For as long as anyone can remember, the annual Convention of the Diocese of Newark has always taken place at the end of January. Which means that it has always been during the season of Epiphany. And Epiphany usually gets lost --because most of us are still recovering from Advent and Christmas – or are resting for Lent, which somehow has long been the liturgical season when we are supposed to be holy.
Epiphany is the sandwich season, and this year it is just over a month long. But the Epiphany season is filled with surprising, if not unbelievable stories of what God has been up to; records of the manifestations of God’s presence. All of the stories require the use of our imagination, and a bit of suspension of disbelief about how we know the world works. Epiphany begins with the story of a star moving across the heavens, and it ends with Jesus being lit up like a star in the Transfiguration. God is heavily involved – and bringing guiding, if not blinding light to a dark world. Not to mention a voice, which is heard in the story after Jesus comes up out of the water after his baptism: “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
And Jesus takes that moment of blessing and message of belovedness and passes it on to his disciples, to the world – and indeed to all creation. And that blessing and belovedness has continued down through the generations to all of us. We are blessed by and beloved of God. We are called to do two things with these deep, abiding and life changing gifts: 1. To accept and embrace them; and 2. To pass on the blessing and belovedness to others. God needs us – God wants to use us, for the purpose of passing on the blessing and belovedness. That is our vocation. No more than that, really, and no less than that either. And for many of us, if it takes a hefty dose of imagination to embrace the Epiphany stories of blessedness and belovedness, it takes a double dose of imagination and suspension of what we know to get beyond the memories of having screwed up, or having been screwed over or being taught by someone that we are screw-ups and there is no way – NO WAY, that we deserve being blessed and beloved by a God we can’t see. And if we can – for a moment or a season, claim our blessedness, we are too anxious or introverted or untrained – or something, to pass it on to others. Many of us say – I can’t do that.
One of the many things that the church asks bishops to do is to tell their dioceses what we see. We are given rings, sticks, hats and a big chair – and with those ancient accessories – and a unique platform, we are expected to pass along what we see. What do I see? I confess that I haven’t seen stars guiding anyone, and I haven’t seen Jesus light up like a Christmas tree. But I have seen the light of Jesus in others. All the time. I see your belovedness – all the time. I see your blessedness – and it is an extraordinary honor to see light growing in so many of you, and so many of you trusting that God-given light and risking to share that light with the world.
I see your blessedness. I rejoice in your belovedness. And I continue to hear the voice of God in my heart giving thanks for the faithful journeys in Christ that you have taken.
I also see, hear and feel your burdens. And I am going to move from this platform to another to talk about these heavy burdens.
I have a ‘b” alliteration going today – blessings, belovedness – and now burdens. Many of you have heard me talk about the killer B’s – buildings, budgets, boilers and burnout. In many cases, these killer b’s (and I suppose there are others) are huge burdens. They are blunting our imaginations. And have blinded us from seeing our blessedness. And in some cases they are killing our congregations.
What is tragic about the killer B’s is that for the past 50-60 years, that is what the church has asked people to do: to take care of the buildings, budgets and boilers. And for 50-60 years, people have been undyingly faithful in their care. When I got to St. Peter’s Morristown in 1982, Hal Terwilliger, of sainted memory, was unofficially identified as the baron of the boiler. Some thought he kept a cot down there so he would be around to nurse it through coughs and hiccups on cold winter nights. At least twice a year I have tried to remind Steve Hall of Holy Communion, Paterson that he is not the same semi-pro shortstop he was 50 years ago, and would he please stop climbing up on the church roof to look for leaks. For 50 years running, Clara Demallie, a member of my Massachusetts parish, took home the linen off the altar – every week, to wash and iron them and bring them back more pristine than before. I have known women who have, each and every year, taken down from the altar candlesticks more than half their size to polish them for the upcoming Christmas or Easter season. These activities have continued with incredible devotion – over many decades despite burned fingers, gnarled hands and strained backs.
We need to give them our thanks.
The church has asked them to carry out these and other selfless tasks. And people have met these requests, partly out of devotion – but more importantly, for the past half century carrying out these tasks was seen as the measure of what it meant to be a faithful Episcopalian. Tend the church.
But now we are in a new place as the beloved of God. We are in the midst of a tsunami of change. A change and an unraveling that we don’t yet fully understand. The measure of faithfulness is no longer in how well we tend our buildings and budgets, or clean our sacristies or set our altars. Not that we abandon our sacred treasures and acts of holy devotion, but we need to acknowledge that they are not going to save us anymore. God is calling us out of our buildings and into the world; to move beyond relationships with those who share our pews to the people who share our neighborhoods. God is working there, and we need to join God’s mission.
