From the Bishop: Annual Council Address
Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska – 2017
My dear Brothers and Sisters and Christ –
Grace to you and peace in the name of our Lord Jesus. This morning, I want to share three stories with you that illustrate a challenge, a strength and a sign of hope in this moment of our common life. Then I want to talk a little bit about the year to come and three of the prospects before us that will invite change and growth, and I will close with a word or two of thanks.
Our last Annual Council was held almost exactly a year ago. You’ll remember we were at the height of a Presidential campaign season that felt different to us than any such campaign in recent memory. We seemed to be more deeply divided about the candidates before us than was usual, the debate in the public sphere seemed courser than it had been in the past, the fact that we could not see eye to eye on what was simply “factual” seemed disorienting and disappointing.
So the election happened. And we have a new President. And thank goodness things settled down right down after that, and all that acrimony came to an end!
A couple of weeks after the election, I was at Saint Andrew’s in Omaha for my annual Sunday visit. The Bible readings for the day invited some reflection on the faithfulness of those in power and the place of the Church in the public sphere. I made my best effort to speak to the issues of the day, which included being critical of the newly elected President in some areas where his deficits are real, and being critical of the people of God in the Church, where I thought we were clearly failing in our calling to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
At the end of that Sunday morning, I received a number of requests for copies of my sermon from people who said they heard exactly what they needed in that moment … but I also received a number of comments like this one, which was scrawled on an empty Bishop’s Discretionary fund envelope that had been dropped into the collection plate. Someone had written: “I disagree with everything the Bishop says.”
Right to this very day, it remains a new and difficult challenge in our church communities, to love one another even despite our sometimes profound differences, and to locate and inhabit some shared common ground by way of connection and action as followers of Jesus.
As we’ve journeyed together through this past year, I have come to believe that the problem – the real challenge before us – is not about the positions of any of our elected leaders or even the increasingly divisive nature of our public discourse and the segregating alga rhythms of Facebook … the problem is that we don’t actually know very well the teachings and witness of Jesus Christ, and that absent an intimate familiarity with that Gospel, we are not only poorly equipped to judge for ourselves what is “right” and “wrong” in the political realm but we have little to bind us together as people of faith when we’re working through the challenge of loving our brothers and sisters whose background, experience, and dreams are different than our own.
I can’t think of a single issue – at least of the sort over which we’re so deeply and easily divided – that does not have a moral dimension and so is not the appropriate “business” of the Church. If we’re doing our job, we will evaluate and respond to the actions of our elected leaders and our government in church. Our shared responsibility – in this moment, is to dig much more deeply into the teachings of Jesus – and to follow him more nearly – so that with consciences informed by God’s word and our community of faith, we can take stands in public that are consonant with what we say we believe as disciples of Jesus … and how we promise to act, as disciples of Jesus.
For every single one of us, this will and should constitute a challenge to our partisan politics and identity as people of faith.
During Lent and Easter of 2018, our Presiding Bishop is inviting the whole Episcopal Church to participate in, “The Good Book Club.” Over those several weeks, we’ll read together the Gospel according to Luke and Luke’s story of the earliest Church as recorded in his companion Book of Acts. I am issuing an invitation right now, to the whole Diocese of Nebraska to join in that work. Let’s read the Gospel together. Let’s reacquaint ourselves with what Jesus teaches about things like serving the poor, caring for refugees, responding to violent behavior, paying taxes or disagreeing with a brother or sister in Christ.
I am certain that such a read will challenge us all, enlighten us all, and help restore a foundation of shared, real “Christian values” on which we can build in the year and years to come.
Somewhere out there in your midst is Mother Katie Hargis, who is our brand new Pro-Cathedral Dean, and who arrived here in DioNeb just in the nick of time to join us for this Annual Council weekend. Dean Katie is actually one of three new Rectors who has recently relocated to the diocese of Nebraska and so brought to a wonderful and successful conclusion three long and prayerful searches for new parish clergy leadership. Along with Katie, it is a great pleasure to welcome to DioNeb Mother Amanda Gott – now serving at Saint Matthew’s in Lincoln, and Mother Stephanie Swinnea – serving at Saint Luke’s in Kearney. We’re so glad you are all here.
We often say that the parish churches of the Diocese of Nebraska are “scrappy.” By that we mean that despite our modest numbers and resources, we still find ways to care for one-another meaningfully, to serve one another faithfully, and to love one another graciously. If we were to write out the scrappy formula, I think it might be: “deep care” over “faithful economizing” equals “scrappy.”
