are focused on building stronger relationships between members of three “blue-ribbon” leadership teams from our diocese and parishioners of the ACNA congregation that currently leases our Truro parish campus in Fairfax City. We can now see the possibility of our ministering together in the form of a School for Peace and Reconciliation. The initial focus of this school would be on relations among Christians, Jews and Muslims. Naturally, the very fact of our sharing in a common ministry will have its own implications, both “in-house” for the Truro congregation and for the Diocese of Virginia, as well as for a general public which (understandably) has viewed our church divisions with cynicism. I’m intrigued that we can make a difference in that by constructing a new narrative. I am personally steering the “big-picture” strategy and direction for the diocese. Our Diocesan Secretary and Chief of Staff, the Rev. Deacon Ed Jones, is tirelessly providing the on-the-ground, day to day leadership and implementation. Important details need to be worked out; key questions would need to be answered. But the possibilities of a common witness here are certainly noteworthy. I look forward to keeping you posted.
Refugee Resettlement & International Mission
Another ministry on the front lines I find particularly inspiring is happening in the crucial issue of refugee resettlement. With the matchless passion and know-how of Buck Blanchard’s Mission and Outreach Office, churches in the Diocese of Virginia have stepped up to welcome the stranger in life-changing ways. Several congregations throughout the diocese are co-sponsoring refugee families to help them resettle here in Virginia. For example, I’ll highlight but one such effort. In the fall, a group of churches in Richmond, including St. Thomas’s, St. Philip’s, Holy Comforter, and St. John’s, joined together to welcome a family of nine to the Richmond area. They were originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo but had spent the last twenty years in a refugee camp in Rwanda. Our churches are helping the family in many ways – tutoring the children and helping with homework, taking them to medical examinations, teaching them to ride bikes, driving the parents to English language classes. They’ve been to Maymont Park, the Virginia Museum – even to the opera! The list goes on. But mainly we are helping the family feel welcomed in their new homeland, and into a community of love. All of us are aware that the issue of refugees is an international crisis. So many people await action. Opportunities to come to the rescue abound all the time and I hope and trust that more of our churches will get involved. Thanks so very much to each and every one of our congregations now doing this desperately important work. I am profoundly grateful that you have taken a lead for us all.
The Mission and Outreach office also oversees our extensive network of relationships with dioceses and Provinces across the Anglican Communion. A great many of our congregations support mission and ministry in fully twenty nations on four continents, places as diverse as, for example, Haiti, Tanzania, South Sudan, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Liberia, Israel and Palestine, Brazil, and South India. Congregational missions also travel to places nearer to home such as in Appalachia and other rural American regions, various inner cities, and Native American reservations. In addition, Buck Blanchard, other members of the diocesan staff, and individuals (both ordained and lay) representing our diocese travel to maintain ties that bind in—to mention but a select few—Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan, South Korea, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are most grateful for all of our partnerships and treasure the personal relationships, the witness through ministries that we share, and all that we learn from our friends across the globe.
Of special note are two major developments in our international partnerships. 2017 will see a re-launching of our “Triangle of Hope” relationship with the Diocese of Liverpool and the Diocese of Kumasi in Ghana, links which are rooted in the key roles that Liverpool, Kumasi, and Richmond played in the tragic slave trade. Bishop Paul Bayse of Liverpool, Archbishop Daniel Sarfo of Kumasi (who is Primate of the Province of West Africa) and I reached this renewal agreement when the three of us were present for the 7th annual meeting of the “Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue” which was held in Accra, Ghana last year. The goal of the “Triangle of Hope” partnership is to educate our respective dioceses about our mutual history so as to support each other in ways that bring redemption through vibrant, positive ministries, including the building up of congregation-to-congregation relationships and a focus on social and economic justice. We three diocesan bishops already enjoy a strong and personal relationship, and while Virginia and Liverpool have developed several consequential exchanges in ministry over the years, we very much look forward to building up our respective links with Kumasi. And naturally, our partnership is important for inter-Anglican matters with respect to strengthening the worldwide Communion as well.
