Bishop’s Address to the 239th Convention of the Diocese of New Jersey
Saturday, March 4, 2023
Deuteronomy 26:16-19; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:43-48
The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, 12th Bishop of New Jersey
I begin today by giving thanks to God and to all of you for your, concern, support, prayers, and care for Susan, me and our family following my mother’s death a week ago. We are most grateful.
My mother was a remarkable woman. Twice divorced, she worked and raised three sons in New York City, pretty much on her own, at a time when this was much less normative than it is today. It wasn’t always easy or pretty, but my mother was resourceful, resilient and a survivor. She always found a way.
I will always be thankful for my mother’s faithfulness which she passed on to her sons, and for her gracious and generous nature. Even as her dementia advanced to the point where she no longer knew who I was and could not engage in a coherent conversation, whenever I, or any of the caregivers tending to her did anything for her, she always, always, said “thank you.” Even when she could barely speak, she nonetheless mouthed the words clearly, “thank you.”
My mother’s generous nature is further revealed by the last act of her earthly life. She bequeathed her body to The Albert Einstein School of Medicine Anatomical Donation Program in New York so that medical students might better be able to learn the skills needed for their art and their profession. She had made this decision years ago and taken all the steps for me to act on this upon her death. Needless to say, I have carried out her wishes which is why we have not rushed to have a funeral service for her. We will have a small family service in May to celebrate her life and honor her on what would have been her 90th birthday. This, I am confident, would have met with her approval.
Thank you, was my mother’s constant refrain. And, because I have tried to be a good son and emulate her, thank you is my refrain today in this Bishop’s address. In truth, there’s not much more for me to say at this stage except thank you. Thank you to God and thank you to you.
Not too long ago, I discovered the wisdom of He was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement. As Wikipedia notes, Rabbi Nachman was himself instrumental in reviving the Hasidic movement by combining the Kabbalah [a mystic discipline of Judaism] with in-depth Torah scholarship. Nachman attracted thousands of followers during his lifetime, and his influence continues today through many Hasidic movements such as Breslov Hasidism.
Rabbi Nachman taught, “When a person wants to pray to God and ask for what one needs, he [or she] should first thank God for God’s past kindnesses and only then ask God for what he [or she] needs. Because if one starts by asking God only for what one needs, God says, ‘Have you nothing to thank me for then?”
I have a great deal to thank God for and a great deal to thank you and all the people of this diocese for. Thank you for the opportunity you have given me to serve as the 12th Bishop of this historic diocese. Thank you for the grace you have shown to me during these nearly ten years of my episcopate. It has been my particular honor to work with the clergy of this diocese. We are blessed with remarkable persons who serve, and have served, as priests and deacons in our congregations. Beyond the work they do in congregations, many of our clergy offer their time and talents in the many commissions and committees of the diocese. They serve in their communities as police and fire chaplains, serve in prisons, as hospital chaplains, or in other significant ways. The clergy of this diocese have shone throughout the COVID19 pandemic, adapting and adjusting their ministries to meet the needs of the people of God across the diocese. May I ask you to show your appreciation for them?
I am also grateful for the lay leaders of this diocese who have also been so generous with their time and talents in so many ways. Thank you for your support of initiatives we have undertaken over these years: Our commitment together to “form disciples of Jesus Christ to carry out Christ’s mission of reconciliation in the world.” Thank you for allowing me to call Canon Rob Droste more than 9 years ago, and for supporting the great work he has done with The Way of St. Paul and in his innovative work in building the Thank you for Anne Delgado and the work of The Lifelong Christian Formation Committee.
Thank you for your commitment to being an antiracist diocese and to engaging in the loving work of racial justice and reconciliation including our timely, vital, on-going efforts toward reparations. You will hear a report on this during the business session. I am grateful to Canon Clive Sang who serves as Canon Missioner for Black Ministries and has been incredibly generous in his leadership.
Canons Barbie Bach and Annette Buchanan have been leading the way in our Reparations work both within the Diocese of New Jersey and also partnerships in a statewide effort. (I should note that Canon Buchanan recently returned from Accra, Ghana where she served as a lay representative of The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Consultative Council, one of the Anglican Communion’s “four instruments of communion”). Thank you for your service and commitment to the wider life of the church, Annette. I should also acknowledge Canon Noreen Duncan who recently stepped down as a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church after several years of service. Thank you, Noreen.
