We are goin’ heaven knows where we are goin,’ but we know we will get there. We will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know how will get there.
It will be hard, we know that the road will be muddy and rough, but we will get there. Heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.– Osibisa, a Ghanaian Rock band from the 70s.
It has been a challenging, messy, and rough road, but here we are with each other in person and online for our third Bi-Diocesan Convention! I am honored to join you on this adventure and enjoy visiting and connecting with you in this stunningly beautiful state! As we move, God is constantly making all things new among us, and we are grateful to notice them amid our personal and communal challenges. I am glad you could witness these new ways in your congregations at your tables.
Something new emerges from our wounds. Each of us has been to these places, perhaps some of us more than others, but we all resonate with the hard road we have traveled together. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, we have already come; Tis grace that brought us safe thus far, and will lead us home!” This amazing grace actuates our healing as individuals and as people!
Painful experiences can make us bitter or awaken us to be more humble, compassionate, and less full of ourselves. Grace helps us become more empathetic toward our neighbors and those who disagree with us. I have heard many stories about reaching out in friendship, inviting dialogue, and sharing meals and laughter in this politically divisive time.
I see evidence of grace almost everywhere I turn. Thank you for giving me the privilege of trust after experiencing hurt and betrayal of trust! I am deeply humbled by what I see. Let me name three ways I see you manifesting and practicing your faith in God and each other:
- Your deep and abiding faith in God shows up in your resilience. You keep on keeping on. You are put one foot in front of the other in faith!
- A dead-end becomes a place to figure out how to go where no one else has gone. Your deep and abiding hope in God shows up in your capacity for innovation. You are willing to go there with hope!
- Through a pandemic and a bishop’s suspension and resignation, you stepped up as leaders, sought each other out, and decided to protect each other and stay together. You stepped out in love! Your deep and abiding love for God and each other shows in your ability to build bridges and seek common ground.
These gifts of resilience, innovation, and bridge-building make you the beautifully contextual Michigander Episcopalians you are! You are also radiant because you constantly disallow your wounds to define you. This daily act of faith and bravery is a sign of an Easter people. Like the risen Christ, you still carry the scars but don’t allow them to represent you. Instead, you remember yourself constantly as the body of Christ. We are all hurt, people. To be wounded healers, however, we must move beyond our wounds. We take our cue from our sibling Jesus and move by learning to forgive ourselves, forgive others, self-differentiate, be emotionally grounded, trust and collaborate with others, be willing to change, listen deeply, reflect regularly, and laugh joyfully.
We saw God doing a new thing in each other. Look at how everyone pulled together, took care of things, and went out of their way to help each other through these last few years! We are grateful to the Standing Committees, Diocesan Councils, Commissions on Ministry, diocesan staff, Building Bridges Committee, Vestries, and other local leaders who rose to the challenge. We are also grateful to Bishops Bonnie, Doug, and Skip for stepping into gaps so we could keep moving as the body of Christ. It has been a significant team effort to the glory of God! One of our staff said, “I always knew that I worked with good people. It proved how awesome everyone is and how each went the extra mile to get our combined business done.”
We also know God is doing something new when we see evidence that something is counter-cultural. That is a sign of love instead of indifference in action. Some people in our culture are stoking ancient hatred through cultural and religious nationalism. These tensions take hold of our everyday life in the United States and worldwide. Political leaders of various parties are manipulating to turn us against each other through hateful expressions. Ideologies are masquerading as theologies of triumphalism, favoring a graded and controlling hierarchy. These challenge women’s rights, rights of people of color, migrant rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and human rights in general! Let me break some of these down so we can be wise as serpents and innocent as doves—a graded hierarchy comes from ancient notions of Christian cultural supremacy that is normalized. Seemingly Christian power bases rule the airwaves and manipulate vulnerable groups like the poor, regardless of color. When women and other minorities are treated with dignity they do live into their full potential and we are all better for it. Bridging the gaps between the divides and building awareness are spiritual acts of reconciliation. They are acts of resistance in this culture of division. God calls us to bless the world in this way at this time. God is doing a new thing and building bridges is that new thing.
