House of Deputies

of The Episcopal Church

Embarking On An Unknown Future: An Address to the Joint Conventions of the Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania

President Jennings gave this keynote address to the joint diocesan conventions of the Diocese of Western New York and the Diocese of Northwestern Pennyslvania on October 26, 2018. She was introduced by Bishop Sean Rowe:

Thank you, Sean, and thank you Bishop Franklin for your kind invitation to be with you during this pivotal time in your dioceses. I am especially glad to be here with the deputies from both Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York, and with my fellow Executive Council members Rose Sconiers and Lillian Davis-Wilson. I am grateful to all of you for your service to the church.

Being here in the Diocese of Western New York almost feels like being home, because I hail from next door in the Diocese of Central New York. In fact, it was a mere forty-four years ago that I went to see the bishop of Central New York to tell him I was going to seminary. I had already been accepted at seminary and I was going on my own self-devised trial year. I didn’t really see what the bishop had to do with it, but the rector of my parish said I should let him know. So, I met with Bishop Ned Cole, who looked like Methuselah, and I told him what I was doing.

It was two weeks after the ordination of the Philadelphia 11—the brave women who defied the canons of the Episcopal Church to be ordained to the priesthood by Bishops Daniel Corrigan, Robert DeWitt, Edward Welles, and Tony Ramos. Although he was in favor of the ordination of women, Bishop Cole was not amused.

He said, “Young lady, why exactly are you here? What would you like from me?”

I said, “I came because my rector told me I had to come see you. And so here I am. And I don’t want anything from you.” He replied, “You are the first person in a very long time to come to see me who doesn’t want anything.”

He then looked at me over the bridge of his bifocals and asked me a question that I somehow knew was very important to him. He asked,

“Gay, what will you do if you’re not ordained?”

I looked him square in the eye and said without hesitation, “Something else!” He burst out laughing and told me he hoped he would be one of the first to know if I decided I wanted to be ordained.

And so, during forty years of ordained ministry, I have always had a heart for people who wanted to do something else. So, it’s a particular honor to be here today with you as you consider the option of doing just that.

But the fact that I’m here with you today is also proof that both God and Bishop Sean Rowe have a sense of humor. Because based on the way you and I met, Sean, there was never any guarantee that you would ever invite me to do anything.

About ten years ago, I was working for CREDO, the Church Pension Fund’s clergy wellness program. And due to a CPG staff person’s vacation, I was on call to receive requests for advice on handling misconduct since I had done that for seventeen years as the canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Ohio.

So, one day my phone rang, and it was this young bishop. And when I say young, I mean young. I had casserole dishes older than this bishop. He told me about his situation, and I, in my shy and retiring way, told him exactly what he needed to do. Then, on the other end of the phone, I heard that sound that Sean makes. You know that sound—“wellll…”

I hadn’t talked to Sean before, so I didn’t know that’s the sound he makes when he’s thinking. I thought he was trying to get out of doing a hard thing. Obviously, I know better than that now. But at the time, I thought I was just going to have to pin this young’un down. So I said, “Bishop, you just need to man up and do it.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, and then a long laugh. “Did you just tell me to man up?” he asked.

“Yes, I did, Bishop.”

And that is how we ended up being fast friends. Over the years, Sean has been the only bishop ever to sit on the President of the House of Deputies Council of Advice—we make fun of him at the meetings sometimes, but he takes it well—and this triennium, he’s going to be the only bishop on the House of Deputies State of the Church Committee. I’ve appointed him to these positions not just because he and Carly have produced the perfect child, my goddaughter Lauren, but because he knows a lot about something that matters a lot to me. He really knows how to get people thinking about how the church can change to meet the challenges of the future, and he really understands that we have to do it together—laypeople, clergy and bishops.

That’s not always neat and easy, and it’s not always simple, but we need that kind of thinking in today’s church. I’m beginning my third triennium as House of Deputies president, and during my entire tenure, the Episcopal Church has been exploring ways to restructure for mission. The way that you are exploring is bolder and more thorough than most, but all around the church, people have realized that to be a new church in a new time economy, we have to change and we’re going to have to let go of some things.

Now, you might have noticed that not everyone is sanguine about letting go. Our passions about restructuring the church are evidence that we are aware the church many of us once knew is coming to an end. Some of us are grieving that loss, and some of us feel quite liberated by it. The good old days, it turns out, weren’t so good for everyone.

  • Around the church, I hear people talking about how to support relationships and networks around the church without a large, unsustainable hierarchy.
  • We’re talking about how to conserve our treasures—buildings, fabric, fine arts and history—without becoming overseers of museums.
  • We’re talking about how to restructure, reorganize and consolidate dioceses for local mission, just as you are considering doing here in this region.
  • We’re talking about the future of lay and ordained ministry and how to educate people to answer God’s call to transform the church and the world.
  • We’re talking about the justice issues of living wages and health care and how to compensate people for ministry in the new economy.
  • We’re talking about how to broaden and deepen our long, hard struggle to eliminate racism, sexual abuse and harassment, and discrimination against LGBTQ people so that our energy and vigilance for securing and maintaining rights within the institutional church is matched by our passion for justice in the world.

When we do restructuring best, we do it in the ways that you all have been practicing during your discernment process of the last fourteen months. We do it together—laypeople, clergy and bishops—and we do it in ways that are focused on making more mission possible. In fact, it is our church’s fundamental value of shared governance that makes our participation in God’s mission possible. In her seminal book We Are Theologians, Professor Fredrica Harris Thompsett, who is also a deputy to General Convention, writes:

Historically, laity have brought essential gifts to Christian societies and institutions. They have been successful organizers, pushing the frontiers of Christian mission beyond the confines of parochialism and denominationalism. They have identified pragmatic needs for reform and social welfare, shaping institutions and occupations accordingly. Lay people have broadened our social understanding, expressing diversity as a fact of life, not a problem to be solved.