I also want to thank Canon Karen Moore and Fr. Mark Smith, Co-Chairs of our Antiracism Commission, as well as all the trainers and members of the commission for the incredible work they have done in developing both in-person and on-line trainings that are making a real impact not only in the Diocese of New Jersey, but across the wider Church. Now, whenever an on-line training is offered, you can be sure there will be participants from other dioceses of The Episcopal Church, and even other parts of the communion.
Thank you for your on-going support of Hispanic-Latino mission and ministry Hispanic-Latino mission and ministry and of Canon Missioner for Hispanic Ministries, Ramon Ubiera and also your support of the Hispanic Commission under Chairs The Rev. Toribio Rodriguez and Canon Sebastian Vasquez, and the Hispanic Coalition under the Chair of The Rev. Canon Joan Mason.
As most of you are aware, in a time of church decline in most areas, there is substantial numerical growth and growth in faith that we can point to across the diocese through our efforts in this area.
We now have 15 congregations who have engaged in meaningful work in Hispanic-Latino ministry and at least 5 more are in process. I have said it before, the rest of the church has much to learn from the Hispanic-Latino community about evangelism, faithfulness, family ministry and growth. It’s true. Let those with ears to hear, listen.
Thank you for supporting the evolution of our Diocesan School for Ministry fearlessly led by The Reverend Genevieve Bishop. A changing church and changing times demand new and creative solutions to forming people for both ordained ministry as well as more vibrant and engaged ministry. Our Diocesan School for Ministry is first rate and will, I am confident, become increasingly vital to the needs of this diocese as it prepares people for the diaconate, for late vocation or bi-vocational priesthood and for meaningful lay ministries in ways that meet the needs of today’s church.
Thank you for Canon Connie White, Fr. Steve Connor, Canon Jack Belmont, Pat Hawkins, Pat Jackson and all others who work tirelessly through the ordinations process with persons who feel called to holy orders.
Thank you for supporting the launch of Episcopal Community Services of the Diocese of New Jersey. How grateful I am to The Rev. Canon Joan Mason, Ms. Sharisma Ubiera and to all those who served on the initial Advisory Committee to get this off the ground. ECS-NJ has now raised more than $650,000, granting more than $300,000 of this thus far to 25 Diocese of New Jersey congregational ministries and projects, supporting their local efforts to meet human needs and foster Gospel justice in the communities they serve. This work includes feeding ministries, stable housing, support for victims of domestic violence, educational initiatives in under-served communities, immigration ministries, and more.
ECS-NJ is becoming a networking center of best practices in human needs and justice ministries in the diocese, offering educational summits and advocacy opportunities on topics that have included housing, food-insecurity, the rights of the homeless, and urban revitalization.
Thank you to the twenty-four of our churches which have led the way as “Founding Congregations,” making commitments of at least $10,000 each. Thank you, as well, to so many of you who have been individual donors to ECS-NJ.
We are blessed that Deacon Trisha Thorme is now the Executive Director of ECS-NJ and that Dr. Rosina Dixon of St. John-on-the-Mountain, Bernardsville is Chair of the Advisory Committee. My deepest thanks to them, and to The Rev. Dr. David Snyder, who has been amazing as the part-time Development Officer of ECS-NJ. He has been incredibly generous with his time, talent and treasure for this enterprise.
We are blessed that Bishop-Elect Sally French is with us today. She will be greeting you at the beginning of the business session. I am thankful both for her willingness to serve as the next Bishop of New Jersey, and for the relationship we have already begun to form in these early days of transition. Please keep Bishop-elect Sally, her husband The Rev. Clarke French and their children Jack and Libby in your prayers during this overwhelming time of transition for them.
This is an appropriate time to acknowledge and thank Co-Chairs of the Bishop Search and Nominating Committee, Valaida Wynne-Guerrero and Fr. Matt Tucker, as well as the members of the Committee for the incredible job they did in offering us an outstanding group of nominees. I also want to acknowledge and thank Fr. Jeff Roy who served as Chair of the Episcopal Transition Committee but felt it necessary to step down, and also thank Valaida -Wynn Guerrero and Canons Ron Pollock and Valerie Balling who are now Co-Chairs of the Episcopal Transition Committee, as well as all those who are serving on their team. They did the work that led to the Meet and Greets as well as the election itself. They are assisting both Bishop-elect Sally and her family, as well as Susan and me in having smooth transitions.
