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Bishop Ely’s Address to the 2011 Convention of the Diocese of Vermont

Bishop Ely
Bishop Ely delivers his annual Diocesan Convention address
We’re going to try something a bit different with my Convention Address this morning. I’m going to ask you as table groups to respond to what I share and so make it a group participation event, similar to what we did at the Special Convention in June for those of you who were there. The story of our diocese and the stewardship of our mission and ministry together are not mine alone to tell or to shape. I love this diocese, and I love the story we have shared together these past eleven years. I also cherish the adventure God invites us to experience from this day forward. However, before I say more, let me offer some expressions of gratitude.

We are truly honored this year to have Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies, as our Convention guest, presenter and preacher. Bonnie and I have been colleagues and friends for nearly 30 years. Her life and ministry is a witness to baptismal promises taken seriously by one who understand herself as a member of the Body of Christ living into her ministry every day. As President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie has traveled throughout this Episcopal Church of ours, and beyond, offering her testimony of love, hope, encouragement and challenge to countless numbers of people who see in her a reflection of their own capacity to serve Christ as a minister of the Gospel. Bonnie, you bless us by your presence, and we are encouraged and challenged by your words and witness. Thank you so much.

Next, I especially want to express thanks to someone who is not even here today – Jim Larkin. From the time Vermont Episcopalians stepped foot off Noah’s Ark (or so it seems) Jim has been the faithful and trusted Secretary of our Diocesan Convention and Chair of the Committee on the Dispatch of Business – the only one during my episcopate up to this point. Jim arranged everything we are experiencing this weekend. As I speak he and Polly are travelling in Arizona, visiting and having a good time. During our business session we will consider a resolution thanking Jim for his ministry, but let’s also do that right now and hope that both Jim and Polly “feel the love” in our hearts for all they mean to us and to our common life as a diocese. (Invite applause)

Let me also take a minute to convey thanks to several others. First to the other members of the Dispatch of Business Committee (Sarah, Lynn, Craig, Linda and Laura); to Neal Robinson, who will officially step into the ministry of Secretary of Convention today; to the members of the diocesan Ministry Support Team (Lynn, Julie, Susan, Angie, Linny, Anne, Josh, Iris and Elizabeth, along with Patrick who has moved on to other work), all of whom do so much on our behalf throughout the year; to Susan Dedell for her music leadership this weekend and to the choir; to Mark Kalbfleisch and his crew for our excellent A/V setup; to the many volunteers from congregations in the “southern tier” of our diocese; to all our workshop leaders, both yesterday and at the Ministry Fairs; and finally to the staff of the Grand Summit Hotel, who have extended such wonderful hospitality to us. Please join me in thanking them all. (Invite Applause)

And thanks to each one of you, for your participation in the ministry of this Convention and what it means for the future of our diocese. I hope that you will share with the people of your local church what you are learning and experiencing here this weekend. Your personal witness does more than all the words, articles, or emails that anyone from the diocesan office (including the bishop) might say or send in helping build up an increased awareness of, and connection to, our common life and ministry as a diocese.

And that, dear friends in Christ, leads me directly to my invitation for your active participation in this Convention Address. Here is my plan. After sharing some thoughts of mine that I intend as “seeds” for your table conversations, I will invite you to focus on one or two particular questions. You will have about 35 to 40 minutes for your table conversation. I am also asking each table group to write down a “tweet,” – a statement of about 140 characters that captures some element of your table conversation. We will collect these “tweets” and offer them throughout the day as part of our Convention agenda. Your table tweet doesn’t have to be a summary of everything you talk about, but something you think the rest of us would benefit from hearing as a result of your conversation. If you have other notes to share from your conversation, I welcome them as well. Just write them down and pass them in with your “tweet.” Quite frankly, and with due respect to other matters, I think this is the most significant “business” of our Convention today! It continues the conversation from last June about the future of OUR diocese – a conversation that involved many, but certainly not all of you.

