Bishop Mariann's Convention Address 2020
January 25, 2020
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.
I’d like to speak of where we’ve been as a diocese; what our focus will be in the coming year; and in particular, what you can expect in the first 90 days after Convention and in subsequent 90-day increments after that.
Today we officially launch our strategic plan. I want to assure you that this plan is not going to occupy a spot on our diocesan website and not be referred to again. None of us can afford to let that happen.
There are three words I’d like you to remember.
Let me begin with a moment in Jesus’ life that speaks to our moment. It’s one of the most important, as told in the Gospel of Luke, but it’s easy to miss, to read over without realizing the significance of what’s happened.
Prior to this moment, Jesus has been busy teaching, healing, casting out demons, and feeding the multitudes in the villages around the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus takes a break and climbs a mountain with three of his disciples. Jesus regularly went to the mountain to pray and regain his perspective. This time was amazing: first he had a mystical conversation with his spiritual ancestors, Moses and Elijah. Then a light came upon him that seemed to change his appearance, and the voice of God spoke from a cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.”
When Jesus and his disciples came down the mountain, the whirlwind of human need was waiting for him. We all know what that’s like. Before he had a chance to catch his breath, Jesus was back at work doing all the things he had done before. But something was different, again easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. You see, after Jesus came down from the mountain, he realized that his time on earth was limited, and so he changed course. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up,” the text tells us--in the midst of everything vying for his attention and as he continued his ministry of teaching, healing and mentoring his disciples--Jesus turned and “set his face toward Jerusalem.”
Turning is the first spiritual practice in the Way of Love, the Episcopal Church’s rule of life. We turn in many ways. Every day, as his followers, we are to turn toward Jesus--as Presiding Bishop Curry says, like a flower turns toward the sun. We turn toward one another, our neighbors and even our enemies. We are to turn from our sins and toward that which gives life. And from time to time, we are called to turn and set our face toward a vision that we believe is of God. Moments of God-given clarity don’t come every day, but when they do, the call to turn toward them is clear, with a sense of urgency. The time has come.
Friends of the Diocese of Washington, this is our time to turn and set our faces toward a preferred future that we have collectively discerned.
Let me remind you where we’ve been in the last 12 months:
At last year’s Convention, we launched the discovery phase of a strategic planning process, drawing inspiration from Jesus’ parable of the sower who planted seeds in all kinds of soil. We wanted to become good soil in which seeds that God plants can bear fruit.
Then we took time to talk to one another. Think of those 12 discovery sessions as the mountain we climbed together. In the middle of everything, we stopped long enough to pray, talk candidly, and cast our gaze toward the horizon.
Over 500 strong from across the diocese met in face-to-face conversations. You spoke of what you love about your congregations and value about being part of this diocese and the Episcopal Church. There is so much good about our church: this is our spiritual home, our heritage, our particular expression of Jesus’ movement of love. May we never lose sight of what the Episcopal Church means for us and for the world.
Yet in those gatherings you were also unflinchingly honest about what isn’t working, what’s missing, and what is unclear. This is some of what we heard.
We struggle with our identity as Episcopalian Christians.
People don’t know who we are.
We don’t have a clear path for spiritual growth.
We’re getting old.
Our buildings and operations are expensive and resources are scarce.
We have trouble prioritizing competing needs and interests.
These are not minor issues. They will not resolve themselves. They are why we need to change course. And our strategic plan will help us with that change.
After the discovery sessions, a leadership team worked to distill, discern, and craft proposals, ask for feedback and revise--a process that lasted through the summer and early fall. In October, they presented their final proposal to a joint meeting of the Diocesan Council and Standing Committee, and both bodies unanimously approved it. Diocesan Council then authorized funding for a five-year implementation strategy.
I’d like to pause here to acknowledge the Holy Spirit and thank you. We had no idea where the journey would take us, but together we climbed a mountain, spoke from our hearts, and prayed for a way forward. The Holy Spirit blessed our efforts. As a result, we have clarified our mission, cast a vision for the next five years, set goals, and identified the steps needed to realize them. Today we turn and set our face toward our Jerusalem.
You have the entire plan before you. I’m going to touch upon highlights and our focus for the first year.
The Diocese of Washington exists to draw people to Jesus and embody his love for the world
The focus of our mission is Jesus and his love, not ourselves. Faith communities exist so that people like us can be inspired and fed at his table. We are, along with Jesus’ followers everywhere, the Body of Christ.
The way that we live out our mission as a diocese is:
by equipping faith communities,
promoting spiritual growth,
and striving for justice.
Our Vision for the next five years is
To be a diocese that draws on the gifts of all God's people
to serve Christ together and live Jesus' Way of Love.
This is a vision of collaboration, born of the conviction that God has already provided all that’s needed for our congregations to thrive. Everything we do rests on the foundation of our relationship with Christ and one another.
We are investing in that foundation now.
During worship, we highlighted one expression of our investment with the commissioning of regional deans. Led by Andrew Walter, Canon for Strategic Collaboration, and supported by all the diocesan staff, regional deans will do the work of convening and relationship building, so that neighboring congregations can come to trust one another as friends and resources for ministry.