Absorbing things uncritically leads us to accept narratives that often drug our consciousness. I believe we have become lathargic in the church by embracing what I would like to call anthropomorphic fatalism as the ordinary course of life. For instance, we have normalized the decline in our numbers by associating “hospice” status with churches before they close. I think this is theologically incompatible because the church of God is eternal. It will not die. When we uncritically attach our human cycles of life and death to that of the church, we have consented to anthropomorphic fatalism. Even when we naturally move to this place of expecting decline and death, we need to remember that we are Easter people and watch how God is doing a new thing in our midst. Sorry for that academic riff. It is one of my soapboxes.
We are grateful and see a spirit of openness to engage in collaborative conversations between congregations. This open spirit is a healthy sign. We are exploring vulnerability to try new ways of being Church amid our challenges. Look at some of our practices.
We have organic collaborations in the Thumb area, with the already-collaborative existence of Holy Family Blue Water and new opportunities with Lexington and Port Huron; these are a mark of hope. Other new and emerging ministries such as Holy Hikes, Plainsong Farm, and the Order of Naucratius are teaching us new ways of being church and are portals of entry to the Episcopal Church. St Stephen’s Episcopal Diaper Ministry in the former St. Stephen’s church, which we closed last year, is a sign of a new thing. St. James, Albion, and Trinity, Marshall are collaborating to call a priest to lead them both. Albion and Marshall have deep racial, socio-economic, and historical divides. How might healing and bridge building look?
The Up North Summit is taking agency for an ongoing gathering of lay and clergy leaders from mostly small churches. They will support and pray with each other, learn together, and catch the Spirit of God, who is doing a new thing. You are so dedicated to your Episcopal faith, to your parish, and your communities. It is infectious, in a good way! We are overcoming isolation and moving beyond the notion of one church, one priest, not as a deficiency but as an opportunity to build baptismal ministry and leadership. Small is not less. Smallness can be agile, potent, and full of transforming possibilities when grounded spiritually. Jesus’s parabolic images of faith and the kingdom of God were all about small things: light, salt, leaven, needle, mustard seed, etc.
These and other signs show that we can heal as we travel together. You have seen that God believes in you! You are funny and quirky saints with a deep and abiding joy! You are good people! Yes, the numbers show you as a declining church, and I am here to remind you who you are and how we might lean into what’s good about you!
One of the main things we need is a sense of direction. Clarity of purpose is helpful because if we need to know where we’re going, anywhere is okay. That is why we are investing in a facilitator to help us develop a common purpose, vision, and mission as east and west Michigan dioceses. Katie Ong–we’re very grateful for our amazing Katies–is capable and approachable and will accompany us over the coming months to help us pray, dig deep, and answer some questions about where we are going. We invite every person in your parish to engage in this listening and discernment process. The only way this will be successful is if you, as leaders, ensure that every person in your church participates. Why is this important? When we have clarity of purpose, we can decide how to get there. Then we can exercise our muscles of faith, hope, and love to move together and build the necessary sidewalk to get there. If you wish to help us do this listening and visioning work at the congregational level, please talk with Canon Katie Forsyth.
SIGNIFICANT INITIATIVES BEFORE US: Let me tell you about investing in a college for congregational development, regional canons, a strategic plan on camping, and raising financial resources.
