Both Faithful and Fruitful
January 28, 2017
Jesus said, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. . .” John 15:16
I would like to speak to you about faithful and fruitful ministry, in a time such as this, according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
At last year’s convention, I suggested that the first era of our ministry together had come to an end and a new one was beginning. It felt like a turning point, a decisive moment. One year later, I feel even greater holy urgency about this second era. The stakes for us as Episcopalians are high, in part because of the internal challenges many of our congregations face, and in part because of what’s happening in our country right now. At the end of my address, I’ll suggest some of the ways I believe that we are called to engage in the public arena--and how I will engage--and also the role of this cathedral in national life, in the life of this diocese and the Episcopal Church at large.
But I begin by holding up a mirror to ourselves:
Last year, I asked that we inaugurate this second era by systematically and comprehensively taking stock of key areas of congregational vitality, and that we do this work in collaboration with one another, rather than individually; that we take time to assess the changes around and within our faith communities together, not alone; that together we come to know our neighbors. I also asked that we begin making a shift in budgeting practices, both on the parish and diocesan level, to better equip ourselves for the strategic work ahead.
At last year’s convention you agreed, and so we began.
The first step in this second phase of our time together, arguably the least exciting but with real mission potential going forward, was the re-working of our regional structure of governance. With your blessing, we moved to a geographically-based structure of 8 regions, and name them by geography rather than by number. The goal was to create a structure that people both inside and outside the diocese could understand (after 4 years, I couldn’t remember which regions some of you belonged to) and that could serve as a foundation for collaborative ministry.
After last year’s convention ratified this new structure, we set out to organize ourselves so that we could live into it. We did so in small steps, because clergy are busy people and lay leaders have day jobs.
The regional clergy met several times to gauge their own energy for collaboration, which varies, and to explore the possibilities their respective regions presented them. In some cases vestries met as well.The next stage of this work, starting this spring, will be to convene lay leaders--vestries and wardens--who on my parish visits consistently express the most interest in collaboration. We’ve also established ways for wardens across the diocese to be in touch with each other, and we held our first regional assemblies in the new structure. I’ve also told the rising deacons of our diocese, the first group of which will be ordained in September, that the support and encouragement of collaborative mission efforts will be the focus of their ministries.
There are hopeful first fruits to these efforts:
Central Montgomery County is creating a collaborative youth group and jointly hiring a youth ministry coordinator. Northern Montgomery County is doing something similar with shared youth events. Southern Montgomery County is experimenting in collaborative efforts around community engagement and response, and intentionally sharing major education events.
Among the DC congregations, collaborative efforts and conversations have been more localized, defined mostly by neighborhood. There are also collaborations across regional lines, which is to be expected, given proximity and affinity: For example the congregations along the Potomac River have a lot in common and are exploring strategic initiatives together.
In Northern Prince George’s County, there are pockets of possibility, with some real challenges as well: St. Philip’s, Laurel, for example, sits on the very edge of our diocese and has as much in common with its neighboring Diocese of Maryland parishes as with our own. So, too, with Epiphany Church in Forestville, which is in that corridor of Prince George’s County that has been greatly affected by populations moving out of the District of Columbia. The multi-cultural congregations of both Northern Prince George’s and Central Montgomery have real affinities and their clergy meet regularly.
The Southern Maryland clergy and I have decided to host a Southern Maryland summit in April to gather leaders, pray together, and consider what a thriving Southern Maryland Episcopal presence might look like. I’d love for this to be a model for other regions, or perhaps we can have day-long vestry retreats so that neighboring congregations can explore opportunities and address challenges together.
In my first year as bishop I set a goal that I haven’t been able to realize, and it has come back to me as important to implement in 2017. I’d like to establish a work rhythm in which some diocesan staff, including me, are present across the diocese in more predictable ways. This will take a bit of time and planning, which we’ll do this spring. We may experiment a bit, but we’ll strive to begin our new rhythm in the fall and evaluate our efforts after a year. And heads up: in this second era, I plan to convene clergy and lay leaders more regularly—to pray, reflect on common mission, support and hold one another accountable in ministry.
You see, together, we need to become the mission experts of our neighborhoods, towns, and regions of our diocese. Jesus is not waiting for us to engage in his mission of love and reconciliation--he’s out there, way ahead of us all. And other churches are doing this important mission work, some with great fruitfulness. The question is how and in what ways the Episcopal Church will be part of Christ’s mission, and what gifts and strengths will we bring. How can we be faithful and fruitful?
The second part of this multi-year process of taking stock has been to engage in one/one conversation with leaders in every congregation in the diocese, looking at each congregation’s life through the lens of its financial and material realities.
