Bishop’s Address – The 233rd Convention of The Diocese of New Jersey
The Hyatt Regency Hotel, Princeton, New Jersey
Friday, March 3, 2017
The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, 12th Bishop of New Jersey
Prayer for the Diocese (Book of Common Prayer 1979 – p. 817)
O God, by your grace you have called us in this Diocese to a goodly fellowship of faith. Bless our Bishops and other clergy, and all our people. Grant that your Word may be truly preached and truly heard, your Sacrament faithfully administered and faithfully received. By your Spirit, fashion our lives according to the example of your Son, and grant that we may show the power of your love to all among whom we live; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Greetings. Grace and peace to all.
I give thanks to God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us together in the power of the Holy Spirit to do Christ’s work in this part of God’s realm that is the Diocese of New Jersey. We are a community of the called – 144 congregations comprising a kaleidoscope of people – different ages, different races, ethnicities and nationalities, different sexualities, rich, poor, liberal, moderate, conservative, young and old, all united in Christ’s name to do the work he has given us to do. Praise and thanks be to God for this call. Amen.
It has been my great privilege to welcome to this convention The Reverend Becca Stevens, Tracey Warfield, Kim Stevens, Lori Wright, and Heather Davis; also, Maura Flynn and her mother, Anne Flynn. Welcome again to Bishop Councell and Bishop Belshaw. Welcome Bishop Mark Beckwith of the Diocese of Newark and Bishop Blair Couch of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church and the Eastern District.
Charles Wesley, who we honor today, along with his brother John, wrote in one of his great hymns, “Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees and looks to God alone; Laughs at impossibilities, and cries it shall be done.” That’s why we’re here, my brothers and sisters – to look at impossibilities and to cry out, it shall be done!
According to the canons of The Episcopal Church, the bishop’s address is to be a report on the state of the diocese. Today, I report to you what most of you already know: The Diocese of New Jersey faces tremendous challenges. There is vital, life-changing and hope-giving ministry going on across the diocese, as the video of the year in Review made clear. This video provides only a glimpse of the many thousands of lives that are touched by the ministries of our 144 congregations including our chaplaincies.
It’s not easy being church today. I acknowledge this to almost every congregation I visit. It’s not easy being Church. We live today in a culture whose primary religion is consumerist materialism with its subsets –celebrity and sports. We’ve seen this writ large recently with the Super Bowl and the Oscars. It impacts everything: people’s time, family priorities, Sunday mornings, spending priorities, charitable giving habits, including church giving, you name it.
American culture has now largely rejected the Christian Gospel outright as an increasing number of people check the “none” – N – O – N- E – box of religious identification. Where a gospel has been accepted, it is often a corrupted prosperity gospel whose primary evangelical message has been co-opted by the dominant religion of consumerism. This prosperity gospel focuses more on self-fulfillment and material acquisitiveness than it does on the cross of Jesus Christ and baptismal living and identity in his name.
Our American culture, as it exists now, is a culture in which healthy individualism has largely deteriorated into unhealthy and destructive selfishness. It is almost impossible to discern a “public square” and a “common good” where all of us can meet and agree on some essentials for community living. Instead, we the people allow ourselves to be pushed and pulled, manipulated into various camps which are all highly charged politically and highly polarized socially. Too often, we can’t even talk to one another with mutual respect and dignity and build relationships for healthy civic discourse. None of this is good.
In this Convention Hall, some of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are living in fear today: members of our Hispanic community – many of them immigrants, LGBTQ persons, people of color, women – who believe, not without cause – that their rights and place in this society are being attacked and eroded and that their safety in this culture is in jeopardy. We hold all of them with special care today.
Recently, one our priests who has an Episcopal Church shield on his car, found his car, which he had parked on the street, defaced with a swastika. How does God call us to be a diocesan community in the midst of all of this? I can tell you this: we will always stand with vulnerable people in danger – and on that we can make no compromise.
In their vitally important book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, first written in 1985 and republished in 1999, sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues studied American life. They clearly recognized the path toward destructive individualism on which this nation has been heading for decades. They also sensed there is a way out of it. In the introduction to the 1996 edition, Bellah wrote:
In times of economic prosperity, Americans have imagined individualism as a self-sufficient moral and political guide. In times of social adversity…they are tempted to say that it is up to individuals to look after their own interests. Yet many of us have felt, in times of both prosperity and of adversity, that there is something missing in the individualist set of values, that individualism alone does not allow persons to understand certain basic realities of their lives, especially their interdependence with others. These realities become more salient as individual effort alone proves inadequate to meet the demands of living. At such times in the past, Americans have turned to other cultural traditions, particularly those we termed the biblical and civic republican understandings of life. These two traditions have served the nation well when united action to address common problems has been called for.
