This is the tenth annual synod of the Diocese of Springfield over which I have presided as bishop, and the eleventh that I had attended. With all the complicated emotions that surround the recognition of such a reality, I must also acknowledge that this is my final one—to preside over, at any rate; it’s not impossible that I might be present at future synods, as I will most likely remain a canonically resident member of the clergy of this diocese. For me, at least, there is no aspect of the last decade that has felt like it has dragged on slowly. On the contrary, it feels like last week that you welcomed me, as bishop-elect, to the 2010 synod in Champaign. If my math is correct, we have walked together through nearly 7% of the total history of the Diocese of Springfield. My successor will probably get to celebrate with you the sesquicentennial of the diocese seven years from now, and I hope there will be a proper celebration!
Of course, this 143rd synod meets under circumstances that could scarcely have been imagined a year ago when we gathered in Alton. I haven’t had an opportunity to rummage through the archives for an indication of what our forebears did in 1918 during Spanish Flu pandemic. I know that masks were in vogue during that crisis, but I also know that they didn’t have Zoom. While Zoom and similar platforms are not without their detractors, I feel like, on the whole, it’s been a tremendous blessing to church communities across the world in helping us maintain the bonds of community as we continue to wait in hope for deliverance from this plague.
A great many people have their fingerprints on any given iteration of synod. However, the odd circumstances under which we are operating this year changes the cast of characters somewhat. We don’t have a host parish. The good folks from Marion and Jefferson Counties were all set to shoulder that burden, but the coronavirus relieved them of it. Into the breach stepped a dedicated working group convened by Canon Mark Evans, with invaluable technical assistance from Pete Sherman of St Luke’s, Springfield. Sue Spring, of course, contributed the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of her years on the job making synod happen. But the true tip of the spear, the heroine of the moment, is our Communications Coordinator, Hannah Dallman. Hannah leveraged her knowledge of Breeze, our database system, with takeaways from online meetings of her peers in other dioceses, to work together with the rest of the team to make possible what we’re experiencing, and perhaps even enjoying at some level, at this moment. She has given us the heavy lift when we needed it, and I just want to acknowledge that. If we were together in person, this would be a moment for applause.
I want to briefly speak to an amendment to that canons that has been proposed, since it would be inappropriate for me to do so from the chair during floor debate. The proposal would prohibit the occupants of three offices—Treasurer, Chancellor, and the position formerly known as Archdeacon and now styled Canon-to-the-Ordinary—it would prevent these three persons from standing for election to the Standing Committee. (Please note that anyone already on the Standing Committee who holds or has held one of the positions would be grandfathered in; the new canon would only address future elections.) The purpose of the change in our canons is to promote transparency and accountability. One of the functions of the Standing Committee, under both national and diocesan canons, is to serve as a Council of Advice to the Bishop. And it’s the Standing Committee’s role to serve, when necessary, as a check on the exercise of unbridled authority by the Bishop. This is why, for instance, the Standing Committee has to approve of ordinations. The “Bishop’s Assistant”—using canonical language, currently the Canon to the Ordinary—the Bishop’s Assistant is appointed by the Bishop and serves completely at the Bishop’s pleasure, as a member of the Bishop’s senior staff. The Chancellor, who is nominated by the Bishop and ratified by synod, serves as legal counsel to both the Bishop and the Standing Committee (as well as to the Trustees). But it is not impossible, as we have recently seen, for the Bishop and Standing Committee to be facing each other across a perceptual divide. If the Chancellor is a member of the Standing Committee, this skews the power of his office in favor of the Standing Committee and against one of his clients. The Treasurer is elected by synod and does not “report” to the Bishop in any official way. However, the Treasurer and the Bishop do have a fairly close working relationship, and both have seats in the deliberations of the Department of Finance. Again, to have the Treasurer also sit on the Standing Committee “comingles” the lines of authority and responsibility. More to the point, perhaps, it is highly likely that, during the course of any bishop’s tenure, that will bishop will want to seek the advice of the Standing Committee regarding relationships with one or more of these office holders. If one of them is actually on the Standing Committee, it is impossible, practically, for the Bishop to do so, and impossible for the Standing Committee to fulfill its canonical function. So, I hope this proposal gets a full deliberative airing when it comes up, and I hope that the required two-thirds majority votes Aye.
