Bishop’s Address to the 42nd Annual Diocesan Convention

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
La gracia y paz de Dios nuestro Padre y Señor Jesucristo a todos ustedes.

We Episcopalians are often teased about our liturgical gymnastics: stand to sing, sit for readings and sermons, kneel or stand for prayer (depending if we are using rite one or rite two). And of course, we often do a bit of juggling between our prayer book and at least one hymnal. We do this because our posture says something about the task at hand and our orientation to what we are doing. And so, it is with such mindfulness that I sit before you rather than stand in the pulpit for this address. I choose this placement and posture because the chair is really the place for bishops rather than the pulpit. Bishops have cathedrals, the place of the cathedra, the bishop’s chair. As Dean Gary Hall, pointed out in a recent article in the Anglican Theological Review, “you speak at someone from a pulpit. You speak with someone from a chair.”

I suppose in every season, it is wise and good for bishops to speak with rather than to.  But particularly at this moment in our common life, I think it is essential that leaders connect to the people. It is a holy and healthy thing that the character of our fellowship be relational and conversational. Thus, perhaps what I am about to say is better described as a reflection on our church and God’s mission rather than an address.

The late Phyllis Tickle who gave the keynote address at our 35th Diocesan Convention,  suggested that every 500 years the church has a proverbial garage sale and re-sorts. She contended that we are in the midst of such a God given shift. We see things such as declining attendance, changes in denominational loyalty and religious affiliation in our culture.  We worry, fret, and wonder what it all means. I am persuaded by my work with you in this diocese, by study and reflection, and by prayer and the study of scripture, that what we are experiencing is a call from God to renew and reimagine the church. To borrow a phrase from Paul, we see through a glass dimly. The contours of our path are far from clear and our destination is beyond our sight. I am not alone in this conclusion. It is shared by many across the church and many in this room.

Much of my energy and effort over the last few years has been spent trying to wrap my arms around this movement of the spirit and to be with you as an effective and faithful bishop and chief pastor.  I have felt the call to cast a vision and God has given me the sight to discern a vision. As we have articulated in the past, we see our future as one in which we live into the discipleship of Jesus Christ’s fearless love for the world. And this love calls us to build the servant church.The words “fearless love” are not mere words but a quality of the heart that we nurture relentlessly in community. It is our way of claiming the love commandment of Jesus. It is what draws us to the Eucharistic feast and propels us back out into the world.  And our task out there is to build the servant church for the world.

Two weeks ago, I wrote you, and the whole diocese, a pastoral letter to share steps along the way—including some difficult steps to be sure. It is easy to latch on to specific decisions shared in the pastoral letter about specific congregations or to worry about one’s own parochial situation. That is natural. The church for each of us is manifested in a local context. That is where we feel the church community. That is where we sing with joy; that is where we grieve; that is where we serve. And so if the local feels threatened, we react—sometimes with great passion. The fear is real.

Over the last several weeks, I have been convening a seminar on the history of the Episcopal Church for our third year students in the diocesan School for Ministry. In our work together, I am reminded that in our short, 226-year history, we have endured tectonic shifts as the Episcopal Church. We emerged out of a devastating American Revolution. We endured a horrific civil war. We enjoyed explosive growth at the turn of the last century and again in the years following the Second World War.  In our past, and I would suggest, in our very DNA is a capacity to adapt and innovate for this age.

Like in past times, we will be called to give up something cherished to receive something new.   And as in times past, we do well to return to the core of what Jesus told us.  Remember? Church happens when two or three are gathered in His name.  Bigger is not necessarily better. It is in giving that we receive. If we give up things, we make room for the gift from God. And the really big one: it is in dying that we live.  We may live in a Good Friday world but we are an Easter people. We are those  who take up crosses.  You heard this all collected in the prayer for mission in this morning’s ordination: “that things which are cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made new, God’s  Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And as so often happens, God gives the people of God a not so subtle nudge to meet the changing missional needs of the world. That nudge looks like decline. It is measured in the Episcopal Church by four to five churches per month closed in the last fifteen years.  Each such closing represents loss and grief. When the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the people of Israel discerned a word from God. They changed and adapted; renewal was the fruit of captivity. And so, we too are receiving a similar invitation.

