Bishop Johnston's Pastoral Address

The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston

"Connected in the Kingdom." There could not be a more appropriate -- and applicable -- theme for a diocesan Annual Council. "How so?" you ask. [I knew you would ask, so I'm going to tell you!] Well, I'm struck by the fact that "connected in the Kingdom" is simultaneously a simple statement of a plain fact which is manifestly true here and now, and at the same time it is also an aspiration for what could be. What I mean is this: As a gathered community, all being here because together we are the duly constituted representatives of the whole of "the Diocese of Virginia," we are -- by definition -- "connected" in and by our Lord right now. But, it is no less true that "connected in the Kingdom" is an expression of what we are all striving to be, more and more -- with the hope of realizing God's Kingdom more and more faithfully -- and always with our hearts set on that most heart-felt prayer of our Lord Jesus that is recorded in the Gospel of John: that we would be one, even as Jesus and the Heavenly Father are one.

That's the message I would like to share with you this morning: how we as a Diocese are and could be living into our "connectedness in the Kingdom." As the largest American diocese in The Episcopal Church, we are an energetic and creative community on the move. And, yes, we are growing! After several consecutive years of small but consistent decline, the Diocese of Virginia is growing once again. The gain is small, but it is indicative both of where we are and of the momentum we have to seize our very real potential.  With the difficult years of division and litigation behind us, we are now in truly historic times—times that history will see as quite a new era.

To gain some perspective about this I think it is important that we look back a few years and take stock of what we were facing (and hearing) not so long ago.  Remember when the blogging nay-sayers were crowing that the Diocese of Virginia could (1) never recover from the breakaway movement in 2006 & 2007; that (2) we would certainly not be able to re-start congregations and  (3) grow “continuing” ones; (4) that we would never be able to manage financially, what with all of the legal bills and the debt of congregations and buildings that were returned to us by the Courts; (5) that there was absolutely no way that we would be able to maintain – let alone grow – our diocesan budget for actual mission and ministry?  Well, I’ve got some news for them.  God the Holy Spirit had other plans:  done, done, done, done, and done!

So now, we must be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities these achievements have opened up for us.  Today, I am challenging all of us to do precisely that.

I think we have to begin by seriously considering one issue long-embedded in the life of our diocese—one that still exercises unfortunate influence on all of us.  Our historic tendency toward a “peculiar” congregationalism has often made us suspicious of anything that suggests interdependence among our congregations.  Moreover, even the very relevance of "the diocese" to individual congregations is—in our day—rather commonly brought into question.  This part of our diocesan DNA is a puzzling phenomenon, especially when we consider that the responsibilities and authority of a diocese (and certainly the relevance) were explicitly clear when those post-Revolution Virginia congregations voted in 1785 to band together to form a diocese in the first place.  They understood then that not only was this a faithful and historic way for the Church to be ordered but also it was for their common good.

It is certainly true that over the past few decades, the Diocese of Virginia has taken great strides and realized much more of the effective structure and identity of being a “diocesan Church.”  Simply during my own years as a bishop among you, I've seen a significant and encouraging awakening of a much more vigorous diocesan awareness.  Even so, I urge our clergy and lay leadership to be aware of “how” and “when” this challenging legacy from our colonial history might still—if only subtly—affect your decisions at the congregational level with respect to diocesan matters. That being said, from my perspective, we're on something of a roll now, and togther we can “live larger” for the Gospel.

How do we build on our present momentum? Nothing unites Christians and their churches more than does shared ministry and mission. So please know that the entirety of your diocesan leadership – and I don’t mean just the bishops and our staff, but all of our various commissions and committees, our Standing Committee and our Executive Board, our Deans, the Episcopal Church Women – all of you who minister in diocesan-wide efforts – have been faithfully at work lifting up ministries that call us beyond our own congregational contexts and challenge us to make a difference throughout Virginia, across The Episcopal Church, and even internationally. Every person in our Diocese is needed as we are called to grow more deeply into the ministries to which Christ directs us. And, to be sure, so many of you have responded to our calls to participate in and contribute to diocesan ministry programs for the betterment of our diocesan life or for that which is beyond our own boundaries.

Through such ministries, we are living into our "connectedness." We are doing more for our ministries to serve God and one another by working together, by supporting each other, by learning from one another – by "connecting" through shared ministry and mission.

That was certainly the case in 2015 with our diocesan-wide "Hand-in-Hand" listening sessions. These gatherings were the result of my call last year for an intense, yet sustained, effort to learn about – and then meaningfully address – the resurgent racial tensions now so very apparent across the United States and, yes, here in Virginia. The result is that many seeds have been planted. Parishes and regions all over the Diocese are embarking on creative and encouraging initiatives to continue the conversation and to equip ourselves to be reconcilers in the greater community.