The importance of the “Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue” itself must be understood and celebrated as well. This group is composed of American, Canadian, British, and various nationalities of African bishops who have diocesan links among each other. We meet every year to keep open and committed communication going in the face of the tensions besetting the Anglican Communion. This is a most encouraging—and encouraged!—group that has bonded to bring a determined witness to our Communion that we can live quite productively even through our controversial differences of cultural contexts. Our diocese hosted the 6th annual Consultation in Richmond two years ago. Every meeting produces a detailed “communique,” which you may access and read online. Simply “Google” communique Anglican Bishops in Dialogue.
The second major development in our international partnerships concerns our longest-standing link, the Diocese of Christ the King of Johannesburg, South Africa. Many of you will remember that a sizable group from that diocese visited us last year and made both a strong impression and impact. With mixed feelings, I report that the long-time diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Peter John Lee, a fast friend of Virginia, retired in 2016 (“mixed feelings” because while I’m happy for Bishop Peter and wish him a gratifying retirement, I regret that I had only a few years of the pleasure and privilege of working with him). “Christ the King” has now elected a new bishop, the Rev. Canon William Mostert, who will be consecrated on February 25. Bishop Goff will be attending (her choice to do so during her sabbatical, no less!) to represent the Diocese of Virginia. I send greetings and every blessing to Bishop-elect Mostert in his new ministry, and I look forward to forging a lasting commitment of friendship and ministry with him.
New Director of Communications
To bring some focus on what other diocesan staff and their respective offices are up to, I’m happy to hit some highlights. Most recently, I have been both delighted and gratified to welcome a new Director for our Communications Office. Tanya Howard took up this position at the start of the new year. Tanya comes to us with most impressive credentials and references. An Associated Press-trained reporter, she also has corporate experience, having worked as First Vice-President for External Affairs for Chase Card Services in Wilmington, Delaware. Winner of two of the highest global public relations awards offered by the Public Relations Society of America, Tanya comes to us from her career as an Assistant Professor of Strategic Communications at Hampton University and as a communications consultant based in Suffolk. She has worked with non-profit agencies and faith-based organizations throughout her professional life, and so she is comfortable settling in quite quickly with both our entire staff and her diocesan responsibilities.
The Christian Formation office, led by Paris Ball, will be busy this summer not only with our signature camping-programs but also in leading our diocese’s participation in the international “Episcopal Youth Event” (EYE). Held every three years, this year’s EYE will meet in Edmond, OK at Central Oklahoma University. Under the leadership of our Formation veteran assistant Mike Wade, we’re aiming to take as many as twenty-four youth with eight chaperones. I am planning to attend and am excited to join some of our youth for up-close-and-personal quality time! EYE is one of the largest gatherings of Episcopalians, attracting well over 1,000 people from all across the USA and abroad. It is my hope that we will have every one of our diocesan regions represented. As EYE is for high-schoolers, this year’s event will be the only chance to attend for most of our youth and so I strongly urge you to encourage participation. I was travelling out of the country in 2014, but I joined Mike and our group for the 2011 meeting and was mightily impressed with the program and speakers. I can tell you that EYE can literally transform a teenager’s experience and understanding of the Church; it is a singularly formative opportunity to see the larger Episcopal Church in action. For more information, visit the Christian Formation office’s table here at the Convention, explore their blog, or call them to come for an energetic visit to your congregation.
Stewardship & Development
Something remarkable is happening in the Julie Simonton’s Stewardship and Congregational Development Office: the diocesan stewardship committee worked with Julie’s leadership and for the first time ever we wrote our own annual giving program, “Walk in Love,” which I have personally seen used, often with terrific creativity, in countless churches across the diocese. It is interesting to note that a congregation in Coronado, CA got hold of it and put it to use for themselves, with the result that some 60% of their household pledges increased! Also, Julie’s office has been very busy conducting stewardship workshops over 2016. I can only describe the effort as a brilliant success—the workshops attracted over 200 people and they actually got excited about the subject. I’ve heard people wax enthusiastically on and on, over and over, about Julie’s and the committee’s work. Participants even took to social media to encourage others to attend a stewardship workshop. As I said, “something remarkable!”