We also reorganized the entire diocesan staff. Some of you have expressed a bit of confusion about this--who is doing what now? Whom do I call? Now that the reorganizational work is largely done, in February we’ll send you a clear description of everyone’s work and all the resources available to you.
The communication function of the diocese is now the responsibility of Keely Thrall, who has stepped into this role with her characteristic grace and skill.
Cheryl Wilburn is now your first point of contact when you want to reach me or Bishop Chilton. In truth, Cheryl is your first contact for just about everything, as her love and breadth of knowledge for all of us in the diocese is unparalleled.
Raihana Bashir is your first contact when you want to reach Paula Clark, who in her role as Canon to the Ordinary now leads diocesan staff and keeps us all joyful, connected, and on task.
Don Crane is the Chief Operating Officer and Legal Counsel. The list of congregations he is guiding through challenging circumstances is growing daily, and you know who you are. Soon many of his responsibilities will migrate to Andrew Walter as Don’s position becomes part-time.
Michele Hagans continues her vital work as Canon for Special Initiatives, which essentially means that she can make things happen no one else can. For example, if you’re wondering how we paid for this weekend of revival, that would be because Michele Hagans worked to raise the money.
For today, what’s important for you to know is that all of our work aligns with three overarching goals:
Revitalize our churches to grow the Jesus movement
Inspire every person to grow in faith & equip our leaders to lead well
Partner in ministries of service and justice for greater impact
Under each goal, we have measurable objectives. If we try to do everything at once, we risk accomplishing nothing. So for the first year, we’ve chosen one objective under each goal. We’ll divide each objective into smaller tasks to complete in 90-day increments. We began this rhythm in June, with the goal of coming to Convention not only with a plan, but a strategy for implementation. We’ve learned that this discipline of specific tasks completed on a timeline keeps us moving forward.
Here are the three objectives for 2020 and our first implementation steps.
Under the goal of revitalizing our churches, this year’s objective is:
To establish church health assessments and revitalization strategies
Paula Clark and Todd Thomas are the diocesan staff leading the revitalization work that is mission focused. Don Crane, Andrew Walter and the administration team--Kathleen Hall, Peter Turner, Kelly Cooper, Kim Vaugn--will provide the personnel, financial, legal, and yes, crisis, support essential for congregational health. Rest assured that congregational revitalization is part of every diocesn staff member’s portfolio. In early February a group of clergy and lay leaders will gather with us to determine the health assessments and practices that will become our revitalization strategy. We’ll take our cues from the healthiest congregations in the diocese and best practices across the Episcopal Church and beyond.
Some of our congregations are ahead of the curve here, and if you’re among them, this is your opportunity to share what you know. For those that are struggling, there are no quick fixes to reverse years of steady decline or plateau. But there are ways to move toward spiritual health and renewal. They all require a change in focus and behavior, which is not easy, but also not impossible. With God, all things are possible, and it helps when we’re clear why we’re making a change and for whom, and when we’ve identified the most strategically important changes to make.
Here are a few examples.
One metric is to keep track of how many first-time visitors your congregation has in a year. A healthy number to strive for, we’ve learned through our friends at the Unstuck Group, is the same number of first-time visitors as your average worship attendance. For example, if your average worship attendance is 100, then you’d want how close number of first time visitors to 100 in a year.
Keeping track of first-time visitors prompts you to assess is how well you prepare for, welcome, and follow up with guests. If you’re near your average worship attendance, that’s a cause for celebration. If you’re below, you have what the Unstuck Group calls a weak front door. That means your members aren’t inspired to invite others, and there isn’t enough going on in your church for those outside the congregation to notice. You As a part of your revitalization strategy, you might decide to brainstorm ways to increase the number of first time visitors. That would have the effect of shifting your focus outward and ensure that your worship is uplifting and meaningful for others, not just yourself. As part of your strategy, you would keep track of your efforts and assess your progress.
Another metric of health--this goes deeper--is the quality of the relationships among the congregation’s core leadership. Last year’s convention speaker, Nancy Beach, said it this way: “the closer I get to the key leader, the more I hope to experience love and unity of purpose.” If your core relationships are healthy, that’s cause for celebration. If there is conflict, confusion of purpose, or drift at the center, your revitalization strategy must include dealing with those things. For if primary relationships in a congregation are strained, it adversely affects every creative endeavor you attempt.
Another assessment might be an evaluation of the depth and relevance of your ministry offerings. When people visit your website or attend Sunday worship, what do they find? How obvious a priority is spiritual growth for you, and how clear the path for growth? Sadly, some of our congregations’ monthly calendars have almost nothing on them, while others have so much that it’s hard to discern a spiritual path amidst all the activity in need of volunteers.
The second objective of our plan speaks to the importance of spiritual growth and the clarity of our message--more on that in a minute.
