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Address to Special Diocesan Convention

Ely, Special ConventionWe gather today for a sacred conversation: A sacred conversation about our common life and ministry as God’s people called to participate in God’s reconciling mission in a rapidly changing world and church. Our context is the 21st century, post-modern, post-Christian environment in which the “church as many of us have known it” is no longer the church we are, or the church we are becoming, and we are not so sure of what that all means! The particular and important topic that brings us together this day is the Capital Campaign discernment process in which we have been actively engaged for the past 18 months. But make no mistake about it; this is really a conversation about our future: our future as a diocese; our future as congregations; our future as disciples of Jesus Christ participating in God’s reconciling mission in the world.

As we engage this conversation, I am most grateful for the presence and ministry among us this weekend of Anthony Robinson. Many of us have read and are reading Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations, in which Anthony Robinson invites faith communities to engage a series of ten conversations aimed at moving the church beyond our ensnarement in what he refers to as the increasingly pronounced “polarizing social script by which our society understands itself” to a “new reality that transcends old polarities.”

His “shared conversational” approach is in many ways, in and of itself, a “new way” of being church, holding as it does the possibility of our personal and ecclesial transformation for faithful participation in the “new thing” that God is doing in our midst. I hope that model of deep and reflective listening will mark our conversation today, as we take stock of where we are and where we think God is calling us as the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Vermont – not just about money, but about mission.

I am well aware that part of the “sea change” we are experiencing (to use Anthony Robinson’s metaphor) is the waning of denominational identity (brand loyalty, if you will). In my mind, that presents an opportunity for us to redefine ourselves, our purpose and our way of being in relationship as congregations and as diocese to better serve the mission of God to which we have been summoned and for which we have been commissioned in baptism.

Because I want us to have as much time as possible to engage in conversation around the report and recommendations growing out of our Capital Campaign discernment process, my remarks today will be brief. Today is a day for deep listening to one another and prayerful discernment of the Spirit’s urgings among us as a community of faith.

That said, I do want to offer some expressions of gratitude and highlight a few things related to our common life as a diocese before we get to that conversation. First of all, I want to thank you – clergy and lay delegates, and others who are here, for making the commitment of time, preparation and participation in this process and for this day. Who knew that when we set the date for this Special Convention some nine months ago, that today would be one of the first warm, beautiful Saturdays in our calendar? Thank you for being here.

Second, I invite you to join me in expressing gratitude to those who have worked hard to bring us to this point in our discernment regarding the prospect of a Capital Campaign for our Diocese. In particular, let me mention by name the members of the Capital Campaign Discernment Committee (all of whom I think are here today, with the exception of Angie Emerson who is presiding at a meeting of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship) and ask them to stand so that we can thank them as a group: Beau Bowler, Laurel Broughton, Wayne Cooke, Reid Farrell, Amy Hastings, Pete Kelsey, Mary Mansfield, Ned McElroy, Brett Murphy, Jenny Ockert, – and Peter Galbraith and Jamie Hastings, who served as co-chairs of the committee.

Let me also introduce Christine Graham who has served as our Consultant throughout this proces [and also Amy Hill (from St.Mark’s, Springfield) who handled all the scheduling of appointments for Christine (Amy?).] Gratitude is also extended to the various stakeholder groups who participated in the shaping of the Preliminary Case Statement that formed the basis for the Feasibility Study. This includes the members of the Rock Point Board, the Earth Stewards Committee, the folks from Church of our Saviour and Mission Farm in Killington, those who served on the ad-hoc group around the topic of Spiritual Formation and those who worked on the communications section. Their combined contributions represent the involvement of more than 40 members of our Diocese. Thank you!

Appreciation is also extended to the 43 people who were interviewed by Christine Graham as part of the Feasibility Study this spring and the clergy who participated in group conversations with Christine. Thank you for reading, reflecting and offering your candid comments on the Case Statement. While some of the feedback might have been difficult to hear, it was nonetheless helpful as part of our effort to bring many voices, perspectives and “fingerprints” to this important work, and we thank you! Today we add the voices in this room to that discernment.

Finally, please join me in expressing thanks to the members of the diocesan Ministry Support Team, the Cathedral Staff and volunteers, the Dispatch of Business Committee, the musicians, worship leaders and our Table Facilitators for all the many ways in which their various ministries have contributed to and supported this gathering today and the overall Capital Campaign Discernment process.

When you add up all these efforts, all these people, pause and take time to name them and give thanks to God for them, it helps remind us (or at least it does me) of the rich array of gifted and talented people we have here in the Diocese of Vermont. That perspective on our diocesan common life and ministry is one that most of you don’t always get to see, but it is the view that I am blessed to see day after day, and honored to name in my ministry as your bishop. For me, along with the other members of the diocesan Ministry Support Team, it is a great privilege to see and experience the connections between and among us and to name them as part of what it means to be “The Diocese.” Perhaps our greatest shortcoming is not naming it for what it is often enough.