Business as usual is no longer an option. And as we face this tsunami of change – and as we join God in shaping our future, it is becoming urgent for us to reshape our ministry.
This afternoon, we will consider a resolution that asks the diocese to study the reasons why churches close, and to report our findings. Well for nine years now I have been deeply engaged in the study of why churches close – not to mention being liturgically and pastorally engaged in the closing of churches, and I am here today to report my learning to you. Since my arrival in early 2007, I have closed eight churches. The quick and perhaps overly simple answer to why they have closed is because they ran out of money. But in each case the reason why they ran out of money was different. For some the care of the building required more than the resources available – in terms of dollars or the availability of the Hal Terwilligers, Steve Halls or Clara Demallies. For others a key tenant left, leaving a gaping hole in the budget. Or endowments got spent down to a level that they no longer provided any income. Or people moved away or died – and some of those people were incredibly generous benefactors whose dollars simply disappeared. In some cases people joined a category that my colleague Steve Lane introduced me to – the “dones” – done because their kids were gone, done because they were swept up in the swirl of secularism, done with all the B’s or with conflicts in their congregation that they sometimes started or tried to stop – or got caught in the middle of. And some congregations closed because the people who were there were just plain tired. Burned out. They couldn’t carry out the church’s mission any longer.
So we have had to close these churches. It has been sad. Often people have been angry. And in almost every case there has been a last-ditch attempt to come up with a fix. A funding strategy. A new program. A promise to work even harder. These attempted fixes were offered in faith, yes, but the faith was often blinded by fear that said: “We can’t let this happen. My mother, my father, my Sunday School teacher, the man or woman who was warden for thirty years will rise up out of their graves and call me – call us, total screw ups. Because we couldn’t carry on the legacy that they left us.”
No, we couldn’t. Tears have been shed, and curses have been uttered. Anger has been in the mix. All the five elements surrounding death and dying have been present – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and my office has learned to be present to them, to listen to them, to honor them – and using the vast resources of our Anglican tradition to pray through them.
When I arrived in 2007, every person I ordained ended up with a full time position in a parish. Since 2013, every person I have ordained has started out in a part time position. Many have their major work outside the church. In 2007, 75% of our churches were served by a full-time priest. Today churches with full time clergy are a bit less than 50%. Last June, I decided to try an experiment by giving out Jesus cut-outs (or flat Jesus, as a take-off on Flat Stanley, a book that most kids know by heart) to kids as part of my children’s sermon. It wasn’t until I got to my fourth congregation that there were any kids at all in church.
Every diocese, every denomination is experiencing a version of this. And every diocese and denomination is spending some time trying valiantly to wish or deny or pray it away. That won’t work.
We all need to acknowledge that our reality as we knew it is no longer real. We also need to acknowledge – and this is critical: this is not your fault. It is not my fault – or the previous vestry’s, bishop’s or rector’s fault. It is not our fault. There is nothing you or I – or any of us could have done – or can do – to reverse this tsunami of change that has come upon us. It is much bigger than any of us.
That said, this tsunami of change has produced resentment that it is happening at all. A resentment that can take over the psyche and drown out the Spirit; a resentment that, despite all our efforts to fix things, more church buildings will close. I see the resentment. I hear it. I feel it. It is real. We need to acknowledge the resentment and work and pray through it. Otherwise the resentment morphs into blame. And I now see and hear and feel blame more than anytime I can remember. Our culture is awash in blame. Some presidential candidates have staked their whole campaigns on leveling blame. Vote for the better blamer. And if we can’t find someone else to blame, more often than not blame is leveled against ourselves.
Blame has become a new killer B – and as far as I am concerned, it is the most destructive of the lot, because it shuts down imagination, turns our blessedness into feelings of inadequacy or worse – and blinds us to the fact that our hope is in God.
I want to transition to my earlier platform, the beloved and blessed platform of hope and faith, and as I do so I want to tell a story that bridges these two places – and points to God as the source of our hope.
Last summer it became clear that the ministry at Christ Church East Orange, could not continue in their building. There had already been some conversations between the wardens and vestries of Christ Church and Epiphany, Orange, located .6 of a mile down the road, about the prospect of sharing ministry. Canon Jacobs, Paul Shackford and I were deeply involved in those conversations. But when estimates came in for replacing the slate roof and the huge boiler at Christ Church (which seats 700 or so), and which were in immediate need of replacement, plus other unpaid bills, it was clear that the church didn’t have anywhere near the funds to cover the expenses. The vestry asked the diocese for some financial help, soon learning that we had none available. The diocese – the Trustees, the Council – do not have any funds for this sort of help. We don’t have the money. But what we do have is the commitment to talk, walk and pray through the process of reconfiguring and reimagining ministry.
