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Stirrings of the Spirit in a Time of Adaptive Challenge: Bishop’s Convention Address

Stirrings of the Spirit in a Time of Adaptive Challenge

Diocesan Convention: Bishop’s Address – November 8, 2013


          One of my favorite characters in the theatre (and the role I enjoyed portraying most, at least so far) is Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Nearly fifteen years ago I had the great joy of performing as Tevye in a ten week run at a community dinner theatre in Connecticut. Every Friday and Saturday night I was Tevye. Every Sunday morning I was Father Tom.

          If you are familiar with Fiddler on the Roof, you know that Tevye was challenged (pushed, cajoled, forced?) to look at things in a new ways by his five daughters and the changing realities of the world in which he lived. What I came to appreciate most about Tevye during that run was the way he struggled with his grounding in the traditions of the past and his awareness that something new was emerging that meant he had to “pay attention.”

          To me, everyone of his “on the one hand, and on the other hand” soliloquies expresses so well the tension I feel in myself and in so many of you as I travel and listen to your hopes and dreams, fears and concerns, about the future of your local church, the Episcopal Church in Vermont and even the Christian faith as we know it.

          Routine problem solving for Tevye usually meant doing things the way they had always been done before – “Tradition!” But as life unfolds and changes come to the village of Anatevka, Tevye’s “ways” stop working for him. Throughout the play we encounter Tevye as he “tries on” new ideas, new ways, new concepts, and new “traditions,” even as his three oldest daughters move him further and further away from the customs of his culture and faith by their marriage choices.

          One dramatic instance of this occurs during the wedding celebration for Tzeitel and Motel near the end of Act One. During the dancing, Perchik, the “stranger” in town from Kiev whom Tevye “employs” to teach his daughters, breaks with tradition. He crosses the barrier between the men and women to dance with Tevye’s daughter Hodel, whom he will later marry. Soon, Tevye too, crosses the barrier to dance with his wife, Golde.

Another favorite scene for me comes later when Tevye is sitting with his daughter Hodel waiting for the train that will take her to Siberia where her fiancé Perchik is imprisoned.

          Not sure of what the future holds she says to Tevye, “Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again.” Tevye replies, “then we will leave it in God’s hands.” That awkward and tender moment speaks volumes to me of the awkward yet tender moments we experience ourselves engaging an uncertain future. At the heart of Tevye’s conviction, I find my conviction. God is in the mix!

          To be sure, there is deep struggle in all of this for Tevye, often expressed in his “conversations” with God. At the end of the day, however, it is his love for his daughters, his abiding faith in God and his own mindfulness about the changing times and the reality in which he is living that makes all the difference.

          As the father of two bright, loving and modern daughters, and now as a bishop in the Episcopal Church for over 12 years, I know Tevye’s journey well. It is the journey of adaptive challenge that folks like Ron Heifetz and others write and speak about, work that some of you know well.

          Let me read a bit from a chapter of the book Diagnose the Adaptive Challenge: Understanding the Human Dimensions of Change, by Ron Heifetz and colleagues. See if it doesn’t “ring true” to your experience:

“Adaptive challenges are difficult because their solutions require people to change their ways. Unlike known or routine problem solving for which past ways of thinking and operating are sufficient, adaptive work demands three challenging human tasks: figuring out what to conserve from past practices, figuring out what to discard from past practices, and inventing new ways that build from the best of the past. Your analysis of an adaptive challenge must take into account the human dimensions of the changes required–the human costs, pace of adjustment, tolerance for conflict, uncertainty, and risks, and the resilience of the culture and network of authority and lateral relationships necessary for carrying the organization through the pain of change.

          I think the Episcopal Church, indeed all so called “mainline” Christian denominations, are experiencing a Tevye moment, and it is not a brief moment. It is a watershed moment. And, like Tevye we are challenged to do our adaptive work around those three challenging human tasks: figure out what to conserve from past practices, figure out what to discard from past practices, and invent new ways that build from the best of the past.  