My conviction is that these fermenting tensions are the direct result of America's hyper-toxic legacy of slavery. Then came the legalized political and institutional racism – not to mention the personal bigotry that was perfectly acceptable (indeed expected) in the Anglo-White population. This is true not only so stereotypically in the South, but is in fact a vicious dynamic in every region of our nation – every state. I insist that our Church cannot simply remain silent in the face of such a pervasive reality. The effort that was begun last year has given us a solid and reliable foundation for the hard work that is now ahead of us, work to be carried out by every one of our congregations in their own settings.

Let me emphasize the importance of this decentralized-yet-connected approach to racial reconciliation. From the first of this year, upon my return to the office after my sabbatical, I've learned that many people were asking this of our reconciliation efforts: What is The Diocese going to do after the listening sessions? The answer is that our intention as your leadership and staff was never to design, require and implement a "one-size-fits-all" kind of program. That simply won't work.

What your leadership and staff can offer are the feedback, analysis and related resources that will help you – clergy, vestries, congregational task forces – to design and implement your own ministry initiatives addressing your own community contexts. Your diocesan staff will serve most willingly and enthusiastically as catalysts, connectors, networkers and communicators. In other words, you – as clergy and laity – will have the self-determined responsibility to make of it what you will. In my judgment, this is exactly how it should be in order for our efforts across the board to have any chance of success.

But even that localized approach will succeed only if we, the parishioners of our Diocese, are open to personal transformation and demonstrate personal commitment. Yes, I'm saying become an activist in both heart and mind! This is how we can work through the thoughts and experiences within our congregations that will empower us to be reconcilers in the broader community. We will need to be resilient and patient. We're in this for the long haul.

Our work in this important initiative has been enriched by our fellow Anglicans from the Diocese of Christ the King in South Africa. As many of you know, a team from this diocese in the southern part of Johannesburg visited us back in January.  I am so pleased that we have made available on our diocesan website several videos of program segments you would have seen during Council in Reston – had not a couple of feet of snow intervened! These are fellow Christians who know a thing or two about longstanding racial divisions and the hard work of racial reconciliation, both in the Church and in society at large.

During the 10 days our South African guests spent with us, as they traveled to churches and gatherings all over the Diocese, they were able to teach and to learn, to offer perspective, and to reflect about the issues of racism in our lives. It also was a time to mark and to celebrate the 25 years of the special relationship that we share as dioceses. This is a wonderful example of being – truly and deeply – "connected in the Kingdom." The Diocese of Christ the King is the longest-standing of all of our numerous links within our Anglican Communion, dating back to 1991.

Some of you know that I am predisposed to having "heroes."  They are people who somehow keep me energized and spur me onwards.  And so I tell you now that I am profoundly moved by what I have come to witness and know about Bishop Peter John Lee of Christ the King, who will retire this year after 25 years as bishop of that diocese. During my 10-day visit to South Africa in 2013, I knew that I was in the presence of real "greatness." From my own witness, I can say that his ministry has been nothing short of an absolute inspiration to thousands. The Diocese of Virginia is quite blessed in knowing him – not just a great bishop, but a truly great man. As we waited out the storm in January, the impromptu personal time we were able to share with Bishop Peter John and his wife Gill, herself a distinguished priest of the Church, proved to be occasions for us to become closer as fellow disciples of our Lord, connecting us in the Kingdom all the more personally.  No, Bishop Peter John and I don’t agree on some of the more controversial stands taken by our Episcopal Church over the years.  But, as befits the best of our shared Anglican tradition, such disagreements have not in the least bit affected our mutual commitment to an important and deeply fruitful relationship between our two dioceses.

There's yet another connection that has marked our ties with Christ the King – a definitive relationship between the respective camping ministries of our two dioceses.  The people of Christ the King have drawn much in inspiration and know-how from our camps at Shrine Mont, and a number of their young people have served as counselors on our camping staffs.

Now, speaking of camping, another shared ministry of our Diocese has also been at the center of our thoughts and prayers over the past year – the "public phase" of our Shrine Mont Camps Capital Campaign: "Shout It From the Mountain." This ambitious effort was needed in order to expand, renovate and otherwise improve our camping facilities at all sites – facilities that have long needed more than the “normal” upkeep and repairs. We also raised the bar by including provisions for endowment monies that will increase the available "scholarship” funds so as to make camp more affordable for all families and, in particular, to enable the socio-economic diversity of our Diocese to be better represented at our camps.  Furthermore, we included in our fund-raising goal an endowment that will provide for both the maintenance of our campsites and enable us to offer more competitive pay for our camp staff – again, so that we will be able to attract a larger diversity of staffers. I am very proud of these goals, and I am most grateful to all those who have demonstrated through their leadership and support why Shrine Mont is to me and so many others "the heart of the Diocese."

