Pastoral Address of the Rt. Rev. Susan E. Goff to the 225th Annual Convention

Below is the full text of Bishop Goff's Pastoral Address, which she delivered to the 225th Annual Convention on November 15, 2019 in Arlington, Va. 

Dear friends in Christ,

It is my delight and privilege to offer this pastoral address based on our theme of Wonder in All.  I’ll articulate a vision for our diocese in three wonders - Light, Life and Joy - all of which are framed by Jesus’ unending Love.  We’ll sing together between wonders and we’ll see a video from a special friend of our Diocese.  

We dive right in with Wonder in Light

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”  (John 8:12) 

This time of year, I am enlivened by golden light that makes the world glow.  Light illumines our way.  It gives us safety.  It is such an exquisitely ordinary wonder that we take it for granted. . .

. . . Until it challenges us.  Think of being in a hotel room with a light fixture over the bathroom mirror that’s stronger than anything you’ve got at home.  It’s startling to see the lines or flaws on our faces that we’d rather pretend aren’t there.

Jesus, the light of the world, shines piercing, penetrating light into our hearts and our world.  By that light we see sins and brokenness that we’d rather pretend aren’t there.  In that light we are convicted - and we are loved. Jesus shines light on and through us - for the sake of love.  

Jesus has been shining his blazing light onto sins and brokenness of every kind in our communities.  The wound of racism has infected our souls in America since before we were born.  The wound hurts us all, whatever our race or ethnicity.  Left unhealed, the infection flares up every time people suspect or mistreat one another because of differences, whether on the streets of our cities, on the southern border, or in our schools, churches and homes. 

In the light of Jesus, we are called to a ministry of intentional reconciliation for the healing of this wound.   I give thanks for the now retired Committee on Race and Reconciliation.  Through years of conversation and training, the group, recently chaired by Mr. Maurice Spraggins and the Rev. Tuck Bowerfind, has helped us focus on relationships between black people and white people.

As we continue to address the legacy of slavery and white privilege, we will expand our efforts to promote reconciliation across many divides. I invite us to form a task group that represents the wide diversity of our diocese; not only people of European descent and people of African descent, but also Native Americans, Asian persons, Latino/Latina persons, men and women, straight and LGBTQ, people of differing ages and abilities, and people across the widening political gulf. I suggest taking this wide approach not to reduce our focus on the continuing effects of the slave trade, but to expand the voices at the table and increase the numbers of those who become fluent in the language and skills of reconciliation.

We have engaged Dr. Catherine Meeks of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing to help us begin shaping a new way to address the age-old wounds of racism and other aching divides.  Together, our purpose is to live Jesus’ love across divides, especially for the sake of those who suffer most in changing environmental and political climates. 

Intentional, focused work on reconciliation will also continue through our Triangle of Hope youth pilgrimage that brings together young people and adults from the Dioceses of Kumasi, Ghana, Liverpool, England, and Virginia.  We’ll hear more about this energizing ministry tomorrow morning. 

In the piercing light of Jesus, we also continue to reconfigure other diocesan ministries in order to strengthen relationships.  For example, after a time of strain between Diocesan leadership and the Trustees of the Funds, which provides investment management, a healthy working relationship has been restored.  Honest conversations between the Executive Board of the Diocese and TOTF led to a clearer articulation of roles in our shared mission.  As a result, we continue with full confidence to invest diocesan funds with TOTF.  I thank Steve Clifford, Vice President of the Executive Board, and Janet Osborn, President of TOTF, for the strong work they did to bring us to this place.  You may join members of TOTF for breakfast tomorrow morning here at the hotel if you’d like to explore this option for your congregation’s investments.  

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”  Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world.”  As you walk in Jesus’ resplendent light, how are you light for the world?  How will we, as Jesus’ people in the Diocese of Virginia, be light for the world between now and next Convention?  

As we wonder on those questions, let us sing.

We are marching in the light of Christ.        

Marcharemos en la luz. 

Wonder Number 2 - Wonder in Life 

Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  (John 10:10)

Abundant life, Jesus promised.  Life that is overflowing with God’s blessings.  Sometimes we assume that abundance means we should have everything we want, that more is always better.  Approaching abundance in that way is part of what has led us to a painful era in humanity’s relationship with God’s wondrous creation.  Our lifestyle choices have consequences for the earth and for people, especially the most vulnerable.

