But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:25
It has been seven months since our collective lives as a world, country, church, and people of the Holy One have radically changed. Many people call it the “new normal,” but there is nothing normal about this time; even so, it is our present reality. As we face it, our assurance is that the Risen Christ is with us, and the Holy One is guiding our steps through this valley.
No one can deny that this journey has been frustrating, anger inducing, confusing, and at times disheartening. I want to remind the faithful of our diocese that we are not enduring COVID alone. As a world- wide pandemic, millions are feeling the same anxiety, fear, and concerns. Each diocese, every church and faith tradition; all humanity is suffering. Let us hold all humanity in our prayers and offer the Holy One gratitude for the gifts in our diocese.
We must acknowledge those feelings and hold our tears sacredly. Yet this time has also been defined by creativity, love, pastoral presence, deep faithfulness, prayers of the heart and breathless moments of grace. In many ways, we do not know more than we did in early March about COVID, yet we hope for what we do not see and wait with patience.
My prayers in September - and now in October - are for patience. I recently shared this beautiful description of patience with clergy during our weekly call. Patience is something we must seek and then allow to lead us through this time. It has been written that a great source of suffering in the current century is impatience. Especially in the West, patience has become a virtually extinct characteristic.
As we know from scripture, Joseph was left in a well, Moses waited and wandered, and Jesus’ ministry did not begin for 30 years. Yet all the while, the Holy One was shepherding, directing, and doing great things in their lives. The same is true for us. We see the bountiful fruits of patience over time. Patience turns a simple leaf into silk. A seed waits until it sprouts. With nurturing, the sprout eventually forms into a tree that houses a myriad of life.
In the Islamic tradition, it is said that if today was the last day of the world and you have a sapling in your hand – you should plant it. We have more than a sapling; we have Christ, and we are filled with the gifts from God for the people of God. Let us continue to plant the seeds of faith, hope, and love. And may the fruits of that planting be joy, peace, kindness, trust, goodness, gentleness, and patience. While we face enormous challenges in the months ahead, the future of the body of Christ is strong. Let us renew our trust in the Holy one and wait patiently, with faith, to see all the good that comes out of this time.
Do not weaken, have no fear. As is written in James: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near (5:7-8).
COVID has impacted our churches in ways we could not have imagined. It has also injected a sense of anxiety regarding the future financial health of our churches. We cannot negate or gloss over these worries. They are real. During our clergy call each week, and with each church visitation, I listen deeply to these concerns, anxieties, and fears. I take them to heart and carry them in my prayers. Yet I am reassured by that still small voice that whispers, “I am with you always.”
As we move forward into 2021 and 2022, your voice continues to be important in the decisions we make together. We need to hear your thoughts, your questions, and explain the needs for our collective future before any changes are made. You are the diocese, and in our call to serve you, we enter into a sacred conversation rather than dictate. We are not a corporate institution or government; we are the living Body of Christ. The strength and health of our diocesan family do not come through top-down management. Instead, we share this sacred ministry. As long as the Holy One allows me to serve as your Bishop, nothing will be mandated. I honor and respect your voices and ideas, and we will enter into holy conversations together.
In the coming months and years, we will not have “ministry as usual.” Yet we can face these changes with confidence because we have dedicated our hearts to adapting and adjusting, all the while keeping our eyes on the Holy One. I ask that we pray for and support one another. When we grow frustrated, we must seek the face of Christ, and all the while we remain patient.
Because of COVID, we have made necessary changes to the budget. Over the last six months, we cut $250,000 to avoid potential deficits. We set up a special fund to assist churches who lost income or incurred new expense due to the pandemic. We organized free services and coordinated with our churches to promote their own efforts. At no time did we forget or neglect those in our community who are sick, hungry, and lost. This responsiveness to our siblings in southeastern Pennsylvania speaks to our faithfulness and strength.
For several reasons the budget process differed from past years. The pandemic caused us to forego our usual additional in-person budget discussion sessions. This was also the first year of the new Board of Trustees and Finance Committee; they have been faithful and prayerful in responding to your need. During the three Zoom budget sessions, the Finance Committee listened and took your concerns to heart. As a result, there will be no increase in our request for sacred gifts.