This is a sizeable task: to date, we have completed 32 visits and our goal is to be finished by June. These conversations have been incredibly helpful in understanding the joys and challenges you and your fellow leaders face every day, your concerns and hopes, your efforts to be both faithful and fruitful.
In those meetings, we look at data and trends over the past decade--in membership, financial giving, attendance, and other vital signs of congregational life. We talk about giving patterns and the financial distribution of pledges. We talk about the buildings and property.
To be clear: these data points are not the mission of the church. They don’t tell the whole story of any congregation’s life. But they do provide a window to assess each congregation’s capacity to participate in God’s mission, just as your vital statistics tell your doctor--and you, for that matter--about your capacity to fully engage your life. They are indicators of fruitfulness.
We now have a good sampling across the diversity of the diocese to begin drawing conclusions. While each congregation’s story is distinct, there are a few broad trends worth noting:
In general, our congregations fall into a fairly predictable spectrum of health:
We’ve also discovered that many congregations confront three areas of vulnerability:
Across the diocese, our church buildings loom large. For many caring for the building intended to house ministry has become the primary ministry. It’s challenging, daunting work, and very expensive. Most of our church buildings are old; many are historic and with maintenance needs well beyond current capacity to fund.
Some churches have growing numbers of young people, but most do not. All say that they want to attract young people and are sad if they can’t. But that desire doesn’t often translate into mission priority for the young. In fact, the opposite is often the case, with the preferences of older generations dominating church life and resource allocation. In the places where young adults are present, the pledge base remains predominantly older.
Dependence on a Few
In many of our congregations, a small percentage of people are disproportionately supporting the budget. God bless the large givers; God bless you, if you are among them. But it’s a vulnerable place for congregations to be. Nor do many of our stewardship efforts take into account generational and multi-cultural differences in both motivation and giving practices.
Now hear me, Diocese of Washington: Despite these challenges I do not believe that aging membership, struggle for adequate resources, and building issues that overwhelm other ministries is God’s preferred future for us. I see a better day, one that is both faithful and fruitful, with congregations marked by joy, passion for Jesus and his gospel, a commitment to serve our communities, and as beacons of justice. I hope for such a day.
But hope is not a strategy.
And so, with prayer and our best efforts, we must to work strategically toward that God-inspired future, the seeds of which are all around us, some already bearing good fruit.
At the heart of our diocesan strategy will be Christian discipleship, all the ways we draw closer to Christ and allow his spirit to fill and guide our lives. We’ve taken concrete steps in that direction and will continue. This year, for example, we co-sponsored a workshop with our several of our largest congregations focusing on discipleship within the more complex structures of larger congregations
We continue to offer the RenewalWorks process which focuses on spiritual growth and development in congregations. This year’s diocesan Leadership Learning Day on February 11 will feature discipleship offerings; and this spring we are sponsoring a pilot Alpha program at the cathedral and for other interested congregations. Alpha is a robust, small-group curriculum that takes both established church-goers and people curious about Christianity through a series of dinner conversations about what it looks and feels like to be in relationship with God in Christ. It allows us all to ask all the questions on our hearts in a safe, supportive environment.
If you’d like to know more about any or all of these initiatives, Canon Joey Rick would be thrilled to speak with you.
We also began in earnest this year two experiments in the discipleship of resourcing--for stewardship is a manifestation of discipleship. We have, and will continue to offer for our congregations resources from two stewardship initiatives from the wider church:
Project Resource, which applies best philanthropic practices to church giving and
Stewardship 365 which addresses multi-cultural practices.
We’ll take this work deeper in 2017.
The Transformational Resources Commission
Today I call for the establishment of a diocesan commission to address the need for truly transformational resources for our congregations, and to help us implement the kind of strategic initiatives that will move our congregations forward. For now, I’m calling it the Transformational Resources Commission.
Part of the commission’s work will be to gather excellent resources for all our congregations--both material and leadership--and to set up a process for some to participate in a pilot for strategic financial planning. Because money always follows vision for ministry and passion for mission, these congregations will also be engaged in the deepest, most important questions of what it means to be disciples of Jesus and servants of God’s ministry in the world.
After the pilot, and the conclusion of all our congregational visits, we will then take the next step and gather congregational leaders by regional or other groupings to assess what we have learned. By then, I pray we will be ready to undertake a diocesan wide strategic plan for a thriving Episcopal Church throughout the Diocese of Washington, perhaps sometime in 2018 or early 2019.
