Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ

Bishop Barker’s 2015 Annual Council Opening Address

Bishop J. Scott Barker

Bishop J. Scott Barker

148th Annual Council Address

To the People of the Diocese of Nebraska

 

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –

Grace to you and peace, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It is a joy to stand before you this morning. There is no doubt this gathering of the body is among the most important, nourishing and delightful celebrations that punctuate the Church year in the Diocese of Nebraska. Thank you for being here. It is a privilege to be with you.

Here’s my plan for this address: first, some snapshots of this moment in our diocese; second, a recap of some highlights of the year passed since last we met; and third some hopes and dreams for our future together in the year and years to come. Before launching into all that, I want to offer a word of thanks to Father Robert Lewis, his staff and all the people of Saint Stephen’s here in Grand Island. That team has been exceptionally gracious and helpful as we’ve worked to plan and coordinate the events of this council. Saint Stephen’s: please accept the deep gratitude of the people of the Diocese of Nebraska for welcoming us to your home this week! We are so glad to be here!

 

Snapshots

It is a beautiful late summer day, and a team of Nebraska Episcopalians are gathered in a borrowed Sheridan Country Methodist Church, for a vestry retreat. This is a well-attended event. About 20 or 25 folks have come out this morning, and we’re sitting at tables munching on gooey homemade cinnamon buns and waiting for the day’s activities to begin. We are men and women both – and of lots of different ages. For some of the retired folks present this may be the biggest activity on the calendar this week, for some of the working people present, it’s actually a bit of a hassle to be here, an imposition to take these hours away from jammed-packed days at work and at home.

Our facilitator suggests we start with some simple introductions. Name, church and ministry kind of stuff. I go first. Scott Barker. Grew up at All Saints in Omaha. I’m the Bishop. I finish in 15 seconds, and though there are a couple dozen of us there, I figure we’ll whip thru these intros and very soon get to the real work of the day.

But when we gather in God’s name, and bid the Holy Spirit, “come,” we acknowledge that we’re not really in control at all, and we invite the possibility that something holy might transpire.

When the next person introduces themself – and the one after that – people quickly depart from the script they were asked to follow. Deeper stories of life in the parishes represented begin to be shared. There are recollections of hard times when the people of the church came through with caring that bore the very love of Christ. There are memories of celebrations – both happy and sad – where heaven and earth met for a moment in the church. These are heart-felt stories.

It has not been my experience that Nebraska farmers and ranchers are especially sentimental. Maybe that’s true of Midwesterners in general. We may feel very deeply – but getting emotional is just a little more self involved than lots of people around these parts seem to be comfortable with.

No matter. This morning, as people begin to speak the truth about their love for their churches and the life-changing ways they meet God there – the tears flow freely down the cheeks of men and women both, town folk and ranch folks alike.

When we gather in God’s name, and bid the Holy Spirit, “come,” we acknowledge that we’re not really in control at all, and we invite the possibility that something holy might transpire!

It’s Sunday afternoon at Holy Trinity in Lincoln. A team of church staff and long time church members are gathered and waiting – keeping watch at the church doors. They are waiting in hope and expectation. They are waiting with more than a little bit of nervousness. For months, this group has been working with the local South Sudanese population to arrange for a weekly service of worship at Holy Trinity in the Dinka language. A handful of South Sudanese Episcopalians have been attending Holy Trinity for some time – and recently conversations have begun to explore the possibility of a new and exciting ministry with the larger diaspora community. Would Holy Trinity be open to welcoming a much larger group of South Sudanese folk? Would it be OK if they worshipped Jesus in a different language? Would it be OK if there was a little drumming in the Church sanctuary (OK – a lot of drumming!)

We mean it when we say we are brothers and sisters in Jesus – that the bonds formed in Baptism are indissoluble – that our adoption into the family of God and the body of Christ can bridge any difference that might divide us and defeat any prejudice that might cause us to stumble. But applying those truths to real life can be hard work. So the more established members of Holy Trinity – and the potential Holy Trinity newcomers – have been negotiating and planning for weeks. Will real concerns about sharing building space, and maintaining a sense of decorum and tradition be respected? Will deep hopes around being welcomed with open arms and hearts be met?

