The Kingdom of God is like Jazz: Becoming an Agile, Dynamic, and Gracious Church
I’m one of those music lovers whose taste runs the gamut from contemporary to traditional, baroque to blues, Latin rhythms to techno beats, fusion to Afro-pop, secular to spiritual. But most of all, I love jazz. Born of the inevitable encounter between African folk music and classical European forms, originating in the field hollers of plantation workers, jazz is highly contextual, adaptive, agile, dynamic, responsive, participatory, and improvisational. Or as jazz musician J.J. Johnson put it: “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.”
Restless. Fidgety. Toe-tapping and finger-drumming. Itching to do something. Impatient. Shaking off the bonds of convention. Experimenting. Taking risks. Making mistakes and sliding into unexpected notes and rhythms. All informed by tradition but not limited by it. That’s jazz. And that’s us. The Diocese of Eastern Michigan.
Let me play a few notes of the tradition and the improvisation that characterize the music we make.
What would you do if someone shattered the glass and broke into your basement? Install a new alarm system and lose a bit more trust in the goodness of humanity? Not the folks at Calvary in Hillman who chose hope over fear and love over suspicion. An unexpected break-in on the night before their food pantry distribution led to an unexpected partnership in cleaning-up and breaking bread together. Clients and servers swept up, shared a meal and sowed the seeds of a crock pot ministry that empowers the powerless and feeds the hungry, physically and spiritually.
With Flint and Saginaw ranked #3 & #4 respectively among the FBI’s list of most violent cities, our churches and institutions are taking creative approaches to address issues around violence and injustice:
The Very Rev. Jay Gantz and the leadership team at St. Andrew’s in Flint continue to stake a claim for Christ in the crime-ridden eastside of the city abandoned by many residents, businesses and churches. Tough, talking and in-your-face-honest, Fr. Jay has blended Anglo-Catholicism with 12-Step Spirituality and joined forces with the gritty determination of an unlikely band of parishioners to provide a space that feeds the body and the soul while unashamedly facing down the scourge of neighborhood violence.
Meanwhile, in the central city, St. Paul’s in Flint, under the leadership of the Rev. Dan Scheid, is deepening its partnerships with Crossover Ministries and Christ Enrichment Center to address issues of hunger, literacy, and repurposing of lives. Together, the Rector, Vestry, and congregation are becoming a more visible and prophetic witness for justice, most recently in response to the lack of adequate access to clean, healthy water.
To the north, the Very Rev. Judy Boli and the leadership of St. Paul’s Saginaw have mobilized their spiritual resources in a bold reclamation of God’s land that has been desecrated by murder. With a team of parishioners and in conversation with residents, prayers are said and hymns are sung to re-sanctify land where a senseless loss of life has occurred.
With Michigan as the only state to lose population in the last census update and with the population of our diocese aging, it could seem counter-intuitive to focus energies on youth and young adults, but that’s exactly what’s happening at Transfiguration in Indian River. This older congregation in a resort and seasonal community is reaching out to all ages with its innovative intergenerational Christian Formation program, Messy Church, led by Missy Harrison. Additionally, like the older congregation at St. Elizabeth’s in Higgins Lake, they send numerous local children to summer camp at Camp Chickagami — mostly non-parishioners.
Camp Chickagami continued its phenomenal growth in 2015 with 194 campers — almost double the previous year — re-establishing itself as the centerpiece of diocesan ministry with youth, young adults and families. With an even more ambitious program and expansion of camping opportunities in 2016, Camp Chickagami will require additional creative support and energies in the years to come. The calling of McKenzie Bade to serve as Facilitator of Youth and Young Adult Networks and as the first Executive Director of Camp Chick is a bold and risky move designed to enhance our ministries not only through summer camp but also through support and encouragement of ministry networks of youth and young adults.