          This adaptive challenge is about our capacity to continue as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, engaged in God’s reconciling mission, amidst the changing realities of the times in which we live. How are our traditions (indeed everything about us) being questioned, and in some cases challenged to speak a word of hope and new life to a world that is so rapidly changing? What does it really mean to have our church sign out there in our neighborhoods saying “The Episcopal Church welcomes you?”       I’ve spent all my life as an Episcopalian, at least so far! I love our church and I love the way it calls us to embrace a faith perspective that invites questions, encourages seekers, reaches out to those in need, offers the best worship in town, speaks out for justice and respects the dignity of every human being.

          I love that we engage the Biblical story deeply, practice a democratic, collaborative polity, and do not shy away from the global, economic, environmental and other justice challenges of our day. When we are at our best, the Episcopal Church offers a welcome to all and a place at the table under a big tent for each and every person. I’m proud to be an Episcopalian. How about you?

          At the same time, I worry about our church, about our future, about who and what we are becoming, about how our voice will continue to speak hope and how our actions will serve God’s mission. And, at times I wonder if I really have the courage of Tevye to struggle with these new realities and find the possibility of something good there.

          When I look for comfort and inspiration in times of change and uncertainty, as I am now, I return again and again to the 16th chapter of the John Gospel, verses 12-13, where we read:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.


          One way to read this passage is to imagine Jesus saying, “Get ready for some adaptive challenges along the way and trust that the Spirit will be there to guide you in that work.”



          The theme of our Convention is “Stirrings of the Spirit.” This theme grows out of the work we have been doing in our diocese over the past several years, with folks like Anthony Robinson, Donald Schell (and I should have mentioned Emily Scott)  and Tom Brackett, who is back for an encore this year with the amazing and gifted Ana Hernandez.  And here it seems like a great time to pause and give thanks to Tom and Ana for their ministry among us this weekend!

          And while we’re at it, how about a shout out for Sean Lanigan, a Candidate for Holy Order from Saint James’, Arlington, who traveled from California to share first hand his experience of emergence and his ministry with Beach Progressives in Long Beach, California.  By the way, as long as Sean is in the neighborhood it seems a good occasion to ordain him as a Transitional Deacon, and we will do that on Sunday at Saint James’, Arlington.

          In addition to engaging with good people like Tom and Ana and Sean, folks in our diocese have been reading and discussing books related to this adaptive challenge. Books like Changing the Conversation, by Anthony Robinson, The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle, and Christianity after Religion by Diana Butler Bass, to name just three.

          At last year’s Convention we passed a resolution launching the Stirrings of the Spirit initiative, which you can read more about in “Turning the Page,” the Narrative Budget publication from Diocesan Council. Tomorrow we’ll hear a report from the Stirrings leadership team. All of this is to say that we have been on this adaptive challenge journey here in Vermont for some time. My hope is that we will continue to deepen our commitment to God’s future emerging in our midst, and that we will trust the Holy Spirit to indeed guide is in this work.

          So with this as our context, along with Tevye and the Holy Spirit as our companions, I want to turn our attention to some of the practical ways in which this theme of adaptive challenge connects to our life as the Episcopal Church in Vermont. Feel free to tweet away!

          Three words frame my continuing remarks: Money, Mission and Motion; words that echo the title of our budget building gathering in Rutland this July. First money: I think we are all familiar with these words from Jesus: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Over the years, Ann and I have really tried to stay true to that connection between our hearts and our money.

          We seek to be good stewards of our finances in keeping with the values and commitments that matter most to us. What I have discovered over the years is that there is great joy in lining up our finances with our hearts. If the work of our lives is somehow an expression of the passion of our hearts then our money is one of the treasures we have, along with our time and talents, by which we give expression to our heart’s desire.

          In 2012 the combined total revenue of all the Episcopal churches in Vermont was $7,701,657, of which the total operating revenue was a combined $5,398,208. When you think about the “budget” of the Episcopal Church in Vermont, I invite you to think in terms of those numbers, not just the $1,090,390 diocesan operating budget upon which we will vote tomorrow. 

          In 2012 the Episcopal Church in Vermont had 7.7 million dollars from personal giving, investments, gifts and grants to use in the service of God’s mission. In 2012, membership in the congregations of our diocese stood at 6,706, with an average Sunday attendance of 2,354. If Jesus is right, and I believe he is, then where and how we spend our treasures – our money, our time and our abilities – will tell the world much about our hearts.