At the appointed hour, just a couple folks show up at the church door. But then a few more. Before you know it – on the first Sunday of this new endeavor – there are sixty people – men, women and children – all singing and praying to Jesus in Dinka and all scrunched up together as if to stay warm at the front of the vast space at Holy Trinity.

There are one hundred people at the lunch served in the parish hall following the service!

We mean it when we say we are brothers and sisters in Jesus – that the bonds formed in Baptism are indissoluble … that our adoption into the family of God and the body of Christ can bridge any difference that might divide us and defeat any prejudice that might cause us stumble.

It’s noontime at the Cathedral in Downtown Omaha. It’s Wednesday, and that means it’s Downtown Episcopal Outreach day. There’s a sign out on the Cathedral sidewalk every Wednesday – it just says “DEO” and “Open.” Nobody knows who will come. Nobody knows what they will need. Nobody makes reservations or takes a count to know how many people to cook for or how many take-out boxes to stock or how many pairs of socks to buy.

In our Baptismal vows we promise to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons – and to love our every neighbor as ourselves. That’s the foundation of DEO – the audacious hope of this ministry. Can an old-school, big tradition, King’s-English Cathedral Church become a truly welcoming sanctuary for all comers in the name of Jesus?

At mid-morning about ten people from a local parish drive downtown and start cooking. There are grannies and grade-schoolers both at the stove and serving stations. Today it’s homemade enchiladas and tossed salad. As ever, there is fresh, gourmet ice-cream from a famous downtown shop that donates dessert every week. Today there are five flavors, including Maple – Bacon.

Starting at noon, homeless folks, cathedral staff members, downtown office workers – a teacher who drove over from the local Catholic girls school – all line up to eat … and they all sit together and mix it up at tables where there is a feast of great food, deep conversation and prayerful support all three. After lunch a few men step out onto the tiny patch of church lawn by the DEO sign. They sit in small groups or lie alone in the autumn sun. They chat, and smoke. Some snooze in the shade before starting their walk back to the shelter where they will spend the night.

In our Baptismal vows we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons – and love our every neighbor as ourselves. That’s the foundation of DEO – the audacious hope of this ministry. Can an old-school, big tradition, kings English Cathedral Church become a truly welcoming sanctuary for all comers … in the name of Jesus?

The guys on the lawn say “yes.”

Part of the purpose of this gathering is to share stories of our successes in ministry and so encourage one another. These “snapshots” are merely representative … dozens of additional and wonderful stories might easily be shared this morning from congregations both large and small all over the state. I hope these stories help us all to take heart. We still have work to do to face the challenges of church shrink and cultural change now before us, but God is at work, and we are seeing some super successes in this Diocese of Nebraska!

When Episcopalians in a community are really, truly praying every day, and reading their Bibles, and opening their lives up to God’s Word and Spirit – then we are succeeding in being good disciples.

When Episcopalians in a community are gathering to worship Jesus weekly, and letting Christ’s real presence in their lives change them for the good, then we are succeeding in being the Church.

When Episcopalians are reaching out to serve their larger communities by feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and visiting those who are sick and in prison to bear tidings of healing and freedom … then we are succeeding in doing God’s mission on earth.

 

Since Last We Met

It’s been a good year here in the Diocese of Nebraska! One might fill the better part of a morning telling of all the life-giving ways we’re doing mission and ministry here in DioNeb, and fear not – I won’t! But I do want to share some key highlights of the work we’ve accomplished together since we gathered in Scottsbluff a year ago.

In the earliest part of 2015 we held joint meetings of our two largest diocesan governing bodies – the Executive Council and the Bishop & Trustees. This was an experiment to see what it would look like if those teams and their work were combined into one unified whole. Those were productive and even exciting meetings. A harbinger, I pray, of things to come.

On a Saturday in February, Trinity Cathedral hosted a second annual “Mutual Ministry Fair.” People travelled east from all over the diocese to share their “best-practices” in everything from managing church finances to connecting meaningfully with folks on the margins in mission and service ministries. That was a helpful gathering for all who attended – and it is now a wonderful, established new tradition of the diocese.