The story of Dean Katie’s recent move to Nebraska, tells this tale in a wonderful way. A search for a new church rector can cost a bunch of money – and the people of our Pro-Cathedral worked diligently during their search process to manage their expenses without compromising on doing the job right and well. Part of that was trying to imagine how to relocate the newly tapped Rector without collecting bids from big commercial moving companies and paying $10,000 for an interstate truck move. How to handle the cost of relocating Dean Katie from the Diocese of Western Kansas to the Diocese of Nebraska?
On the first Sunday in October after church, nine folks from the Pro-Cathedral drove down to Dodge City, Kansas in three pickups and with two trailers. They spent the night, and then on the next morning, they all worked together to load Dean Katie’s gear into the trucks and later in the day, to drive it all up to Hastings. When the crew of now ten got to Nebraska, they were met at the Dean’s new place by a dozen more Pro-Cathedral folks who came to help unload and get their new leader all settled in. When it turned out at the last minute that Dean Katie’s rental was not quite ready for occupancy, our team called an audible, and quickly found garage space in which her stuff could be stored. When that work was done, dinner was provided for all the troops.
A week later, a dozen ready and willing souls showed up once again to get those garages emptied out and to get Dean Katie (finally!) settled into her new digs. At the conclusion of the move, yet another feast materialized, and all ate to their heart’s content and toasted a job well done.
Loving, caring, serving Christ in others and making a difference in the world God has entrusted to our care: this work to which we have committed ourselves does not take hundreds of people, or thousands of dollars, or extraordinary gifts of business smarts or theological acumen to be well done.
We are a strong diocese in part because we are a scrappy diocese! We are a people who find ways to use the resources we have at hand – even when they might seem modest or insufficient to meet the challenges of the moment.
“Deep care” over “faithful economizing” equals “scrappy!”
A Word of Hope
About three weeks ago, I got an email from the department of the Episcopal Church that tracks data. I get that note at about this time every year, and every year -going back since I began my ministry twenty-five years ago – it’s always a hard letter to read, presenting sobering numbers to digest.
The Episcopal Church has been in numerical decline for more than 30 years straight. We’ve lost over a quarter of our members since 1980. Here in the center of the country – where disappearing small towns have their own set of hard challenges quite apart from the challenges we face as a denomination – things are even harder. By the main statistical measure of health – average Sunday church attendance – the Diocese of Nebraska has not seen an increase in many, many years. So when that email came, I was not surprised to read the executive summary of the report.
In 2016 – the last year for which we’ve got all the data nationally – there were fewer Episcopal Churches than there were the year before, fewer Episcopalians than there were the year before, and lower average Sunday attendance than there was the year before. With a heavy heart, I clicked to the page that detailed our church demographics here in Province 6 – the Province that makes up most of the beleaguered middle of the country. As expected, when I scanned the average Sunday attendance column for the province, things looked pretty grim. As I looked down the columns, it was one sad statistic after another: declines from 3% to 5% and more. Wyoming was a bright spot in the Province, showing 0.8% growth … a little less than 1%.
And then there was Nebraska. Nebraska. With our little community of 53 churches, about 2/3 of which are in those tiny Midwestern towns and fully half of which worship fewer than 25 people on a Sunday morning. Let me tell you what the report said about us: from 2015 to 2016, the average Sunday attendance in the diocese of Nebraska increased by 3.5 %. Which makes us – at least in the last year for which we have data from the home office – the seventh fastest-growing diocese in the whole Episcopal Church.
Now let’s not lose our heads. Being one of the fastest growing dioceses in the Episcopal Church is like being one of the tallest skyscrapers in Topeka …
And average Sunday attendance is not the only measure of growth and success in the church landscape.
But I do take that measure as a sign that we are on the right track together. And I want you all to know that every single one of you plays a part in that success. The five churches across the state that are adding members to their rolls in double digits every year are leading the way, but there are in fact 24 parishes in Nebraska who’s Sunday attendance rose by at least one person in that latest report.
We can celebrate, and learn from, all those communities, both east and west, rural and urban for the modest growth they’re experiencing. And we can celebrate all of you too:
– Because every time one of you crawls out of your warm bed on a cold December Sunday because you need Communion …
– Every time one of you shows up on our Sabbath day because you care about your brothers and sisters in Christ who are your church family …
– Every time one of you pops into some sister church in some other town when you are visiting friends or relatives elsewhere in the sate …
And most of all, every time one of you invites a friend to come see what it is about your church community that keeps you coming back, week after week and year after year, you contribute to building up the body of Christ, and being part of a diocese that is suddenly, wonderfully, showing our Episcopal Church that by the power of the Holy Spirit there is always hope, even out here middle America!
Now – a couple of exciting things to share about the year to come.
2018 is the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Nebraska. We’ll be celebrating that sesquicentennial over the course of the entire year, kicking off that celebration on the first weekend in January when our Presiding Bishop will visit Nebraska on a Saturday night to lead us in worship and conversation about this moment in our Church and our calling as members of the Jesus Movement.
