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2013 Convention Address: A Season of Faithful Change

This is the address to the 142nd Convention of the Diocese of Bethlehem on Friday, October 4, 2013 by the Rev. Canon Andrew T. Gerns at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity. 

A Season of Faithful Change

A year ago, when we met in Scranton, it was my privilege to preside at this gathering and to 0read to you Bishop Paul’s words. This year, I again sit before you as President of the Standing Committee in our first convention since Bishop Paul’s resignation and his sabbatical. On January 1st, he will enter retirement and our diocese will begin the process

ATG picture in b&wof discernment to hear God’s will for us, to choose how to respond faithfully as we raise up a new Bishop and continue the important work of the Gospel in Northeast Pennsylvania.

Much has happened this past year. We give thanks to God for many good things and we also give to God the many things that have changed us and are challenging us.

We are beginning a season of faithful change. The Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel, has said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” A transition like the one we are beginning is a magnificent opportunity that is what we must not waste. We are entering a time of transition that will prod us to grow as followers of Jesus and usher us to a new era in our diocesan community. God has given us what we need. We are in the right place. We are in the right time. We are a diocese filled with gifted, blessed people. What we are about to embark upon will touch every Episcopalian in this diocese. There is much to learn and much to do, and while there is much that is uncertain, and many feelings and stories to hear, I know that we will rise to the occasion. We will together make faithful change.

Actually, we are looking at a lot of transitions this convention. Tonight we will honor our friend and assistant bishop Jack Croneberger. Bishop Jack was formed and raised up in this diocese. We are glad that, after having “lent” him to our neighbors in Newark for a time, that he chose to return home and serve God and the people of this diocese with wisdom, grace and humor. I  hope that you will all join us tonight at Iacocca Hall at Lehigh University for our convention banquet where we will honor Bishop Jack as he retires again!

Bishop Jack: One of your favorite stories is about the guy who tied helium balloons to a garden chair and floated over a city with nothing more than a pea-shooter to control his flight. His whimsical flight is an image of a creative (and sometimes crazy) flight of faith. Thank you for being an example of faithfulness, a clear communicator of the Gospel and a good friend.

It is appropriate that tonight we will also take a moment to give thanks to God for the work of Integrity in the Diocese of Bethlehem. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Bethlehem Chapter and I am happy that we will be celebrating the good work of this group in our diocese and around the Episcopal Church. 

I am very grateful to another “graduate” of our diocese, Bishop Nicholas Knisely, the new Bishop of Rhode Island. He is giving us two days in November to preside at regional confirmations in our diocese. The dates are Thursday, November 21 at Christ Church in Reading at 7 p.m. and Friday, November 22 at Grace Church in Kingston also at 7 p.m. Up north, in a display of the kind of collaboration and shared ministry that is this Diocese at our best, some 12 parishes will send 55 candidates to Grace, Kingston for confirmation!

We are honored to have as our preacher today Bishop Anthony Poggo of Kajo-Keji. We are so grateful that you have come from across the globe to be with us today. I am particularly indebted to you both for your presence at this Convention and for the fact that you will preside at the first regional confirmation during this transition on Sunday afternoon in this Cathedral.

What began as a hot, dusty bus ride for Bishop Paul and Diana Marshall from Uganda to South Sudan in 2005 has turned into a relationship between the people of these two dioceses that has changed us all. Who could have imagined, as Bishop Paul went on that marathon of preaching, teaching and visiting villages ruined by war, that nine years later that would transform itself into a capital campaign that has so far raised over $4.1 million… all to be given away!

Who could have imagined how deeply connected we have become! Since 2006, we have together built five elementary schools, two secondary schools and a college, we have helped many people—mainly women—develop the means to support themselves through micro-loans and we have together educated and prepared people for the ministry of the Church.

Our relationship has changed us. Every picture from every school, every letter from every student that we hang up on our parish bulletin boards and share in our conversation remind us that Christ binds us together and builds us up. The lessons of New Hope will serve us well in this season of faithful change: that out of ruin comes new life; out of despair comes hope. We discover that faith, trust and vision are the tools of the Holy Spirit to change ordinary lives into extraordinary vessels of grace and power.

Bishop Anthony: Please tell the people of Kajo-Keji that God has richly blessed the people of the Diocese of Bethlehem in knowing and working alongside you and we are immensely grateful to you for all you have taught us. May Christ continue to bless and keep you in all you do. Please continue to pray for us.

Finally, as we begin this season of faithful change it is important that we thank God for the ministry of Bishop Paul Marshall and thank him for his seventeen years of leadership as our bishop. He has been for us an inspiriting preacher, writer and teacher. He showed his love and commitment to children and teenagers in his work on Bishop’s Days with Kids and Young People, his work for better schools in Pennsylvania and his work towards Christian formation for all ages. His work has made us more mission-minded in our care for the poor, our proclamation of the Gospel and in the stewardship of our resources. He has touched many lives. We thank God for him and Diana. Please join with me as we offer our thanks with applause.

