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Turning the Page: Remarks to Diocesan Council by the Bishop

Turning the Page: Remarks to Diocesan Council by the Bishop

Bishop’s Remarks as part of the Diocesan Council Budget Conversation on 7-27-13

(These remarks were prepared in advance of the July 27th Diocesan Council meeting and offered as a preface to our conversation around the first draft of the 2014 Diocesan Budget, prepared by the Budget and Finance Committee. At the request of several people, they are being shared more widely here.)

Today we engage a conversation of tremendous importance in the life of the Episcopal Church in Vermont. At one level, it might be easy to frame this conversation as a budget conversation and decide how much money we think we will have next year and how we plan to spend it. At a deeper level it is a conversation that invites us to look at what it means to be “turning a page” in the life of our Diocese as we seek to respond faithfully to God’s invitation to participate in God’s mission in the world. 

The reality is that we have been turning pages for the last several years as we have tried to engage the conversation about the future of the church and in particular the future of the Episcopal Church in Vermont. We have taken steps to become a more nimble organization and we have tried to learn more about and anticipate what the future of the church might look like and need in terms of resources at a diocesan level. We have considered our relationship to the wider Episcopal Church and we have been mindful of the tension and reality that exists in the life of our local faith communities and their relationship with the wider church. We have paid attention to those who say we need to build stronger connections and we have tried to tell and live the story of the many wonderful ways in which the Episcopal Church in Vermont is being faithful in its mission.

In many ways we are at an important time of transition in the life of the Episcopal Church in Vermont. I have served as your bishop for over 12 years now, and while I have no immediate intention to step away from this ministry, I am mindful that sometime down the road I will. As a good Eagle Scout, I have always subscribed to the notion that it is important to leave the campground in better shape than when you arrived. I’m not sure that “better” is the appropriate word to use in this context, unless by that we mean being ready to face the next chapter with confidence and having the resources in place to do so. 

More and more, I am coming to embrace this time as a time of crisis. I like the definition of the word “Crisis” that says “crisis is as a crucial stage or turning point in the course of something, especially in a sequence of events or a disease.” I think that is where we are. We are poised to turn a page, not close the book on the Episcopal Church in Vermont and my challenge to Council is “are you ready to lead that effort?”

The truth is that many of our congregations are in crisis (some would say trouble), especially if we understand that to mean a crucial turning point. Some will decide to stay the course and some will likely close, having run their course with faithfulness. We need to keep providing support as they travel this course. Some congregations will thrive, for various reasons and because of various circumstances and realities. Some have the money and momentum they need to continue the course they are on. Some are adapting to changing times, embracing new models of leadership and mission. Some are reimagining the use of their buildings and reimagining their mission for a changing world. Some are connecting more deeply with their local community and finding partners for mission and ministry in that enterprise. Some are experimenting with new ideas and approaches. Some are determining that they need and want to continue to rely upon that which has served them well in the past. In addition, I am aware of a certain reality in our current circumstance that suggests there is a growing gap between rich and poor congregations. I simply name that and invite you to consider what it might mean if that is true.

As we live in the midst of this changing time and the changing realities of the world in which we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, it strikes me that we must learn what it means to lead from the margins. The church no longer enjoys a place of privilege in our U.S. society. We are not the center of things as we once were. We are not looked to for leadership and direction in the way we once were. We are not respected in the way we once were. We are not as influential as we once were. And at the same time I think our voice and perspective in the public square is needed MORE now than ever before.

The Episcopal Church in Vermont is trying to respond to the changing realities and circumstances in a proactive way. We have brought leaders and resources to our diocese to help us think about all this (Anthony Robinson, Emily Scott, Tom Brackett, Donald Schell). We need to continue that commitment and trust the creative power of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, indeed into a deeper understanding of God’s call to us to serve God’s mission in the world.

