On Our Watch (sermon for the House of Bishops)

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”    

John 3:1-17

Primero, quisiera saludar a mis compañeros que hablan el idioma del cielo. Pero porque todavía estamos en la tierra, voy a predicar en inglés.

Allow me to say hello from here to those I’ve not yet had a chance to greet personally at this meeting, and add my word of welcome those who are new among us. I’d also like to acknowledge with gratitude those who travel the greatest distances, geographically and culturally, to part of this community and all those whose leadership is at the margins of the church. Thank you for all that you do in faithfulness to Christ and in our name. Finally, heartfelt thanks to all who give so freely of your time and gifts to support us as bishops. We couldn’t do this work without you.  

For me, being at the House of Bishops is a bit like putting my canoe into a fast moving stream twice a year with 200 other people, many who are up ahead and have been in the water for a long time, and others who entered the same time as I. As the current takes us along, others join in. We’re each in our own canoe, paddling as best we can; yet we’re in the stream together, navigating its waters. The stream, important as it is, is but one of many that comprise our respective vocations. Good work happens here, not for its own sake, but in service to the places our vocations find greatest expression and for the good of the whole. It’s a gift to be reminded that we are part of a larger body and that we’re not alone.

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I received the invitation to preach today on the theme “Reconciling Leaders: Bishops in the Jesus Movement,” on January 19th, the day before the presidential inauguration. I wasn’t feeling much like a reconciler that day.

Back in November, I had stated publicly that I would take President-elect Trump’s call to unify the nation to heart, and that, if asked, we at Washington National Cathedral would host an inaugural prayer service, as has been our custom. A few days later, the dean received an invitation from the chair of the inaugural committee for the cathedral choristers to sing at the inauguration itself. The dean called me, and after consulting with the Cathedral leadership, we chose to accept that invitation as well. We did so in the same spirit of hospitality, extended and received, with a desire to witness to that which unifies even a divided country.    

As the inauguration drew nearer, hundreds of people from both within the diocese I serve and most of yours reached out to me and the cathedral leadership. There were a number of social media campaigns organized to pressure us to call off the choir’s singing, especially, as it was in the minds of many, understandably so, a legitimization of all that President Trump stands for that we as a church do not. Many people who had once considered me an ally in the work of justice felt betrayed, and this was particularly true among all the historically excluded groups we’ve been considering in this meeting. They were, in their words, dismayed, angered, disappointed, outraged by my leadership or lack thereof. Several people told me that I was responsible for driving millennials out of the church. One psychologist, observing that I didn’t change course in the face of overwhelming “new data,” opined on Facebook on the pathology of my rigid personality.

Some in the diocese who disagreed with me on the decisions I had made began to get nervous when the tone on social media turned ugly. A few counseled the Cathedral leaders and me to change course, warning that we were doing considerable harm to the Episcopal brand around the diocese and the country. And as our Diocesan Convention was scheduled for later that month, last-minute resolutions all but ensured we would debate the issues of the inauguration and prayer service on the Convention floor, quite possibly overpowering all the other strategic initiatives we had been working on for several years.

I’m not going to dwell much further on the particulars here except to say that I thought a lot in those days about the difference between intent and impact. I grieved the pain our actions caused so many. The episode was, by all accounts, a communications disaster I hope never to repeat. There were any number of ways we could have handled this differently, and better. But there we were.

What I’d like to reflect on with you here is the role of leadership in the center of that kind of storm. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to me, although it was, to date, the most dramatic. I daresay it’s happened to everyone in this room at one time or another, and it will most certainly will again.

Jesus said to Nicodemus that we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. This is what I know.

That in the midst of a storm like that there is no choice but to ride it out, and my goal was to hang on to every ounce of grace and generosity of spirit that God could provide. Steven Covey, in his 4 quadrants of activity, talks about urgent/important work. A storm is both urgent and important. It’s not where strategic ministry takes place, but in the moment, it becomes a strategic opportunity. For how we respond in a storm will have more lasting impact than the storm itself.  

My primary task in the storm was to hold steady. Rest assured, I felt a whole range of emotions that were not appropriate for me to express publicly. How could I remain calm enough to pay attention and truly listen to those coming toward me? I had to go deep inside, in prayer and self examination. What did I believe? What was I willing to hold even in the midst of such emotion and pain? Had I completely misread the signs? I’ve publicly changed course before. Contrary to what the psychologist wrote about me, I’m not one to dig in the face of criticism. I’m the one who always assumes that I’ve missed something and am inclined to change direction in the face of disappointment or criticism. Was this one of those times?

I knew that I needed support and counsel from wise leaders. I cannot thank enough Presiding Bishop Curry and others in this room. You gave me insight, courage, and ways to respond that had not occurred to me.   

I also needed to talk candidly with the members of the diocesan leadership team, several of whom worked much closer than I to those who felt betrayed, and were among that group themselves. I needed to reach out to leaders of our African American congregations and Latino congregations, and our LGBT clergy and members. They needed to hear from me that it was okay for them to disagree with their bishop, and that I heard them.

And I needed to maintain as many relationships via social media as I could from my side: I responded to every email. I posted on Facebook, trying my best to be present with an undefended heart, moving towards those who were coming at me.