The wardens and vestry of Christ Church took the courageous and faith-filled step and decided to close their building. The wardens and vestry of Epiphany graciously invited them to share theirs. On October 25, I presided at a liturgy which closed the building of Christ Church. As part of the worship service, we went to every significant part of the church – the font, the door, the chapel the altar, the choir, the kids’ area – and someone told the story of what had taken place there over the years, someone else offered a prayer and I gave a blessing. The whole congregation – which included people from Christ Church, Epiphany and others from across the diocese – we walked together and stopped, told a story, prayed and blessed. We then gathered up some portable holy objects and brought them down to Epiphany Church. The people of Epiphany waited inside their church and the Christ Church folk gathered outside. The wardens of Christ Church then knocked on the door and the wardens of Epiphany opened it. Greetings were exchanged, prayers were offered – and the people of Christ Church were invited in – and as they came into the building every person was embraced in a hug of welcome.
You couldn’t miss the belovedness. The afternoon was filled with blessing. It was sad, yes, but it was also filled with grace. The experience was not that of a defeat, but a new beginning. Throughout the transition there was a minimum of blame – and a deepening commitment to hope which, of course, is the message of the Gospel. And now, there are two churches under one roof sharing blessing and belovedness , combining resources – and are less constricted by the killer B’s, and are thus more open to God’s epiphanies.
For the past few weeks, and indeed for the past six years, most of us have been engrossed in the annual Epiphany event called Downton Abbey. This, the last season, takes place in 1925. Lord Grantham, the patriarch of the estate, has, over the previous years, had his eyes opened in a new way, and is beginning to ask some hard questions: “can this way of life continue? Do we really need an under-butler and six footmen and can we keep up with staff costs that are 40% higher since the war?” Can this way of life continue?
The answer for him and his family is no. The answer for us is also no – church life as we know it will not continue. But – and this is a huge difference between Downton Abbey in 1925 and the Episcopal Church in 2016 – we may be facing a crisis of money and buildings --and while it is hard and sad, I am discovering that this is not a crisis of faith. God is up to something, and is beckoning us to join God, to discover what God is up to. To claim our belovedness --and then to explore how that belovedness appears in the world. The system is in crisis, but the invitation to go deeper in our faith journey is vibrant and real. We need to learn new ways to go about Jesus’ work, which will require deep listening and deep learning. We must cultivate a different imagination and reshape the lens through which we view ministry, anchored by our Episcopal roots.
And many of our churches are taking this journey. Christ Church East Orange and Epiphany are now two churches under one roof. Later today, we will celebrate the journey that St. Luke’s Hope and St. Mary’s Belvidere have taken over several years – now being one church under two roofs. Two years ago, a consortium began in Bergen County – Christ Church, Hackensack, St. Cyprian’s Hackensack, St. Martin’s, Maywood and St. John’s Hasbrouck Heights. Because the clergy have full-time jobs outside the parish, the lay leaders of the congregations have teamed up to provide pastoral care – what they call mutual care, to one another. The four churches regularly share worship together. They are letting the Spirit guide them, and are open to what might be next.
Much as we would like to have a road map or a strategic plan, this is not a process of better management. In recent years, many who study business and non-profit organizations have remarked that good management insures failure – because it focuses attention on what is already there – and the management is inhibiting imagination and keeping people from moving and looking forward. The more established and efficient a system has become over time, the more its resilience weakens. No, this is not about better management. It is about acknowledging our reality, that it is not our fault – that God remains our hope – and that we need one another as companions on this journey.
The crisis that I have been describing has been deeply felt in many of our congregations – (about half or more), and many of our other congregations whose budgets and membership are stable (and in many cases are growing) and whose buildings are in reasonably good repair – are wisely looking ahead and heading out – to learn the concerns and contexts of their communities. Bible studies take place in diners; theology on tap conversations happen in pubs. Increasingly, animals are being blessed outside rather than in the church. At least two thirds of our congregations are engaged in Ashes to Go on Ash Wednesday. Many of us commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 with blessings in public spaces – which in my experience, are wanted and appreciated. All of these are examples of what our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls joining the Jesus movement.