If this is a ministry you are interested in, or know others with gifts to share, look for an application form that we will be sending to all congregations and other institutions of the diocese.
We also need staff help to get this endeavor off the ground and I will be hiring someone for that work--not in a permanent position, for that would be premature, but as a contract employee to help establish and organize the commission for its work and lead the pilot initiative. Once the commission is named and has met, we will begin interview process for this position.
One of my long-term goals as your bishop is this: by the time I hand the crozier to the 10th bishop of Washington, all income from the Soper Fund will be available for strategic congregational growth initiatives, including congregational growth grants and partnering with congregations to offer 2-3 first year positions for those we sponsor for ordination.
I believe moving to this approach in the use of Soper Fund income is vital for two key reasons. First, in principle, it’s not wise for any organization to rely as heavily as we do on endowment income to pay operating costs. I am determined to having a diocesan budget that each congregation feels called and inspired to support. And, friends, there needs to be some consequence for lack of support, a cost that is more than you sending me or Paul Cooney an apologetic email. I don’t mean this is a shaming way, but in the same way that our congregations can’t do all they feel called to do if members don’t support them. Reliance on endowment clouds that accountability and allows us all to expect things from the diocese without sufficiently supporting it. That accountability goes both ways: Diocesan Council and I need to demonstrate to you each year that your diocesan investments are fruitful, just as vestries must for their congregations.
Second, and of overriding strategic importance, I believe that if we are to be successful in devising strategies for adaptive change to the 21st century world, we must explore new approaches and make investments in congregational vitality. Dedicating all or most Soper income to these purposes would assure that the diocese is able to make investments in our collective future.
I’m grateful that we’ve made good first strides toward this goal, thanks to so many of you; and we have the first fruits to show for it, which you will you will hear more about in the budget presentation.
Now I would like to address our role in public life as followers of Jesus and as the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
While I mean no disrespect to those who voted for him, it should come as no surprise that I am alarmed by the behavior and actions of our new president. On election night, President Trump pledged to be a president for all Americans; since then he has done little to unify the nation. He seems to thrive on divisiveness and incivility and then feigns surprise when others feel emboldened to act in hateful ways in his name, such as those who vandalized one of our multi-cultural congregations with the words, “Trump Nation, Whites Only”, or those who say to immigrants, or citizens, with dark skin, “You are not welcome here.”
President Trump often speaks of terrible people wanting to do horrible things, and then sets himself up as the protector of all that is decent and good in America. Conservative columnist David Brooks sums up the president’s first week in office as being all about threat perception: building a wall against a Mexican/Central American threat; building barriers against a Muslim threat; restoring torture chambers to fight the terrorist threat. That is precisely the kind of fear that defined some of the most shameful chapters in our nation’s history. It is antithetical to Jesus’ gospel of love; it encourages dehumanization that leads to justified violence, celebrates intolerance, and I refuse to participate in it.
While I disagree strongly with President Trump and those who support him on many issues, and I wince when I hear fellow Christians speak of him as God’s chosen leader, I will resist the temptation to deepen the divide from my side. Instead, I will offer hospitality and accept it, when offered to me. I will listen, seeking understanding. I will pursue relationships with people who see the world differently. I will engage with an undefended heart, looking for common ground wherever possible.
I also cringe when I hear fellow Episcopalians make sweeping, negative assumptions about all evangelical Christians, judging them all by their worst leaders. I confess that this is personal: evangelical Christians first introduced me to Jesus in a way that forever changed my life. I left evangelical Christianity for many reasons, chief among them, my love of the sacraments, real differences in biblical interpretation, and a commitment to the work of justice. I also could never get my head around the notion, even as a teenager, that there was only one way to salvation, the narrow way the particular church I attended espoused. But while it breaks my heart that so many Christians have cast their lot with President Trump, I will always seek to build bridges between Christians whenever possible. I will also speak the truth God gives me--however imperfectly I hear it--as clearly and courageously as I can. And I know that there there may come a day for for non-violent civil disobedience.
For there are people in our congregations and communities who are at risk, as are urgent efforts to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change that will affect the wellbeing of all who come after us--our children, and grandchildren, and their children after them. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of many and the history of activism in this diocese, we are well positioned to continue our justice work, and we will.
With the support of Canon Paula Clark, we have in place a Racial and Social Justice Working Group, made up of well-organized and passionate leaders, and they will continue to lead us in our collective efforts. This is a place of growing collaboration with the cathedral, which has also named racial justice as one of its top programmatic priorities, under the leadership of the Dean Randy Hollerith and the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. We’re also in the early stages of collaboration with the Presiding Bishop’s office, as it seeks to implement the racial justice imperative of last summer’s General Convention.