Our Life of Faithful Change in the Diocese of Bethlehem

A year ago, Fr. John Major told us about the work of Episcopal Relief and Development in the Diocese of Bethlehem that began after floods hit the Wyoming Valley in 2011 and in particular in West Pittston and surrounding communities. Fr. Major and Janine Ungvarsky have worked hard, with the help of many people and Episcopal Relief and Development, to get the St. George’s Regional Disaster Recovery & Outreach Center up and running. They have shown us that sometime faithful change arises out of crisis and that God’s spirit moves through God’s people to shelter and tangibly become divine shelter from the stormy blast.

I want to echo Fr. Major in congratulating Fr. Ed Erb and the congregation at Grace Church, Honesdale. They were recently honored by the Wayne-Pike chapter of the American Red Cross for their efforts during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The church served as a shelter during the storm.

Last year, we passed a resolution requiring that all parishes in the diocese have a disaster plan in effect. So far, one parish has a finished plan, 22 have trained and are writing their plans and thirty-five parishes in the diocese have yet to be trained in what to look for and how to prepare an effective disaster plan. There is still time. The final training session for this purpose is in three weeks. Run! Don’t walk! See Father Major or go to www.episcopalreliefnepa.org for more information.

We are blessed in this diocese with an active and creative Stewardship Ministry who for many years have been showing us the blessings that come from faithful change. Since we last met, the Stewardship Commission brought The Rev. Canon Keith Brown to the diocese to lead a workshop for our Diocesan Training Day in March. Then in May the Stewardship Commission partnered with the Evangelism Commission to offer a conference featuring the Rev. Dr. David Gortner from Virginia Theological Seminary. In July several members of the commission attended The Episcopal Stewardship Network’s annual conference. We also brought several sessions of that conference here to the diocese via a webcast at the cathedral. Members of that group and Stewardship Missioner Dan Charney travel all around the diocese to help parishes in their ministries and, most important, to help all Christians learn to use everything that God gives us for God’s purposes.

Evangelism is the effective communication of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We live in an age of amazing communication technology and we have barely scratched the surface of the potential these tools bring us. We are blessed with a great partnership with our web-host and e-mail provider ChurchPost, whose business is mainly with churches and whose founders are Episcopalians. Their email platform and for their ability to design customized WordPress web sites for our parishes are resources that are either “free” through your diocesan assessment or available to your parish at greatly reduced cost.  

Even though we Christians are in the business of telling “good news,” and even though we live in a culture defined by marketing, the Church has often been at best clumsy and often allergic to marketing. While we seek deeper connection, we often run away from that which draws  people into a deeper conversation. Maybe it’s shyness. Maybe it’s that we don’t know how to start the conversation that changes hearts. 

One way we hope to address that is through a marketing initiative to help our congregations tell our communities about us and to promote our ministries. You will find in the budget a new line item for marketing and evangelism. We are hoping that groups of parishes will advertise community shared outreach initiatives or perhaps have an ad campaign such as the one several parishes did on WNEP-TV a few years back. If passed, this budget line will provide some seed money on a matching grant basis where the diocese will pay half and the parishes involved will pay half. The parishes will work together and with the diocese to craft the message and to work out a way to measure the campaign's effectiveness. Our hope is that this will help with our evangelism and tell people where we live about us and what we do. 

In addition to Kat Lehman who has worked on these projects, Adam Bond is our new Communication Missioner. He helps us minister and proclaim the Gospel using social media and electronic news reporting. Most people who walk into a church these days will have first checked them out on the internet, and not just on web-pages any more but on social media where they will know how people respond to our parishes every day. Using all these tools effectively builds relationship, deepen connection, and shows us to be a Gospel people living Gospel hope.

They don’t call us the “House of Bread” for nothing! If you look around the diocese, you will be astounded at all the ways Episcopalians feed people. Just here in the Lehigh Valley, you see the oup Kitchen at Trinity, Bethlehem and at New Bethany Ministries, the Saturday Soup Kitchen at Trinity, Easton, and there are ministries like this repeated all over our diocese.

I’d like to take an informal poll right now. Can you please help me? How many of you belong to a parish that feeds people? [Hands.] How many of you have food pantries in closets and classrooms or holiday meals or free community meals? [Hands.] How many of you have connected this feeding to health screenings or after-school tutoring? [Hands.] How many parishes collaborate with other churches and agencies to feed people or fill back-packs for children or bring food to the homebound? [Hands.] God bless you all for your good work.