Switching gears now … perhaps you’ve seen a cartoon that pictures a pastor giving his final sermon in a parish. He’s depicted in the pulpit, but, through a window behind him, you can see a moving van parked right alongside the church. Evidently, he’s positioned himself for a quick getaway, because, presumably, he’s planning on saying a few things that he may have held back from saying before that moment. Well, I’m not quite in that position—I’ve got a few more months before I hand over the crozier. But this is my valedictory, of sorts, my opportunity to be a little more candid than I otherwise might be, as well as a little more reflective. So, what is most on my heart for you to hear and know as we look toward welcoming the 12th Bishop of Springfield?
If you were to go back and look at the written and video materials that I and all the other candidates in 2010 were asked to submit, you will find that I was fond of the expression “skate ahead of the puck,” a metaphor from hockey that alludes to the mental habit of not simply seeking to understand things as they are, but to anticipate things as they will be. In using that expression, I was indicating a desire to lead the diocese toward not just acknowledging but embracing the rapidly emerging post-Christian era in our society, embracing it with intentionality and confidence. In my own mind and heart, my audacious goal was, upon my retirement, to leave behind a church that knows how to flourish in a hostile culture. Most of you remember my parish hall stump speech, which I delivered tenaciously all over the diocese, at every visitation, during at least the first couple of years of my ministry here. “Business as usual is a road to slow death,” I said. “Attracting new people to our Sunday services is not a mission strategy. Instead, we’ve got to ‘move into the neighborhood,’ to constantly ask ourselves what’s keeping our neighbors up at night and how would knowing Jesus give them rest and peace?”
We adopted a rather ambitious mission strategy statement, that has not been rescinded: “The Diocese of Springfield is one church, organized for mission into geographic parishes, manifested in eucharistic communities and communities-in-formation, with a goal of being concretely incarnate in all of the 60 counties of central and southern Illinois.”
I won’t lie to you. I had hoped that we would make a lot more progress toward these ends on my watch. I am not walking off the stage without a significant measure of disappointment that we have not. The power of the societal change wave has been enormous, and, more importantly, as I’ve needed often to remind myself, I’m not in charge! The Holy Spirit is in charge. God is sovereign.
So, it is probably good to look at the last ten years and inquire … what has God done among us? We would probably all answer that question in a different way, but here are some of my answers:
#1: God has led us to change our language about mission and evangelism. Changing the way we speak is a necessary prelude to changing the way we act. Not a sufficient prelude, but a necessary one. Speaking of Eucharistic Communities instead of parishes and missions, of Mission Leadership Teams rather than Vestries and Bishop’s Committees, using the word “parish” to denote a geographic area—these are the linguistic habits that will become mental habits that will lead us to take more focused responsibility for being a community that announces good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind. It’s painful and uncomfortable, and I share that pain and discomfort. But let’s keep doing it.
#2: God has led us to place responsibility for mission at the level of the local parish community—and I use the term “parish” in both its comfortable and uncomfortable senses. We’re not the sort of diocese that has the centralized resources to “plant” new congregations in the way that some of our larger cousins have been doing with some degree of success. The kind of church planting we have been gearing up to do is more local and more organic, with people from the Eucharistic Communities that do exist incarnating themselves in places were we have no church community at present and making new disciples in those places—evangelizing, catechizing, and baptizing in the new places, not simply inviting them to drive to where we already are.
#3: God has led us to hold one another accountable. We now have a canonical requirement for each Eucharistic Community, or organized geographic parish, to produce an annual Mission Strategy Report. A report will not in itself guarantee that something gets done, but not developing a mission strategy will pretty much guarantee that nothing gets done by way of mission development.
#4: God has enabled us to up our communication game. The creation of a Communication Coordinator position grew organically from a meeting of diocesan leaders several years ago. Many could quite plausibly argue that our first foray in that direction was far less than a resounding success. But, after pressing the reset button, we found a winner. In the last couple of years, our social media footprint has increased dramatically, website content is robust, and the number of people who are engaging in communication at a diocesan level is steadily increasing. This is a success story, my friends.