On the next day, we’ll officially begin our anniversary year by lifting our voices in common prayer across the diocese, worshipping on that Sunday morning with prayers and song specially written for the day, for the year, and for Nebraska! In fact tonight you will be part of the world premiere of one of those pieces, as we’ll sing together at our Festival Eucharist a hymn composed to celebrate our 150th by Nebraska hymn writer (and Bishop’s Cross recipient!) Rae Whitney.
Later on in this council, Noelle Ptomey – who is graciously and capably leading the charge as chair of our sesquicentennial committee – will tell you a little bit more about all we have in store for our 150th.
During tomorrow’s council business session, you will have the chance to consider legislation designed to simplify the governance of our diocese.
This is the culmination of better than three years of work, as your diocesan leadership – including especially the members of your Bishop & Trustees and your Executive Commission – have met jointly, examined the governance structures of other dioceses, studied the needs of DioNeb in the moment and prayed sincerely to know the will of the Spirit. I am very grateful to the many people who’ve engaged this work over these past few years, and I want to acknowledge a special debt of gratitude to the Reverend Marisa Thompson and our Chancellor Woody Bradford, who took up the challenge of leading much of this work and conversation on behalf of us all.
I want you all to know that I am in favor of passing the legislation we’ll see later on at council, and so simplifying our governance structures. It’s my belief that our present organization as a diocese has too many moving parts – and requires too many people – to do the relatively straightforward work of managing our financial resources and sharing in the task of visioning and implementing our diocesan ministries.
If we can do what we need to do with half as many people at the table, that will liberate a bunch of talented, passionate and faithful folks to engage in the critical work of serving Jesus in local parishes, or in diocesan ministries that are more directly related to serving he poor, healing the sick, spreading the Gospel and building the Church. If you’ve not already done so, take a look at that legislation which is included in your registration packet, get talking with the folks at your table, and let’s see if we can’t figure a way to make a change that’s been a long time coming.
It’s been awhile – better than twenty years in fact – since the diocese has led an effort to plant a new church community.
The prospect of engaging that possibility is especially exciting in this moment when so many new and creative incarnations of “church” are being planted and tested all over the US, and not just in our Episcopal Church, but in all the variety of denominations and non-denominations that make up the larger body of Christ. I’m pleased to announce that the diocese of Nebraska has been awarded a grant by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (that’s the fancy name for The Episcopal Church!) to help us study and pray about the prospect of establishing a new church in DioNeb, work which we will commence before the end of the 2017 calendar year.
It’s a good bet that a church for the new millennium won’t look much like a church of 10, 25 or 50 years ago. Though it’s possible we’ll discern a need to erect a new building with stained glass windows and a steeple – and call a full-time priest to help fill the pews – ‘church plants” in 2017 often sport a very different look. What is certain is that the Church we start after praying, studying and dreaming together, will be a church that is representative of the kind of faith and values that already distinguish this diocese and the wonderful people who live and serve here.
It’s a sure thing that it will take some time to pray and study our way into discerning the Spirit’s call around starting a new Nebraska church – and we will surely need the support of any number of you who are excited about the prospect of building some new, relevant and faithful version of a church for the 21st century. Stay tuned. And by all means, start praying for this work even now!
Before I move to closing and some words of thanks, I want to tell you about one more locus of the Spirit’s movement – and of hope for the deepest kind of growth – that now lays before us.
Hard to believe that it was only one year ago that Brother James came to our Diocese of Nebraska from New York, via South Africa. Most of you met him for the very first time at last year’s council, and though he quickly won us all over with his love of Christ, his love of life, and his passion for teaching us about prayer and service, even so, I know that there was some head scratching going on. What do we need with a monk?
Now twelve months on, and – I don’t know – probably 30,000 miles later – I think we all agree that we’re blessed beyond measure by the presence of our beloved brother James in this place.
And so it’s with particular delight that I can share the news that Brother James has discerned a call to make his home with us here in Nebraska for the foreseeable future and to help lead us in building a brand new ministry of prayer, service, and formation.
We’re even now pulling together the pieces of what we’re calling the Benedictine Service Corps. The vision for this ministry is to invite young adults – both women and men – to come live with us for a season here in the Diocese of Nebraska, in a community structured after the fashion of Saint Benedict and in the tradition of the ancient monastic ministries of the Church.
We’ll be looking for people who have a sense of calling around deep prayer, care for the poor and for creation, and community living … not necessarily monastics, but rather people who are called to live in an intentional Christian community for just a year or two. Picture 3 or 5 folks to start: praying together daily, eating meals in common, sharing expenses and all serving in churches and local ministries of care and service to those on the margins. We hope to plant this community in urban Omaha to begin, and we will build it with the intention of serving in – and expanding to – greater Nebraska in the months and years to come, ultimately making the Benedictine Service Corps a ministry with a commitment to the entire Diocese of Nebraska.