- WHY COLLEGE FOR CONGREGATIONAL DEVELOPMENT: During my visits across the two dioceses, I have had several opportunities to sit with your vestry and other leaders. One such interaction was with the warden of a small church community selling their building and moving to a Lutheran Church. He looked me in the eye and said, “I wish the diocese had helped us develop a plan for a sustainable future sometime back.” I hear several versions of the same refrain. We have offered opportunities in the past, like DCDI and other tools and methodologies. We increasingly know that congregations need leaders who can work as teams of clergy and lay leaders to discern the best way to be the church in a rapidly changing world. Can we invest in developing leaders who can tackle the challenges we face as the church in the 21st Century? In my experience with apostolic leadership, I have seen firsthand the benefit of such an investment. The college for congregational development is not a quick fix but a long-term investment in the most critical endowment among us: our young and seasoned lay and clergy leaders. Over this past summer, I invited seven of our leaders to go on a scouting trip to explore the college. They are BJ Heyboer, Nancy Mayhew, Nancy Foster, Tracie Little, Radha Kaminski, Barbara Ilkka, and Katie Forsyth. These leaders, our own “magnificent seven,” spent a week at College for Congregational Development in Rochester, NY, and participated in the first of the two-year learning community. They came back energized and giddy with excitement. They will engage us tomorrow and give us a taste of what’s possible. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that decline is not a gospel value. The College offers methods and tools for leaders to get unstuck and congregations to thrive. I commend this resource for its theological grounding, audacious hope, gentle persuasion, and practical application. Skilled practitioners facilitate it.
- WHY REGIONAL CANONS? As we lean into each other, we have an opportunity to move to the next iteration of organizing ourselves. I have started exploring the next steps in consultation with the Joint Standing Committees and our current Canon staff. Why are we doing this at this time? When I started in early February, two Canon Missioners of Western Michigan indicated that their commitment to the former bishop was to serve until the end of May 2023 and then retire. Canons Ambrose and Hallmark will keep their promise with diligence and deserve the retirement they sought.
Canon James has told me that he wishes to draw this season of commuting from Chicago to Michigan to a close. His wife, the new Provost of the Cathedral, and most of his family are in Chicago. So after nearly four years of serving in this diocese, he would like to seek a call closer to home. All three situations are life-giving. While it is sad to see them go, I am grateful that their departure is not imminent. They will continue to serve us as they have until now and help us move into the next iteration of organizing ourselves over the next several months. We will have the opportunity sometime next year to celebrate them and express our gratitude! We are grateful for their loyalty and service through some of the most challenging times of the past few years!
Over the next few months, we will advertise, discern, and call three new staff members. They will join Canon Tracie Little to make a team of four Regional Canons. During this practice season, we will seek your input and determine how to carve out four horizontal regions across both dioceses. These will be full-time positions, and our regional canons will bring additional expertise in four priority areas for our Episcopal witness in God’s future. These areas are Discernment, Formation, Digital Community, and Campus Ministry. Discernment is to help bring leaders to the sacred ground of lay and clergy discernment of call because we are all called to baptismal ministry. Formation is to help lay, and clergy leaders grow spiritually and in missional leadership through our Academy for Vocational Leadership and College for Congregational Development–Canon Tracie Little will continue to develop this area. Digital Communities is to help nurture and sustain vibrant online communities of worship, formation, mission, and fellowship. And finally, Campus Ministries to help initiate and nurture connections between our congregations and college campuses.
- We are blessed to have our children and youth engaged in different ways throughout our church. Our Director of Children, Youth, and Young Adult Formation and her four regional youth missioners are a resource you can tap into to help initiate or join in the Christian formation of our youth. Our camps have kept bringing children and youth together despite the pandemic. We are blessed to have the Episcopal Youth Camp in Western Michigan and the potential to grow in developing young leaders through Plainsong Farm, a place where God, people, and food converge. We also have a long tradition of camping at Camp Chickagami, where we have formed disciples and leaders for nearly 100 years. All three leaders, Bill, Nurya, and McKenzie, are currently in a strategic visioning process to see how they can help develop a shared vision. Our children are present and future, and we need their witness and leadership!