Our Latino missioners, led by the Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin, will guide our efforts to support our Latino congregations and the immigrants they serve. Several congregations are exploring what it means to once again provide sanctuary for those who fear deportation, and to support for those who face growing intimidation. I need you to know that I support this efforts.
We are also blessed by the leadership of those in our diocese who are committed to interfaith partnerships. This is an excruciating time for Muslim Americans and for Muslims fleeing terrorism and war in their home countries. We need to stand by our friends and neighbors and advocate for refugees, and we will.
We also have people with high environmental consciousness throughout the diocese. One of our most passionate environmentalists is Dr. Carol Janus, who will be collecting recyclables at each table after lunch. Speak to her if you’d like to know more about how to reduce carbon footprint of your church building and save money in the process.
Many of you have been in touch with me, Dean Hollerith, and the Rev. Luis León regarding the roles that the cathedral and St. John’s, Lafayette Square played in the inauguration ceremonies of President Trump.
Most of those who contacted me have expressed anger, dismay, and disappointment for our hospitality and efforts at civil engagement. We were perceived by many as actively endorsing President Trump and allowing a preacher who has a history of anti-Muslim, anti-gay, and anti-Catholic rhetoric to speak from one of our pulpits.
I’ve attempted to be as clear as possible about why the dean and I made the decisions we made, and the Rev. León--who needs no one to speak for him--has done the same. But I also know that those explanations have left some in the diocese and the wider church unsatisfied. It’s always painful when my decisions hurt or disappoint those I love and respect. And I understand that for many, the difficulties of the last week may have raised important questions about the relationship of our diocese, its parishes, and its cathedral to the political life of the nation’s capital.
It’s my hope, my prayer, and expectation that we can use this difficult moment as an opportunity to reflect together on the profound challenges we face, both in ministering to the people in our nation’s capital and its surrounding suburbs and in testifying to the truth of the gospel in this exceedingly contentious political time.
While each one of our congregations has the task of participating in civic life, the identity and purpose of this cathedral brings the issue to the fore whenever our nation is divided or in turmoil. And the relationship between the cathedral and the diocese hasn’t always been smooth. While I served as interim dean, we worked to bridge the distance between the cathedral and the people of this diocese and the wider Episcopal Church. We’ve made real progress. We called the Rev. Dr. Rose Duncan--born and raised in the diocese, called to ministry from St. George’s parish in DC and serving among us for her entire life--as Canon for Worship. We called the brilliant Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas as Canon Theologian. We called the Rev. Andy Barnett to show us what breadth of musical possibilities there are in worship. And we called the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith as dean, a man for whom close connections to the diocese is a high priority.
Both Dean Hollerith and I feel that one way to address the questions raised in the last two weeks is by examining the cathedral’s role in its entirety.
For that reason, he and I will appoint a task force to conduct listening sessions over the next year, to consider the role of the cathedral in the life of our diocese, the wider church, and the nation. We will ask the task force to ponder what it means to have a national cathedral in a country without an established religion and how we as communities of faith can engage in public prayer, public theology, and gospel-based advocacy without becoming captive to any partisan faction or secular ideology. What does it mean, in 2017, for the cathedral to remain true to its founding charter as a house of prayer for all people and a church set aside for national purposes? I will also ask the group to offer guidance, in the form of a report, to inform the ways that not only the cathedral, but this diocese, your bishop, and all our congregations can faithfully participate in the life of the nation and its capital. Dean Hollerith is fully supportive of this initiative, as is the chair of the cathedral chapter, John Donoghue. Both see the work as an important part of the cathedral’s strategic visioning process.
This will be a joint task force--from the diocese and the cathedral--and I will also consult with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and President of the House of Deputies Gay Jennings for their suggestions. For those wishing to participate in this process, we’ll have a process in place for applications as soon as we get organized.
I’ve spoken to you of many things of great importance. There is a lot for us to hold now, in this second season of our time together. But I am in this work for the long haul. Nothing worth doing happens quickly. Faithful and fruitful ministry takes time.
When I think of my life as your bishop, what often comes to mind is the image that you sometimes see on airplanes that tells you where you are in relation to your destination.
God willing and the people of this diocese consenting, I hope to serve as your bishop for a total of 20 years, which means that we are one quarter of the way there. My daily prayer is that when the day comes for me pass the crozier on, we will be able to say that we were both faithful and fruitful in our efforts, to the glory of God and in faithfulness to Jesus and his mission of love and justice. Thank you for the privilege of serving Christ, and all of you, as bishop.