Diocesan Synod Address, 2014

This is now the fourth annual synod over which I have presided as Bishop of Springfield. It continues to be a singular honor for which I am grateful on a daily basis. I love the rhythm of a “normal” week—that is, one when I’m not traveling—with four days in the office doing the business of the diocesan center through emails and phone calls and meetings, perhaps an evening on the road to talk with a vestry or search committee, a Saturday to take slightly easy, but usually catching up on some stray bits of business from the week in the office, about a third of the time heading to a hotel somewhere on Saturday night, then the climax of my week—communing in Word and Sacrament with the Lord’s own people around the Lord’s own table on the Lord’s own day. It truly doesn’t get any better than that.

And my joy in all of this is made more complete by the people I have to work with. The staff in the diocesan office is something I inherited, which I have learned from some of my colleagues in other dioceses can be a bit of a risky proposition, but in my case, I just plain lucked out. Archdeacon Shawn Denney is veritably my right arm, offering sound advice and always anticipating what will make it easier for me to do my job. Most of you don’t need me to tell you that Sue Spring is the gold standard for competence and professionalism. Jim Donkin is a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ and has been a stellar steward of the financial resources of this diocese. Jim has let us know that he will be stepping all the way into retirement sometime during the next fifteen months, so there will be a change. In the meantime, I will continue to be grateful for his labors. Most of you probably won’t know Molly Henderson, our very part-time clerical assistant. I think if you look up “sweet” and “generous” in the dictionary, you might find Molly’s picture in both places. I certainly don’t have the largest diocesan staff in the church, by a long shot, but I can’t imagine that there’s a better one anywhere.

When we broke camp in Decatur a year ago, I thought I knew who the host of the 2014 annual synod should be. But things didn’t turn out as I had hoped and expected. Instead, we got something even better. St Michael’s is the newest church plant in the diocese—that’s not a point for bragging, because it’s been three decades—and our largest mission. Fr Ian Wetmore and his flock have been cheerful from Day 1. What a wonderful parish family they are, and what gracious hosts they have been. It’s good to be in O’Fallon!

I  could probably spend the rest of the afternoon continuing to thank people, but let me just throw out the grandest and hugest expression of thanks I can put into words, to the entire diocese, all the people in all of our 34 Eucharistic Communities, for the overwhelming love and affection that I encounter wherever I go. Thank-you! I love you back.

Every synod address that I’ve delivered so far has focused heavily on mission strategy. I’m not going to roll out anything new this time, but I do want to give you an update on the progress I think we’ve made, and pivot from there into a new kind of progress I believe we need to begin making.

As you’ve heard me say before, our missionary vision is apostolic in its character, but an apostle must first be a disciple, and we probably don’t have enough fully-formed Christian disciples among the baptized faithful in the Diocese of Springfield. So what are we doing to make more disciples? Beyond what’s going on uniquely in our various Eucharistic Communities, here are some resources that we are endeavoring to refresh, renew, or introduce at a diocesan level:

  • Cursillo: Some of you have been on a Cursillo weekend; some of you haven’t. Some of you who have been on a Cursillo weekend are growing in your discipleship through piety, study, and action; and some of you aren’t. I realize there is a diversity of opinion about Cursillo among the laity and clergy of the diocese. Some of those opinions are negative. Some of those negative opinions, I have to say, have a solid foundation. Others of the negative opinions are based in fear and falsehood. Those who have negative perceptions of Cursillo based on fear and falsehood need to get over it and put the mission of the church ahead of their preferences and prejudices. Those who have negative perceptions that are based in fact need to hear me when I say that I am holding the Cursillo secretariat’s feet to the fire over the need to stop living in the 1970s, to quit doing things that foster the notion that Cursillo is some sort of elite cult with a secret handshake. It’s not that. It has the potential to play a pivotal role in the development of Christian discipleship in this diocese, and I ask you to get behind it.
  • A little later in the synod, Fr Ian Wetmore and Fr Dave Halt are going to talk to us about something called the St Michael’s Conference. This is a six-day event for youth–hopefully an annual event. In other places where the St Michael’s Conference has been held, it has proven to be an absolute game-changer for the youth who attend. I won’t steal any more thunder, but I want you to know how excited I am about this.
  • There’s a program called Renewal Works that St George’s, Belleville has already been through. Renewal Works is an assessment instrument that shines a light on the spiritual maturity and vitality of the people whom you worship with every Sunday. For the Episcopal Church, it’s under the umbrella of Forward Movement, the company that publishes the familiar daily devotionals, and on whose board I serve. I would like all of our Eucharistic Communities to participate in Renewal Works. I guarantee you it will give you some information you would probably rather not have, but which is essential for you for the simple reason that it’s true.

Moving now to the other bubbles in the far left column of our grand Mission Strategy schema:

  • Our Strategy Resource Team, composed of Mark Waight from here in O’Fallon, Archdeacon Denney, and Fr Bruce DeGooyer, has been tasked with developing a step-by-step process by which parishes can discern where within their mission field they are called to focus their energy, and how to organize and equip themselves for their missionary effort. The idea is to create a sort of field manual, something that can be replicated, with slight modifications, and used across the diocese. I’m pleased to say that the good people of Trinity, Mattoon have agreed to serve as guinea pigs for this, to be the ones on whom we make our mistakes, and learn from those mistakes, and further refine what we’re doing. That effort in Mattoon is underway, with some measure of hope and enthusiasm on the part of all concerned, I would say. Do stay tuned, because this roadshow will eventually be coming to a church near you.