You may remember there were no increases in sacred gifts (financial contributions from churches) during 2017, 2018, and 2019. This was to allow our churches the chance to stabilize their operations. In 2020 they increased by only .02%. In response to your concerns, our new Board of Trustees has decided that there will be no increase in our request for sacred gifts in 2021. The 2021 budget replicates 2020, and the only increases are those required to cover the increased cost of operational expenses, health insurance, retirement, and cost of living adjustments.
Like the early church, we are called to distribute our wealth and offerings equally among your siblings in Christ. Therefore, I humbly ask that you share as God directs you. Share from your hearts so that together we can engage in God’s work in our community and the world. We give to the Lord and share our gifts and resources with all 134 churches across our diocese.
I have asked the Trustees to establish a fund to assist our churches who may face additional challenges at this time. The Trustees unanimously approved monies to help those churches who cannot share the full amount of sacred gifts, thereby alleviating an unnecessary burden and worry. This is an important demonstration of who we are as the Body of Christ. I want each of our churches to know that we are in this together. If any church is unable to give, instead of fear or anxiety, we can all rejoice together in knowing that they will be covered.
It is important to remember the Trustees must formulate a budget and sacred gifts amount, and it remains at 5.75% of 2019 parish Normal Operating Income (NOI) which is approximately the level of 2020 parish giving at this time. However, there will be no long-term increase in sacred gifts made without the input from the entire diocese. Together, we must discern whether to abandon an antiquated system for funding the ministry of your diocese. While a single-ask system of sharing will have long-term benefits in terms of sustainability, this will only come about after these discussions and then through a mandate of diocesan convention.
Thus, we will have a series of conversations in the spring to discuss how we fund the diocese and what changes we need to make for our financial health in the future. I hope these conversations will lead to a prayerful process that articulates how our sacred resources will be prioritized and what our diocesan ministry will look like over the next 10 years.
Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:8-11)
Due to our present reality and after consultation with Standing Committee, our Diocesan Convention will be virtual. While we deeply yearn to sit in the physical presence of our diocesan family, the risk is far too great. We will instead hold a streamlined convention where we will vote on diocesan offices and approve the budget for 2021. My deep gratitude to the convention planning team for their faithfulness, attention and deep care for each one of you. We will hold a test run and offer training. More information about the convention can be found here.
For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Romans 1:11-12)
I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. Jeremiah 24:7
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26
In what ways has the Church attempted to whitewash the past so that our sins of racism would not bleed through? Yet the blood of Christ that we elevate each Sunday always shines a light on the truth, and we must face it. Like Thomas, we must probe the wounds of the Body of Christ.
Racism and institutional racism have no home in the church. Yet, we have built a house with a foundation of sin that we must reset to rebuild. We can no longer act as if this sin does not exist and choose to ignore it. If we ignore or cannot see the sin, we have a heart sickness that affects the entire body. It affects our vision, words, actions, liturgy, and destroys our community. We cannot let our hearts harden, and for that reason, we need a revolution of the heart.
In early June, I called together a group of clergy from diverse backgrounds to meet and develop a foundational diocesan covenant on race, white supremacy and institutional racism that would guide our faith community in this holy work. Known as the Loving Presence, their ministry is based in scripture and centered around the Baptismal Covenant. It seeks to engage everyone as we walk this journey. Their work is not simply a statement, but a covenant that will effectuate change and bring about a revolution of the heart that is rooted in spiritual transformation, scripture, and the necessity for the people of God to enter into this pain. We must heal our hearts to heal the wounds of racism inflicted on our black and brown siblings.
As a people of God, where all are created in the image of God, we must all devote our lives to this ministry. If we are to banish the sins of racism, white supremacy, prejudice and hatred we must, through our lives and actions, make this the central truth of our faith and a lived reality. There can no longer be “us” versus “them”, or the determination of who is worthy and unworthy. The church must not cheapen the dignity or dehumanize any of the Holy One's beloved children.
This is not a short nor easy road, but a new path. It will involve truth-telling, support, acknowledgment, repentance, and transformation. This is the cross that we all must carry.