Parenthetically, I’d like to say something to you about the leadership of the Washington National Cathedral, with whom it is my privilege to work. Believe me, the internal issues of the Cathedral are legion; the sustainability questions enormous; and its place in God’s mission in the 21st century still very much a subject of important discernment. But I cannot speak highly enough of our new dean, Randy Hollerith, of the leadership team around him, and of the rising lay leadership of the Cathedral Chapter. I’m proud to work alongside them. We intend to use this experience to have a sustained conversation about the role of Washington National Cathedral in our time–in public life, in the life of the diocese, the wider Episcopal Church, and the nation.

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Navigating my way through storms is important, for all the energy and time that they take. How I handle them allows me to do my most important work. But the storms themselves are not my most important work. Remember Covey’s second quadrant? It’s the realm of non-urgent important work, all that doesn’t get my attention unless I make it the priority it deserves.

My most important reconciling work as bishop is to do everything from my position to equip leaders and assist our existing congregations and core ministries in the hard work of adapting to the changing world around them; and, where possible, to establish new communities of faith centered around the good news of Jesus. My most non- urgent/important reconciling work is to turn the trends of decline around, create vibrant centers of Christian community where people can come to know God, experience the healing love of Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit to live transformed lives and change the world. I say that it’s non-urgent work, but it feels urgent to me. I live in a perpetual state of holy urgency about the spiritual health and ministry capacity of the congregations I serve and those I hope to establish on my watch.

Here’s why: There are 88 congregations in the Diocese of Washington. Many are small, with a worshipping congregation under 200. Looking deeply at the trends and internal realities of each, only 12 of them, at most, are on a path of sustainability and growth; another 12-15, at the other extreme, are in precipitous decline–most of them in our most vulnerable or rapidly transitioning neighborhoods or communities.The rest, despite working as hard as they can, will most likely be, without some intervention or significant change, almost exactly where they are now 10 years from now in terms of size and capacity for ministry–this in a part of the country that is experiencing significant population growth and where other expressions of the Christian faith are thriving. I can’t bring myself to count the number of congregations I cannot, in good conscience, recommend to those who are seeking a vibrant expression of Christian community.   

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jesus Movement is alive and well in the Diocese of Washington. I cannot say the same about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in all of its expressions. And on my watch, I will do everything in my power, redirect every resource I can, examine every assumption about how we do things and why, in order to promote greater spiritual health, joy, and capacity for ministry throughout the diocese. That includes evaluating all that it costs the diocese for me to be part of the House of Bishops. I must evaluate my efforts, and ours, based on the fruits they produce.

So I find myself saying “no” to a lot of interesting things and important work that I could do because I’m the bishop of of the Diocese of Washington, precisely because those things keep me from the real work of being the bishop of the Diocese of Washington. And I do my best not to be thrown off course for too long by the storms, but deal with them as effectively as possible, and then redirect my focus on the slow, steady work of revitalizing the church.

We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.
This is what I know.

Many of the issues holding us back in the Diocese of Washington are spiritual. We, like Nicodemus, need to be born again. Many of the congregations in the Diocese of Washington offer a tepid expression of Christian life, with almost nothing to offer the very people congregational leaders say they want to “attract.”

Many of the issues holding us back are structural. This is where I, as bishop, have particular responsibility. Where do we spend time, energy, and resources that are not bearing fruit? I once attended a conference led by a minister of one of the largest churches in the country, and he said something I’ve never forgotten: In his observation, the biggest difference between a small church and a large one is that a small church has a much harder time letting go of the things that aren’t working. That is certainly true of our smaller congregations. It’s also true of our diocese as a whole. So we are practicing evaluation, and learning to let go. I’m also determined to incorporate good ideas from other places, from the expressions of Christianity all around us that are thriving.

Much of what holds us back is cultural, embedded in personal preferences masked as core values.

And many obstacles are the result of institutional weakness, as congregations feel constrained as but one example, to devote their best energies to their buildings rather than the ministry the buildings exist to serve. If we don’t address these weaknesses, it doesn’t matter how earnestly we want to join in God’s mission in the world, how prophetic our calls are for justice. For our capacity to go where Jesus calls and do what Jesus needs us to do is hindered by our weakness, just as any physical weakness hinders our personal capacity to fully engage our lives.

I cannot accept this as God’s preferred future for us. And I know that you don’t either, which is what I love most about spending time with you. When we gather, I want nothing more than to learn from you, to hear about what you are discovering, experimenting with, all the new ways you’re learning of being the church.

I, for one, ache for us to spend more of our precious time together learning from each other, sharing resources, exploring common struggles, and collectively evaluating our fruitfulness by the rising health and growth of the Episcopal witness.

And so I leave you with a word of deep admiration and encouragement for each of you in the many streams of ministry that define your vocation. Whenever we enter this stream, I hope we never lose sight of the importance of supporting each other. It’s equally important that we gently and firmly hold one another accountable for the health and vitality of the dioceses we serve. We need one another to fuel the holy urgency necessary to sustain our commitment to the renewal of our church. Wouldn’t it be amazing, if on our watch, we could turn the trends of decline around?   

 

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