Only One Agenda: Bishop Sean’s Convention Address

Bishop Sean gave this address on October 25 to the joint convention of the Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania:

Last October, our two conventions made a bold decision to set into motion a partnership between two dioceses that has led us, and will lead us, on quite a new adventure. We are not overstating the case if we decide to label what we’re doing here as “unique to the church.” Who knew that two different dioceses, in two different states—both equally strange—and in two different provinces of the church would decide to change a centuries-old model of a diocese?

This is quite surprising on one hand.  With fewer resources and a rapidly changing landscape for the church, many congregations and organizations throughout our church are simply retrenching and trying to double down on what has worked. There’s certain a logic to this line of approach:  We have done things that have worked very well in the past, so we will simply take the resources that we do have, what we have left, and make those work harder for us, even if it doesn’t work. Because even if that doesn’t work—it’s what we know.  Besides, there’s no incentive to adventure or to go “off-road;” there’s no extrinsic reward; and there’s no real political incentive.

Think about the situation that we face as a church. The Episcopal Church claims membership of 1.2 million people, about 600,000 of whom attend church on Sunday morning. Overall, our human and financial resources are contracting—we all know that—and, for some time now, the whole operation has been floating on fewer people giving more money or expending more of their resources for the church. The world around us is changing and the landscape is evolving faster than ever before. Our spiritual landscape, in the midst of all of this, is nearly unrecognizable. Think about the ubiquitous use of mindfulness apps on mobile phones, of yoga, of people spending time in quiet and craving that space in a noisy world. Even the least anxious among us see and understand that there is a significant shift taking place here, something deep.

But instead of clamoring for adaptation and a shift, our instinct in the church is often to retread or to work harder on what we have and what we know. We do this even though we can see it will not work. And there is no one or no governance body, no one person, no think tank or research and development group pushing deep change or making it worth our while. There are plenty of critics that look at a project like this this one and talk about how glad they are that they are not in “that” situation. Instead of getting ahead of the coming issues in time to be proactive, the real incentive is to hold on as long as possible and then blame some outside force—like the culture, or Sunday morning soccer, or whatever it is. It is as though the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the transformation of the world—particularly in the way that we as Episcopalians bring a fully inclusive message of Jesus Christ to the world—it is as thought that is not our real motivation. So, you can see why I think that all of us taking on this partnership is surprising.

On the other hand, though, this is not surprising at all. I know this part of the world—Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania—pretty well. I grew up in this region. And one thing we don’t do here—it’s just not in our DNA—we just don’t make political statements to make political statements. We don’t just decide to be on the cutting edge just so we can show everyone we’re on the cutting edge. I don’t think anyone thinks of our region as gunning to be on the cutting edge. We just don’t. We don’t know anything about that way of thinking.  We do know about being left out or forgotten and about dealing with difficult realities, or taking the difficult realities that we’ve faced, particularly over the last thirty years, and leveraging them into a future. We do know something about grit and resilience and determination to forge our own path. So, who should be surprised that we just decided to break the mold and do what we need to do for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

The only real “statement” we’re making in this partnership is that we’re privileging gospel impact over our own provincial and territorial needs and wants. We’ve offered a loud and clear answer to one of the critical and guiding questions before us as a church and a partnership, which is this: Will our decisions be guided by what will best serve God’s mission and make the most powerful gospel impact, or we will we be guided by what we would prefer?  I think I can say with some confidence that in agreeing to this partnership that many of us are giving up what we prefer in the now for what is possible for the future. As I look around our church, this is not the most common answer to that question, if the question is even asked. What we’re doing here is digging deep enough to find out what matters to us most, what’s essential to keep for the future, what’s essential to hold more lightly, and most importantly, creating the space for something new to emerge.

Privileging God’s mission and impact over all other concerns requires engaging a spirit of adventure and exploration. In many ways, a spirit of adventure does not come easily to us as Episcopalians, and not just because we caricature ourselves talking about how we like plaques in our churches or for telling jokes about how many Episcopalians it takes to change a light bulb. But I think it is because a previous spirit of adventure brought us to this place at considerable cost, and there are parts of it we still love.

Every church that we attend and where we serve was planted there by another group of Episcopalians going into new places and trying new things. The open and inclusive culture in this church where all are welcome that we have come to value has required a spirit of adventure all along—of going into unknown places, unknown places even in the church that even a generation ago we would have thought heretical. Fifty years ago it would have been hard to imagine a recent set of events in one of our congregations where two men, married in the church, adopted a child and celebrated the adoption in the church, or having a year like last year where more women than men were elected as bishops of the Episcopal Church. Getting here took a spirit of adventure, it took some off-roading. It’s been tough at various points, it’s required a high tolerance for adaptation, for differences of opinion, for a willingness to engage the theological issues of the day and a willingness to explore and to chart what up to this point has been uncharted territory.