The big news is that we have met – and even significantly exceeded – our goal of $2 million dollars!  This is the most successful of any diocesan capital campaign in decades, and is considerably more money than our professional consultants thought we could raise. The continuing challenge is for us to raise the some $313,000 needed for our stretch goal of $2.5 million.  I know that after all this time, that sounds like a long way to go.  But let me put that into some perspective.  All we need is just 105 gifts from any source—individuals, groups, congregations—of only $1,000 a year for just three years. Top that, and we’re over the top! And with 20,000 households in 181 congregations I know we can do it. Make it happen where you are!

Let me be very clear here:  the $2.5 million stretch goal is not a luxury. It is absolutely something we must do to ensure that what is perhaps the "signature ministry" of our Diocese can really thrive.  Our Shrine Mont camping programs are commonly regarded as being in the very top tier of all diocesan camps in the whole of The Episcopal Church.  Given our resources as a diocese, that’s the way it should be, and that’s what we must ensure.

Please know that I am keenly aware that this success really isn’t “just about money.”  Most of all, it's about the effectiveness and the consequence of Gospel ministry – real ministries making a real difference in real lives. Already, because of the success of this campaign, this past summer we had more youth at Shrine Mont camps than ever before -- primarily because far more scholarship money was available -- and even now it looks like we'll be able to break that new record this summer.

On behalf of children, adolescents, and young adults everywhere in the Diocese of Virginia, I say that you have made a terrific investment in the personal faith and continuing Christian formation of those who will be leaders in our congregations in the not-distant future.  Be assured that because of their experiences at Shrine Mont, it is much more likely that they will actually be in our pews when that time comes!

So there they are: two important mutual ministries that are inspiring examples of being "connected in the Kingdom" – the beginnings of our ongoing commitment to racial reconciliation, and our success in providing responsibly for our youth from every place in our diocese.

Now, how do we build even more from this momentum? How do we ensure that the most enriching and empowering days of our ministry and witness as a diocesan Church are yet to come?  Well, it will certainly require that “personal transformation and commitment” I spoke about earlier.  And that must translate into being able to continue to find new ways to carry our ministries into the broader community.

Have you noticed over the past several years how many really big issues we've had to tackle? Right now, it's racial divisions, tensions and, hopefully, reconciliation.  But, consider also, the multi-faceted sexuality debates – some 40 years of acrimonious back-and-forth (with seemingly only small steps along the way) – but finally culminating in the provision for gay and lesbian parishioners to be legally married and sacramentally blessed in the Church. Consider also that gun violence is utterly tearing our hearts out, and so now we're taking longer looks at just what we can say and do that will make at least some kind of difference. And don't overlook climate change and our stewardship of Creation.  There are also the politically polarizing issues surrounding immigration and refugee resettlement; the growing and unacceptable gap between the “haves and have-nots.” And always with us is our Lord’s call to serve those who are on the fringes – the hungry, the imprisoned, the disabled.

If you were listening to my list closely, you may have noticed that I mentioned, almost exclusively, issues that are also matters that challenge our larger, secular society – matters that require answers for the nation's political and social order. I've done that purposely to make my next point: It is inevitable that the Church will have to face for itself many of the challenges and issues in our surrounding culture and political discourse. That's because we simply cannot live our lives – spiritual, social, political or economic – in some kind of "bubble." So, I reject the notion (so often raised as a criticism of our Church) that we are simply following the lead of a "liberal" culture.

Absolutely, we're influenced by current events and by the marketplace of ideas, but that has always been the case. And I can most certainly tell you that in the House of Bishops we painstakingly study Scriptural connections to our modern issues, we vigorously debate the theology – yes, making note of both the continuities and the departures of new theological positions as compared to previous norms. We earnestly pray (both as a group and privately) for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We are careful to hold disagreement with real respect and sensitivity.  I’ve said many times before that in our Anglican Tradition, our commitment is to each other in Christ, not to each other's opinions. More than that, I say that disagreement can actually be a fruitful dynamic in Christian fellowship and governance; it can be a crucial part of how faithful discernment and the deepest community happen.