This is the DNA of our Episcopal identity. And I believe that when we hold fast to what we know is essential in our identity, we can be more savvy in figuring out what we can let go.

Now, you faithful Episcopalians here in our region of the country are among the last people who need to be told that the model of church I knew when I was growing up in the Baby Boom is gone, and it’s not coming back. There are fewer jobs for full-time clergy, less operating revenue for congregations, less pledge income and fewer pledges. Our buildings are aging, deferred maintenance is an epidemic, and a higher proportion of the church’s resources are being used to pay for clergy than in the past. On many fronts, the Episcopal Church is being told by the Holy Spirit to do something else in the 21st century.

There are at least two ways to think about the kind of change we need to make:

We can think about it as people who are the custodians of a once-grand institution that is charged with maintaining those buildings, that prayer book, that cultural and social status, those canons and constitution which, by the way, were not received by Moses on Mount Sinai in the year 1,300 BC.

If we church leaders think we are primarily guardians of the institution of the church, pretty much everything looks like loss and decline. When we’re digging in our heels and clinging to old ways, being told to do something else, even by the Holy Spirit, feels threatening. It’s depressing to think this way, it makes the Holy Spirit into something of a bully, and I don’t recommend it.

But we can also think about change as Jesus’ followers, as people who are secure in our identity as children of God in the Episcopal Church. The world might swirl around us, but we know who we are, and we can stretch our identity, our faith, and, yes, even our structures to accommodate the changes we need to make.

I have a friend and colleague, Mathew Sheep, a business professor in Florida, who thinks that this ability to stretch our identity is the great strength of the Episcopal Church. For about ten years, he and two other researchers studied the Episcopal Church’s identity. They started their study in 2004, the year after Gene Robinson was elected bishop in New Hampshire, and their paper titled “Elasticity and the Dialectic Tensions of Organizational Identity:  How Can We Hold Together While We’re Pulling Apart?” was published in 2015 in the Academy of Management Journal.

Basically, Mathew and his colleagues found that we Episcopalians are pretty elastic. What exactly does it mean to be elastic?

In an interview with the news department at Illinois State University where he formerly taught, he explained it this way, saying that sometimes, through strategic change, organizations begin to construct a different identity for themselves.

“When you do that,” he says:

[T]here are members and leaders in your organization who will say, “Great. Welcome. Come on in. It’s a big tent. Let’s include everybody. Let’s include all of these identities. Our identity is elastic enough to accommodate all this.” There are others who will say, “That’s not who we have always been. That isn’t true to our roots. It isn’t true to who we have been in the past.” So they are constructing it in a more inelastic sort of way.

I am quite sure that all of you, veterans of many church meetings and committees, are familiar with these two schools of thought. I’m a big fan of the one where we say, “Great. Welcome. Come on in. It’s a big tent. Let’s include everybody.” I am a fan of this approach to Episcopal identity not just because my friend Mathew Sheep studied it for ten years, but also because Jesus said that’s how we’re supposed to do it.

If you are feeling particularly optimistic this afternoon, this might sound easy. Yes! You might be thinking, let’s be elastic and do what Jesus told us to do. Let’s follow the Holy Spirit and see where she leads us. Let’s do something else.

I am here to tell you, after more than forty years of serving the church at every level, that being elastic is not easy. It can be frustrating, it can take a long time, it can leave you longing for the old comfortable ways and the old comfortable models. It can make you wish for a Father Knows Best bishop with a clear set of rules to follow. It can even force you to collaborate with people who are not your people, people who do not see the world the same way that you do. It’s hard. As my mother used to say, the only person who really likes change is a wet baby.

But although being elastic and doing something else isn’t easy, I believe it is what God is calling us to do. It has fallen to us, during this societal, cultural and political upheaval in which we live, to ensure that the church’s mission continues and becomes more life-giving to our congregations, our communities, and to all God’s people. It’s up to us to do something else.

As you embark on whatever future you will soon decide is before you, I want to leave you with some thoughts about how to navigate the kind of change that is facing all of us who lead the Episcopal Church today, and then I’d like to have some conversation.

I was a big fan of David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, and over the years, I’ve made a number of them for the Episcopal Church. Here’s my Top Ten list of things for church leaders to remember in times of change.

10. We’re here to serve the church, not the other way around.

9.  Consider your theology of power. We all make choices about how we use power and exercise leadership—choices that shape not only the church and the dioceses, congregations and institutions we serve, but also our very hearts and souls.

8. Be kind. If you wouldn’t say it face-to-face, don’t post it on social media or gossip behind someone’s back.

7. No triangles. If you’re unhappy with someone, deal with it directly.

6. Pray for the people with whom you serve—the members of your vestries, your fellow delegates to convention, the bishops and their staffs. Pray for the people who make events like this possible and for the people of your dioceses and the Episcopal Church.

5. Do your homework. Be responsible for the work you’ve been given to do.

4. If you don’t understand something, ask a question. If something isn’t clear to you, it’s a sure bet someone else doesn’t get it either.

3. Renew the spiritual practices that keep you centered, attentive, and humble so that you show up in body, mind and spirit.

2. Seek Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. Remember that this doesn’t mean agreeing with your neighbor, or staying silent if your neighbor needs to be held accountable, or avoiding healthy conflict.

1. Remember that your fellow leaders and the people we serve in the church are the beloved children of God—made in God’s image, redeemed by God’s Son, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

We’ve got a few minutes left before we hear from your bishops, so I’d like to suggest two questions for you to discuss at your tables:

In this time of change:

  1. What do you think is essential for the Episcopal Church to hold on to?
  2. What do you think the Episcopal Church can let go of?