Look around. All of these hands tell about our activity as a people of God but beyond a show of hands, there are many examples of the incredible ministry in this diocese. In your small groups tomorrow, tell the story of the many great-small ways that God is at work in your communities and use that to begin to imagine a future of faithful change. We are doing amazing things for God in Northeast Pennsylvania. 

Living Faithful Change with Hope and Courage

Starting January 1, 2014, we will enter the formal period of transition towards electing and consecrating a new Bishop. We knew this was coming. When I sat here before you last year, we did not expect that Bishop Paul would be retiring quite so soon; but as the year went on, it became increasingly clear that the physical toll of this ministry was catching up with our Bishop. First, with his medical leave last spring and finally with news of his resignation this summer. I know that all of you are holding Bishop Paul in your prayers and in your hearts.

The Constitution and Canons of this Church are clear that in the absence of the Bishop, the “ecclesiastical authority” of the Diocese becomes the Standing Committee. But the situation we are in today is different than where we will be on January 1, 2014.

Bishop Paul is still our Bishop through December 31, 2013. So while we are the Ecclesiastical Authority, what we do has been delegated to us by the Bishop during the period of his sabbatical. During this period, some things are retained by the Bishop and some things the Bishop has delegated to the Archdeacon and other staff and the rest have been delegated to the Standing Committee.

But on New Year’s Day the Episcopal Chair becomes “vacant” and all the pastoral, administrative and ecclesiastical authority in the diocese goes to the Standing Committee. We will delegate tasks as necessary, of course, and obtain Episcopal oversight—especially on matters that are specifically reserved to Bishops—and oversee the transition.

The Standing Committee started meeting monthly in August and together we are adapting to our new responsibilities. They are: Canon Robert Wilkins, Kate Fanning, Connie Archer, the Rev. Scott Allen, the Rev. Earl Trygar, the Rev. Canon Jane Teter, the Rev. Canon Anne Kitch, Elizabeth House, Ed Schatowski (Secretary), and me, the Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns (President). Bob Wilkins and Anne Kitch are finishing up their terms today and we are immensely grateful for their exemplary work and dedication.

When the news broke of Bishop Paul’s resignation, I said to you:

When there is a big change in life, it is normal to ask “what now?” or “who will take care of me?” or “what should I do?” Our feelings in this moment are no different. On the news of Bishop Paul’s resignation some of us grieve, while others of us are eager for something new. All of us seek the stability of God’s reign and long for the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Stability is a Benedictine value that also lives at the heart of Anglicanism. Among other things, stability means seeking and finding God in the present. Stability teaches us that while change is constant, faithful change means listening for God right here, right now. We assume that we are the place God wants us to be and that God has given us what we need right now to move into the next moment with faith, hope and courage.

That being said, I wish I could set out for you exactly what comes next, but much has yet to be decided.

In a little over a week, on Monday, October 14th, the Standing Committee will meet with the Presiding Bishop’s Suffragan for Pastoral Affairs, Bishop Clay Matthews at St. Anne’s in Trexlertown. We will spend the day learning about the process and practicalities of raising up Episcopal leadership for our diocese.

We will decide on a number of things.

First on our list is the shape of Episcopal leadership during the transition period.

We have four basic choices:

  1. We can, as a Standing Committee, run the Diocese as a Committee and only contract for Bishops as we need for specific events such as ordinations and confirmations, and go to neighboring Bishops for the things that the Canons state only a Bishop can do.
  2. We can have an Assisting Bishop—a Bishop, usually retired, who functions pastorally but who is not the Ecclestiastical Authority. This would be a part time Assisting Bishop who will do the things pastorally and canonically that only a Bishop can do, but the Standing Committee would retain full canonical authority.
  3. We can have an Assisting Bishop who is part- to full-time and to whom the Standing Committee delegates some or most of the elements of being Ecclestiastical Authority.
  4. We can elect a Provisional Bishop for a period of 12 to 24 months who would be the Bishop of this Diocese but only until we elect and consecrate our next Bishop.

There are pluses and minuses to each approach. Part of the decision will be driven by our budget. But most of it will be determined by the pastoral needs of the diocese. An assisting bishop is interviewed and contracted by the Standing Committee, while a Provisional Bishop is interviewed and nominated by the Standing Committee to Diocesan Convention, who then votes to elect that person. If we choose to go that route, we will need to call a special convention for the purpose. I invite your feedback and thoughts on which approach you think is best. Whatever happens, be ready…you could be back here for at least part of a day.

Whatever course we choose, it will require a vote of diocesan convention along with the consents of a majority of the Bishops and Standing Committees of the Church, to call for an election. We cannot formally begin our search until an election is called for because what we do here we do on behalf of the whole church. So again…be ready for a return trip! 