When we gathered for that Special Convention in June to consider the report from Christine Graham and our Capital Campaign Discernment Committee, we reached the conclusion that we still had work to do before launching any major fund raising effort. I accept that and value the wisdom in our community that expressed itself through that report. I also heard in our June conversation an expressed desire for a deeper sense of connection in our life and ministry together as a diocese. Via the resolution we adopted, we pledged at that Special Convention, to work together to address the concerns raised in that report and in our conversation that day. This will be an important part of the work of the new Diocesan Council. Today I remind all of us that it is only through our work together that things will change. Part of my contribution to that work is to help us see the connections we already have and build upon those strengths.

As bishop, I have the incredible privilege of “connecting” with people throughout our diocese on a regular basis. For me, there is a richness to our diocesan life together that I see in the course of our Convention, Ministry Fairs, the Ministry Expo, Vestry trainings conducted via Vermont Interactive Television, our work with Partners for Sacred Places, the many diocesan committee and commission meetings I attend and, of course, during my Sunday visitations.

I experience the vibrancy of our life together as a diocese when I visit with the campers and preside at the Eucharist during the Rock Point Summer Camps, or when I attend events such as the one in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, honoring the witness of Jonathan Daniels and Ruby Sales. I witness the depth of our life together when I enter the prison in Springfield, or preside at a nursing home liturgy in Saint Johnsbury, or visit with hospital volunteers in Randolph, or visit a dying Senior Warden in Bellows Falls, or share in a music and liturgy festival in Woodstock. The list goes on and thank God for all those opportunities!

And when Irene blew into town, the strength of our life together became dramatically clearer to me! Like nothing most of us ever experienced before, we suddenly found our state and our diocese in the middle of a disaster zone. Lives, homes and businesses were destroyed; property washed down our rivers and streams while people were forced to stand helplessly by and just watch; powerful floods damaged hundreds of roads and bridges; communities were cut off; people were isolated; electric power was out for days; and we the feature story all over the national and international news: The storm of the century ripping though the Green Mountain State, causing the devastating forces of flood waters to rage through our communities!

And there in the midst of all the chaos, confusion, concern and crisis the Episcopal Church in Vermont took its place, along with others; offering comfort, care, compassion and consolation from day one onward – and we haven’t stopped yet! As needs became known, the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont jumped into action and before we knew it we were connecting with one another and responding to the cries of various people and communities throughout Vermont like a well oiled machine.

Freeway relays and teleconferences, creative solutions and good old grunt work on the ground, generous donations and prayers without ceasing were all part of our response. Even the members of our two congregations who suffered significant damage to their church buildings were on the front lines offering relief to others in their communities. It was and is remarkable!

“This,” as the good folks from Episcopal Relief and Development proclaimed after spending a week with us, “is a diocese with a heart!” As best I can tell, every congregation, every community of faith represented in this room today, is part of that generous heart reaching out in love. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” With God’s help, we did and are continuing to do so.

No doubt about it, we have been stretched by the challenge of Irene, in some cases perhaps too far. Still it is that generous heart for love and ministry that I celebrate today. It is that generous heart for love and ministry that I see so often in my ministry among you. It is that generous heart for love and ministry that gives me hope for the future of our diocese, even as we face difficult, challenging and changing times. If we can respond to the needs, challenges and changes Irene brought our way, than surely we can respond to the other needs, challenges and changes facing our congregations and diocese with similar resolve.

Katharine Ragsdale, the new President and Dean of Episcopal Divinity School, where I serve as a Trustee, recently addressed the Board of Trustees and used an illustration from her training as a pilot to help us think about what is needed as we face change and challenge at the Seminary. She said that when pilots train to deal with anxiety in an emergency situation, they practice NOT reverting to the natural tendency people have of “tunnel vision” when facing a crisis. That’s the tendency to focus on only one solution to the problem or challenge. With Tunnel Vision one’s vision is virtually limited, as in seeing only your own point of view because you’re concentrating on a single idea or opinion to the exclusion of others. Pilots practice avoiding tunnel vision in the cockpit by intentionally expanding their awareness. Their eyes move from one instrument to another and they simply don’t allow their vision to be compromised.