Our society needs the church and the gospel message of Jesus Christ now more than ever. The Church is a community called by God to serve God’s mission in the world. The Book of Common Prayer states this mission succinctly – to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ. It’s the mission and ministry of reconciliation and love – persistent, insistent love.
We do this by living out the demands of the Baptismal Covenant and the Examination of the Candidates that precedes it. There, we renounce Satan and all his works – everything that hurts God’s children and creation – and commit ourselves fully to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We promise
- To continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.
- To persevere in resisting evil and whenever we fall into sin to repent and return to the Lord.
- To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
- To seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves.
- To strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.
These promises, these commitments, describe and define our individual lives and a way of living in community as the church, as The Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. They give us undeniable clarity of purpose – energizing and inspiring us to move forward during these challenging times.
This past week, I visited St. John’s, Salem. Like many other congregations, St. John’s struggles to maintain attendance, averaging about 50 people a Sunday in a sanctuary designed for many more. The community around St. John’s is depressed. There are vacant homes and businesses. Factories and manufacturing have quit the area, just as they have in many parts of the diocese. Still, life and vibrant ministry at St. John’s go on.
I met Gail Boyd while I was there this past week. Gail started a quilting ministry at St. John’s which involves about 20 women both inside and outside the parish. She showed me some of the quilts, which were hanging up in the parish hall so people could see them. They won’t be there long. They will be delivered to children at Ronald McDonald House in Camden. To date Gail Boyd and her group have made and delivered almost 800 quilts to that Ronald McDonald House.
These kinds of stories can be discovered over and over across the diocese: feeding ministries, after-school programs, Family Promise, social justice advocacy. Vital and vibrant ministry takes place throughout our diocese – in churches that are large and worshiping hundreds, in congregations that are medium and in congregations that are small, with only a handful of the mighty faithful strengthened weekly by Word and Sacrament. Still, whether large or small, all of us are forced to recognize that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain and sustain our churches and their ministries, let alone grow them.
The cost of supporting a full-time priest has become prohibitive for many of our congregations. There are parts of the diocese where we could yoke together 3 or 4 churches and they still wouldn’t have sufficient funding for a full-time priest. I am working with the Committee on the Priesthood to develop alternative models to raise up people to be ordained as priests. We are already engaging in an experiment to nurture and raise up a person locally to become a priest in her congregation, combining work in our diocesan School for Deacons with an individualized reading for orders program that will provide her with the necessary preparation.
Many of our buildings are expensive to keep up. In many instances serious maintenance issues have been deferred, especially in our more historic churches. The cost of addressing them is growing exponentially. We are pursuing some interesting ideas about re-purposing some of our spaces so that we can retain them as churches but also broaden their use. Still, I think we are all aware that we have too many buildings for the number of people we are serving.
Our facilities are to do one thing and one thing only: support our ministry of reconciling people to one another and God. I will continue to remind us all – our church buildings are to serve the mission of the Church; the mission of the Church is not to serve the buildings.
In all of this, vestries from Elizabeth to Cape May, from Bernardsville to Vineland, have been wrestling with budgets and asking how they can live into the ministry to which they believe God has called them. Over the years, there has been an increasing tendency to look at the Fair Share Commitment to the diocese and see this as an area to provide budget relief.
At one level, this is understandable. The question is always asked, what do we get for our diocesan contribution? Of course this question is the product of an individualistic and consumerist mindset. It fails to fully recognize the fact that as a diocese, we are a community; that we are interdependent; that we share a common good and a call to ministry that extends to all of us across the geographical reach of our 144 congregations and chaplaincies. What affects one, affects all. We are an organized force for good that draws strength in numbers when challenges must be faced.
In your packets, you will find a booklet titled 2017 Works of Mission. This booklet was prepared by the Board of Missions. It provides a brief narrative about almost all 35 congregations that are classified as missions in our diocese. Some, like St. Mary the Virgin, Keyport and Christ Church, Millville are very small and are straining to remain open. You’ll note they receive no additional financial support from their diocesan community. Others, like Cristo Rey in Trenton, are thriving but the financial capacity of the congregation to support its ministries is not at a level to make it self-sustaining. They do receive assistance from the wider diocesan community.