By all means, grab Brother James here at council if this vision of a community of prayer and service appeals to you. We’ll need folks with talent and passion in everything from plumbing and painting to preaching and praying to make this thing happen …
And at this time, we most especially need to connect with people who will help us in recruiting the first members of this new community.
I wish to close this morning by saying thanks.
Thanks first to the wonderful people with whom I work every day and who minister with such passion on your behalf.
I just mentioned Brother James and all that he’s given of himself to the people of this diocese. I am sure we’re a more deeply prayerful staff – and that I am a more seriously prayerful bishop – because of his witness, support, and friendship. You, my brother, have my great admiration and gratitude.
Though her position is entirely a volunteer one, Archdeacon Betsy Bennett comes into the office every week to participate in our Tuesday morning staff meetings and help support the wider ministries of DioNeb. She’s been a tireless advocate for those living on the edge – and for the care of creation we’re called to as followers of Jesus. She is a wonderful contributor to this community.
Lindsey Rowe has served as our Diocesan Administrator since April of 2014, and in that role has managed everything from the day-to-day operations of the diocesan office, to bishop’s annual visitation schedule, to meeting and event planning – including pulling together this and each year’s Annual Council. Many of you will have read the news we shared last week, that Lindsey has submitted her resignation and will be moving on to a tremendous opportunity as the Executive Assistant to the Executive Director of Immanuel Health Systems Pathway’s, Program in Omaha. Know that Lindsey has lead with her deep affection for all of you as a life-long Nebraska Episcopalian whose love for the churches and the people of this diocese is unmatched. We will miss that devotion … and her unflappable calm in the face of the many minor crises that punctuate diocesan ministry. Thank you, Lindsey. You will be missed.
As you know, Beth Byrne manages the finances of our diocese. She does that work with the perfect balance of uncompromising attention to the details of our numbers and a deep faith in the Spirit’s guidance over all that we do. You’ll get to hear her do her thing at length, later on in this council. Beth has also adapted with superior grace to a job description that has changed and grown substantially over the course of her seven years of service. Whether it’s in her role as Comptroller, Property Manager, Investment Advisor or Financial Secretary, we are entirely reliant on Beth’s skills and hard work to be faithful stewards of the gifts of money and property that God has entrusted to our care. I am so grateful for her service.
Father Phil Chapman died recently and will be terribly missed by us all. One of many things Father Phil taught me – this was in the signature line of every email he ever sent – was to “travel in pairs and worship in groups.” That notion of “traveling in pairs” comes from the Gospel of Luke, in which is told the story of the first time Jesus “sends out” his followers to do his ministry in the wider world. Jesus commissions the disciples in pairs … he bids them “travel light” … he tells them not to stay in any one place for too long, but rather, to keep on moving.
I am so blessed – we are so blessed – that Canon Liz Easton read that part of Luke’s Gospel and has been willing to ride alongside me for three and a half years now. I hope our partnership is seen as a model for how to be a joyful and effective disciple of Jesus in this time and place for that is our shared intention. And I can tell you that I am a much better bishop – and Nebraska is a much stronger diocese – for the hard work and faithfulness of our Canon, with whom it is my great privilege and blessing to share in the leadership of the Church.
In addition to the folks on your diocesan staff, and as a close to this over-long reflection – I need to thank ALL of you.
I want to express my deepest appreciation to the clergy leaders of this diocese – priests and deacons both active and retired – who have chosen to make this place your home. I’ve lived and worked in four different dioceses as an adult, and nowhere – no place else – compares to Nebraska for the sincerity, the determination, the faithfulness and the tireless work offered by our college of clergy. You are the finest women and men I have ever worked with, and it is such a blessing to serve with you.
And finally, my brothers and sisters, thanks to all the rest of you – the lay leaders of this Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska gathered here this morning – and to the thousands of your fellow Episcopalians who you have been elected and appointed to represent at this Annual Council. I am daily inspired by all that you give, and all that you do, to build up the kingdom of God, to make Jesus known in the communities in which God has planted you and to be the Church.
This is my 7th Annual Council as your bishop, and I am as excited and proud to be here with you as I was at my first Annual Council (here in North Platte!) six years ago. It is the great blessing of my life to have been able to come home and to serve in this place that I know and love best in the whole wide world. I cannot think of anyplace else that I would rather be. It is no exaggeration to say that every day in this job is full of wonder and joy, and I am so hopeful about the future to which God beckons us as the Episcopal Church in Nebraska.
Submitted this 20th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2017,
In North Platte
+ The Right Revered Joseph Scott Barker
Eleventh Bishop of Nebraska