But if we take it up, and walk its arduous path, it will lead us into this new way of being, one of listening, embodying, repenting, and turning.
The Loving Presence path has been approved unanimously by Standing Committee and Diocesan Council. It will be presented to Trustees in mid-October. I will share further information and reflections through a video when their work is released later in the month.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:9-10)
The Challenge of the Future
The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts. Haggai 2:9
Above all, I look at this time of COVID as an opportunity for the future. In 2021 and 2022 your diocesan staff will continue to focus on supporting our churches. In particular, the Canons will increase their commitment, focusing 100% of their efforts on churches and community. But this is also a time to learn and grow. Our church has a strong foundation, an apostolic structure that helps form our community and prayer life. However, that does not necessarily mean that our administrative systems have to operate in an antiquated fashion. We have learned so much and made progress in our use of technology in a way that no one would have dreamed possible. It has left me wondering, what else might we accomplish, if we shed our fear and look to the future that God has for us?
In my next conversations with the Trustees and with Standing Committee, I would like for us to begin to discern some essential, fundamental, and prayerful questions that will guide us through the next two years and help frame our entry into our long-term pilgrimage as a diocese. I also ask that you contemplate these questions.
1. What will the post-COVID church look like?
2. As a church, are we challenging ourselves and one another in our ministries, outreach, and evangelism? If not, how can we meet the challenge?
3. What ministries are more critical at this time than others?
4. How can we maximize the efficacy and impact of our existing ministries?
5. What existing ministries can we consolidate?
6. Are we the only entity that can carry out the work, or are there other entities that can take it on, allowing us to concentrate on our most essential ministries?
7. How can churches partner in outreach? Is it necessary to have 3 food pantries all within the same community? If they combined their efforts, could they serve more people more efficiently?
8. How can we partner with other faith traditions or private entities for outreach and ministry?
9. How do we use our campuses seven days a week? What can we do to ensure that they are centers of community life and service all the time? What can we do to open them up to organizations that lost their buildings due to COVID?
10. How can we consolidate our administrative functions at both a diocesan and church level so that we can deliver the same effective results but at a lower cost?
11. What components of the diocesan structures can be restructured and realigned? Deaneries? The budget? Our process for resolutions? Etc.…
12. How can our diocesan churches partner with one another on all levels of administration and staffing so as to be able to function more efficiently?
13. How can we use the talents that are abundant among our laity to assist one another? Who will accept the challenge of the Holy Spirit to step up and reach out?
14. Do we need to start over and rebuild from the ground up?
We should also capitalize on what we have learned. How can we engage in ministry remotely without losing effectiveness, presence, or sacrificing our core identity? We must not stop but instead look to discern:
1. How can we maximize video conferencing?
2. How can we make use of technology to spread the Good News?
3. Do all the committees need to meet in person every month, or should we utilize the new technologies to reduce our footprint on the environment?
4. What is the future of office work?
5. How will these factors impact our budgets and use of space?
The fundamental question is: “what is Christ calling us to do?”
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. Ephesians 4:11-14
A Transitional Moment
I wanted to close by sharing a personal revelation. Over the past eighteen months, I have been led to a deeply spiritual place, all the while focusing on the beauty and power of the Holy One. COVID has led me further into prayer. As a child, I was taught that you cover your head with a shawl or scarf when you read or heard the word of God as we are in the presence of God (for this reason, you often see me with a scarf). A bishop wears the mitre during the Old Testament, Psalms, and the New Testament while removing the mitre during the Gospel. During Advent and beyond, I will be covering my head with a linen scarf rather than a mitre as it speaks to my natural desire for simplicity, jettisoning vestiges of patriarchy (women were always required to cover their heads), and a return to my history and cultural teachings. I look forward to teaching and engaging your questions about this new, yet old, practice.
My siblings, as you move forward, know that each day, I hold all of you in prayer. I also pray for the wisdom and patience to faithfully serve as the Holy One has called me to serve. In the end, I will account to the Lord and I cannot face the Almighty if I know that I have failed to serve each and every one of you from the depths of my heart and with whatever gifts the Lord has granted me. I can only promise you my unending devotion, faithfulness and love. May the Holy One bless you and may the divine peace cover each day.