The following are the opening remarks of President of the House of Deputies the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings at the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church, currently meeting through November 18 in at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, MD.
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings
President of the House of Deputies
November 15, 2015
This is a day I’ve been looking forward to since July 3. I’m delighted to be here with all of you who have agreed to serve our church as members of Executive Council, and especially with you, Michael. What a great start we have had.
This afternoon, according to our agenda, we’re going to have a chance to get to know each other, our passions and interests. So I’ll start.
After three years as president of the House of Deputies, I’m even more interested in how we in the Episcopal Church manage change. I’m really interested, as I told the people of the Diocese in Vermont last weekend at their convention, in how we figure out what God’s mission is for us today.
We used to be fairly certain, we Episcopalians, that we knew all about God’s mission. Some of us even thought that we were in charge of explaining it to everyone else. But, as it turns out, as a Church, we need to do some remedial discernment work. We need to think again about God’s mission for The Episcopal Church in our time.
We did some great work together at General Convention, and as a result, we are clear about our work of racial reconciliation and evangelism. We’ve got a budget that is more aligned with our priorities than in the past, and we have a clear plan for the way that dioceses can participate in our common life by paying reasonable assessments. We’ve eliminated most of our standing commissions and created a lot of task forces, which we hope will make us more efficient—dare I say nimble?—and responsive. By the way, I can tell you that playing interim body musical chairs has not made the process of appointing people to serve more efficient, but I have high hopes that when we convene the meeting of Interim Bodies on Wednesday afternoon, the energy will be high and we’ll be ready to get to work.
Also, we’ve got a new presiding bishop that people seem pretty excited about. I’ve heard he can preach. And I can tell you that we have already developed an excellent working relationship and for that I am most grateful. Working together for the cause of Christ is what we are all called to do.
So, the stage is set this triennium for us to participate more clearly, more fully, more wholeheartedly in God’s mission for the Episcopal Church.
We know some things about what God’s mission for us is not. It is not the model of a church building with a full-time priest that many of us knew when we were growing up. According to Dr. Matthew Price, vice president of research and data for the Church Pension Fund, 32% of congregations who had at least one priest in 2006 had experienced a decline in the number of clergy on staff by 2013, and of congregations that had one clergy person in 2006, 30% had no clergy person in 2013. So if the old model of a dedicated building with a full-time priest is required for us to do God’s mission, we’re in trouble.
We also need to let go of the idea that we need a lot of money do to God’s mission: Between 2006 and 2013, congregations experienced a 7% decline in operating revenue, an 8% decline in pledge income, and an 11% decline in pledge cards. There was no decline in clergy compensation amounts, so that means a higher proportion of the church’s resources are being used to pay for clergy now than in the past. We know that’s not sustainable.
One of my favorite poets, John O’Donohue, wrote about the change we are now facing:
To change is one of the great dreams of every heart—to change the limitations, the sameness, the banality, or the pain. So often we look back on patterns of behavior, the kind of decisions we make repeatedly and that have failed to serve us well, and we aim for a new and more successful path or way of living. But change is difficult for us. So often we opt to continue the old pattern, rather than risking the dangers of difference. We are also often surprised by change that seems to arrive out of nowhere. We find ourselves crossing some new threshold we had never anticipated. Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality begins to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.
“We find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.”
Now, that sounds to me like a description of how we get even closer to God’s mission.
By any measure—demographic, financial, liturgical, spiritual—the Episcopal Church is negotiating the challenge of a threshold right now. There are at least two ways to think about this kind of change:
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. If we think about crossing the threshold as guardians of the institution of the church, pretty much everything looks like loss and decline. It’s depressing to think about change in the church this way, and I don’t recommend it. And it doesn’t really seem like the path to discerning God’s mission.
So let’s think about it differently this triennium. We can also think about change—about standing on the threshold—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 to accommodate the changes we need to make.
I have a wonderful friend and colleague, Matthew Sheep, a business professor at Illinois State University, who thinks that this ability to stretch our identity is the great strength of the Episcopal Church. For the past decade, he and two other researchers have been studying the Episcopal Church’s identity. They started their study in 2004, the year after Gene Robinson was elected bishop in New Hampshire. They’ve had their work accepted for publication in the Academy of Management Journal, which is just as impressive as it sounds. The title of the study is “Elasticity and the Dialectic Tensions of Organizational Identity: How Can We Hold Together While We’re Pulling Apart?”
Basically, Matthew and his colleagues found that we Episcopalians are pretty elastic. What exactly does that mean? In a recent interview with the news department at Illinois State University, he explained it this way:
People might be constructing (identity) when an expansion is going on, like for a merger or an acquisition or when there is a strategic change. So when you do that, there 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 any of you who have ever been to a vestry meeting, much less an Executive Council meeting, are familiar with these two schools of thought. I’m a big fan of the first one—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 Matthew studied it for ten years, but also because Jesus said that’s how we’re supposed to do it.
God knows who we are as the people of God in the Episcopal Church, and God knows it’s not about buildings or full-time clergy or social status or endowments. And because God knows those things, I believe God has a new mission for us. Just like John O’Donohue says, “Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation.”
I’m pretty passionate about these huge changes fermenting below the surface of our common life, and I’m excited about the prospect of working with all of you to help lead our beloved church through these changes. I’m feeling pretty elastic this triennium, and I’m ready to get started.
As we do this work, I am struck by something I saw when I was in Korea last month to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Anglican Church in Korea and attend the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries International Consultation. There was a grand festival Eucharist in the Cathedral Church of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Nicholas in Seoul. At the front of the procession was the processional cross. What is usually at the end of the procession? (People responded by saying “The bishop.”) In Korea, and I was told this is their usual practice, the cross is carried in front of the procession, and there is another cross at the very back of the procession. Front and back – we are bookended by Christ. As we sang this morning, Christ in front of us, and Christ behind us. Thanks be to God!