Galatians 5:22-6:10; Matthew 18:15-20
The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, 12th Bishop of New Jersey
Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them…Matthew 18:19 – 20
Thank you for your attendance today. Aware, as I am, that it’s a holiday weekend and that giving up a precious Saturday is a real sacrifice for many, I am most grateful for your presence. It is a gift that I do not take for granted. Some are asking why we are here today? Couldn’t all of this wait until March? Weren’t we originally supposed to vote on a budget now for 2018?
Let me start by saying, we are here today because we are a community. Both of today’s readings which are the readings appointed for the observance of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who I will say more about later, focus on community. We are a community that is made up of 144 congregations engaging in God’s mission across a geographical region that expands from Elizabeth and Bernardsville to Salem and Cape May. We are a community accomplishing wondrous things. We are also a community that faces complicated challenges that are limiting our capacity to join in God’s mission. We must address these challenges and our business cannot wait.
A year ago, during the annual budgeting process, it became clear that, with the expiration of special initiatives funding from our trusts and investments we had used over the course of three years to jump-start important work within the diocese, we face a significant underfunding of our common ministry.
At Convention in March, a 2018 Proposed Budget was presented to you that indicated what the budget for our community life would look like with the Special Initiatives Funding removed and income projections made assuming historical patterns of giving from congregations – 62% of asking – as well as more generally accepted draws from investments – that is a rate of 4 or 5%. It represented a reduction of about $800,000.
That draconian proposal would have stripped all programmatic ministry from our diocesan community budget and left only the essential functions of the bishop in place. It was neither missional nor acceptable and would harm many, especially our missions and more marginal congregations. It would have required layoffs of staff.
Moreover, the Proposed 2018 Budget revealed a larger issue – the larger issue of our identity and commitment to one another as members of the body of Christ within the community that comprises the Diocese of New Jersey.
For years, the Diocese of New Jersey through its conventions and leadership – lay and ordained – has recognized that the so-called Fair Share System was broken. This was even written into the Profile of the Diocese prepared for the election of the 12th Bishop of New Jersey – a booklet published in July 2012 – before I was elected as Bishop of New Jersey the following May.
We face a real dilemma. Some congregations feel they can’t support the work we do together. They feel it’s not especially important. Why do we need a diocese? What’s the diocese do for us anyway? Others see great value in helping resource the wider diocesan community, recognizing that our diocesan budget levels the playing field, providing resources and support to congregations that otherwise couldn’t afford them. The truth of the matter is, being a diocesan community inherently involves an interdependent relationship among our congregations and people. We need one another. What one congregation does affects, for good or ill, all the other congregations. Many who are vitally engaged in God’s mission in their communities depend upon the support of the wider diocesan community.
The diocesan budget provides funding to mission congregations, sponsors congregational growth and development and provides hands on assistance to congregations from staff members – financial assistance from Phyllis Jones, congregational assistance from Rob Droste, guidance for developing youth and young adult ministry from Debi Clarke, transitions support from Brian Jemmott and Connie White, communications and technical support from Jonathan Elliott, Allie Graham and Theresa Dunn.
At the March Convention, I asked delegates not to vote on the Proposed Budget and called for a process of discernment around our common call and ministry as a diocesan community so that we could intentionally address the dilemma that confronted us. That process began with the Spring Convocation meetings. It was a rough start.
Many came to the Convocation meetings expecting to jump right into rewriting the budget. This was, in part, because I said we would do that in my address to the March Convention, just as I left the impression that we would vote on a 2018 budget at this Special Convention. I take full responsibility for both of those communications. At the time, I felt it was the best way to proceed.
After we left Convention and as the Convocations met, it became very clear that the issues at hand were larger than the budget. Again, they concerned our sense of commitment and accountability to one another and how we related to one another as a diocesan community. It became clear to me that I needed to go out and meet with clergy and laity to engage in prayerful conversation about our common life and call, about our mutuality and interdependence. I went out to listen as well as to share my thoughts. It was a meaningful experience for me. I have resolved that this will be a significant part of how I engage in my ministry as a bishop going forward.
It also became clear after the March Convention, that developing a realistic 2018 budget without affording the congregations time to prayerfully consider their commitment to our common life through their giving commitments for 2018 was imprudent. It was also unrealistic to expect the finance and budget committee to implement a process to accomplish budgeting outside of the normal fall budgeting schedule without accurate information from the congregations about their giving intentions for 2018.
Most important was a recognition that the primary issue is not numbers, it is mission: our common call to mission as the people and 144 congregations that make up the Diocese of New Jersey. Again, we needed to pray. We needed to engage our Scriptures. We needed to share in conversation with one another.