Our diocesan Treasurer, Ted Smith, has been on board for almost three years now and he is a complete master. This is a job with a million moving parts and Ted knows them all—how each one works and what it means to the whole diocese. The highlight for me is not only how he plans and supervises a $5 million-dollar budget without letting anything ever go awry but also how he manages various diocesan assets, including non-strategic real estate which is sometimes sold to support diocesan mission or to pay off debt. I am extremely confident that with Ted’s leadership, the management of our complex and sometimes shoe-string financial situation is in excellent hands.
In our Transition Ministries Office, the Rev. Mary Thorpe, found herself contending with some forty-plus occasions of change in congregational leadership in 2016. I understand that the load is back down to a more typical 25 or so “open files,” meaning congregations that are facing a transition in the near future, others that are in the various stages of going through one, and still others that have just made a new call and are in the process of orienting to new leadership. Mary has been working up new models of “standard” transition processes, including a new process for establishing freshly-ordained clergy to deepen our “bench strength.” Adjustments in the models for transition have resulted in new calls being made in less than a year, all the while giving parishes greater freedom in choosing the tools they will use in their search process. Also important are new transition methods that respect cultural differences that are important to our intercultural and ethnic congregations. The bottom line is that this Office is pivoting toward greater flexibility in working through a clergy transition, while posing new questions which invite a search committee to address courageously matters designed to align a church’s present ministry and program more explicitly with what Jesus points to in His Gospel. I’m here to tell you that your Transition Ministry Office is your best friend during the tough time when your congregation is facing a change in leadership. We do this work literally every day, and the best counsel I can offer you is to trust your diocesan team, who work with the proven best practices as a matter of course. We can make them work for you.
Future Clergy Leaders
The subject of “transition ministry” is just a short step away from the happy topic of our very fine seminarians. These good folk, and the several processes that guide them, are supervised by Canon to the Ordinary Pat Wingo and Transition Deputy Ed Keithly. I have for years held as a personal conviction that those ordained in this diocese are some of the strongest in the Church. After all, the proverbial proof is in the pudding, and our pudding has proven, year after year, to be “plum!” This year, following a recent survey of our own seminarians, my conviction is totally vindicated.
Of our thirty-two current seminarians, three were teaching assistants for some of the foremost theology professors in the country. Six have been published in major magazines and teaching series. The group holds thirty-five elected leadership positions, including student body chaplain and class presidents. It is obvious that our seminarians are leaders among leaders. And all of this is merely what they saw fit to share in that survey! I am sure that there are many more achievements that this Convention would find impressive, but which seem like “just another day in the life” for them.
But our seminarians did not get there by themselves. We owe much to the cast of hundreds who are faithfully tending the Diocese of Virginia’s rich garden of leadership: the Young Priest Initiative, Shrine Mont camps, congregations across the diocese which recruit and encourage so many to give their talents and hearts to the Church. There’s still more: discernment facilitators, the Committee on Priesthood, Committee on the Diaconate, and the Standing Committee are all moving in this dance of the Holy Spirit. And, as your bishops, the three of us work hard to discern what kind of leaders are needed to serve best the Jesus Movement here in Virginia.
Through the tireless and prayerful work from so many, this diocese is recruiting and forming some of the brightest, youngest (or most young-at-heart) clergy in The Episcopal Church. What more evidence do we need that the Church is still very much a vibrant and much-needed force for good in the world than to look at the incredible women and men who will soon be called to lead us?
Shrine Mont Camps
And the Church’s “bench” is deeper still: Shrine Mont camps. Hundreds and hundreds of campers, staffers, counselors, and directors who make up that extraordinarily fertile field of sustenance and leadership for the Church are being raised up summer after summer after summer. What we have there is a storied treasure-trove for the whole Church, not just our Diocese of Virginia. So, what happy news it is that 2016 was the year that we turned the momentum of having exceeded our $2 million-dollar goal for our “Shout it from the Mountain” capital campaign into a continuing effort that has now come to within only $48,000 of exceeding our stretch goal of $2.5 million dollars for rebuilding, expanding, improving, maintaining, and subsidizing our camping programs. Hear that again: we are within only $48,000 of topping our stretch goal! In the challenge I posed ten months ago, when we were some $313,000 short of the stretch goal, I asked this diocese to come up with 105 pledges of $1,000 per year for three years. We are now only 16 pledges away from the finish line! And, remember, these pledges come from individuals, of course, but may also come from any number of the 102 congregations which have not yet made a pledge. Also, I happily note that 8 of our Regional Councils have given to the campaign, so that leaves 7 that can step up and be counted.