          One place where the connection between heart and money is apparent to me right now in our diocese is the Alleluia Fund; an initiative we inaugurated this year is response to the adaptive challenge of funding our ministry. You can read more about the Alleluia Fund in the Narrative Budget document and go to our website for stories and examples of the Alleluia Fund at work. What delights me is that given the opportunity to make direct gifts in support of ministries about which people in our diocese care deeply, people responded with generosity. Our goal was $60,000 and to date we have received over $68,000 and people continue to give. Thanks to all of you who have contributed.

          During the business session tomorrow you will be asked to support the Diocesan Council’s recommendation of a $75,000 goal for the Alleluia Fund in 2014. Not only do I hope you will vote YES, but I also hope you will leave this Convention with a commitment to support the Alleluia Fund and the ministries it makes possible with your own generous gift, and a willingness to encourage others to align their heart and treasure in support.



          Mission is next: Mission is a huge topic, of course, and often has a direct relationship to our money, as in the case of the Alleluia Fund. You have heard it said in many ways, but it remains a basic conviction of mine that the Church’s only mission is participation in God’s mission. The Five Marks of Mission, widely embraced throughout the Anglican Communion, including The General Convention of our Episcopal Church, offers a helpful framework for describing our participation in the missio dei, that Mission of God. God’s core mission is reconciliation. We rehearse God’s mighty acts in history when we celebrate Eucharist, and there at the center stands the reconciling ministry of Christ crucified and risen.

          The Five Marks of Mission are included in the Narrative Budget document, Turning the Page, but let me name them here:


  1. 1.To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. 2.To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
  3. 3.To respond to human need by loving service
  4. 4.To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
  5. 5.To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.


          In our Narrative Budget, Thom Rock from Saint Mark’s, Newport, the principle author of that document, offers us a useful alliteration for the five Marks of Mission using the letter “T” (for Thom?) that I like a lot: Telling, Teaching, Tending, Transforming and Treasuring:  The five T’s of mission.

          Our ministries in service of God’s mission take place both within our communities of faith, and beyond, as we engage the world. Our ministries are not just confined to what we do “for” the church, but are much more about what we do “as” the church. As members of Christ’s body our mission field is not within our church buildings alone, although they can be very effective centers of mission if we choose to make them so.

          Our primary mission field is God’s mission field – the world. It begins with our own households and moves out from there into our local communities and beyond. Most especially, I believe, we participate in God’s mission by what we do as people of faith in our daily lives and living.

          The collective ministry of the Episcopal Church in Vermont is what its 6,706 members do in and with their daily lives. I wonder if we can re-imagine our ministry as a diocese in this way?

          Some of you know that I am very much taken by the work and writing of Donna Hicks on the subject of dignity. Some of you, including members of the Diocesan Council, have read her book, Dignity. I’m hoping that my sabbatical starting in July of next year will provide an opportunity to delve more deeply into this subject as a key to understanding and practicing the reconciling ministry to which God in Christ calls us. I commend her work to you and invite you to visit to learn more.

          For me, our Vermont church-wide commitments to environmental justice, economic justice and global justice spring forth from the baptismal promises, especially those that call us to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect the dignity of every human being.

          We have some resolutions before us tomorrow that invite us to explore and express our deepening awareness and commitment to God’s mission in these areas. The efforts our Deacons make to keep these matters before us, and the commitment of our Earth Stewards Committee, and the newly formed Economic Justice coalition in our diocese, are all indicators of our continued resolve to make matters of justice important aspects of our ministries in service to God’s mission.

          Motion is next: For me, motion brings us full circle back to the subject of adaptive challenge. To be in motion in the church these days is to find ourselves, like Tevye, deciding which new emerging patterns we will engage. The church of our past is past. We know it, and while many mourn the loss of certain cherished parts of that past, most seem to realize that something new is emerging and something new is being asked of us. What that something is remains uncertain and so we find ourselves in that place of adaptive challenge.

          We experience this institutionally, as we struggle with our organizational systems, our buildings, our budgets and even the future shape of ordained ministry. At a diocesan level and for many congregations, steps have been taken to become more nimble, and we have tried to anticipate what resources the church might need in the future.