We have embarked on several key initiatives to try and keep us turning the page in terms of our mission and ministry. In 2013, the Alleluia Fund has been a tremendous success, and its continued success depends on the leadership of this Council and the willingness of the ministries being supported by the Alleluia Fund to step up to the work of building on our initial success and sharing the compelling stories of ministries made possible by and through the Alleluia Fund. Part of the challenge is to garner the support of those who voted to move us in this direction. It is a stunning (and perplexing) fact that less than 20% of the delegates to Diocesan Convention have made a gift to the Alleluia Fund! And less than 50% of the clergy of our Diocese have made a gift!

We have also initiated Stirrings of the Spirit. This initiative did not emerge in a vacuum, but as a result of efforts over the last several years to engage Vermont Episcopalians in the renewal and Fresh Expressions of Ministry movement going on in the world-wide church. We are one of the few rural dioceses in the Episcopal Church trying to understand and learn what it means to be church in the 21st century from this perspective. Stirrings of the Spirit is an innovative, risky and unchartered direction for our diocese. Some want the plan in place before committing resources. Some want the outcomes assured before signing on. Some want a clear sense of the direction in which we are going before saying okay. Some are prepared to trust that this effort is of the Spirit and we cannot control nor direct it with much precision. Where are you?

A third initiative we are struggling with is how to make our communications ministry more effective. A committed group of leaders has spent the better part of a year thinking and imagining how best to “Tell our Story.” You have before you later today the fruit of their work and their recommendations. Part of the challenge is that what they propose puts our operating budget out of balance. The invitation here is to figure out what this means in terms of turning the page for our life and work as a diocese.

Let me end this reflection by naming a few of the other things I think we need to keep in mind as we consider the way we fund our mission.

1.The current diocesan budget commits over $75,000 to support the Property Manager (salary, benefits, housing, and utilities) at Rock Point. In part, this is necessary because there are not sufficient endowment funds to support Rock Point. As our operating budget has been reduced, the percentage of this support has increased. What does this mean for us?

2.The Diocesan Ministry Support Team is in flux. Still, in the course of my Episcopate, the number of FTE members of the dMST has been reduced from 8.5 FTE to 7.0 FTE, and that includes the bishop. Part of what we need to decide is what is the appropriate level of diocesan support personell we need in this time of transition and in this time in which the demands upon the dMST are increasing

3.Communication is the key to connection and we continue to say that connection is something we need to improve (Capital Campaign Feasibility Study). What are we willing to invest in order to make our sense of diocesan connection stronger?

4.How are we being called to imaging what it means to be “diocese” in a new way? This is a complex question and if we are intent upon answering it there needs to be a commitment to engage the hard questions about the way we do things now. Who will do this work for us? Are we open to the conversation and willing to do the hard work of looking at ourselves and our current practices? Are we prepared to have someone from “outside” our system look at us and make recommendations

5.Finally, what is the prospect of a Capital Campaign for the Diocese of Vermont? Do we need one? Are we willing to risk one? Are we willing to engage in one? If we don’t before the end of my Episcopacy, then it will likely be another 3-5 years after a new bishop is in place before the diocese will be able/ready to conduct a Capital Campaign.

As we think about the pages we are turning, or have the possibility of turning, I want to remind Council that you are the leadership body in which these decisions rest. The budget, the Alleluia Fund, the funding for Strings of the Spirit, a Capital Campaign; these and so much more are your responsibility. You are called and elected to lead. You are called and elected to sort through the challenges and realities of what it means to think about the future and plan for our best efforts to respond to what and who God is calling us to be in the years ahead.

My hope is that our conversation today will give direction and purpose to our call. Some important and challenging questions are going to be asked along the way. In particular, I have asked members of the dMST (Susan and Angie) to ask those hard questions. The hope is that at the end of the day the Council will give the Budget and Finance committee a sense of your priorities, values, vision and commitments for our diocese so that they might bring back to us in September a budget and funding strategy that serves that mission to which we believe God is calling us.

Thomas C. Ely

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