Bishop-elect Sally is coming into office at a time of significant challenges for the church as a whole and for the Diocese of New Jersey specifically. The COVID19 pandemic has resulted in a changed society and a changed church. Yes, the RRR Task Force, Chaired by Canon Dr. Phil Lewis and the Rev. Canon Valerie Balling issued its final report in October, and the Testing and Vaccines Task Force, Chaired by The Rev. Marshall Shelley which did such an effective job through the height of the pandemic, have closed out their work. I am grateful for the incredible work the members of both of those task forces did, as well as the work Fr. Greg Wilson and Rosalie DiSimone-Weiss and others who established a “warm-line” for clergy and lay leaders and who continue to provide emotional health support even though the warm-line has now been officially closed down.
Despite all of this, we continue to live in an environment impacted by COVID19. If we had any certainties prior to March of 2020, they have now been unsettled. None of us is in a position to know what God has in store for us as a church or as a diocese, but we do know much has changed. Still, God calls us to be faithful. Still, there are significant challenges.
As most of you are aware, the budget that will be placed before us for the 2023 fiscal year includes a high drawdown from investments of $1.3 million dollars. A portion of this is due to exceptional, one-time transition expenses, some, but not all.
Other factors have negatively impacted the budget. Fr. Bob Fitzpatrick and our wonderful Project Resource Team have done outstanding work in supporting the stewardship efforts of our congregations. Nonetheless, congregational income has been down and this necessarily means diocesan income is down. The missional needs of our congregations have increased as reflected both in the Board of Mission requests and the demands placed on the Mission Renewal Fund. The mission and ministries are all important, but the diocesan community cannot sustain these kinds of drawdowns over the long haul.
We’ve been in this kind of position before, in 2017, when we faced real challenges for the 2018 budget. At that time, at my recommendation, we deferred consideration of the proposed budget for 2018 and created a diocesan process of charettes. Charrettes, some of you may remember, are meetings in which stakeholders work together to solve problems or challenges.
Our charrettes were designed to engage the wider diocesan community in a process of conversation, prayer and discernment to consider together our diocesan priorities and create an effective and realistic budget. In 2018, this did involve cutting expenses and reducing staff, but we did it. At this diocesan convention I am recommending the diocese plan for a similar diocesan-wide discernment process.
I believe the 2023 budget that will be placed before you should be approved as is. As problematic as it is, it has been carefully thought through and developed. There is certainly no room to add to it. I also urge that Convention table consideration of a 2024 Proposed Budget until the wider diocesan community can engage together in prayer and conversation about priorities and direction through a process of charrettes. This should take place only after Bishop-elect Sally is in place in the diocese so that the work includes her vision and priorities.
I am further proposing that a Special Convention be convened in November here at Trinity Cathedral to consider and pass a 2024 budget that reflects diocesan priorities under our new bishop; a budget that is more sustainable for the future life of the diocese and that is more responsive to a radically changed context. I believe this kind of two-step process is essential. The convention floor is not a good place to develop a budget. It doesn’t allow sufficient space for prayer or considered thoughtfulness.
I am confident that with trust in God and faith in the work of the Holy Spirit, the faithful people of the Diocese of New Jersey will find a path forward. God is good…all the time…and all the time, God is good. God will lead us all into God’s own future.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect, Jesus chides his disciples and chides us in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 5:48). It’s a part of his Sermon on the Mount. It’s a teaching. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The surrealist artist Salvador Dali is quoted as saying, “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it!” He’s right of course. There is only one who is perfect. In his commentary on this passage in Matthew’s Gospel, biblical scholar Douglas Hare writes, “…it seems likely that ‘perfect’ is intended [by Matthew] specifically with reference to love. Matthew’s understanding seems to be: You are to be all embracing in your love, in imitation of God, whose love embraces all.”
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.
None of us is perfect, and we’re not likely to be, but we can strive to love perfectly. “Loyal and true love operates in this way,” the great English mystic Richard Rolle once wrote, “as an act of human will.”
Too often we don’t think of the work and willfulness that love requires, but it does require work and willfulness, and a ton of God’s grace. It also requires patience, humility and gratitude…a lot of “thank yous” and even “I’m sorrys” to God and to one another. The work we are called to do together as the people of God that constitute the Diocese of New Jersey is the work of love – God’s love. Love one another as I have loved you, Jesus says to his disciples in John’s Gospel (John 13:34). He could have said, Love one another perfectly.
