Bishop’s Address

Bishop’s Annual Address to Convention 2013
The Right Reverend Scott Anson Benhase

Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Luke 10:3

On Good Friday across the Episcopal Church it’s been a custom in some parishes to offer meditations on the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. Beginning with “Father, forgive them” and ending with “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Some Church wag has said the Church has also adopted its own seven last words for its life together: “We’ve-never-done-it-that- way-before.”

The reason that’s funny, and I hope you find it so, is that the Church changes oh so slowly. How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Change? We never change. Or maybe the answer is two: one to change the bulb and the other to reminisce on how good the old bulb was.

In many ways, this changelessness is a very good thing. In fact, I would say there are rock-solid, core convictions of the Church that should never change. It’s just that sometimes we disagree on what those immutable items should be (more on that later).

In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus sends his disciples on their mission to the world, he instructs them to take certain things with them and to leave certain things behind. I think Jesus is challenging us to do the same today. What must we take with us in mission? What should we leave behind? What is essential for carrying out God’s mission? What is actually holding us back?

In the movie, Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a corporate executive who spends most of his life on the road (I can relate to that) or as the title suggests, on a plane up in the air. He also has a side gig doing motivational speaking. He uses a prop in his motivational talk. He brings a backpack to the podium and talks about how too many people are weighed down by what they carry around with them. He asks his audience to imagine the packing list for their life’s backpack. He then urges them to jettison most of it so they can become unencumbered.

The irony of all this in the movie, of course, is that Clooney’s character is a soul-less hack who has no significant human relationships, no one who he really loves (or who loves him), and he’s adrift in life. Yet, he’s presenting himself as someone others should imitate. Still, his proposed exercise with the backpack can be compelling and challenging for us to imagine.

If we were to make a packing list for our Church’s backpack, what would it be? Back to the questions: What must we take with us in mission? What should we leave behind? What is essential for our mission? What is actually weighing us down?

In Luke 10, Jesus was quite specific about what would weigh down the disciples. But what did the Disciples take with them?
I do know the disciples took with them the Book of Common Prayer, but Luke’s text is unclear whether it was the 1928 Book or the 1979 Book. And Luke’s text is completely silent on whether they had a copy of the Constitution & Canons.

It seems to me the disciples took with them only a few things, most of which were not material. They took with them the steadfast conviction that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and that this Kingdom was embodied by God’s son, Jesus, in their midst. They took with them the Good News of God’s grace, mercy, & forgiveness manifested in his cross and resurrection. And they took with them the confidence that, come what may, the Holy Spirit would be with them always to the end of the age. It’s with the purity and simplicity of their backpack that I want us to re-imagine what we as the Diocese of Georgia need to carry with us in our Church’s backpack.

To engage our imaginations, we must first know what we face. And Canon Logue did an excellent job of giving us a lay of the land earlier this morning. Some see our problem as this: people just aren’t attending churches like they used to. And they don’t give money to support churches as they once did. But those aren’t the problems. Those are mere symptoms.

If we see the problem as only lower attendance or less giving, then we might conclude that we need to do is what we’ve always done, but just do it better. So, preaching using PowerPoint or worshiping fronted by an indie rock band is just tweaking the delivery system and expecting a different result. Maybe we should do those particular things if they make sense in our contexts. But if that’s all we do, then we will have only strained at the sand gnats.

We must know the world has fundamentally changed. Much of our church practices in the past were shaped in a world that’s rapidly going away. That has produced a culture full of people who are anxious and overwhelmed. They’re exhausted by the obligations and opportunities they have. For many, work is now all-consuming. For some this is just to get by. For others, it’s a way to prove their self-worth or to get more for themselves.

Social media, the Internet, and other technical innovations not only solve problems, they also create new ones as people race emotionally to keep up. In a world of such anxiety and obligation, where is the Church for these people? For many, church can actually become one more source of anxiety and obligation.

But let’s imagine a Church that offered a sense of meaning, a connection to God and one another, and a place where people are known and loved; a place that helps them learn how to connect their faith to their daily lives and not only come to church on Sundays so the clergy will do it for them.

That means we need to re-imagine the entire model of ministry where the clergy perform the faith on Sundays to audience members. Our leaders, as St Paul instructs us, need “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 3:12).

We all need to be trained to lead and serve in this new world that’s coming into existence. I’m fond of saying that I was prepared to be the priest of Lake Wobegone Episcopal Church. Like you, I need to be retrained into new ways of mission.

