Extending the Pulpit
Rev. John C. Major, Rector, Trinity West Pittston
Janine Ungvarsky, Communication Missioner, Trinity West Pittston
Trinity West Pittston thanks Bill Lewellis for all he's done for the ministry of communication in the Diocese of Bethlehem.
The Rev. John Major, right, presents a framed copy of a very early Diocese of Bethlehem communication project to Canon Bill Lewellis, left, telling him, "Thanks to you, we've come a long way, Bill!"
The message of the Incarnation is central to this season and to our Christian faith. From the start, it was clear that it was vitally important that the message be heard far and wide. The angels proclaimed it. The shepherds shared it. The apostles taught it and the Bible recorded it. Today, many of our clergy are preparing to preach about it. For decades now, though, the Diocese of Bethlehem has had ways to share the Good News that the Word was made Flesh that go far beyond the pulpit. Much of that is thanks to the life’s work of communication-evangelist Canon Bill Lewellis.
[Bill: I am at once grateful to Father John Major and Janine Ungvarsky, and somewhat embarrassed. The idea for this presentation came as a surprise to me from the gentle goodness of their hearts to flatter an old priest. With this story, they succeeded.]
We became very aware of the ways Bill’s ministry has blessed the Diocese of Bethlehem while serving as the diocesan representatives to Episcopal Relief and Development. When we attended national-level training sessions and told our story of how the good people of our diocese provided thousands of dollars in gift cards along with food, personal care and household items, clothing, and furniture within days after the 2011 floods, people from Episcopal churches across America had one question: How did you get the word out so fast?
It was then that we realized that few dioceses had the wealth of communication resources we had available to us in a diocesan-wide email list (Bakery), an electronic newsletter platform, and websites. As we fielded questions about these resources from our fellow representatives, we became increasingly grateful for the way Bill shepherded communication efforts in the diocese during his time as communication minister from 1986 to 2010. We wanted to know more about how and why he led us in this direction. We recently sat down with Bill to talk about this and thought others might be interested in knowing some of this history as well.
Bill traced his interest in church communication back to the days of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965) when he would attend as many of the daily briefings on the Council’s activities as he could. After he was ordained and returned to the United States, someone mentioned his interest in communication to the local bishop. This led to Bill being asked to start a communication office in the relatively new Diocese of Allentown even though, he said, he had more interest in communication ministry than knowledge about it.
Undeterred, Bill began to learn on the job. He reached out to find other Catholic communication directors. Discovering few existed at the time, he partnered with the United States Catholic Conference to be trained and to coordinate a training program for church communicators at Loyola University in New Orleans. The program brought together experts from print, TV, and radio to teach and helped Bill learn a great deal in a short period of time. However, that never stopped him from learning more.
“I didn’t know much about communication media but I discovered that’s a good thing to tell the professionals. They will often respond by helping generously and sharing information,” Bill said, noting that this approach even helped him get templates from a professional when he was attempting to create Diocesan Life, a newspaper for the Diocese of Bethlehem.
As he learned, Bill shared what he knew just as freely. Others came to him for help, including some of the journalists at local papers as well as communicators at other churches.
At one point, he was asked by the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem to write a job description for a communication director. After working on it, Bill told the diocesan committee that requested the description that they might want to get someone else to finish it. He liked the job description so much, he told them, that he might be interested in the position. They told him to go ahead and apply. He did, and he landed the job.
In 1986, under the leadership of Bishop Mark Dyer, who Bill said encouraged risk-taking for the sake of the Gospel, Bill began efforts to improve not only top-down communication in the diocese but also horizontal communication. He did so with the encouragement and help also of Archdeacon Rick Cluett
Envisioning a system where people could “meet” electronically and share ideas, Bill helped the diocese adopt a system called Quest that allowed people to connect with one another in a group as easily as they could email. From the start, he insisted that the notes in the system not be censored. This was in part because censoring is time-consuming, but more, Bill said, because he did not think that would maintain the integrity of the discussions and could limit the ability to disagree and discuss issues freely.
Some years after Bill joined the bishop’s staff, the diocesan council adopted the mission statement so familiar to us now: Live God’s Love: tell what you have seen and heard.
Although he was a one-person communication ministry, Bill said he had a lot of volunteer help and support from diocesan leadership. He was also able to rally help from outside the church, including Wilkes-Barre-based television station WBRE, Service Electric Cable TV, and newspapers across the 14 counties of the diocese.
WBRE even provided a video truck to cover the consecration of Bishop Paul Marshall in 1996; that video ran on local cable stations around the diocese and was given to every parish in the diocese to share with their congregations.