Will this work? I think that’s the wrong question. I am more and more convinced that the questions we need to keep asking are – where is God in this? Where is God in my heart? How is Jesus working in my neighborhood? How and where can I join God in those places? That is what brings about transformation. While we may not know the outcome, I do know that God is as deeply involved in where we are and what we are about as God was involved in the Epiphany stories from scripture. So instead of strategic plans we engage in holy experiments along the way – discerning, dwelling in the scripture, praying and evaluating. And as I, as we, engage in joining God with more intention, I am learning that the technical answers and fixes – many of the programs we offer, tend to be expressions and enterprises for the purpose of reducing anxiety rather than being guided by the challenge of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. When I get anxious, I go to my defaults – tried and true practices and habits that in fact are no longer tried and true. I – we, are being called to go deeper, to develop new habits and practices. To be more intentional about claiming our belovedness and discovering the blessedness in others. Later on this morning Ginny Dinsmore, Coordinator for Mission Strategy, Suzanne Willian, who is the project manager for the diocesan effort to join God in shaping our future, and I will outline more concretely how we plan to continue to move forward – on both the parish and diocesan levels.
The diocese has tended to operate in a reactive mode responding to increasing levels of crisis. Initially, we thought these crises in congregations would eventually get worked out, but we now realize that they are the front end of fundamental and deep challenges that cannot be addressed with established responses. The role and resources of the diocese now need to shift from a primary focus on trying to fix problems and being a service provider – to being a facilitator and partner with willing congregations in imagination and innovation for the sake of God’s future.
Our intention is to be invitational. We’re not seeking to tell any congregation what it ought to do or not do. But there is a journey we can take together in which the diocese will now place most of its time and energy. We will work with, partner with and respond to congregations that want to join with us on this journey. With this in mind there are some initiating actions we will take over the coming months. They are intended to invite congregations to participate with us in discerning how we might seek together God’s future as a diocese and congregations.
There is a lot to do here. And a lot to let go of. I am still learning. I am still working through my anxiety and resentment. That said, I have a growing excitement that the invitation is to do more Gospel ministry and less institutional preservation work. I have made some commitments that reinforce my deepening commitment to joining God in shaping our future, commitments I want to pass on to you this morning. First off, this is a bit overwhelming, especially when I consider that I will be spending additional time talking about this developing process with the major donors across the diocese we have identified, and conversations I will be scheduling to invite them to support these initiatives. Gandhi once said – I have so much to do today, I will meditate twice as long. I will pray more. That is a commitment I am making, and I invite you to do the same. In my experience, prayer produces clarity and invites imagination.
As bishop, I am committed to developing and supporting space for this process to evolve – supporting experiments, encouraging the practice of dwelling in the word, walking neighborhoods as week seek the presence of the living Christ. That is now my primary role – to provide space for congregations and individuals to engage in imagination and creativity. This is a process – and not a program. It will take awhile. I will welcome invitations to join people in congregations to walk their neighborhoods on a day other than Sunday – provided that we begin with dwelling in the word. And provided that we finish our time together with some reflection on where we saw God at work, and offering that up in prayer.
My staff and I will offer to kindle imagination and claim blessedness. We will grieve along with you for what we have all lost and that is not coming back. What we strive not do is engage in conversations that are focused on fixing problems – because that won’t get us anywhere. And I will not engage in any conversation that is rooted in blame – or reinforces blame. It will be hard for me to make and keep that commitment, and I suspect it will be hard for you as well. But I am willing to come and support experiments and engage in conversations that kindle imagination – activities that remind and reinforce that we are blessed and beloved.
God is calling us out. To be transformed by the biblical Dream. It is the Dream of faith – borne by community, carried forward by faith and imagination. Martin Luther King was brought up on this Dream, and he prayed and preached it until he was cut down by someone who couldn’t abide any challenge to a system that protects some at the expense of others. Too many have suffered similar a similar fate. Our joining God in reshaping our future, our intentional journeys into our neighborhoods bear witness to God’s Dream. These forays open our souls even more to the wideness of God’s mercy, and can perhaps provide an opening for the millions of people to discover a hope that is beyond what their hearts and minds can currently grasp. A hope that is offered to “all God’s children,” not just some. A hope that believes in spite of the evidence, and then watches the evidence change.
We are inheritors of the biblical Dream. We have a responsibility to carry that Dream into the world. God sent Jesus to incarnate the Dream, and we, as his followers are to be bearers of it – doing whatever we can to join God in bringing our blessedness and belovedness into moments, if not movements, of justice and blessing. It is an extraordinary Dream. Let us join with God and one another in shaping our future.