I have a few more thank yous. Over these nearly ten years, I have been blessed with a remarkable staff. I am grateful to each and every one of them. This is an incredibly dedicated and devoted group of people who always go way beyond what any of us should expect. I must lift up a few by name here because they will be retiring soon after I do. Two of the three have combined service to the Diocese of New Jersey that is five times longer than mine. What a gift they have been to me and to us all. Of course, I mean Canon Mary Ann Rhoads who has been my Bishop’s Assistant from day one and who has served four other bishops before me.
Canon Ann Notte, our Office and Convention Manager has more than two decades of service in the Diocese. Rounding out this threesome is Mary Anne Clisham who, though she has not served as long as the other two, has been an incredible member of the team and shown remarkable energy and commitment to our mission and ministry.
Would you please acknowledge them and to join me in saying “thank you.”
In addition, I also want to acknowledge and thank Canon Phyllis Jones who has driven countless miles with me, and endured more meetings than one can count. Thanks, too, to Canon Joanne Izzo who has been a blessing to me and to us all. Canon Steve Welch has worked tirelessly to help the diocese, and many across the diocese, to adjust to our COVID19 context with online worship, Zoom meetings, and a host of other challenges. I am thankful for his work among us. These exceptional people are incredibly dedicated and work enormous hours to serve God and the people of this diocese. We are also blessed with a phenomenal Chancellor of the Diocese in Canon Paul Ambos. Paul gives countless hours of his expertise to the this diocesan community in ways that are often under-appreciated. I can assure you, I have been most grateful for Paul’s work and ministry among us.
Lastly, I want to thank a person who means more to me than anyone in the world and who has been my steadfast partner for better or for worse in life and in ministry, Susan Stokes. Susan’s contributions and importance in this ministry are often unacknowledged but have been vital, above all, to me.
Whenever I give a greeting card to Susan for her birthday, or our anniversary, or Valentines’ Day, I always put the verse from Tobit, “That by God’s mercy, she and I may grow old together” (Tobit 8:7). That was read at our wedding nearly 47 years ago and I have used it every year since. And we are getting there. Susan, I love you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
In a book of his own essays, Roman Catholic priest, theologian and writer on spiritual matters Ronald Rolheiser quotes author Morris West and observes, “at a certain age our lives simplify and we need have only three phrases left in our spiritual vocabulary – Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” (Rolheiser – p. 23).
That was certainly true of my mother, and especially in her last days. It is also where I find myself in this transition moment in my life and ministry. I am profoundly thankful for all the blessings of this life which God has bestowed upon me as my time as Bishop of New Jersey draws to a close; as God prepares to make all things new again under the leadership of the 13th Bishop of New Jersey, Sally French.
I am deeply grateful. You have been patient and generous with me. So thank you, thank you, thank you. God bless you and keep you.
 Rabbi Nachman of Breslov – The Essential Rabbi Nachman tr. Avraham Greenbaum (Monsey, New York: Jewish Inspiration Inc – The Azamra Institute., 2016) p. 50
 The stated purpose of the Diocese of New Jersey derived from a process of Discerning God’s Common Call engaged in between 2017-2018. See the homepage of the diocesan website at Home – Diocese of New Jersey (dioceseofnj.org)
 The Founding Congregations are – Trinity Church, Asbury Park; St. Mark’s, Basking Ridge; All Saints, Bay Head; St. Bernard’s, Bernardsville; St. Peter’s, Clarksboro; Trinity Church, Cranford; St. Francis, Dunellen; St. Peter’s, Freehold
St. Luke’s, Gladstone; St. Thomas, Glassboro; Grace, Haddonfield; Holy Spirit, Lebanon; St. John’s, Little Silver; Grace-St. Paul’s, Mercerville; Trinity Church, Moorestown; Christ Church, New Brunswick; St. Matthew’s, Pennington; Trinity Church, Princeton; St. George’s, Rumson St. John’s, Salem; St. Peter’s, Spotswood; Trinity Cathedral, Trenton; St. Paul’s, Westfield; Holy Apostles, Yardville
 Hare, Douglas Interpretation – A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching – Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 62
 Rolle, Richard The Classics of Western Spirituality – Richard Rolle- The English Writings translated and edited by Rosamund Allen (New York, NY, Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press, 1988) p. 144
 Rollheiser, Ronald Ronald Rollheiser – Essential Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021) p. 23