In looking at the booklet, you should notice that almost all of the missions make some commitment to the diocesan community through a Fair Share Pledge. The Board of Missions is proactive in working with the missions. There is real support and genuine accountability. This mission funding is a clear example of our diocesan interdependence. In this we live into St. Paul’s words in his Second Letter to the Corinthians which are quoted in my letter in the 2017 Works of Mission booklet: For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance (2 Cor. 8: 2-14)
Other items in the budget also reflect this interdependence: Jubilee Ministries which helps us support the outreach ministries of our congregations; the Committee on the Priesthood which supports people across the diocese who feel called to the priesthood; the School for Deacons which trains amazing servant ministers that serve all our parishes and communities.
Of course, diocesan staff is a primary resource to our congregations. We provide expert personnel support in finance, congregational development, conflict management, communications, transitions and youth ministry – throughout the entire diocese. Many of us are out most weeknights meeting with wardens and vestries doing this support work. We also engage in many clergy retreats and other activities on weekends. All of this is about a shared ministry – a shared common good – a community of which we are all a part.
It’s clear however that all of our congregations face increased challenges. It is also clear that the Fair Share System is not working and has not been working for years. The Profile prepared in 2012 for the election of the 12th Bishop of New Jersey included the following statement;
The current system, which combines funding for administration and mission in a unified assessment, is completely voluntary, has no mechanism for accountability and carries no sanctions for non-compliance, has outlived its relevance and is in need of overhaul. But what are alternatives? What are solutions?
The statement is true, the questions asked absolutely critical.
As those of you who attended the Pre-Convention Hearings are already aware we have, over the last few years, been intentional and proactive as a diocesan community in introducing so-called “Special Initiatives” to breathe new life into the diocese. These have included the calling of a Canon for Congregational Development and Mission; investments in communications; funding to some of our historic black congregations to assist them in calling full-time clergy leadership; funding to aid a congregation that had experienced a conflict and needed stabilizing to return to health; an investment in Camp Crossroads to offer a camp experience to the youth and families of the diocese; partnership with the Diocese of Newark, the ELCA New Jersey Synod, the ELCA and The Episcopal Church to create the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry; support for our Regional Hispanic Missioner and more.
Many of these Special Initiatives are realizing strong results. They were funded with exceptional withdrawals from a variety of our diocesan investments. This was deliberate and strategic. The total has been almost $1.9 million over four years.
When we made these decisions, which we did as a convention, we were also clear that fiscal responsibility demanded that these expenditures would sunset at a time certain. Most of this “sunsetting” will take place at the end of the 2017 budget year. The result of this is a nearly $800,000 gap between our current level of expenditures and a realistic projection of our income, that is, Fair Share Pledges at current levels (which represent 62% of asking) as well as a reasonable draw of 4-4.5% on diocesan investments and trusts. We have used up the limited surplus that has been available in years past. There is no additional source of income beyond the congregations.
In 2017, with what is essentially a flat budget – which we only arrived at by reducing youth ministry to half time and requiring Diocesan House Caretaker Ron Gritz to retire – our income, supplemented by planned draws for Special Initiatives is projected to be $ 4,056,000. For 2018, we can only anticipate income of $3, 298,000. That’s a difference of $758,000. Canon Phyllis Jones, and Treasurers Jim Bathhurst and Kirk Bonamici will be reporting on this more thoroughly in a short while.
I am raising the issues here to share with you my strong conviction that we are at a crossroad moment in our life as the Diocese of New Jersey. The time has come for us to have a deliberate and prayerful conversation about our life together. What does it mean to be a diocesan community? What is our common call to ministry as the Church, the people of God, dispersed across a wide swath of the state? What is our responsibility to one another? Where is our interdependence? How does being a diocesan community make us each more effective in the areas to which we minister?
At this convention, we will be considering and voting on the Proposed Budget for 2017. This is necessary so that we can continue to operate in the current fiscal year.
As we have done in the past, we will introduce a proposed, preliminary 2018 Budget. We will not, however, be voting on that at this Convention.
We will also be considering a Marks of Mission Minimum Giving Resolution which seeks to shift us from a voluntary Fair Share System to a more accountable mandated system over time.
We will view this is a KAIROS moment, a moment in God’s time, a time of genuine opportunity, ripe with possibilities, to engage in prayerful discernment about our common life and future together trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help us decide as a community what kind of structures and support we require to advance God’s mission in today’s context, as well as to clarify what is of real value to us as a diocese.