One final assessment that I think of every Sunday on my visitations is the physical attractiveness of the spaces we inhabit. I know there’s a lot of deferred maintenance to contend with, but I’m also convinced that we could make many of our churches more hospitable and attractive with volunteer labor, $10,000 worth of cleaning supplies and paint, and a dumpster. Here is my offer: if you provide the labor, a makeover plan, and the dumpster, we will provide the money.
Our first 90-day action plan is to identify the assessments and practices that will become our diocesan revitalization strategy. We’ll share them with everyone, and in the second 90 days we’ll work with up to ten representative congregations that are ready to do the work of strategic revitalization.
Under the second goal: Inspire every person to grow in faith and equip our leaders to lead well, our first objective is to create a School for Christian Faith and Leadership.
Across the diocese we heard a desire for greater spiritual depth and clarity, concern for the lack of resources in some congregations, a sense of frenetic activity in others, and a need for leaders to be better equipped.
The good news is that we are blessed with tremendous educational expertise. We have gifted teachers for all ages, retreat leaders, and spiritual guides. We have leaders who know a lot about finance and administration. The aim here is to create a flexible structure--both relational and online--so that we can best amplify their gifts and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to grow in faith and leadership. Congregational collaboration is key here, as we learn to share resources and build one another up.
Robert Phillips, Sue von Rautencranz, Sarabeth Goodwin, and Mildred Reyes are the diocesan staff leaders on the side of spiritual formation and growth. Don Crane and Andrew Walter will anchor the parish leadership track, although, again, we’re all involved. In the first 90 days, we’ll gather a group of educators to help us imagine what shape the school might take. Imagine the possibilities: Retreats, mission trips, and classes offered across congregational lines; small group gatherings that people could attend in their neighborhoods with other Episcopalians; resources readily available on-line, joint training sessions for wardens, treasurers, and first-time rectors. Once we’ve determined the scope of the school, in the second 90 days we’ll determine the steps we need to take to create it.
This is a big undertaking, and we’re excited about it. We also know that it’s going to take some time and we need help in thinking it through and creating it. As God is gracious, last year the diocese received a generous bequest dedicated solely to education, which means we have the resources upfront to do this work well.
Lastly, In fulfillment of our goal to partner in ministries of service and justice, our first objective is to identify a primary justice ministry in each region on which to collaborate for greater social impact
In the discovery sessions many expressed the belief that we would accomplish greater good if we worked together and lamented the fact that they didn’t know what their neighboring congregations were doing.
In the first 90 days, Daryl Lobban will take the lead in his new role as the Missioner for Advocacy and Justice, working with regional deans and deacons. Together they’ll ask what your congregation is doing in the realm of community service and justice. Then they’ll invite community service and justice leaders of each region to meet. We’ll learn a lot from those conversations alone, and given the passion of some of our people, I expect there to be a lot of energy in the room. We’ll give the Holy Spirit room to inspire us with possibilities we do not yet see.
By the end of the year, we’ll see if one ministry emerges in each region for collective engagement, and if not for the entire region, perhaps for several congregations within it. There are justice concerns that transcend regional boundaries which we listed in our plan, and we fully expect them to surface in our local conversations, as they did in our discovery sessions, and that will help us organize more effectively.
Remember that the focus of our justice efforts is what we pray every time we pray as Jesus taught us: that God’s Kingdom might be realized on earth; that we might do our part to fulfill God’s dream for everyone in the human family and all creation, that we might join Jesus in way of sacrificial love.
In closing, let me say this: the hardest part of a strategic plan isn’t doing the work. It’s narrowing the focus of our work to the things that are most essential, and not doing other good things that diffuse our efforts. In the coming year, our diocesn focus will be to:
Let me speak personally now. Just as the best science tells us that we don’t have all the time in the world to reverse the damage we’re doing to our planet--maybe ten years--we as a church don’t have all the time in the world to reverse the trends of decline. But in the ten years or so that--God willing and the people consenting--I have left as your bishop, this work is my focus. It is my work because I believe that our church, with our vision of what it means to follow Jesus, is a priceless jewel on the broad spectrum of Christianity. I believe that what we have been given and what we have to offer is desperately needed in our time. I believe that, as Jesus said, we are like yeast in a loaf of bread and light in shining in darkness, and that we are called to serve a wider purpose than we realize.
I also believe that God has called Presiding Bishop Curry to his ministry for a time such as this, but if the Episcopal Church is nothing more than the Michael Curry show, what does that say about us? Hasn’t God has called each one of us, too?
As your bishop, I commit to turning toward Jesus every day, and I invite you to do the same.
I commit to follow Jesus and his Way of Love, and I invite you to do the same.
I commit to the mission, vision, and strategic goals we have collectively discerned and invite you to do the same.
You must hold me and the diocesan staff accountable to the goals we’ve set, but if this work is only for the bishop and her staff, we will fail. I need to hold you accountable, too.
Will you, on this weekend of revival and renewal, rededicate your life to Jesus?
Will you commit to a way of being church together that will help us realize the dreams God has placed on our hearts?
If so, then I am confident of this: that the God who has begun this good work in us will see it through to completion.
May God bless and keep us all, as we follow Jesus and his way of love.