We developed a process to engage in diocesan-wide discernment trying to involve as many people of the diocese as possible in prayer, biblical reflection and values clarification that we labeled Discerning Our Common Call.
A Steering Committee for Discerning Our Common Call was formed to design and implement a process that would capture the views of stakeholders – lay and clergy, parishes and missions, staff and congregants, from all parts of the diocese – focusing on diocesan values, ministries, and priorities.
The Steering Committee was also charged with pulling together the information gathered and turning this into recommendations and resolutions for discussion and adoption at this Special Convention. Today we will consider their report and the recommendations resulting from it, including a resolution that will allow us to continue spending at 2017 levels in the 1st quarter of 2018 until we get to convention in March. That also could not wait.
It’s fitting, I think, that we gather for this Special Convention on the trial observance of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. While many may be familiar with his great grandson, William Augustus Muhlenberg, who was a major figure in The Episcopal Church, I suspect most are less familiar with his progenitor Henry.
Immigrating to the American colonies in 1742 from Germany, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg formed the first Lutheran synod in America in 1748, the Ministerium of Pennsylvania…He also engaged in mission and ministry in New Jersey.
Henry Melchior Muhlenberg arrived to find fractured, fragmented congregations – Swedish and German – with little sense of shared purpose or mission. He gathered them into one, strong unified body that became a major force of Christian mission and witness in the American colonies. He is rightly considered the Patriarch of American Lutheranism. His motto was “Ecclesia Plantanda” “Let the Church be Planted”
Henry Melchior Muhlenberg’s work and witness evidence that we are stronger when we worship and work together for Christ’s mission and ministry. Discerning Our Common Call assumes this same truth – We are stronger serving Christ and Christ’s mission when we work together.
When the business meeting proper begins, the Steering Committee’s report will be formally presented by its Convener The Rev. Emily Mellott. You will be invited to engage in some small group conversation about the report, in part to engage those who did not have an opportunity to participate during the summer. We will then have a larger conversation working as a Quasi-Committee of the Whole (That’s a technical term of Roberts’ Rules of Order). The Steering Committee will present recommendations in the form of resolutions they believe will help us reform and strengthen our diocesan common life and health. I urge the passage of each of these resolutions.
So what were my takeaways from my engagement in the Discerning Our Common Call Process?
Having spent much time across the diocese in dialogue and discussion, I heard the pain, struggles and anxiety of many for themselves, their children and grandchildren. I heard the fear many feel for their churches – their people and their buildings. They are worried about their futures. They are worried if they will have a future. These are real and understandable fears. We live in challenging times for the Church. It is not easy.
We do need to change the way we shape our budget and resource our common ministries. There will be necessary reductions in expenditures, and they will be significant. I believe the budget needs to be simplified and a block grant approach applied to larger areas of ministry.
One idea that resulted from the Discerning Our Common Call process was the notion of conforming our budget and diocesan structures according to the Five Anglican Marks of Mission  and creating five major committees to oversee the funding of ministry within these five areas. This would both streamline our structures and allow for greater accountability and focus of expenditures. You will consider resolutions today to initiate that work.
Through my participation in the Discerning Our Common Call process, something became clear to me that I had intuited before the process. Overall, our current operating budget is lean and efficient . When asked, the people of our Diocese want us to be doing the things that the budget supports. When asked about the ministries we do, most generally felt we should keep everything. We can’t, but it is indicative that we are not being wasteful.
I can say this – your diocesan staff work hard and most do way more than any should expect of them. As their employer, I am often concerned about overwork and burnout. Several positions have been consolidated. People on staff are doing the work that two people used to do. We actually have a small staff when compared to other dioceses of our size.
As is the case with most of our congregations, I believe our primary challenge is not an expense challenge, it’s a revenue challenge. Many congregations do not engage in exactly the kind of discernment in which we are currently engaged to clarify, communicate and seek consensus about core values and missional priorities in order to maximize support from their communities.
Far too many congregations do not engage in holistic, dynamic stewardship work that includes robust Annual Campaigns, Major Gifts and Planned Giving. As a result, money that could be raised to strengthen the mission and ministry of the congregation as well as the common mission of the Diocese of New Jersey community is being left behind.
There has not been a major diocesan-wide fund-raising campaign since the Venture in Mission Campaign in the early 1980s – that’s more than 30 years. Our current endowment is not sufficient to support the ministries to which God is clearly calling us. This is unsatisfactory, and unworthy of the Diocese of New Jersey – one of America’s largest and most historic dioceses. We can, and must do better beginning today.
Everyone of us has inherited beautiful worship spaces and in many instances legacies of money from the generations of faithful Episcopal Christians who went before us. They had foresight and concern for the generations to come. Do we believe we don’t have a similar responsibility? It is our turn to do our share. You have a resolution today that will initiate this.