#5: God has blessed us even when we weren’t looking, or even particularly trying. Some years ago, Redeemer in Cairo was on the verge of being shut down and rolled up. Now it’s a vibrant example of incarnational ministry. Trinity, Lincoln was kind of a sleepy, county-seat parish, with the usual rapidly aging demographic. Now it’s got perhaps the lowest median age in the diocese and has become a veritable spigot of high-quality vocations to the priesthood. Both in Lincoln and in Carlinville, a very organic, small batch,” one might say “artisanal,” form of campus ministry is happening, without big budgets or programs. Seeds of the same sort of thing have been happening in Jacksonville. Emmanuel, Champaign has been quietly busting out in ministry and mission in that corner of the diocese. The list could go on—please forgive me if I’ve overlooked something. God is good.
#6: God has sent us some incredibly capable and dedicated clergy, and raised up an abundance of promising candidates in the ordination process, and through some of these, we have greatly blessed the wider church—going back through the years now, I’m thinking of Cameron Nations (now in the Diocese of Texas), Jason Murbarger in Central Florida, Charleston Wilson in Southwest Florida, Allen Wakabayashi and Diane Mumma-Wakabayashi in New Jersey, Jonathan Totty in Dallas, and Shane Spellmeyer in Northern Michigan.
Our missionary vision was and is apostolic, and it was evident early on that we needed to focus on raising up disciples who would give themselves to such apostolic ministry. I am excited when I look around the diocese because, literally everywhere I go, I see people taking their faith seriously. I see people learning to pray. I see people studying the scriptures and reaching out into the world with the love of God made known in Christ. Yes, we have more progress to make, but we have so many opportunities to acknowledge God’s faithfulness, and this is what gives me hope as I look into the future that will every bit as challenging for the communities of this diocese as the last decade has been.
The profile of the 11th bishop will be quickly eclipsed when the 12th bishop is elected and consecrated. So, this is my last chance to say publicly what I hope might happen, and that is the foundation we have laid together will be built on: I hope that the general shape of mission strategy we have been pursuing—parish-based and incarnational—will be retained. I hope that the idea of forming a “geographic parish” where the current Eucharistic Communities are closely clustered will be courageously pursued. Specifically, I’m thinking of Tazewell (where there have been baby steps), McLean, Sangamon, St Clair, Madison, Marion, and the IL13 corridor. Pursuing mission in such a coordinated manner is the only thing that makes sense in the cultural environment of the foreseeable future. The main thing standing in the way, I have to say, is pride and stubbornness. In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul addresses two members of that community named Eudodia and Syntyche, both of whom he loves and cares for, and both of whom, one might surmise, have potential for effectively ministry. But they are at each other throats, it seems, to the detriment of their mission. Paul implores them to get their act together. So I implore those in the areas I have just mentioned: Euodia and Syntyche—figure it out! Figure it out, for the sake of the gospel.
A brief word now about Springfield’s position with respect to the larger Episcopal Church. Ten years ago, this was a hot issue. I’m glad to say that it’s got a much lower profile now, though there are still tensions. Along with the dioceses of Dallas, Central Florida, Tennessee, Albany, and, effectively, Florida and West Texas, along with the offshore dioceses of Honduras, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, we’re part of the minority party (though I’m certainly aware that we are not all of one mind about that even within the diocese). So I think we need to continue to be engaged—but engaged cautiously. I’m glad we’re talking about sex and marriage less—really glad. But the underlying issue is still very much out there, and it’s got nothing to do with sex or marriage. It has everything to do with whether the core of the Good News is about the grace and power made available through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or the necessity of doing more and trying harder to make the world a better place. The first is the real gospel; the second is about human ego. Resist it! Firmly.
My beloved, when I was elected to this ministry in 2010, Brenda went to a pottery artisan in Winona Lake, Indiana, right next to the town where we were living at the time, and ordered a mug inscribed with the words of the Greeks who approached the apostle Philip in the 12th chapter of John’s gospel: “We would see Jesus.” From the bottom of my heart, and with daily discipline, I have endeavored to show you Jesus for the last ten years. I have often failed—of that I am certain—and may or may not have ever succeeded. But that has always been what I have wanted to do and tried to do. From those of you whom I have failed, I ask your forgiveness. From those of you whom I have inspired or taught or led or blessed in some way, I ask your continued prayers.
May the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight.
Thank-you for the unspeakable privilege of being your pastor.