North Carolina bishop says 'go to the mountain to encounter God's word'

October 22, 2008

Bishop Michael B. Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina told those gathered October 21 at the Intercontinental New Orleans Hotel to "go to the mountain to encounter God's word" as they face changes in social and cultural context that require a "shift in the strategic thinking and praxis of African-American descent."

In delivering the keynote address at the Black Ministries Conference, titled "Grant Us Wisdom, Grant Us Courage, for the Living of These Days," in New Orleans, Louisiana, Curry cited journalist Gwen Ifill’s current book, "Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," saying Ifill identified a shift that has called forth a transformational time in black leadership.

Modifying the title of Ifill’s book to "the future of the black church in the Age of Obama," Curry quoted Matthew 16:28 and emphasized the words go, mountain, disciple, all. He said that emerging black political leaders tend to function multi-culturally and on an interfaith basis, and to create broad alliances.

He urged participants "to first go to the mountain," explaining that the mountain is the thin place where God can "break through and touch us" and that if the church is going to move forward in this future, it will have to go the mountain to "encounter God’s word through the word."

Curry told those gathered to go and make disciples.

"Teach folk, baptize them, make disciples," he said reminding the attendees that without a vision of life beyond mortal flesh, and with no hope, the people will perish.

“We've got a vision— that's the good news—a vision of God that loves us so much that he sent his only-begotten son," he explained.

"In the age of Obama, we are called, like the age of young black political leaders, to claim our heritage; be who you are; and then be more than that. Go beyond where you have been and make disciples of all nations and all God’s children," he urged. "Dare to have a heart and open your doors. The church can live if it will open itself to the people of God."

During the theological reflection that followed Curry's address, the Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse, New York, and chaplain at Syracuse University, said, "We can move forward and live into the vision God has for us if we remember who we are and from whom our authority comes—God—then we can go up to the mountain to get the big picture view and then come back down to do the hard work. All of us are called to hold, live, and carry forward the vision for God’s glory."

Participants spent the final portion of the day hearing from a panel of bishops: Orris Walker, bishop of the Diocese of Long Island; Chester Talton, bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Los Angeles; Gayle Harris, suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, and Barbara Harris, retired suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts. Arthur Williams, retired bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Ohio, served as moderator.

Walker shared his experience at Lambeth 2008, and expressed the great dismay expressed by many bishops about the exclusion of Bishop Gene Robinson of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Walker said two days were spent discussing the issue of human sexuality and that the majority of the bishops felt that the Church should be inclusive. Some bishops, he said, wanted to vote to reaffirm Lambeth ’98 conclusions, which expressed care for gay and lesbian church members, but stated that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Scripture."

Bishop Gayle Harris, who spoke on keeping joy in ministry, said that "joy is separate from happiness." She said both can seem to be present one moment and evaporate the next. Happiness is more dependent on pleasure. Joy is like a thread that is woven into the fabric of our being. It has the greatest power to transform us. It is a reflection of God’s own delight in us. Joy heals and broadens our understanding and courage. It allows us to be other-minded, going beyond ourselves.

She explained that joy is a companion that is always with us on our life journeys, but people don't often recognize it or feel it. "It walks with us like Jesus," she said.

Self-care and well-being for clergy were the topics for Talton. "It’s our natural inclination to help others," he said, "but our faith calls us to love others as we love ourselves." He said that faith calls people to care for themselves, but that clergy don't always take that seriously.

Saying that a healthy church depends on a healthy clergy, he focused on the four core points:

• Physical care - Clergy don't typically seek medical attention. They should at least have an annual physical.
• Emotional care – Clergy are so often available to others, Talton said, and it is important to set boundaries in work, so they have time for their own families, and for continuing education. When a priest needs emotional help, clergy groups offer mutual support.
• Spiritual support – Clergy give spiritual support, but they need it too, Talton said, suggesting that every priest work with a spiritual director who can help with ongoing discernment and ministry.
• Financial health –Talton suggested that all clergy should seek help from Church Pension Fund staff .

Talton recommended reading the book Ministry in Three Dimensions by Stephen Croft.

Harris also spoke on mutual ministry. She said, "The fact that laity and clergy are called to mutual and collaborative ministry in the church such as ours is a gift."

Harris said as Episcopalians renew their baptismal covenant, "we again acknowledge our call to make our credal statements and to reiterate the verbs of persevere, strive, seek."

She said there must be an investment in the community—the clergy lives in the community, and therefore is connected. "Let someone else do it for us" is a "welfare mentality" that is commonly held in churches, she explained. She also cited clergy salary review as an essential part of mutual ministry.

The conference continues through October 23.

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