In March, the clergy of the diocese gathered for our annual retreat. That time of prayer and renewal is always a highlight for your priests and deacons, perhaps especially this year, as we learned to apply the principals of community organizing to church work, and experimented with the power of storytelling to convey the message of the Gospel. On the last night of our time together several priests told stories about their personal faith journeys. I don’t know that that group has ever laughed harder – or been more deeply moved – than we were by the stories shared that evening. It was a holy night.

In May and June we held our annual Vocational Inventory Retreat for men and women who have a sense of calling to ordination, and a bunch of Nebraskans travelled to Topeka for the annual gradation ceremony of the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry. That re-vamped retreat and our participation in the Kemper School are key pieces in our attempt to call, shape and equip great, ordained leaders for the future church in Nebraska.   You can be very proud of that work!

In July you exiled a bunch of us to the Utah desert, where your deputies from the Diocese of Nebraska represented you at the once every three years General Convention of our Episcopal Church. You can again be very proud! Our dioceses’ contributions to that gathering included successfully rallying the Church to do something about climate change … and in leading the fight to finally see Father Hiram Hisanori Kano included on our church calendar of saints.

Later in July we held a service of deconsecration at Saint Luke’s in Wymore. Saint Luke’s had a proud history, bound up with its Welsh heritage and the visits of the “Orphan Trains” to Wymore now a century ago. That closure brings the number of parish churches in our diocese to 52 – along with two of three additional smaller worshipping communities that are not yet parishes. 52 strikes me as the minimum number we’d like to have serving the people of God in this place. That’s a church to pray for and visit every week of the year. It may be that some of our smallest and most remote parishes close in the years to come. I invite you here and now my brothers and sisters to start praying – and get excited about to planting new communities – new incarnations of “church” to keep the garden growing!

In August, we welcomed Deacon Sarah Miller to the diocese. Sarah is our second “Bishop’s Society Curate” and is serving with Dean Craig Loya at Trinity Cathedral in Omaha. Our first Curate, Father John Adams, will soon finish his tenure at Saint Andrews in Omaha, and will then be relocating to Grace Church in Chadron to serve as Priest-in-Charge for his curacy’s second half. I am super proud of this program, which is helping us attract great young clergy to Nebraska and which is offering the gift to our curates (and the wider church) of a superior and supported introduction to priestly ministry.

In September, your diocesan staff took up our now traditional residency in western Nebraska. I’ve long said that though we get a lot of credit for taking the time to go west for an extended journey every year, it’s actually one of the chief delights of our annual calendar. This year we were in Kimball, Harrisburg, Scottsbluff, Gordon, Holly & Rushville, Alliance, and Hyannis. One could not possibly choose which were the kinder church people nor the more heavenly church pot-luck! I can only assure you that Christ was much in evidence throughout those days!

Finally, just two weeks ago, the Bishop’s Society to Advance Clergy Excellence met for our annual lunch to celebrate their accomplishments at raising funds to support our curacy project and to help build up the endowments of the diocese of Nebraska, Folks drove and flew from far away to be part of that celebration. Pledges by that group now total nearly half a million dollars, and in addition to funding our curacy project, you will see those gifts have also helped reduce parish faith-asking’s in the budget we’ll present later today. My deep thanks to our Bishop’s Society members and remember – it’s not too late to join!

It’s been a good year here in the Diocese of Nebraska!

Looking back, it is abundantly clear that NONE of the successes I just mentioned would have come to pass without the support of a really extraordinary diocesan staff. They are all here now and will be much in evidence in the days to come. I hope you’ll join me in thanking Lindsey Rowe and Beth Byrne and Canon Liz Easton for their determined, creative and faithful ministry on your behalf. We are more blessed than you know – me especially! – by the hard work of this group!

 

The year to Come

We’re planning a different kind of western “residency” for the summer of 2016. This year, the staff will relocate to our churches along US Highway 275 and Nebraska Highway 20, spending at least a portion of each day walking on the Cowboy Trail. I expect our residency to happen in June this year, and this is your invitation to plan to come, walk along and worship in our churches in this beautiful corridor of the diocese. I hope many of you will join us for a day or two!

