Last month, Bishop Rob Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta asked a group of more than 40 leaders gathered on Zoom a provocative question: Why does the Diocese of Vermont exist?
Wright wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown had invited him to lead a meeting of diocesan leaders she titled the “All On the Same Page Retreat,” and Wright was exhorting those leaders to gain the kind of clarity about the church’s purpose that he says is essential to surviving and thriving in the post-COVID world.
“This is the opportunity COVID is providing for us. It is decimating us in so many ways. It is forcing us back down to the meat and potatoes. Why do you exist? Why should anyone give you any money?” he said.
To gain this clarity, Wright says, leaders need to pray. “Prayer is one of those places we go to get on the same page with God,” he said. “When was the last time you heard from headquarters? The church is one of the safest places to hide from God.”
The group, which included members of the diocesan governing bodies, the Anti-racism Action Team, the Restart Taskforce, and the bishop’s staff, together with representatives of the cathedral, Rock Point Commons, Brookhaven, Rock Point School and Mission Farm, responded to his challenge enthusiastically. When Wright closed his keynote presentation by asking, “What needs to happen in the Diocese of Vermont for it to thrive? On the way to thriving, what do you need to put down? What do you need to take up?” each diocesan leadership body gathered in a breakout room to formulate its answers.
“Our church buildings are part of Vermont,” said Sarah Cowan, a trustee of the diocese, who reported on her group’s discussion. “Vermont is about church steeples and about our quaint buildings, but we need to look at these buildings more comprehensively and more broadly … most likely in partnership. Are there entities or organizations we can partner with? It’s about transformation of our buildings.”
The Commission on Ministry, the group that assists the bishop with the ordination process, wondered how the people of the diocese can become more open to each other across regional divisions. “We need to redo our regional groups, our mission districts, so that they’re vital and powerful and can work well together,” said the Rev. Stan Baker, a deacon at the Cathedral of St. Paul. “We also talked a lot about coming together, having regional mission groups, ministry groups, and regional churches so we can survive in the constellations that Bishop Shannon has been talking about.”
The Very Rev. Greta Getlein dean of the cathedral, reported for a group that included Bishop Wright and leaders of institutions in the diocese. She said their discussion touched on the importance of embracing experimentation, and perhaps even failure, as ways to learn. Wright challenged the group to think about the state of Vermont’s particular charism of care of creation and nature, and suggested that leaders consider how they can “minister into and with that, rather than creating our own charism.”
As the retreat ended, Wright urged those assembled to “continue this notion of focus,” committing to regular stakeholder meetings “that will give birth to something.”
“How do we increase the celebrity of Jesus Christ in Vermont?” he asked.
In the wake of the retreat, Bishop Shannon has asked diocesan leaders to volunteer for several committees that will address vestry training, stewardship and development, and congregational mission and clergy compensation, among other projects. Another leadership retreat is planned for this summer.