It is time to strengthen the endowment of the diocese to help bridge the gap we currently have between expenses and revenues. I am convinced that there are resources in the diocese that would allow us to engage in a successful endowment campaign in our generation.
The 2016 statistics for the whole of The Episcopal Church were recently released. 27 of the 110 Dioceses reported growth in members. 31 of the 110 dioceses reported growth in Average Sunday Attendance. The Diocese of New Jersey did not show growth in Average Sunday Attendance – but had a very modest rate of decline in 2016 at .6%. That represents 72 people. I won’t call it good news, but it is a significant slowing of the rate of decline from previous years.
There is more to say. In an article about the statistics, Jon White of Episcopal Café, an online news source was clear to point out, Diocesan level statistics don’t tell the whole story. Even in dioceses that have seen overall decline, there are individual parishes that are growing. That is true for us in the Diocese of New Jersey. We have a bunch of congregations that are growing – some of them significantly.
19 of our congregations experienced double-digit percentage growth in Average Sunday Attendance. Among them, St. Michael’s, Wall, Holy Innocents, Beach Haven; St. John’s, Somerville, Christ Church, Middletown; St. Andrew’s, Mount Holly; Cristo Rey, Trenton; Christ Church, Bordentown; St. Peter’s, Freehold, St. Mark’s, Plainfield, All Saints, Bay Head, and Holy Trinity, South River. A couple of these congregations received diocesan assistance and would not have experienced this growth without it.
Jon White’s article challenges us not to resign ourselves to a narrative of decline. He writes, “The clear takeaway from this report should be that terminal decline is not our future, but certainly consolidation is. We should be looking at…growing parishes, especially the ones showing growth over a period of years more closely to understand the dynamics at play and promulgate lessons learned to help other parishes achieve growth and sustainability.”
I think he’s right. We need to consolidate. In fact, the strategic consolidation of congregations has been the focus of the work I and members of my staff have been doing for more than a year. I also believe we need to learn from best practices in growing congregations. In many ways, that’s a part of what the Way of St. Paul is about. I completely agree that we must reject the narrative of inevitable decline.
I didn’t accept the call to be Bishop of New Jersey to “rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.” I didn’t accept the call to be Bishop of New Jersey merely to preside over a funeral, though funerals there have been and funerals there will be. Funerals, however, are not the end of the story in the Christian faith. They are necessary for new life.
I accepted the call to be Bishop of New Jersey to join with you, the faithful of this diocese, in proclaiming and living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and building up his body in this time and place in this part of God’s dominion which desperately needs it. In a world that is as alienated and alienating as our world is, people are crying out for the love of God in Jesus Christ. Too many people are lost and suffering. Many are in own backyards, some living in our homes!
So echoing Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, “Ecclesia Plantanda” “Let the Church be Planted” Let the Church be nurtured, let the Church be pruned. Let the Church be fertilized – This might require some manure, we’ll use as much as it takes, Let the church be tended, let the church flower and blossom, let the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) – burst forth across the Diocese of New Jersey as Good News for the Garden State – God’s Garden State…with Jesus Christ as the true vine and we as his branches (John 15:5), remembering that he is with us and among us always ready to do whatever we ask in his name!
As St. Paul urges us in his letter to the Galatians, which was our lesson today and which we used for Dwelling in the Word, Let us not grow weary in doing what is right for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Galatians 6:9). It requires patience, persistence, perseverance and resistance.
Let’s take and make that opportunity now, and work for Good today, Let us take the opportunity and work for Christ and Christ’s mission today – here, at this Special Convention! Ecclesia Plantanda…Let the Church be planted…Let the Church be planted anew in the Diocese of New Jersey.
1. In a section titled “Fair Share Falling Short” The Profile for the Election of a Bishop p.15 states, “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.” Trenton: The Diocese of New Jersey, 2012 p. 15
2. Biographical information about Henry Melchior Muhlenberg came from Holy Women, Holy Men (New York: The Church Pension Fund – Church Publishing, 2010 – Kindle e-book location 8829); Wikipedia see “Henry Melchior” and Encyclopedia.Com see Henry Melchior Muhlenberg.
3. The Mission of the Church Is the Mission of Christ. The Marks of Mission are: 1)To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; 2) To teach, baptize and nurture new believers; 3) To respond to human need by loving service; 4) To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation 5) To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth – The can be found on The Episcopal Church website at https://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/five-marks-mission
4. White, Jon “Signs of Hope in 2016 Stats” – Episcopal Café – September 28, 2017 See https://www.episcopalcafe.com/signs-of-hope-in-2016-tec-stats/