Easier said than done, I say. And so did she! What Dean Ragsdale was trying to say to us Trustees, I believe, is that our stewardship of the Episcopal Divinity School requires leaders who will not allow their vision to be compromised when facing crisis or challenge or changing circumstances. Focusing on our anxiety about “too little money,” for instance, compromises our vision and limits our creativity. Tunnel vision serves no one well, least of all the future that has been entrusted to our care. I think Anthony Robinson called on us to expand our vision, to look at all the possibilities with regard to that same future, to that same ministry of leadership, when he spoke to us last Spring.

There is favorite story of mine that some of you have heard since I’ve been including it in recent sermons. It goes like this. One evening an old Cherokee chief told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves. One is Evil. It is filled with anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.” “The other is Good. It is filled with joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”

That story has prompted me to ask, “In this diocese which wolf do we feed?” Do we feed the wolf of scarcity, uncertainty, doubt worry and fear? Or do we feed the wolf of abundance, confidence, faith, possibility and hope? Is our stewardship mantra “let me give what I can spare,” or is our stewardship mantra “let me give in grateful response for all God has given me?” Is our life in Christ considered an obligation or a blessing? Is our ministry focused on what is “expected,” or is it focused on what is “needed?” Is the expression of our faith a spiritual life insurance policy, or is it a joyous response to God’s unconditional love? Are we “all in,” or are we holding back?

The theme of our Convention is “I love to tell the story.” The story, of course, is the Good News story of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, telling the story prompts us to live the story. Day in and day out I see evidence of that desire and capacity to live the story of God’s unconditional love.  I have witnessed your hunger to bring that Good News of God’s reconciling grace and joy to the world around us. That is the Diocese of Vermont I love and long to continue serving.

At times, however, I have also witnessed in us a fear, an apprehension, a caution, that I believe holds us back from truly being all that God is calling us to be. I am quite prepared to accept the reality that I may not have led us these past eleven years in ways that brought out the best in us.
I also invite you to reflect on how our ties to the past, how our comfort at the way we’ve always done things, how our patterns of “life in the church” have perhaps compromised our capacity to explore new expressions of church, new expressions of ministry, new expressions of faithful response to our baptismal promises in a post-modern, post-Christian world.

Bucking that natural reluctance to embrace the future and its challenges, some innovative thinking and some responsive action is emerging within our life as the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. Let me identify four specifically.

First, I continue to believe that environmental stewardship is among the most important ministries of our time and one we need to embrace more fully as a diocese. I value so much the work of our Earth Stewards Committee and their continuing witness and challenge to us. I delight that the Rock Point Board, in collaboration with Rock Point School, has taken up the mantle I laid down in my 2008 Convention Address for Rock Point to become a model of environmental sustainability for our whole diocese. Even as we speak, a 150 kilowatt solar installation is being assembled on the Rock Point property. This project will provide one half of all our electric needs on Rock Point and is the largest solar installation on any religious property in Vermont. Along with our commitment to energy conservation and efficiency, this solar installation will serve as a model and, I hope, an inspiration to other faith communities to turn words into actions.

Second, during this past year we have adopted new approaches to communication in our diocese. Our new web site offers incredible opportunities for us, and my hope is that we will take full advantage of those opportunities. Sadly, our Web designer was one of the many people in Vermont who lost her home to Irene. That set us back a bit. We pray that Lo and her family recover soon from their loss. In the meantime we continue to make advances with the communication resources of our new web site.

Other changes in our communications ministry this coming year will challenge us, as well. A decision based mostly on the stewardship of our finances, means we will no longer print the Mountain Echo as a newspaper. This award winning publication has been a mainstay of our diocesan life for a very long time. We will need to find added electronic ways to bring the substance of that communication resource to the people of our diocese. The Mountain E-News is one source, but it cannot be our only source. Anne Brown is giving this changing reality her full attention and we welcome your thoughts and help.

