Bishops Executive Secretaries Together - Keynote Address

New Bern, NC
April 2, 2014

I need to begin by thanking you all for your ministry.  No bishop can long survive without the gifts you bring to an office or diocesan team.  The work you do, and the dedication and excellence you bring to the work, provide an essential kind of “brain” for the work of a larger body.  You are indeed the brains of the office – for you communicate, organize, moderate, pass on messages, receive data, and listen pastorally to demanding and upset people.  You remind forgetful leaders and prompt slow ones.  You challenge people to observe policies and procedures, turn in their expense reports, and communicate the results of parish elections and audits.  You maintain and publish calendars, manage travel schedules, and help get the word out by email, Facebook, twitter, and webpages – and voice mail.  To many people in your dioceses and other ministry settings, you are the public face of the office, and the way you respond to questions and complaints gives evidence that the person on the other end is beloved of God – or else next in line for a short trip to perdition!

And most of the time you labor in a continual stream of interruptions.  Those interruptions can either be unwelcome disruptions or the possibility of in-breaking glimpses of the reign of God.  Your response is more about how the interruption is received than its content.  When the phone rings, do you expect a hostile caller, or somebody crying for help?  Who is this stranger walking into the office – is he a problem or is she the face of God?

I marvel at your ability to keep an entire circus of objects in the air at once, juggling priorities, emergencies, and routine duties.  Perhaps you should rename this organization Bevy of Excellent Systems Technicians!  Not only do you manage details precisely and competently, but you can help to reform systems that aren’t functioning well.  The details you deal with give you the ability to see what does and doesn’t work, and offer those observations to the wider system for reassessment and change.  That’s an essential part of your ministry, and I would encourage you to take the initiative to challenge procedures and policies that are outdated, unneeded, or broken – or ones that could simply be better and more effective.  Change is not an evil word.  It is essential to health and vitality.

You sit in a central place in your systems, and you have the ability to draw people and resources together beyond local communities.  One of the ancient understandings of a bishop’s ministry is as a bridge-builder (pontifex).  As part of a bishop’s team, you share in that work of connecting, healing divisions, and bringing separated parts together.

The work you do is ministry – it is a vocation of service that is of deep and lasting importance to the wider church and the communities it serves.  Our work becomes ministry when we understand that we are connected to a larger body, that none of us can do it all, and that together we more nearly resemble the God in whose image we are made.  Each one of us has particular gifts for that ministry, and we’re supposed to be grateful and appropriately proud of those gifts.  When we’re using those gifts well, we find joy in the work, at least most of the time!

When there is a deep well of joy in our work, it becomes possible to respond to the interruptions as the in-breaking kingdom of God – that creative work happening right now – even if we never see its final completion.  We can expect to discover another facet of the image of God in the person who calls or walks in to the office.  The crises that roll over us like waves can be opportunities to discover the spirit of God at work in the midst of chaos.  Remember that first story of creation in Genesis:  the breath or wind of God blows over the waters of chaos and creation begins.  Without some chaos there is no creativity.  Your presence is an important part of responding creatively to chaos and change, helping others to find creative potential within it – you show others the face of God.

Change is challenging – how many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?  Thanks be to God, we’re changing all sorts of light bulbs, discovering new ways to light our buildings, and taking our light out from under old buckets out into the world to shed light to the nations.

Part of our changing nature as a church is our increasing diversity.  We are not a national church, we are not one kind of people or one nation’s church.  Today The Episcopal Church is present in 17 different nations – and that international character is part of our history and our identity.  Our formal name has been the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society for nearly 200 years.  Our component parts have shifted over the years, as Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Liberia, Cuba, and the church in Central America have mostly become autonomous parts of the Anglican Communion.  Yet we are still connected – we maintain covenant relationships with each one. 

We continue to grow in our interconnectedness, encouraging dioceses of this Church to build missional partnerships within and beyond The Episcopal Church.  Dioceses with companion relationships know how life-giving they can be for all partners.  Those links with Christians in other parts of the world teach us about other contexts, and help us all to learn to love our neighbors more effectively – both far away and closer to home.

As a Church we seek to strengthen the internal partnerships as well.  The churchwide staff and structures are here to serve – helping dioceses strengthen their own ministries and build partnerships everywhere.  Some of the staff and resources are deployed from the New York office, and increasingly, many are distributed across the landscape of our partnerships, from Panama to Scotland to San Diego, including several staff members in North Carolina.  Tom Brackett, who assists with church planting and redevelopment, is based in Asheville.  New Bern is home to the Office of Pastoral Development, with Bishop Clay Matthews, Lindy Emory, and Betsy Jutras.  The office is focused on pastoral issues relating to bishops, their election, training, and support.          

Our churchwide resources are oversee on a day-to-day basis by Bishop Stacy Sauls, and he has recently initiated a diocesan partnership program (DPP).  We want to ensure that you know who your partner is on the churchwide staff.  That person is meant to be a link with your diocese or ministry, and s/he has probably already made contact with your bishop and office.  That partner’s task is to be your first link with wider resources – to be the person you can call when you have questions or need to find out where to turn for particular human or financial or informational resources.  If your partner doesn’t know the answer, s/he will find someone who does.  We all are here to serve – as you are serving your diocese and bishop.  We’re all in this together, and as we seek to build bridges between parts of the larger body we’re doing helping it function more effectively.

Service or ministry is the work we share, and it is really only possible to be wholehearted about it when we believe in what we’re doing.  The vision or dream of the Reign of God is our guide, for Jesus claimed this as his mission at the beginning of his public ministry, when he read from the prophet Isaiah, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  It’s an image of a healed and reconciled world where all live together in peace because at long last there is justice.  The shorthand word for it is shalom, and it is ministry shared by the whole body.

We are indeed all in this work together, and I am honored to share it with you.  You are remarkable examples of connecting, reconciling, bridge-building ministry, and on behalf of The Episcopal Church, and the wider world, I give abundant thanks for you all.