Jesus shows us in word and action how to live on this earth without an abundance of possessions.  He shows us how to live gently by noticing simple wonders like seeds and flowing water and human labor, and how to see the presence of God in them.  And Jesus shows us how to find unlimited riches in relationships with God, with God’s earth and with people.  Our speakers at this Convention will reflect with us on God’s wonders in creation and the challenges before us as we discover what abundance really means

Our Diocesan Committee on Creation Care, chaired by Lorne Field, offers us an opportunity to live more gently on the earth.  They have presented a resolution calling for the elimination of one-time-use plastics.  We passed a similar resolution prepared by Parish Youth Ministries in 1991, when we resolved to use washable dishes and tableware or paper products rather than Styrofoam.  The current resolution will push us again.  Implementing it will take one small step at a time - and one step is a faithful way to begin. 

In the abundance of life that Jesus pours down on us, we continue to discuss energy and the environment across a broad spectrum, including ongoing conversations with Dominion Energy.  Next month a team of us will go to Buckingham County and meet with residents who oppose the efforts of Dominion to construct a compression station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  Soon after that gathering, we will meet again with representatives of Dominion.  When we as people of faith speak both to those who feel powerless and to those who hold power, both to the perceived David and to the perceived Goliath, maybe, just maybe we can be a part of bridging divides and finding real avenues of healing for God’s creation.  Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but it seems to me that it’s akin to God’s dream for the earth. 

Because we have and claim abundant life in Jesus, we also name the financial health of our diocese.  We have an abundance of resources; we can never plead poverty.  At the same time, we frequently bump up against the financial limits of what we can do in mission and ministry.  I invite us to address this opportunity in the coming year with a three pronged approach. 

First, we’ll empower a Task Force on Resourcing God’s Mission to explore the gap between opportunities and funding. Among other things, the group will explore patterns of giving from congregations to the wider diocese.  They’ll learn from those that currently give 10% or more to the Diocese, as well as from those that give less, with an aim of helping us strengthen our communication, our mutual ministry and our overall giving habits.  I am grateful to the Rev. Sven vanBaars for accepting appointment as convener and chair of this group. 

A second Task Group on Assets will examine diocesan funds and properties that produce income in order to maximize their effectiveness in resourcing God’s mission.  A third Task Group on New Sources of Funding will explore and, God willing, uncover additional sources of revenue that we haven’t yet imagined.Some of our congregations are doing exactly this kind of imaginative work in their contexts, and all of us can learn from them. 

As we do this, diocesan staff and elected leaders will make certain that we remain excellent stewards. We will continue to review and refine our budgeting and spending processes to ensure that all resources are used wisely as we serve the world in Jesus’ name.  

We have received the gift of abundant life through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We have been given true abundance in the wonders of God’s creation, and in the resources God has entrusted to our care. 

How do you experience life abundant?  How will we, as Jesus’ people in the Diocese of Virginia, live life abundant between now and Convention next year?

As we wonder on these questions, let us sing:

We are marching in the life of Christ.     

Marcharemos en la vida de Dios.

Wonder Number 3 - Wonder in Joy

Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  (John 15:11)

Jesus gives us deep, abiding joy right here, right now, right in the middle of the wonder and the suffering of life.  Jesus saw the pain of those he came to serve.  He suffered unspeakable suffering because he chose to walk in God’s way all the way to the end.  And Jesus chose joy through it all - joy in the simple wonders of children at play, of yeast causing bread to rise, of a meal with friends, of a good story well told. 

“Why are you not miserable?” people ask Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu who challenged the system of apartheid in South Africa and chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  “Why are you not morose?” they ask the Dalai Lama who has lived in exile from his homeland of Tibet since 1959. 

To answer those questions, the two elders met for five days.  You can read their conversations in The Book of Joy:  Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

Desmond Tutu said, “Discovering more joy does not save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak.  In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. . . As we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters.  We have hardship without becoming hard.  We have heartbreaks without being broken.” 

My experience is that the gift of joy, given to us by Jesus, is an antidote to the fear that we experience when things change.

Much is changing now in church and society.  We’ve heard predictions about church decline.  Our average Sunday attendance numbers in the Diocese of Virginia are down, as they are across most Christian denominations.  We experience that patterns of church attendance are changing as active members come less often, or as they worship at times other than Sunday morning. And we experience that in some places younger generation people are not coming to worship. 

No matter how that feels to us, the Church is not dying.  The Church is the living, breathing, body of Christ.  And that body, once slain and raised by God to new life, cannot die again.  The Church is not dying.  It is changing. 