- Finally, I believe in the need to build our financial resources to actualize our shared vision and mission. We invest in development over the next few years to invite all, especially people of means, to support our shared vision financially. We are grateful on All Saints Day for past generations who have left resources for us to steward. Following their example, we must invest in building the next generation of disciples and leaders for the Episcopal Church. Can you imagine the day when any child can attend a Christian Camp, knowing the church will almost entirely pay their fees? I can see it coming in the air!
- Let us watch out wisely for a culture of suspicion and triangulation. Wounded systems often do these through self-destructive practices of negativity. We need wisdom, but the devil does not need advocates among us. Remember, we’re on the same team, and not everything is a crisis requiring a rabbit-hole approach where we’re constantly meandering, rearranging the deck chairs, and losing our way from growth and vitality. Let us steward ourselves and invest in daily prayer and self-correct practices with the mirror of scripture, wise leaders, humility, reflection, and reason.
- Some of us are practical and may feel clear that we need just to become one diocese and then move together. We have chosen to do something other than that because we want to see how we walk together before we build the sidewalk. Let’s make room to be curious and humble to see where we walk before we conclude the structure.
• We need a group of committed catalysts who care about realizing Beloved Community to study and experiment on Multicultural ministry with a Latino emphasis across our body. We need action plans.
• I understand that we have twelve federally recognized reservations in Michigan. Seven of them are in the Lower Peninsula. How can we build bridges with the native communities and individuals among us? A group of Episcopalians from all four Michigan dioceses leads us into this work. In this vein, I wish to shout out to the Dismantling Racism Leaders, especially for your engaged commitment to the “Sacred Ground” curriculum and the truth-telling community of learners around the circle.
• Math scores fell in nearly every state, and reading dipped on national exams. How can the church help? We are about formation. Can we learn from and further develop the excellent work with reading programs that occurred in the past? Could we collaborate in our communities to create mentoring opportunities and access to high-speed internet for those without in rural, suburban, and urban settings and provide these with Safe-Church trained leaders? The new ChurchLands map offered by the Building Bridges group helps give us information on possibilities here.
• We have been rallying to bring our witness to end gun violence across our state through our engagement with End Gun Violence Michigan. And we have just created a bi-diocesan creation care working group. Please bring new and seasoned leaders to both of these priorities.
• The Academy for Vocational Leadership and the Coppage Gordon School for Ministry are gifts among us. We need the formation of different kinds. While we need seminary-trained leaders, we also need competent leaders trained at the Academy. Neither is superior, and both are required. We are Anglicans. We can do both and do them well. We are grateful for the fifteen new discerners in this year’s class who have stepped out in faith. God is doing a new thing. On a practical note, please give generously to the Bishop’s Discretionary Fund since I have made many promises in good faith.
I appreciate your kindness in the “benefit-of-the-doubt” category. People give each other the benefit of the doubt. I have seen you often lead not with judgment but with compassion. We are an imperfect yet emerging branch of the Jesus Movement with proven faithfulness expressed in our resilience, a refreshing hopefulness in our innovative spirit, and a deep love for God through simple acts of kindness. You do this regularly by praying for and visiting the sick and lonely, caring for a community garden, sharing food with the hungry, and supporting refugees from South Sudan, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and more.
You have been through a lot together. A pandemic is still here, though much reduced in its impact, a vulnerability in episcopal leadership, and our existential disappointments. Through it all, you have kept your faith in God, the church, and each other. God is doing a new thing! You are healing and inviting other people and systems to heal and reconcile.
Finally, “above all, do not forget your duty to love yourself.” –Soren Kierkegaard. To love yourself is the best stewardship of healing you can bring to this “season of practice.” Let us move together following Jesus, our North Star! We will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will. While we don’t have a map yet, we will trust in the one who has brought us thus far and embody what it means to pray. Because in Christ, there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. May God bless you and all the invisible saints among us!
What excites you about this “season of practice?”
What is one vulnerability in your congregational life that needs help from the larger church?
What bridges is your congregation building with your local or global neighborhood? What new bridges do you hope to build?