          More adaptive work is needed and I am committed to continuing this effort at the diocesan level and with those of you at the local level ready and willing to do the same.

          Culturally, we recognize the church no longer enjoys a place of privilege in our 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. Therefore, our adaptive challenge is to learn what it means to lead from the margins.

          And, we see this “religiously,” when we deal with the place of faith in our post-modern everything world. The rising number of “none’s,” those who claim no religious affiliation, and those who claim to be spiritual but not religious represents a huge changing demographic reality for us.

In Vermont, the largest religious denomination is “none of the above.” For me, to be in motion in this time of adaptive challenge means to be open to new ways of being the church, new ways of bringing the Good News God’s love in Jesus Christ to people, rather than waiting for them to somehow find their way to us. Crossing over this barrier from what is called the “attraction” model of evangelism to a “missionary” model of evangelism challenges us like that wedding barrier challenged Perchik and then Tevye.         One strategy I believe will help us going forward, and I stress that this is but one response to the many adaptive challenges we face, is a more robust communications ministry. Your Diocesan Council has made that a priority for 2014. For over a year now, a dedicated working group has thought about this and planned for the future. Council has embraced their comprehensive communications plan, including the hiring of a part-time communications minister to serve our diocese. A couple of weeks ago we held a strategic communications workshop focused on messaging and audience. We intend that this effort will serve local congregations, as well as our wider diocesan communications needs. I hope this effort will have your support. Keep an eye out for “more to come!”

          Money, Mission and Motion: The challenge with any Convention Address such as this (and this is now my 13th) is to cover lots of ground and keep it to a reasonable length. As I said in my remarks to Diocesan Council in July, it seems to me that 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 believe that is where we are.

          To use the metaphor from the Narrative Budget, I believe we are poised to “turn a page,” not close the book on the Episcopal Church in Vermont. There is so much more I want to say, but time is running short! Before I conclude my Address, let me offer a few words of gratitude. First to the Convention planning team and the Stirrings of the Spirit Leadership Team; Next to the Cathedral and it’s incredible staff for hosting us in this season in which we celebrate the 40th year of the Consecration of this building, give thanks for the Interim ministry of Mark Hatch and look forward to the calling of a new Rector and Dean in early 2014;

          Next to the members of the diocesan Ministry Support Team: Lynn Bates just back from sabbatical; Susan Ohlidal and Angie Emerson, who will enjoy their well earned sabbaticals in the coming months; Elisabeth Allison for her faithful volunteer ministry as our historiographer; our three dedicated temporary employees, Casey, Florence and Donna, who have carried us through this time of office transition with grace, good humor and wonderful skills; and finally Julie Giguere, our Financial Administrator, who is really much more than that, as she celebrates her tenth anniversary this week as a member of the diocesan Ministry Support Team.

          Next, to all who serve on diocesan council, committees, commissions and boards for your faithfulness in our common life and ministry; to our diocesan Companions who provide guidance and support to congregations in clergy transition, and in other aspects of congregational life and development; and finally to each of you for your commitment to our common life and ministry as a diocese.

          You are an integral part in our response to the adaptive challenge of what it means to be a diocese today. I’m counting on you to leave this Convention and tell the members of your congregation what you experienced and learned here this weekend. How else will they know? There are about 200 of you here and some 6,500 other Episcopalians who are not. Promise me you will not keep silent.

          If this Convention, this time in our life as a diocese is about anything, I think it is about how ready, willing and able we are to listen and respond to the Stirrings of the Spirit as we face the adaptive challenges of this particular season in the life of Episcopal Church in Vermont. Everyone matters on this journey. None of us is alone. The new is not optional, and it is yet to be fully discovered and embraced.

          One of the mantras of the Stirrings of the Spirit leadership team I have tried to make my own is “Try it on.” I am convinced that in our openness to the Spirit, we will find many of the things we cherish about our Episcopal Church’s heritage and identity resonating with seekers and skeptics alike. But it will do so in a truly transformative way, only if we are prepared to be transformed ourselves and like Tevye, leave the place of our past comfort and “tradition” and find that new land of God’s homing where the Fiddler will play upon a new roof top. May God bless each of us in this emerging time.


©The Right Reverend Thomas C. Ely, Bishop of Vermont

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