Has your congregation and/or Region made a pledge? Do you know? Ask! Can we—one of the largest dioceses of The Episcopal Church—do this and top our stretch goal? What do you think? Yes, we can and we will! I’m sure we have the will, the ways, and the means. I believe it is entirely possible that we can come up with the 16 pledges we need right now and right here at this Convention! Let’s’ meet this challenge today!
Whenever we do top that stretch goal we need not be shy about celebrating it. So, let’s hear it for our campaign co-chairs, the Rev. Andrew Merrow and Ms. Barbara McMurray, since we will celebrate them and thank them for leading us all the way! Also, a big shout-out to Kirk Gibson, Shrine Mont’s director of development, who has been a key, hands-on architect of our campaign, and to Shrine Mont’s Executive Director Kevin Moomaw, who kept a keen and knowing eye on the plans and the progress for our camps.
Growth in Diocese of Virginia
I’ll finish up with some of the numbers that reflect our diocese as a whole. I’m pleased to say that for the second straight year, our Diocese of Virginia will report growth—it’s only very slight growth, mind you, but this is indeed a positive sign against the previous consecutive years of decline—that, too, only slight. On the one hand, you could say that over the past ten to twelve years our numbers have been essentially “flat,” but that would neglect important trends in the past few years. For example, in 2015 (the last year for which the complete data have been submitted) fully 124 of our 180 churches grew or maintained their numbers from the previous year. This is roughly equivalent to the number of congregations that grew or maintained in 2014. And get this: over 2014 & 2015, 35 of our churches reported double-digit percentage growth! Of our 991 baptisms in 2015, 70 were adult baptisms, a goodly number which is up from several previous years. There were 758 confirmations in 2015 (up 4% from 2014) and of those 343 were adults—that’s over 45% of all confirmations. Receptions (always an “adult” number) totaled 292, up an impressive 16% from 2014. So, while it is sadly true that the Church is in fact in decline in many places, that is no longer true for our Diocese of Virginia.
As I conclude, I’m aware that I’ve mentioned a good number of our diocesan staff by name, but that inevitably means that even more—16 faithful staffers—have not been singled-out for editorial reasons. I must take this opportunity to express my very deepest appreciation for them as well. Indeed, all of us owe a profound debt of gratitude to each and every member of your diocesan staff. They are literally essential to being a strong diocese that is able serve so many congregations and serve you with excellence and personal professionalism.
On an equally personal note, I want to tell you that I know how fortunate I am as diocesan bishop to have such wonderful colleagues in the ministry as Bishop Goff and Bishop Gulick. I’ve often made the point that in my perspective, there is only one episcopate in this Diocese and that episcopate is exercised by three people. I trust that all of you know just how fortunate you are, as communicants of this diocese, to be so well and so faithfully served by our bishop suffragan and our assistant bishop. I wish Bishop Goff every blessing and God’s grace upon her upcoming sabbatical, and I am so thankful—and reassured!—to have Bishop Gulick by my side during Susan’s absence. I can tell you: not every assistant bishop can sport seventeen years as a diocesan bishop! Ted and I will be there with you and for you.
Finally, my thanks to all of you here at Convention who have stepped up in so many and varying ways to take up the mantle of leadership for your diocese. Literally for centuries, our diocese has been known and celebrated for having an extraordinarily strong tradition of lay leadership, and I never lose sight of how our clergy, both priests and deacons, go the extra mile for the sake of diocesan life and ministry. I am so very proud of our community and faithfulness as the Diocese of Virginia, and I am profoundly grateful for the countless expressions of support that I have received from you over the years. I am very often deeply touched and moved by what you have shared with me. And now, I’m sure that I shall have a profound impact on you by ending this address! With each new day, may our loving and gracious God bless you richly.