In the midst of change, Jesus gives us the gift of joy to face change in a way that ennobles rather than embitters us.  In the coming year, we’ll place renewed focus in joy on learning together how to be the Church in the 21st Century.  We’ll seek to learn from congregations that are thriving, both large and small.  Where people aren’t coming to church the way they once did, we’ll encourage one another to go where the people are and serve them there.  Instead of sitting in our pews waiting for people to come, we’ll be evangelists who go out to share in word and action the good news we know in Christ Jesus.  Rather than feeling crippled by falling Average Sunday Attendance numbers, we’ll figure out other means to show how our congregations are engaged in the community and the world.  Where there are not enough strong backs any more to care for aging buildings, we’ll explore what partnership with other organizations might look like for the sake of mission.  We’ll even wonder whether letting go of beloved buildings might be the right strategy in some places to release energy for new mission.  In sum, we’ll be intentional about working fearlessly to carry on the ancient traditions of worship, faith and compassionate action in new ways for new generations.

One already visible way of doing old things in new ways can be seen in the expanded the role of Regional Deans.  In addition to convening clergy and Regional Councils, they now officiate as my representatives at Celebrations of New Ministry.  We have empowered our Deans not because bishops are too busy for this joy, but because we are called by God to share the authority that God gives us; we multiply authority by giving it away.  I hope that the ministry of Deans as they preside at celebrations will be a gift to the regions as they share the deep joy that I have known in these celebrations. 

Joy is an antidote to fear.  When do you know joy in Christ?  How will we, as people of Christ in the Diocese of Virginia, share joy even amid change between now and our next Convention?

As we wonder on those questions, let us sing:

We are walking in the joy of Christ.

Marcharemos en el gozo de Dios

Pulling it all together:  Wonder in Love

In the midst of the chaos and fear that threaten to overwhelm, Jesus strengthens us

        To be the light of the world

        To have life abundantly

        To experience and share complete joy 

As we do these things, we obey Jesus who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:2).

Be Light

Have Life

Share Joy

So that the world will see Jesus’ compassion alive and well - in you.

I offer this as a vision for our life together during an intentional interim time.  At Convention next year, we’ll reflect on where we are, celebrate the joys and name the opportunities.  Also at Convention next year, I will call for the election of the 14th Bishop Diocesan of Virginia.  This gives us a full year to engage the ministries ahead with undivided attention, before an election process shifts our focus.  Working in conjunction with the Standing Committee and the staff of the Presiding Bishop, we anticipate that the election will take place in the late spring of 2022.  The Ordination and Consecration of the new bishop will likely be in the late summer or fall of that year, and we expect the next Bishop Diocesan will preside at Convention in November, 2022.  I anticipate that I will overlap in ministry with the new bishop for a short time before I retire in 2023. 

It is a joy and privilege for me to serve our diocese in this interim period with Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson as a colleague.  The Holy Spirit worked in unexpected and sometimes quite humorous ways to bring her to us.  Thank you, Spirit, and thank you, Bishop, for answering this call.  Thank you, Bishop Bob Ihloff, for continuing in ministry with us for a short time more before you go home to serve in the Diocese of Maryland.  God-willing, a third part time Assisting Bishop will join us mid-year, to live in northern Virginia and bring his  own distinctive gifts. Conversations that I pray will lead to this outcome are underway. 

Thank you, Bishop David Jones, Bishop Ted Gulick and  Bishop Jim Mathes for assisting and supporting our common life in transformative ways. 

Thank you, staff of the Diocese of Virginia, for your deep commitment, energy and boundless creativity.  Our team is strong. 

We are blessed.

We are light.

We know life.

We share joy.

Now that I have shared a vision for our diocese for an interim time, listen to words of encouragement and support from our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry 

Click here for Curry Video

You have heard my vision.  You have heard our Presiding Bishop reflect the vision.  But if the vision belongs to bishops alone, it will never be ours. So let’s continue this address as a conversation.  I invite the people of the diocese to come together in a series of vision gatherings during the season of Epiphany.  Diocesan staff and leaders, Bishop Brooke-Davidson and I will travel to areas of the diocese to catch with you glimpses of God’s will for us.  We’ll also provide electronic methods of sharing as we forge a wider vision for our future. 

Be light.

Know life.

Share joy.

And all so that the world will know the never-ending, life changing, compassionate love of Jesus. 

May it be so.  And may we do our part in making it so.