Both Bishop Bill Gordon, our spiritual founder, and Ed Leidel, our first bishop, partnered with the people of Eastern Michigan to be responsive to local contexts and to risk boldly for the Gospel. That spirit continues with such experiments as the one between St. John the Baptist in Otter Lake, Grace in Lapeer and St. John’s in Dryden. Casting aside the old models of one priest for one congregation or one priest spread too thin among multiple congregations, they’ve embraced a model of abundance over scarcity that has four priests serving the sacramental needs of three congregations while maintaining the integrity of each congregation’s operation. Over the course of the years they’ve embraced this model, it has been dynamic, ever-changing and open to adaptation.
Adding to the mix of sacramental leadership models already in place, 2016 will see the formal introduction of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, whereby those congregations entering a covenant with their bishop will be allowed access to a liturgical form that will provide communion on a regular basis even in the absence of a priest. This experimental provision stretches our canonical boundaries while maintaining a faithfulness to the tradition — a clear example of ecclesiastical jazz.
Formation opportunities for individuals and congregations have expanded in 2015 with the initiation of the Diocesan Congregational Development Institute under the leadership of Canon Mike Spencer and in collaboration with the Diocese of Western Michigan with support from the Diocese of Northern Indiana. Through the Institute, congregational teams of clergy and laity from both Eastern and Western Michigan are being empowered for more faithful and effective ministry in their local contexts. The Coppage-Gordon School for Ministry, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Val Fargo, continues to collaborate with the Dioceses of Michigan and a new partner, the Diocese of Western Michigan. Their collaboration, known as the Academy for Vocational Leadership, provides a time- and cost-effective local program of formation for ordination as deacon or priest. Furthermore, The Biblical Wild, an award-winning teaching series produced by Katie Forsyth, continues to reach individuals and groups within and outside the diocese with an exploration of each book of the bible.Experimentation and collaboration are essential elements of jazz as is openness to where the music and the spirit take you. Reaching across congregational, denominational, and racial boundaries, churches in the Blue Water area have continued a series of “Community Conversations on Race” designed to address the ongoing legacy of slavery and racial injustice in our country. Unlike many such conversations that quickly lose momentum, they have widened the circle and developed increased energy for finding ways to talk about important spiritual matters that divide us. This same area of the diocese continues to engage in an effort known as the Blue Water Initiative, designed to bring together congregational leaders from across the region to explore ways in which networked and collaborative ministries might be developed. The work is experimental and improvisational and sometimes defies convention. Sounds a lot like jazz.
A convergence of dreams for a new kind of diaconate and the rise of passionate voices for justice led to the emergence of a Social Justice Network, focused on mobilizing to address justice issues around violence, poverty, and health. More information can be found on Facebook at the Social Justice Network of the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan.
On a slightly different note, I have to say a word or two about Barb Meikle, faithful Assistant to the Bishop for the past thirteen years. She’s been the gracious voice of welcome and symbol of hospitality for the Diocese and the one to keep both Bishop Leidel and me organized. Content to play a behind-the-scenes role, she’s uncomfortable with attention being drawn to her and is no doubt blushing at this moment, so I won’t draw out any further my thanks and appreciation. I do hope you will join me in giving thanks for Barb’s ministry among us these past years and wish her and Bob a joyous retirement. Barb, if I’ve embarrassed you, well . . . as they say in Canada. Sorry.
Two final words before I close: first, I continue to give thanks for the tremendous privilege of serving with you as Bishop of Eastern Michigan. Your tenacity, your spirit and your willingness to stretch the boundaries provide me the grace notes necessary take more risks, make more mistakes in service of holy possibility, and to slide into unexpected rhythms of life and ministry. Second, I’ll turn the closing of this year’s Bishop’s Address over to a voice of the present and the future: Ryan Zavacky, member of St. John’s Alma, 2014 graduate of Alma College, and one who has recently completed his year-long commitment to the Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corps. Ryan . . .
The Right Reverend Todd Ousley