In the area of our diocese finances, you can expect a major initiative to begin in the year ahead and about which you’ll be hearing more at this gathering. “Project Resource” is a national movement to better equip church leaders to do much more meaningful ministry in the areas of stewardship and fundraising. I hope you’ll consider accepting the invite to be a part of what feels like it may be a game-changer for our parishes.

At the end of this month we’re scheduled to close on the sale of our land at Omaha’s Tri-Faith campus. We’ve negotiated a contract with Countryside Church, the community that now leads the Tri-Faith Christian presence. We’re selling the land for 1.5 million dollars – that’s what we paid for it plus what we’ve put into it by way of taxes and some simple improvements. We get all our money back and can feel great about supporting the project in a deep way since the actual market value of the land now far exceeds what we’re selling it for. I think it was the right thing – even the Christ like thing – to part with the land for less than we might have in order to make possible the clean hand-off of a project which many of us believe in so deeply. I am awfully proud of the fact that there would quite literally be no Tri-Faith without the Diocese of Nebraska.

In the area of outreach and mission, I am delighted to point to two new ministries in the year to come. First, after some months of getting her feet planted in DioNeb, Mother Tar Drasdowski will begin coordinating our diocesan mission and outreach efforts in 2016. Her number one priority will be to support the great ministries we’re already doing, especially in the diocese of the Dominican Republic and on the reservation lands to our north. Her secondary emphasis will be to start new ministries to make mission and service opportunities more widely available – and more deeply meaningful – for us all. You’ll get to hear more from Mother Tar later during council.

Equally exciting, I am pleased to be able to announce that the diocese very recently received an extraordinary gift from the estate of the late Catherine Rauscher – Bishop Rauscher’s daughter. Catherine left just over a quarter of a million dollars from her estate to the Diocese of Nebraska for the purpose of meeting the needs of the poor. The gift is to be administered jointly by the diocese, Trinity Cathedral and All Saint, and is to be used to provide food, clothing, shelter and medical attention to local people in greatest need. I bid your prayers – and your creative input – as we begin to envision together how best to invest this extraordinary gift to maximum impact.

Finally, in our on-going efforts to better support and equip your clergy leaders, we’ll be hosting a “Western priests retreat” about a month from now at Camp Norwesca near Chadron. Priests from all across the diocese are invited to this event, which we hope will offer equal measures of prayer, learning, connecting and unapologetic fun … and which will offer a particular emphasis on supporting priestly ministry in our western-most contexts! I hope to see many of our presbyters there!

As to our longer-term future, write this note in the margins of your council booklet or bust out your calendars and put down this entry. In October of 2018 – three years from now – the Diocese of Nebraska will be 150 years old! That is an extraordinary milestone for a Church, and it makes us a rather ancient institution for this young part of our United States. We’ll celebrate that anniversary with a series of 4 special events hosted all across DioNeb. There is a team convened composed of members from Bishop & Trustees and the Executive Commission to begin planning these parties, but we’ll need great ideas and supportive help from all of you to make that anniversary all that it can be. Let me encourage you to start here and now in your small, table groups, sharing hopes and ideas for how we might mark this sesquicentennial anniversary.

Last week was the fourth anniversary of my consecration and ordination as Bishop of this diocese. As a memento of that occasion, I have a poster on the wall of my office. It’s a framed, night photograph of memorial stadium that was taken on the evening you ordained me. The poster is entitled, “The Comeback” because that was the night the Huskers overcame a 21 point deficit to achieve the biggest football comeback in school history.

Like the team that is our shared preoccupation, we have real challenges before us. But I am proud that we are meeting them with determination, hard work and a ton of faith in Christ’s presence to guide us and show us the way. I give thanks every single day for the privilege of “coming back” to this place that I love so much, and for the wonder of serving side by side with such fine people. Thanks so much – for all that you give, for all that you do, for all that you are.

 

Submitted this 16th day of October, 2015 in Grand Island, Nebraska, by

 

The Right Rev. J. Scott Barker

Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska

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