Some of the other accomplishments of Bill’s long years of service to the diocese and the national Episcopal Church include:
- Received a $20,890 grant in 1987 from Diocesan Advance Fund, which was used to subsidize the purchase of televisions, video players, and stands for many diocesan parishes to enhance education and training.
- Created the newspaper “Diocesan Life,” 1989, as a wrap-around to the National Church’s “Episcopal Life.” With Bill as its editor, Diocesan Life won more than 40 national awards from Episcopal Communicators.
- Served at Trinity Wall Street with more than 20 denominations as the Episcopal Church representative with the Vision Interfaith Satellite Network. VISN later evolved into the Faith and Values Channel, then Hallmark and Henson, and was later bought out by Hallmark Channel.
- Built a strong presence for the diocese and the Episcopal Church on local cable stations that reached up to 300,000 homes a week with programming from any denominations and other sources.
- Served in a one-day-a-week position in the communication department of the Episcopal Church during the decade of the 1990s.
- Produced several videos, including Every Child is a Blessing (with Margaret Sipple) which showed the efforts of several diocesan churches (Grace and Mediator in Allentown, Trinity Pottsville, St. Stephen’s, Wilkes-Barre and Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) to help better the lives of children, and How Do We Read the Bible Today, featuring Bishop Marshall. Every Child won a national Award of Excellence while Bible Today won a national Golden Shoestring Award from Episcopal Communicators.
- Developed good relationships with local press media that facilitated the publications of hundreds of columns – as well as occasional op-eds and other pieces – written by Bishop Mark, Bishop Paul or Bill. More than 130 columns by Bishop Paul were published during a time when no other Episcopal diocese had a bishop’s column appearing regularly in a newspaper.
- Was influential in making Bethlehem an early model for dioceses of the Episcopal Church through participation in digital and electronic telecommunications through Quest, the Bethlehem of PA email list, and electronic teleconferencing. The Bethlehem of PA email list was considered the premier list of its kind on the system. Bill also initiated Bethlehem News and the newSpin electronic newsletters that replaced the costlier and less timely print newspapers used previously. NewSpin goes to more than 2000 email addresses every other week even after Bill retired at the end of 2009.
Bill is quick to note that he did not accomplish any of this on his own, and cites the invaluable support of Bishops Dyer and Marshall as well as the efforts of volunteers and paid staff, including but not limited to Barbara Cameron Caum, Margaret Sipple, Rick Cluett, Nick Knisely, Barbara Gessner, George Loeffler, Barbara Loeffler, Deborah Schlosser, Sheila Siegler, Jenifer Gamber, Dave Howell and Kat Lehman. He said he was supported and encouraged in an atmosphere where instead of being told to be careful, he was encouraged to be creative.
Bill once published a list of his “communication biases.” Among those were: (1) Christian communication is about proclaiming the gospel. (2) Every church is a small church that needs to extend its pulpit. (3) Don’t confuse evangelism with publicity. (4) Think not how but what… There’s no “s” in communication. Communication is not a program. (5) The media are not out to get you. (6) Over the long haul, the coverage you get from the media for what you’d like to accomplish will generally be in inverse proportion to the control you attempt to retain over the story. (7) God uses many media of self-disclosure.
The story has been told before of how, when large satellite dishes were the state of the art for communication, Bill arranged for the installation of a dish on the roof of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity bell tower. As it was being installed, a news photographer caught an image of the transparent dish with the cross on the roof of the Cathedral showing through the mesh.
“I thought of the moment when one was seen through the other,” Bill said. “The cross of the one, great Mediator, Jesus Christ, was a window into the heart of God. The satellite dish becomes a symbol of the many and various other media of God’s self-disclosure.”
Bill said he has always seen his ministry in the light of God’s self-disclosure in the Incarnation. “Communication-evangelism is about Incarnation, about the Word of God continuing to become flesh,” he said. “Because the church exists for those who do not belong to it, communication-evangelism seeks to create ways to extend the pulpit.”
As we celebrate the Incarnation, the birth of Christ, we wanted to recognize Bill’s many efforts to help this diocese have new ways to share the Good News and keep up with the times as we strive to extend the pulpit.
While going through some things in storage at Trinity West Pittston a while ago, a vinyl record was found. There was no identification with it other than the label that said it was from the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem. Although we did not attempt to play the pristine disk, it is obviously an early communication effort by the diocese. In recognition of the many ways he has helped to nurture and advance communication in this diocese, the album was framed and presented to Bill as a small tangible way to say, “Thank you for your many years of ministry and the way you set a path for us to follow to tell what we have seen and heard of God’s love.”
Bill, we write this with thanks for the many ways you have supported and encouraged us as we communicate the message of God's love,
The Rev. John C. Major, Rector, Trinity West Pittston
Janine Ungvarsky, Communication Missioner, Trinity West Pittston