The Rev. Canon Scott G. Slater
Diocese of Maryland
Scott has served as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Maryland since 2010. Raised in a small town in Florida, Scott came into the Church as a teenager. While pursuing a career in architecture, he was also heavily involved with youth ministry as a young adult. He met his future spouse Becky on a church retreat and six years later they were off to seminary. Two sons came along and they settled into life in the D.C./Baltimore metro area.
He and Becky love the seasonal rhythm of the mid-Atlantic. His seasons of ordained ministry have included school chaplaincy, parish ministry, and serving on a diocesan staff. Each move has drawn the Slaters further north. A passion for social justice and urban ministry was born from his love of walking. He regularly leads prayer walks in Baltimore City to remember victims of gun violence by name on the streets where they died. He is also a vocal advocate for people in recovery from addiction like himself.
The Slaters are ready for a new adventure as empty-nesters. The Diocese of Newark seems like a natural and exciting next stop on this journey. Scott would be honored and humbled to serve as the next bishop of Newark, walking with you into a new chapter of your life as part of the Jesus Movement in northern New Jersey.
Who is Jesus Christ to you and how is your life and ministry influenced and shaped by Christ?
As an unchurched person growing up in an alcoholic household, Jesus became real to me in high school through the haven of a church youth group that a friend invited me to. It was there I witnessed and experienced unconditional love: Jesus embodied in relationship. That same friend eventually invited me to attend the local Episcopal church where her father was a deacon. Despite that initial confusing experience of standing, sitting, and kneeling while juggling a prayer book, bulletin, and hymnal, there was something about receiving communion that kept drawing me back: Jesus experienced sacramentally.
Because of Christ’s impact on my life as a teen, I became very active both as a parish and diocesan youth leader. The Church affirmed my gifts for ministry and empowered this otherwise quiet young man to be a leader. But eventually I faced my own struggle with addiction and Jesus once again embraced me through the humbling and healing sacrament of the 12-step community.
More recently I have felt called through my ministry in the Diocese of Maryland to be more open about being a person in recovery. The courage of that decision has strengthened my ministry and my leadership in ways that continue to surprise me and bring me joy and gratitude.
Life as a beloved child of God allows me to encounter Jesus in so many layers of my ministry within and beyond the walls of our churches. Perhaps the most powerful way I experience Jesus today is on the gritty streets of Baltimore while leading prayer walks for victims of gun violence. It contains as much sacramental power for me (and those who walk with me) as anything that happens within the confines of church property.
Looking forward, I know that I will continue to encounter Jesus in new and life-giving ways wherever this journey leads me next, and that the Diocese of Newark has much to offer me as you embody Christ’s presence in the communities of northern New Jersey.
What criteria would you use for determining when and how a struggling congregation should be closed? And where might we find signs of resurrection (new life) there?
I have had the painful job of closing a number of congregations in Maryland. I have also had a hand in helping some experience resurrection. To me there are three crucial aspects of vitality (not just survival): financial sustainability, leadership development and support, and community engagement. Property can be a huge factor as well (cemeteries to maintain, seating capacity of worship space, deferred maintenance). In Maryland, I have developed a spreadsheet for all 105 of our congregations, with multiple sustainability and vitality assessment columns. Our Standing Committee has a role in declaring a congregation “imperiled” (we have a canon for that). We have a cohort of consultants that I deploy pro-actively to work cooperatively (rather than combatively) with vestry leaders to together discern their future. I utilize some objective assessment tools. In one case, I volunteered to serve as vicar-in-charge for a period of eight months to help an imperiled congregation work through internal conflict and rediscover hope for their future.
One of our current situations involves a congregation that has historically avoided involvement with the diocese. Since their long-time rector retired two years ago, they have declined significantly and are down to 30 people on a Sunday with hardly any financial cushion. I have urged them to start reaching out to nearby congregations (Episcopal, Lutheran and others) to seek collaborative opportunities for pastoral care and outreach. And they’re doing it, willingly! They also have a pair of consultants working with them to assess their current and future vitality and urging them to keep seeking the creative work of the Spirit.
Hope is also a key element. When a congregation can look beyond its fears and experience hope that is based in measurable reality (rather than magical thinking or nostalgia), then that hope motivates transformation and resurrection.
Based on the information you have learned about the Diocese of Newark, what challenges and excites you about your vision for the role of a bishop in the 21st century in this Diocese?
The decline in attendance and engagement in the Church will continue to be a challenge. If we were to determine the aggregate empty-pew ratio in the diocese, I suspect it would be staggeringly large. Who wants to attend a church where more than half the seats are empty? It’s also bad stewardship of property and resources.
And yet when congregations can open themselves to new ways of being, including collaborative and innovative engagement in the community, then exciting things will happen. In Maryland we have a network of “small but mighty” congregations that meets quarterly for mutual support and affirmation. We have two “Lutherpalian” partnerships and one in process. Collaboration is a critical aspect of congregational vitality for the near future. A primary role of the bishop is to foster and support those conversations.
The Diocese of Newark is paying attention to this seismic shift and seeking to embrace the Spirit’s stirring to change and be changed for the sake of the Gospel. To do this we have to take an honest and courageous look at our values as embodied by how we use our resources. If a congregation is spending more on property than on a priest, that’s a value decision. However, property fully utilized for mission and ministry throughout the week may be a better use of resources than paying a priest full time. In Maryland we find “average weekly impact” to be a better measure of vitality than “average Sunday attendance.” What we do on Sundays means little if it doesn’t impact our lives as disciples of Jesus in our communities the rest of the week, sharing God’s love in word and deed. As midwife and head cheerleader for all the baptized, the bishop nudges us out the door to spread God’s love beyond church walls.