So, we’re doing some good things, I think. We’re pointed in the right direction. But here’s the problem: It’s not happening fast enough. Even though we’re headed in the right direction, if we don’t pick up the tempo, and pick it up pretty drastically, we’re going to be overtaken by two tidal waves—one a demographic tidal wave, because our median age keeps getting older and older, and the other a cultural tidal wave, because the days when Christianity enjoys any sort of privileged position in our society are fading into memory very, very quickly, almost as we speak. We need a steroid shot. We need to turbo-charge our efforts. We need, I believe, to add a Canon for Mission Development as a staff position at the diocesan level. I will admit, I have  only come to this conclusion within the past few months. Until recently, I have taken a perverse sort of pride in the leanness of our staffing in the diocese when I’m comparing notes with my colleagues from other dioceses (though I will admit that I’ve occasionally been envious of those who have a Communications Officer). But lately I’m repenting of my pride, and this is why I’ve brought it up, first to the Archdeacon and the Treasurer, then to the Standing Committee, then to the Finance Committee, then to the Diocesan Council, then to the rectors of our larger parishes, then to the Rural Deans, and personally to two deanery meetings, and now to you. As I’ve said, we’re pointed in the right direction and we’re doing good things, and now we need somebody who will do those right things on a full-time basis, who will be out in our parishes two or three evenings a week, and quite often on Saturdays, meeting with clergy and vestries and bishop’s committees and parishioners, in the trenches, coaching and consulting in that work of discernment, strategizing, preparing, and implementing.

You might say, “Bishop, this sounds good, but we just can’t afford it,” and you would be right. But we need to ask ourselves, Can we afford not to? One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing you’ve always been doing in the hope that you’re going to get a different result. If we do the same thing we’ve always done we’re going to get the same thing we’ve always gotten. And ten years from now we will no longer be able to sustain worshiping communities in our smaller county seat and rural towns and villages. We will have retreated to what passes for urban areas in our part of Illinois: maybe one viable congregation in each of Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, possibly two in the Metro East area, and maybe Decatur. Everything else will have gone by the wayside, and we will be under increasing pressure to divide up and attach our various parts to neighboring dioceses. I don’t believe this is the future God calls us to, but it’s a future that may quite plausibly be thrust upon us.

Now, this feels like a good place to pivot once again, this time to some observations about the proposed budget, on which we will vote tomorrow. Another thing I’ve taken perverse pride in when talking with other bishops, after the small size of our staff, has been the lack of conflict and anxiety that typically surrounds our whole budget process, including and especially when it comes up at synod. It seems to me that we’ve grown very comfortable with our process because we’ve developed a system that insulates all but one person from it. Jim Donkin has done a tremendous job for a number of years, but because of his position in the system, not through anyone’s intention, I’m sure, he’s been the one to absorb and contain the agony of the difficult information that we should all be engaging. Every year—indeed, every quarter at the Diocesan Council meeting—the bottom line seems rosy—we start out with a deficit, but somehow we magically end up in the black, building up a reserve for bailing out a mission congregation from the clutches of a commercial loan or repaving the parking lot at the diocesan center … or something. But that’s only because we keep cutting expenses, either by eliminating ministries—for instance, as recently as four years ago there were two full-time clergy positions in the Hale Deanery subsidized by the diocese, and now there aren’t—or by perpetually budgeting line items that we don’t actually spend. But the fact is, while we ask for a small incremental increase in giving from the parishes each year, and we all sit here and approve that budget, sometimes without one word of debate, our total regular income has eroded steadily, every year, for several years. We ask for an increase, we approve a budget that assumes an increase, but we don’t actually get the increase. Now, there isn’t time to go into the mechanics at the moment, but let me just say that our system is a little difficult to understand, a little bit idiosyncratic, and I’m hoping that the work currently being done by the special task force on constitution and canons, will help us find a way to something simpler and clearer. But in the meantime, we’re in a pattern that is not very long sustainable, and even less so if we are talking about adding a diocesan staff position.

So let me just make sure that everyone here realizes that, when you vote for a budget, you are committing yourself to doing all in your power to see that your church actually gives the amount represented in the income detail. There’s a page that lists every congregation, and its share of what the proposed budget would be. If you vote for the budget, you are committing your parish to that specific number. Now, if we are going to add a Canon for Mission Development, your figure not only needs to be paid, but, collectively, we need to raise an extra $65,000, which is a 12% increase over what the diocese is receiving from the parishes and missions in 2014. As I think you understand by now, I sincerely hope we pass a budget that funds the new position, but please hear me on this: If you are not committed in heart, mind, and soul to your share of the cost, you cannot in good conscience vote for the budget as proposed, without amending it in some way. Maybe this is not the Lord’s timing for us to move ahead in the way I’ve described. If the position doesn’t get funded, I’m not going to go away and sulk, or feel rejected. I’ve got thicker skin than that! But we need to either swallow the horse pill just in increased giving, or find another way of getting there. Some of the seeds of potential “other ways” have been broadcast in the past few weeks, so when the budget comes up on tomorrow’s agenda, I expect to see a line at the microphone. OK?

I want to conclude on a less somber note, and simply say that, despite the challenges, this is still a great deal of fun for me. I enjoy a great deal being the Bishop of Springfield. But I am all too aware that our time together is not infinitely long, and there is so much I would like us to accomplish. I’ve shared with some of you that my personal goal for the remainder of my episcopate, which is a maximum of now less than nine years, is to leave behind, under the care of the 12th Bishop of Springfield, a church that knows how to thrive in a post-Christian society. That is indeed an audacious goal, and it is every day on my mind and heart and in my prayers. For now, I will only re-emphasize what I wrote in the fall issue of the Current: Let’s learn to travel light. Let’s lay aside everything that hinders us, and joyfully take up the labor that is set before us. The fields are ripe. The harvest is plentiful. It’s time we bring in the sheaves.

Thank-you … so much.

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