The focus of our Campaign for Congregational Development seeks to do just that. The Church Development Institute, Peer Coaching, Conflict Management Workshops, Emotional Intelligence labs, and the training our young adults will receive through Columba House are all designed to equip the saints for mission in this new world of anxiety and exhaustion.

The Campaign this year will also have the resources to help one of our mission congregations grow into parish. We need more resources to help more missions do that. The Campaign also seeks the resources to start new congregations, some of whom may never own property and have a traditional church building. That may well be something that would weigh down their backpacks as they engage in mission.

The Campaign will also develop resources so that our congregations can have access to seed money to create transformational signature ministries in their contexts. In this new world, we have to move beyond band-aid handouts to engaging the people of our communities in the work of transformation. I’m encouraged by what I see in different parts of the Diocese where people are coming together and beginning to dream of what that might look like in their communities.

Our Campaign is not about doing the same things we’ve always done, but just doing them better. It is about reforming how we train and equip people for ministry and then turning them loose to be the hands and heart of Jesus in this world.

In this coming year, the Diocesan Staff and I will continue to engage ourselves more deeply in re-imagining our support roles for this new mission. In the last year, we’ve found many ways to save money, to do more with less, to let go of some things that were weighing us down, and still provide you with strong support. But we need to keep questioning our assumptions about what’s needed. There is much more to do.

One of the ways we’ve done that is to ensure that more resources are kept at the parish level while also ensuring that more support services are provided to our congregations. By making the tithe the standard for all of us we actually have reduced expected giving from congregations. When you look at our financial report, you will see that giving from our congregations has actually decreased steadily over each of the last three years. This is all part of the plan to keep more funds at the local level for mission. Even with this planned reduction in percentage giving, I’m pleased to say that in 2012, like every year of my episcopate, the Diocesan budget has ended in the black.

We have also increased the services and support we offer the clergy and congregations of our Diocese. We’re working hard to get every ounce of mission out of the limited resources we have. This comes from a lot of hard work by the amazing people with whom I serve. Frank, Mary, Vicki, Gayle, Rudy, and Libby…thank you.

I believe we’re doing all we can with the resources we now have. That is why our Campaign is so essential. To do the extraordinary, transformational mission we have in front of us, we must have additional resources. And those resources must come without hurting the stewardship of local congregations.

This is all part of our re-imagining the role of bishop and the diocesan staff. The image used to be: the clergy and vestries serve the bishop and diocese and then the bishop represents the diocese to the larger church. We’re trying to turn that upside down so the bishop and his staff exist to serve the clergy and vestries of our congregations.

This is no time for complacency or burying our talents in the ground hoping things will get better without our hard work and sacrificial service. As Canon Logue told you, there are signs of energy and life in all parts of the Diocese. But there are also places where petty bickering remains or complacency controls. When either are present they suck all the energy for mission right out of the church.

While not taking ourselves too seriously, it’s time to get serious about God’s mission. One of my mentors was a Methodist Pastor named Tex Evans. Tex called himself “the biggest liar to ever come out of East Texas.” He never took himself too seriously, but he was always serious about God’s mission. Tex served with the poor of Appalachia for his entire ministry. In the late 60s, he had an epiphany. He saw the horrible poverty among his people in eastern Kentucky. He also knew there were church youth groups across the country full of a desire to serve. So, Tex proposed bringing them together. His vision was to bring these youth to Appalachia so they could repair people’s homes. And they’d pay for the privilege and receive a crash course on the causes of poverty in Appalachia. To do this, Tex needed a base of operations.

So, he asked the Trustees of tiny Union College in Barboursville, Kentucky to let him use their facilities to house the youth groups each summer. They met, the Board heard him out, and then they asked him to wait outside. An hour later, the President of the college came out to tell Tex their decision. He said: “Pastor Evans, the Board talked about this for a long time. We concluded this whole thing was just a bunch of foolishness; that only a fool would do such a thing. And, Pastor Evans, we think you’re just the fool to do it!”

I dream of a Church as foolish as Tex Evans; a church who is unafraid to tell people about the compassion and love of Jesus; and a church then who boldly serves others because of His compassion and love.

Can we let go of what is weighing us down to focus on those two things: telling people about Jesus and then showing them Jesus in how we serve? Can we set aside all our other agendas so together we can live into the simplicity of that mission?

I think we can – for the sake of Jesus, our Lord & Savior.

For it is to that Jesus that we ascribe all honor, power, glory, and might, this day, and forever more.

 

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