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Emerging from the Pandemic With A Church That Matters: Executive Council Opening Remarks

Presiding Jennings gave these opening remarks to an online meeting of Executive Council on April 29:

Good morning. I’m very glad to be with all of you, albeit remotely, as we all continue to adjust our lives and our ministries to the coronavirus pandemic. I know that we are all living on Zoom these days, and so I’m especially grateful to you for taking the time for a special meeting today.

Like many of you, I’ve spent hours and hours each week of the pandemic on the phone and on Zoom checking in with deputies, alternate deputies, members of interim bodies, and other church leaders. In many places, the initial shock has passed, and many of us rose to the challenge of observing Holy Week and celebrating Easter online with enormous style and grace. Even now, my social media feeds are full of daily office broadcasts and invitations to pray on Zoom and other platforms. Each Sunday, I can choose among hundreds of services offered by congregations large and small across the church. But as I told deputies in a letter last week, in order to promote stay-at-home harmony, I choose my husband’s broadcast from St. Timothy’s in Macedonia, Ohio.

But in other places, the ones we don’t see quite as much on Facebook Live, communities of color and poor and working class people are suffering disproportionately, getting sick and dying of the coronavirus at wildly disproportionate rates. This is true in Summit County, Ohio, where I live, and where black residents make up 15 percent of the population but represent 36 percent of positive cases. And it is even more true in other parts of our church. I corresponded with one of our deputies in the Diocese of Haiti last week, and here’s what he reported:

“While some people are home, many others are still on the streets, mostly the less fortunate to look for a way to make life happened. They don’t care about the virus because they have no choice than to be outside to try to fulfill their basic needs. Consequently, the risk to be infected are high even though officially we count about one hundred positive cases. We understand that any spread out of the infection will be catastrophic for the entire country. Prevention measures are quite a luxe [a luxury]. Only a few can afford it.”

As the elected leaders of the church, responsible for overseeing the work and budget of the DFMS, we are rightly turning our attention to what the pandemic will mean for the Episcopal Church in the months and years ahead. It is our responsibility to engage leaders across the church in strategic conversations that will undoubtedly be hard, but will ultimately transform our mission and ministry. And in order to emerge from this pandemic with a church that matters, I believe that we must keep the injustices and systemic racism that the coronavirus virus has laid bare at the center of our conversations about who we will become.

In order to do that, I see several areas that need our urgent attention. I shared them last week with the Executive Committee, and I want to review them with all of you this morning as we begin to consider the shape of our church in the years to come:

One is the revision of the General Convention budget to orient it toward support for our dioceses. As the financial collapse caused by the pandemic continues to unfold, we must revise both our income and expense plans for the remainder of the triennium, recognizing both that it will be quite some time before non-essential business travel resumes and before we can entertain any thought of holding large, in-person events. Instead, we need to assess how we can transform our grant programs to support more fully the new realities that dioceses and congregations are facing and consider how we can provide relief to the dioceses that will soon be unable to pay their assessments. The Presiding Bishop’s staff has done some important initial work in examining where expenses can be cut, and I am grateful for their efforts that will provide essential information for Executive Council’s budgetary work and financial oversight led by the Finance Committee.

Yesterday, the Faith and Leadership blog from Duke University asked twelve Christian leaders how the pandemic might affect the financial health and sustainability of churches in the United States. The entire article is helpful reading as we begin our budget deliberations, but I was particularly struck by a comment from Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches: “I am terrified of what the church might be on the other side of this,” she says. “I am terrified that we will come out on the other side of this and there will only be wealthy churches.” It is our job to help ensure that is not the fate of the Episcopal Church, and revising our churchwide budget is an important first step in that direction.

The second issue that needs our immediate attention is how to provide the resources and expertise that dioceses and provinces need to support congregations, schools, camps and conference centers, social service organizations, and other Episcopal entities. While every context is different, nearly all of our organizations can benefit from practical resources about how to reopen safely when the time comes, navigate various federal programs, and speak clearly on issues of justice, equity, and the stability of civil society. Episcopal Relief & Development, the Episcopal Church Foundation, and several other organizations and networks have done an admirable job providing important resources to date, but many people in the church experience this as a patchwork quilt of webinars, websites, and online meetings that can be time-consuming to navigate and present barriers to leaders who are not technologically adept. How can we proactively provide strategic thinking and coordination that will level the field and ensure that all of our organizations and entities can connect with us and with the resources they need?

The third is to embrace fully the tireless work that the Office of Government Relations and other advocates around the church are doing to address the injustices and systemic racism that have been made devastatingly clear by the virus. Since early March, the virus has made even clearer that our health care, employment, housing and voting systems are unjust and even deadly for far too many working class and poor people, many of whom are people of color and immigrants. The resolutions of General Convention help guide our advocacy for justice in all of these areas, and I long for lay and clergy leaders across the church to invest as much time and energy in these justice issues as are currently being invested in online worship. The leaders of Bishops United Against Gun Violence are often known to say that their network prays not as a substitute for action but in preparation for it, and I hope that we can help inspire our colleagues across the church to embrace that way of thinking.

I am eager to hear your thoughts about these priorities and to learn more about your experiences in the time of pandemic and the issues that are urgent to you and the people you serve. Thank you for your time and your leadership.