One of the ways this happens, this willingness to enter something new like what we’re doing here, is when the elders of the church—the ones who the scripture tell us “dream dreams”—take all of their collective wisdom and bless a new path to the future. As I look out on our church and our dioceses—as I look out on this room today, I see no shortage of elders in our midst. But we spend so much time talking about what we don’t have, what we wish we had, like more young people, that we can overlook the gifts in our midst. And one of the gifts we have in our two dioceses are our elders in our midst. This status of an elder and the wisdom that comes with it is not about chronology, but about experience and about choice, about a choice to bless something new. I dare to say that our two dioceses and all of us demonstrated the courage to bless when more than 90% of us chose to try this partnership. We loosened the grip on what we have. We decided that an emerging future might be worth setting aside some of the things we’d really like to have in the now. And now what that gives us is the wisdom of the elders alongside the spirit of adventure.

This partnership is new, but the seeds had already been planted. We’ve been doing ministry for a long time before we started this up.  Our partnership will help bring out the creativity we’re working out in our parishes and bring to scale some of the creative ideas that we have for a mission strategy that we will create together. To that end, one of the early objectives of our partnership is to create a space where we can enter into the complexity of adaptive challenges—the ones that cannot be solved by information that we have or by behaviors we already inhabit. The seeds of the deep change that we’re talking about will germinate in our conversations and then leverage into experiments, experiments for ministry. Experiments will provide the mechanism for the interventions that we’re called to make on behalf of the gospel and for God’s mission in the world.

The local congregation, the local parish and mission, is the life blood of our efforts. This is where the faith of God’s people intersects the needs of our communities, and where the real loyalties are found. No one gets up on Sunday morning and says, “Wow, I’d love to go to the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania or the Diocese of Western New York.” Our primary loyalty is to that place where we are found and have been found. Most of what matters in our two dioceses is happening in our congregations, where we baptize our babies, bury our loved ones, and participate in beloved communities. That’s why the focus of our resources must continue to point in that direction. So, I’m encouraging us to embrace the adventuring spirit, to go off-road in small ways and large ones, to try on new ideas, to experiment, to and be willing to succeed and to be willing to fail. And when our success leads to more success or often when our failure leads to reiteration—we will discover new pathways for ministry and mission.

In our lab topics, you saw some of your first thoughts about our mission priorities reflected. You gave these to us: evangelism and hospitality; our identity; race justice and advocacy; and communicating faith in the public square. These are themes I’ve heard over the past few years meeting with small and large groups across both of our dioceses and through our journey on this partnership. But these are the first thoughts about what matters to us in terms of our mission; but they are not our final ones, they’re a starting place, not an ending. Our work will continue following convention with more conversations—five conversations in early Advent for which I will be present across our two dioceses where anyone and everyone is invited to participate. Canon Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, our canon for strategic change, will facilitate these meetings assisted by a small team of folks from both dioceses thinking about what matters to us. This will give us a preliminary map, a way to think about the future, a place to start, and a few areas of focus so that as we move and our conversations and processes continue throughout 2020, we will  be able to arrive at a strategy that is both financial and a mission strategy—strategies that will be separate as two dioceses and together as we discern is appropriate.

A mission strategy will allow us to take our highest aspirations and deepest conversations about ministry and convert them to gospel objectives and goals.  For example, we might decide that our race justice work requires us to respond to a particular set of needs, or that we want to develop the resources necessary to speak about this brand of Christianity, this way of approaching faith in a compelling way in the public square. Then we can take our considerable financial resources and direct them toward those strategies. This means that what we fund is what we corporately decide is important—not what the bishop alone wants or either diocesan council or trustees want given its membership in any given year.

But all of this requires us playing the long game—to change our lodestar from “just enough to get by” to “forging new paths.” The long game means that we hold in mind the promise of the Kingdom of God and the good organizational development principles that remind us that everything we do takes longer than we thought it would, and that working under less stress and less pressure and with some patience and with diligence produces a better process and a better outcome.

Few others are taking on mission in this way. We’re charting the territory. We’re creating the map. And one of the gifts of this process is that we do not have a predetermined outcome. There is only one agenda:  to transform the world for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is ours. Thanks be to God.