Shortly, we will hear from the Capital Campaign Discernment Committee and engage in conversation about certain aspects of the Capital Campaign Feasibility Study Report. That report names three primary concerns expressed by the majority of interviewees. Quoting directly from the report:

“Vermont Episcopalians today are more committed to, and more worried about, their local churches where budgets, building needs and declining membership are threatening their future.”

“While the five components of the Immediate Needs phase are real and powerful issues in the Diocese, there is not enough agreement about priorities, not enough specificity on spending campaign funds, and not enough certainty that fulfilling these Needs could change the future of the Church.”

“Vermont Episcopalians do not feel connected enough to the Diocese to invest significant amounts of their time, money and effort in a campaign for the Diocese at this point.”

It seems to me that all three of those concerns, to the degree to which they are true, (and that is part of our consideration today) describe something of a “disconnect” in how we understand and relate to one another as “Diocese,” and perhaps they even raise the question of confidence with regard to whether “we” as the Diocese can help solve the extraordinary challenges we are facing, or not.

When you sit in my chair it seems very obvious that there is no way to accurately describe the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont apart from its members and local congregations working faithfully and “together” (even when you don’t name it that way) in service to God’s reconciling mission in the world. And yet it seems that this way of seeing and describing our life and ministry is not what many mean when they use the term “The Diocese.” If it is true that “Vermont Episcopalians do not feel connected enough TO the Diocese” then I think what is also being said is that “Vermont Episcopalians do not feel connected enough AS the Diocese.”

I think that in many ways the all too commonplace “we/they” framing of the relationship between the local and more than local expression of church in our Episcopal Church polity is one of those expressions of the “polarizing social script” that Anthony Robinson points to as part of our modern day ensnarement. I hope we will talk openly and honestly with one another about this dynamic in our sacred conversations today and beyond today.

Before we get to those conversations, let me take note of three positive and significant things related to our common life and ministry as a Diocese.

First is the Annual Appeal. As you all know, part of our 2011 Diocesan Budget process includes an appeal to all members of our diocese, inviting financial gifts to help fund the mission we voted to embrace at Convention. The goal of this Annual Appeal is $100,000. The “leadership” phase of that effort was completed in May and we have just sent out the “general” appeal to an additional 3,000+ households, members and friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. I am pleased to make this progress report. As of yesterday the generous response from the nearly 150 gifts and pledges received so far totals just over $45,000. Thank you to everyone in this room who has made a gift or pledge. If you have not yet done so, I invite you to add your support and to encourage members of your congregation to do the same. Gifts have ranged from $20 to $4,000, so there is a place for everyone in this effort!

Second, you are also aware that the wider Episcopal Church is engaged in one of our most ambitious fund raising efforts ever – a 10 million dollar campaign to help rebuild the church in the Diocese of Haiti (largest diocese in TEC), following the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010. Our Diocesan Council here in Vermont set our diocesan-wide goal at $75,000 to be raised prior to our Diocesan Convention this coming November.

Bonnie Anderson, President of the General Convention House of Deputies, will be with us as our Convention speaker and preacher in November and we will present her with our offering toward this effort during the Convention Eucharist. Many congregations are already engaged in this effort and all funds raised this year, even if they have already been sent in, will count toward our goal. There are ample resources to assist our efforts and our diocesan Global Reconciliation Committee is coordinating our response. If you have not already done so, please engage your local church in this campaign. Brick by brick the church in Haiti is being rebuilt.

My third and final item is a progress report on the launching of our new diocesan web site. We have engaged North 100 Design, from Moretown, Vermont to design and help us launch our new web site. The effort is well under way and we continue to look to Pentecost as our target date for introducing the new web site – actually the Monday after Pentecost, or maybe Tuesday!

Whatever day it happens that week, I think you will like what you will see and experience as we make this huge leap in our communications ministry. Even after we launch the new site it will take a while to migrate all the information from our current web site and to have all features fully up and running, but I am excited about this long overdue project and the possibilities it opens for us. This year, the season of the Spirit takes on added significance with this new tool for communication.

Let me end with this thought. When I realized that this special Convention coincided with the start of the Burlington Jazz Fest, I knew that I wanted Jazz music to be part of this day. I think that Jazz as a metaphor for the way we think about our life as church is an especially apt one. I don’t profess to be an expert on Jazz and plenty of people before me have written volumes about Jazz as a metaphor, so I’m not going to press this too far. I simply want to say that the Jazz music we heard today reminds me that the beauty and gift of Jazz is crafted by the capacity of the musicians to improvise within a structure. One brief and probably inadequate definition is that “Jazz is a dynamic and improvised musical collaboration between individuals of a group within a musical context and tradition. The outcome, the product is something that no individual performer or composer could have created alone.”

And so, with that thought before us, I thank you once again for you presence here today and I invite us to make some beautiful music together today, and beyond.

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