Third, ever since our Diocesan Convention last November and Anthony Robinson’s visit in June, many congregations have been exploring new expressions in their worship and in the ways they reach out to those “spiritual seekers” we hear so much about. I delight in these developments. Some will succeed. Some will fall flat. Some will adjust many times before finding their stride.  Please pray for these efforts and those involved.

Fourth, in 2011 we tried a new approach to increase our diocesan budget income. The launch of the first Annual Appeal was a success in my opinion, even though we did not meet our ambitious goal of raising $100,000. Folks we talked with before launching this effort told us that for an organization our size we would be fortunate to reach a goal of $20,000 in the first year. As of today, we have received gifts and pledges to the Annual Appeal totaling nearly $52,000, from 216 donors. We probably would have done even better if it were not for tropical storm Irene, after which we stopped efforts to solicit funds for the Annual Appeal and encouraged contributions for our relief efforts.

In 2012 our effort to raise revenues through the Diocesan Annual Appeal will continue, and I hope you will respond generously again. In 2012 we will also try our hand at FUNdraising! The idea is to hold a FUN event that draws us together, builds our connections and fellowship, and at the same time produces some income for our diocesan mission and ministry. The day to save in your calendar is September 15, 2012. The place to be is the Basin Harbor Resort in Vergennes. The event will be an awesome golf tournament and family fun day at this scenic Vermont Resort.

There is no doubt about it; our diocesan budget presents us with a huge challenge. Our commitment to pay our full asking toward the General Convention budget of The Episcopal Church is a priority. So too is funding the diocesan Ministry Support Team, which has been significantly reduced over the course of the past couple of years.

In light of reduced revenues from congregations and other sources, the Diocesan Council faced some difficult choices. One of the principles applied to our deliberations is the principle of subsidiarity; that is the organizing principle which dictates that matters ought to be handled by the least centralized competent authority. I don’t know that we did that perfectly in this year’s budget, but I do know we tried to find an appropriate balance between local and diocesan ministries. For instance, we encourage all outreach efforts – local and global – to have some direct connection to and involvement from a local congregation, and that any diocesan funds for these ministries be allocated as matching funds to support local initiatives. We’ll see how that goes.

Please take note that this decision in no way reduces our commitment to global mission and the priority expressed in the Diocesan Strategic Plan that each congregation engage directly in one or more global mission initiatives. Our offering today for the rebuilding of Haiti is but one example of that continuing commitment.

All of which brings me back to you, to the people and congregations who ARE the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. If you think there is such a thing as the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont apart from the people and congregations represented in this room then please call my new Executive Assistant, Linny Curtis, and request an appointment so we can discuss this understanding face to face! I am absolutely serious. Either WE ARE the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, or there is NO Episcopal Diocese of Vermont!

The next chapter of our story as the Diocese of Vermont is yet to be written. It is beginning to be written even as I speak and as you will speak in just a minute. Tropical storm Irene and our response is a huge part of that story. I believe Irene has taught us and continues to teach us about ourselves and our passion for ministry as a diocese, and our commitment to serve those in need when we are clear about what those needs are.

I don’t know what all those lessons are, but I do believe that if we are faithful in our life and work together we will uncover them. Prayer, worship, formation and service are all vital parts of this life together, as we acknowledge in our Diocesan Mission Statement: Pray the prayer of Christ, learn the mind of Christ and do the deeds of Christ.

Therefore, the question for you at your tables is this: What are we learning about ourselves and God’s call to us in these post-Irene days and what might it mean for the stewardship of our mission as a diocese?  Asked in another way, “What is required of the church, the Body of Christ, in a rapidly changing world?”
So, for the next 35 to 40 minutes it is time to talk at your tables. Please do your best to keep notes of your conversation so that the rest of us might benefit from your discussion, and end by writing a 140 character “tweet” that gives us a glimpse into the wisdom of your table conversation (nobody is going to count the actual characters). I’ll alert you when there are 10 minutes to go. The questions are on the screen. And Thanks!

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