In his critically important book Structured for Mission:Renewing the Culture of the Church, theologian missiologist and Anglican priest Alan Roxburgh explores the current state of the mainline western church and its unravelling in today’s context. Roxburgh urges processes of discernment, writing:
Engaging our existing denominations and congregational structures in the light of the changed context of the Eurotribal churches is primarily a work of discernment. This is about theological imagination of what God is doing in our time…Discernment invites practices of waiting before the Spirit in the midst of the unravelling that is occurring around us. The question of what kinds of organizational structures and institutions will best serve the Eurotribal churches…will come from this process of discerning the way God’s spirit is at work in our context just now.
I feel sure Roxburgh is right.
Soon after this convention adjourns, we will begin a series of diocesan-wide sacred conversations, grounded in Scripture and prayer, to consider the questions I am raising: What is Christ calling us to as a diocese in today’s Church and context? What does it mean to be a diocesan community? What is our common call to ministry as the Church, the people of God, dispersed across a wide swath of the state? What is our responsibility to one another and what do we need to carry out this responsibility? Where is our interdependence? How do we commit to our common-life together in a way that is realistic, faithful and accountable?
I believe these are vitally important questions for us to pray about and consider in the weeks and months ahead. We will use the services of an outside, skilled facilitator to lead us in this process of discernment and these conversations. It is my hope and prayer that a wide and representative segment of our diocesan community will participate in this discernment conversation.
On October 7, I propose that we hold a one day Special Convention at Trinity Cathedral to consider and adopt a 2018 budget that is a result and product of our discernment conversations. I do not know what that 2018 budget will look like. It may look more like the 2017 budget. It may look as the 2018 proposed looks now. It may look like something in between. We will decide this together, as a community, determining prayerfully what our values are, what is vital and important to us. This is, I believe, a necessary step in faith for all of us.
Before closing, I am excited to announce that the Diocese of New Jersey was recently notified that we are the recipients of two substantial grants from The Episcopal Church.
First, we received a partnership and funding grant of $60,000 to help further our Hispanic Mission Project under the leadership of Canon Ramon Ubiera. Our growth within the Hispanic Community has been a concrete and positive sign of God’s continued work in our midst.
Second, we received a $50,000 Constable Grant which is specifically intended to support Christian formation. The specific proposal for this grant is to begin the development, production and implementation of Christian formation videos and support materials to teach the essentials of the Christian faith to people in their homes adapting to the advances in technology which reflect the radically changed learning environment in our 21st century for people of all ages. I am looking forward to working with Steve Isham and our Lifelong Christian Formation Committee to make this happen.
Know your story, live it boldly! – that’s been our theme this past year and we will continue it as a theme for the foreseeable future.
Know your story – by this we mean your biblical story. It is our meta-narrative. It is the story through which we look at and interpret the world. Consider Abraham. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going….For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:8,11).
That’s us. That’s us always. God is calling us to go to a place that we do not know. And we go, we go in faith, confident in the architect and builder of it all. Confident in God and in the grace, power and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees and looks to God alone; Laughs at impossibilities, and cries it shall be done.”
Praise and thanks be to God who calls us forward on our journey together as his people who make up the Diocese of New Jersey. Thank you all for all you do in Christ’s name and service. I am grateful for the honor of being your bishop.
 Canon III.12.4 (d) – Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church 2015
 Bellah, Robert N, Madsen, Ricahrd et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Updated Edition) – Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1996.
 Bellah, Introduction p. ix
 Book of Common Prayer (1979) (New York: Church Publishing) p. 855
 Ibid pp. 301 – 305
 Ibid pp. 304 – 305.
 Untitled – Profile of the Diocese of New Jersey – Prepared for the Election of a Bishop 2012 (Trenton: The Diocese of New Jersey, 2012), p. 15
 See website The Diocese of New Jersey – Reports to Convention – Financial Exhibits II and II-1 at http://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/dioceseofnj/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Exhibit-II-1-Special-Initiatives-Funding-Source-Breakdown.pdf
 For 2017 adopted budget and 2018 Proposed Budget see The Diocese of New Jersey – Reports to Convention – Financial Exhibits I and I-1 http://dioceseofnj.org/diocesan-convention/previous-conventions/dc233/reports2017/
 See Diocese of New Jersey website – Resolutions as Passed – Marks of Mission Minimum Giving Resolutio n. P. 6 at http://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/dioceseofnj/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/2017-Resolutions-as-Passed.pdf
 Roxburgh, Alan J. Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015) Chapter 4 “Reevaluating Structure and Spirit” Kindle location 884.
 Wesley, Charles