To me, the acceptance – the celebration – of this quality may be the very specific gift – the Godly charism – that our Anglicanism has for this world that is so deeply and variably divided, indeed polarized. Knowing how to disagree and still be totally committed to one another and to the greater good of all is the proverbial "balm in Gilead."

Our Anglicanism, at its best and most authentic – focused on the Gospel of Jesus – has so much to teach our politics and relationships. This is something that is so desperately and achingly longed-for in every culture and society.  I believe that by virtue of being Episcopalians – people of the both/and – we are called, indeed expected, by God to be reconcilers.  Or, to put it another way, we are called to witness to how all people can become and remain "connected in the Kingdom."

Our aspiration to "connectedness" can only be enhanced by the remarkable leader who now exercises the iconic ministry of Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. The Most Rev. Michael Curry is uniquely gifted for precisely what we need at this point in our Church's history and at this poignant time in our country.  He builds from a very strong foundation:  he is all about Jesus as Lord.  He calls us to return to the fundamentals:  personal discipleship and our witness together, as the Church, to Jesus.  As I once heard him say to a group, "It's alright by me if you're on the Right, and it's alright by me if you're on the Left – but wherever you are, you'd better be sure you're with Jesus!" He commonly refers to the Church as “the Jesus Movement” and to Christians as “Jesus People.” Many of you already know that he is a very powerful orator and a mesmerizing, "infectious" preacher. I have no doubt that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will wake up this old Church!  We will experience that power in our own diocese when Presiding Bishop Curry joins us at Christ Church, Middlesex, for that parish's 350th anniversary on April 24.

Our connectedness as a diocese depends not just on our talents, of course, but also on our treasures. You'll remember that Jesus famously – so astutely, so accurately – observed, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  You should know that – again and again – we see the results of that kind of “connectedness” from our congregations in the form of some Godly grace that simply comes out of the blue.

Take Christ Church, Glen Allen, for example. In 2014, as they approached the leave-taking of their long-tenured, founding rector (the Rev. Paul Johnson), I learned from Paul that the Vestry had been prompted by the upcoming transition to consider the many blessings they had experienced. They were particularly struck by the fact that they had actually come into being because of the vision and initiative of the Diocese of Virginia. They decided to honor that fact and express their gratitude by making a six-figure unrestricted gift to the diocese. Christ Church, Glen Allen's own sense of "connectedness in the Kingdom" has, in that gift, made possible the establishment of the "Fear-Not Fund" that will be a major factor in funding our mission work, whether around the corner or around the globe. That's "connection" to an exponential power!

Another shout-out goes to Trinity Church, Charlottesville, a mission congregation that has been receiving $10,000 a year from the diocesan budget. When their leadership decided for 2016 to forego that diocesan assistance and to fund their congregation's budget solely through their own pledges, they understandably reduced their annual pledge to the Diocese to $5,000.  However, because of Trinity, Charlottesville's "connection to the Kingdom" among one another, their annual pledge drive was so successful that they not only were able to meet their budget fully without diocesan aid, but also they increased their diocesan pledge from $5,000 to $15,000. That's a strong witness to the abundance of the Kingdom.

Church of the Creator, Mechanicsville, felt their own connection to a diocesan identity so strongly that they actually tithed to the Diocese funds that they received from Hanover County for stream re-location work the county did on their property. I hope that this idea they've "caught" in Mechanicsville is contagious in the Kingdom!

And right here at Epiphany, Herndon, the small congregation that was left after the litigation to minister in this cavernous compound faced what many thought was an all but impossible task – filling up and maintaining this space. But with the leadership of the Rev. Hillary West, this creative, growing congregation has successfully mapped its course to financial self-sufficiency. They have found ways to live with and learn from other faiths and cultures by leasing portions of this space to an array of tenants. And they have served as generous, enthusiastic hosts for this Annual Council of the diocese. My thanks and congratulations to the good people of Epiphany Church!

Next up, many of you have witnessed over the years that one of my favorite topics to talk about – in any setting – is that remarkable group I get to work with every day:  your diocesan staff.  I am so proud of each one of them.  They make up one terrific team together, managing the various and inevitable challenges and “bumps” along the way.  Here today, I call your attention to some of the things they will be working through during all of 2016.  These faithful folk have a truly unique viewpoint of how things are changing in our churches all across this diocese. They see and know that change – in our Church and in our world – is not something we react to. It's something we need to get out in front of.