The second decision will be about time-line. It takes between 18 and 24 months for diocese of our size to raise up and consecrate a Bishop. You will notice that we are not calling for an election at this convention. This is on purpose.

These days, the typical tenure of an Episcopal bishop is ten to twelve years. Bishop Paul has been our bishop for seventeen. After a long, rich and complex term of office it is essential that we take the time to step back and take stock. We need to listen to each other’s stories, we need to listen, we need time to imagine our future and move together towards it. We may decide that we, as a diocese, need to take some to breathe, listen, and pray before we start our formal search.

Again, you will notice that we have not begun the process of vetting, selecting and appointing a Search Committee and a Transition Committee. This is also on purpose. We need to take time to pray, to breathe, to listen. My hope is that this coming Lent we will take time to earnestly for our diocese in a disciplined way, as a community as the essential groundwork of our discernment and common life. There is no faithful change without prayer.

Searching for a bishop will require a significant chunk of our leadership and volunteer energy. All of you, and all of your congregants will at some point have a part in the process. Like having a good interim pastor for a parish, the ministry of an assisting or provisional Bishop will help us listen to one another, listen to our hearts, and most important of all, listen to the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through our common life.

This is what differentiates our task from a mere executive search. Sure a bishop has a ton of executive responsibilities, but most of all we are discerning as a diocese for who might be called to the office of Bishop in this place; and, we are listening for God to determine what kind of Diocese God is calling us to be, what kind of ministries God is calling us to do and who will equip and encourage us to go in that direction.

An important part of living faithful change will be pastoral care to the clergy of our diocese. The Standing Committee has asked Canon Jane Teter to work with me, in consultation with the Canon the Ordinary and the Archdeacon, to develop a team of clergy to serve as chaplains who will see to the ordinary pastoral care of the priests and deacons of the diocese during the transition. In addition to Canon Teter, the clergy who have so far agreed to serve are the Rev. Nancy Packard, the Rev. Elizabeth Haynes, the Rev. Andrea Baldyga and the Rev. Maureen Hipple. In addition, we have asked the Rev. Dr. Jane Williams of Moravian Seminary to provide clinical supervision to this team. At the next clergy retreat, we will lay out the details of this ministry to the gathered clergy.

So this period of faithful change has many elements: listening and discernment; healing and reconciliation; encouragement and experimentation. It is the job of the Standing Committee to facilitate not only the practicalities of a search, but to provide for the pastoral care to and leadership for the Diocese.  

Because there will not be a neat hand-off from our current Bishop to the next, our task will look a little different. It will be essential that we provide opportunities to listen to one another, create a renewed sense of community, and to heal the hurts and minister to the grief that are normal in with this kind of change. Again, it is very important that we hear from you about your thoughts, ideas, concerns and vision. The small groups tomorrow are an important taste of the kind of work we will be doing together as we move together into a season of faithful change.

But first, it’s time to say “good-bye” and to celebrate the ministry of Bishop Paul Marshall that is now wrapping up. 

All of you are invited and encouraged to come to St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral in Wilkes-Barre on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15 at 3 pm when we say “farewell and Godspeed” to Bishop Paul and Diana Marshall. There will be a festive Holy Eucharist in the place where BishopPaul was consecrated and a reception afterwards.

I also invite you to give generously towards a gift in thanksgiving for the Bishop’s ministry. In addition to a fitting gift to Bishop and Mrs. Marshall, we also plan to give a special gift to the New Hope Campaign for a tangible memory in the Diocese of Kajo-Keji, both of which will be presented at the reception. Please go to diobeth.org and click on the link “Make a Gift.”

An important part of saying good-bye is making memory. We are creating a memory book and I also invite you to participate. Please send your greetings, your memories of Bishop Paul’s ministry among us and, best of all, photographs to us at Diocesan House c/o abond@diobeth.org. These will be gathered into a memory book that will be presented to Bishop Paul at the December 15 reception.

Conclusion

Blessed John XXIII told another gathering of Christians during a remarkable season of faithful change that the Church is "… not on earth to guard a museum, but to tend a blooming garden full of life."

We are 13,000 Episcopalians in 14 counties who gather in 60 mission outposts (also known as congregations) to follow Jesus and do his work. We are tending a garden of marvelous richness, variety and life. In a season of faithful change, our challenge is to prune, tend, cultivate and harvest. God has blessed with everything we need to succeed and grow as a community of God’s people. Together we will listen for God’s voice, imagine God’s future, and discover how we will share God’s love, telling what we see and hear.

Thank you for all your prayers and your support. Thank you for all the ways you serve Jesus every day. May God go with you in all you do.

The Rev. Canon Andrew T. Gerns is the Rector of Trinity, Easton and the President of the Standing Committee.

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