When we adapted to changing circumstances in the last century, we became builders of seminaries and church sanctuaries.  Both served God’s mission well.  As our demographics have changed and as economic realities have changed, the gospel has remained the same.  The mission of God to reconcile the world to God’s self and each other through Christ, has not changed. How do we now retool? What must we give? Give up? What must die? What does new life look like?

To glimpse the answers to these questions we need to look to the mission field. When we do, we see cultural diversity. We see people under the age of 40 who are likely not to be connected to a religious community but looking for ways to be spiritually fed. We see hunger for community in a digital culture that creates fewer places for authentic relationship. We see poverty, homelessness, those in despair and others who want to bring hope. In a word, we see a world desperately in search of what we have.

But here is the rub: those people are not going to come to us. We are not in the age of “The Episcopal Church Welcomes you.” We are going to have to intersect their lives where they are. We are going to have to translate the gospel into their words. We are going to have to change—dramatically.

I do not believe that we can do this incrementally. To make the needed shift, we need to reorient our resources, spiritual, human, and financial, to a different kind of church. That means we will need to pray in different ways. It means we will have to spend our time on different things. We will have to spend our money and wealth in different ways.

A really big part of this realignment will be about buildings. Our decision around St. Anne’s is predicated on a sense of stewardship and mission that forbids us as a diocesan community to be comfortable with using a multi-million dollar asset for a small community.  It is a hard decision to reallocate assets. However, I also assert that making a decision to cease owning church buildings does not mean church communities need to cease existing.   Right now in El Cajon, we have a multi-denominational Welcome Church for the homeless meeting in a park. Ask Dave Madsen about it. There are congregations in every community in our diocese that meet in libraries, schools, and such. The reality is that by carefully accessing the wealth currently dedicated to real property, we can have substantial resources for powerfully engaging the gospel work in today’s mission field.

As you can see in this year’s budget, we are not waiting until these resources are available.  The Hispanic Missioner position is a major step along this way. I also recognize that this shift is going to require even greater resources. We need to provide greater pastoral support to congregations that are at center of this work of reimagining. We will need professional and financial assistance with property and other resources. And we will need entrepreneurial expertise to form different models for ministry. To pivot in this way, I anticipate asking executive council to allocate reserve in addition to what you see in this year’s operating budget to fund these tasks.  My hunch is that we will be looking at spending an additional $300,000 – 400,000 over the next two years. I pray that this will be a short term investment in a long term movement of health and vitality.

While given a cross, ring and crosier at my consecration, I did not receive a crystal ball.  Nevertheless, let me take a chance and attempt to look beyond the horizon and imagine what we might become if we are steadfast in this work of reimagining. I do not think we will close any churches. I do think we will likely sell a significant amount of property. Churches that once met in buildings will now meet in different places. They will meet in schools, auditoriums, libraries, and perhaps parks and beaches. Clergy will increasingly become bi-vocational or non-stipendiary. We will actually have many more clergy, both deacons and priests. Many will be trained in traditional seminaries, but those folks will have a primary vocation to be teachers for the locally trained—both those locally trained for ordination and those locally trained for lay ministry. We will really live into the ministry of all the baptized. We will start new congregations. These congregations will travel light. They will be unencumbered by property and can shift easily as their mission shifts. Clergy will connect through various congregations and will more easily mutually support each other and the various lay leaders. Relationships will be broad. We will have an easy capacity to reach across denominational and interfaith boundaries because we have honed those skills reaching across our parochial borders.

In another time, the church got fixated on a whispered line from a movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” The word from God for us is this: if you believe, it will happen. Whenever two are three are gathered, Christ is there; in giving we receive; in dying we are reborn. That is my dream. That is God’s word.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.