Consider that our models for staff organization and the specific tasks of ministry, have remained in place, with few changes, for decades now.  I’ve concluded that this simply won't do in an era of rapid change. So we are even now immersed in the work of evaluating the entirety of our staff's organization and ministry and, when necessary, we will be re-imagining and re-tooling the various staff positions.  We will examine every assumption with which we all have been working. With some of these changes in how our staff works, we will experiment and test new approaches before locking in on a new model.  The purpose behind all of this is to serve you better: more directly at your own locations, more personally in thoroughly knowing just what your needs for ministry are, and more helpfully with assistance that is well-informed by best practices throughout the whole of the Church.  We will put more emphasis and investment of time and money into professional development, so that we may ensure insightful consultation, and instructive programming.

Thus, you may have already heard about or experienced the new Stewardship Workshops; our completely re-worked, more tailored, and less lengthy approach to a congregation’s search process for new clergy leadership; and our New Rector "Boot Camps."  These examples are only the beginning of what will be a year of taking a very close look at what we’re doing and how we’re going about it.  It’s important to note that every person on the staff is quite multi-talented, and we’ve surveyed them about the interests and gifts they have, but which their current job description doesn’t give them the opportunity to exercise.  The idea here is how a member of the staff might go “off script,” say, for some special ministry project.  I’m intrigued about how someone’s particular gifts and experience can be helpful in ways now un-imagined for ministry in the Diocese of Virginia.  I expect that there will be a few proactive transitions—re-assignments and re-alignments.  Such changes will be very intentional, the result of a deliberate effort to seize the initiative in meeting the needs and opportunities presented by a 21st century Church (and diocese) that is rapidly changing.  So, definitely “stay tuned” for forthcoming announcements about what we’ll be up to as your diocesan staff.

I couldn't leave the topic of "new ministry” in our diocese without mentioning the encouraging success of our “Pathways” ministry of spiritual direction, housed at the Roslyn Conference and Retreat Center in Richmond. I announced the formal launch of this program – one of my own personal priorities in my ministry as bishop – at our Annual Council last year. I'm so pleased to say that this ministry has continued to grow and now has strong roots.

At present, we have two (quite different) spiritual directors.  In a given month, one is in residence at Roslyn over several weekdays.  Linda Nelson, a lay woman who lives in Atlanta, has been my own spiritual director for some 27 years.  The Rev. Howard Kempsell, a retired priest of the Diocese, has long specialized in this ministry.  With the goal of covering every month of the year, I'll next be seeking out a third director – one who will be "different" from the other two – probably a monk or a nun from either our Episcopal Church or from the Roman Catholic tradition. This program is open to everyone, whether lay or ordained. If you are interested or need further details, simply go to either the Diocese of Virginia's website or to the website for the Roslyn Center.

Finally, allow me to offer a word about my sabbatical over the months of September through December of last year. First of all, thank you! I can’t even begin to say how rich it all was. It was everything that I hoped and planned for – and then even more. I'm quite certain that it changed me, in deep and profound ways, most notably by getting me into better focus – whether in my ministry or my personal life – off "task" or schedule, and instead onto the actual people who have made my life what it is and who are making it happen now. It was utterly marvelous to understand anew just how many people I love (and why) as well as how many people love me – and why!  My theme of “Reconnecting” with many of the most important people in my life – from early childhood up to my election as a bishop – was a Godsend.

Of course, it took quite a number of people here in the Diocese of Virginia to help make it all happen for me.  I am most grateful to all those who really pulled together and found some new ways to “get it all done” while I was away. You can imagine that there are so many people to thank, but constraints of time here must be honored.  I simply trust that by now, each one of these faithful colleagues knows how much I appreciate them.  However, allow me to offer a very special thanks to the Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, our Bishop Suffragan, who served as "bishop in charge" during my absence and to whom I am profoundly indebted. I know I don't have to tell any of you that her truly exceptional gifts for inspiring leadership – both "up front" and behind the scenes – were very much evident at every turn.

Knowing that I have a tendency to over-work and hold on to worry, I was initially surprised that I was able to “let go” of my responsibilities within a week of beginning my sabbatical.  But it didn’t take me long to understand “why” I was able to do that: I had absolute confidence that every single member of our diocesan staff would have things well in hand and hardly flinch at the different circumstances.  If I have a particular "virtue" in my leadership, it is that I am not at all threatened by having the smartest and most gifted people around me and depending on them. In fact, I cannot imagine any other way. I, for one, think that is the model that works here in the Diocese of Virginia.

The year 2015 was a big year for our Diocese. I look forward to a 2016 that is at least as "big." Most of all, I look forward to working with all of you as we proclaim and live into the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  May we continue to witness to the Connectedness of the Kingdom in this part of the Holy Catholic Church that is the Diocese of Virginia – and in any and every place beyond.