UPDATED. As the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem prepares to elect a new Bishop, it seems like a good time to reflect on where we've come in these past four years.
Right about the time I was coming out of seminary and entering parish ministry there was a show on television called “The A-Team.” As television went, it was pure brain candy. It was all about four guys, all veterans, who were on the run from the Army and who would go around helping people in trouble. Every week they'd save the day through a combination of cleverness hi-jinx and, well, explosives.
At the end of every episode, the leader of the team, played by George Peppard, would look at the results of the justified mayhem, and smile while clenching a really big cigar in his teeth and say “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Sometimes, when I was a brand-new priest, I’d repeat that line when, against all odds, something we did in the church actually worked. The important thing when a plan comes together is that it is rarely, if ever, one person doing all the work. It is the work of a community. Of, ahem, "a team," so to speak.
As we stand in that prayerful space between walkabouts and the election of our ninth Bishop, I find myself saying that phrase again and again. I think it is a good moment to look back on the transitional period we have just come through and reflect on where we’ve come as a diocesan community, and enjoy how it all came together.
To tell the truth, we did not start this transition out on the best of feet. Relationships were strained, especially among the clergy. And because of that, people tended to pick sides and, if not point fingers, at least grumble a lot. Operationally, things were working but they weren’t happy. We did not lack for diagnoses or possible solution. We did lack long term vision and were unsure of what our resources were. To coin an oft over used (and misunderstood) phrase, we were an anxious system.
When things get like this, the big risk is to look for people to blame. That usually falls on the guy in the “big chair.” Harry Truman was not being naive or an autocrat when he put the sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here.” But when the temptation presented itself to seek blame and form up firing squads, I found myself reminding folks that if this is where we wanted to go, then we’d better find ones that could shoot in a circle.
It is also tempting to look for quick fixes and this was not the time for that. When this process started, I was the President of the Standing Committee and the choice before our group was to either move directly into a search or to take some time to reflect and recollect.
Another choice was to pretend there was no problem, kick the can down the road, and wait for the next bishop to solve it. How many organizations--I am thinking of you, parish churches-- have done that before? And how well did that work out?
For me, the choice was clear but not simple. As we on the Standing Committee talked with lay and ordained leaders around the diocese, the consensus grew that we needed to make some space for ourselves. But the momentum was already in place towards just diving into a search and finding the next bishop ASAP. One day the FedEx guy delivered a big box of notebooks and all the materials that a diocese gets to prepare for an episcopal search. As we started going down the checklist, taking the necessary steps, and having the meetings and regional gatherings to start a search, my gut was telling me that we weren’t ready, and in talking with other lay and ordained leaders, I learned that I wasn't alone.
The good news was that we, as a diocese, were not the first to experience this malaise and to need to do this kind of work. There was another place in our province whose experience we could draw upon even though the political and canonical landscape was different.
Before the Episcopal Church had this canonical provision called a "Bishop Provisional," the Standing Committee of my former diocese of West Virginia, called a retired bishop to come to be their “interim bishop.” In those days, the Standing Committee retained the full reigns of ecclestiastical authority, but he was our bishop and set about the work of healing.
Lots of dioceses today have Provisional Bishops, but we were looking for something more. This was about much more than croziers and confirmations.
But you only know what you know, and we were just about to look for a retired bishop to hold down the fort, when I found myself one day brainstorming (and worrying and wondering) with the then-Suffragan Bishop for Pastoral Affairs, Clay Matthews. I don't remember how it happened, but the idea was floated that we might try partnering with another nearby diocese and sharing their bishop to address some of the structural and adaptive issues we were talking about. We kicked around ideas about how this might work.
Eventually, we decided to invite a young (but not new) bishop in Northwestern Pennsylvania to come and serve part time as our Bishop Provisional. Later on, in March, 2014, I said this to the Diocese of Bethlehem before we elected Bishop Sean Rowe to be our Bishop Provisional:
I gotta tell ya, when the idea of having a provisional bishop who would remain a diocesan bishop was first floated, I remember thinking (if not saying) “what? Are you nuts?”
But when we looked at the wish list that the Standing Committee created from the input you brought to us last October (2013) and that the clergy helped us created last November… a bishop who would lead collaboratively, who could help us heal our injuries and rebuild a sense of trust, who thinks about the church in different ways… I found myself, and I believe the rest of the Standing Committee, began to say “yeah. Yeah! This might work!”
So the vision grew. Instead of just finding a person to fill a job, to hold things down while we found our next bishop, we began to think bigger and bigger.
The more we talked, the more we dreamed. And the more we dreamed, the more our vision grew.
The more we talked, the more we dreamed. And the more we dreamed, the more our vision grew.
What if our two dioceses entered into a ministry partnership? There are things the Diocese of Bethlehem does really well. Among them was communication, global mission (for example, our unique and amazing partnership with the Diocese of Kajo-Keji in South Sudan), stewardship, the varieties of outreach around the diocese, Christian Formation both in the parish and for laity in the Diocese, and the way we attend to the connection between liturgy and formation and mission. We were already a diocese of creative thinkers and experimenters.
At the same time, the Diocese of Northwest Pennsylvania understands small churches really well. They are a group that thinks about and raises up lay and local clergy leadership, creates partnerships between local congregations (both Episcopal and other traditions) in new ways. They learned how to do a lot with very little. They had also navigated some very tough waters in a forthright and creative way. They were a diocesan community that was willing to experiment and to try something new.
A priest from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Adam Trambley, said at the time
"I thought it was a kind of challenge that was just out of left field enough and just hard enough that it was probably of God.”
We felt that we might work together in new ways. We just had no idea what it would be like or how it would turn out.
But the experiment was important and not just for us. The Episcopal Church has around 110 dioceses in several countries. Every single diocese must repeat certain structures as if they are only show in town. There is a lot of repetition of structure and not a lot of collaboration. We have the biggest legislative body this side of China, but not a lot of experience in matching resources.
For example, where I minister, in the very southeast corner of our diocese I am shouting distance from eighteen nearby parishes, a third of them in three other dioceses all within a half-hour drive or less. What is the “boonies” in those dioceses happens to lie right next door to the spine of our own, and yet we act as if the others parishes in these other dioceses don’t exist. When our parish attempted to start a Spanish speaking congregation, we got great support from both 815 and our own diocesan staff but were unconscious of the tremendous experience nearby if it weren't for those pesky diocesan and provincial lines. The Delaware may as well have been a wall instead of river, in terms of lost mission potential.
By partnering with Northwestern Pennsylvania, and by taking the time for a creative transitional period, the dream was that we, as a diocese could form our own vision of ministry into which we could invite the next bishop. Instead of just holding down the fort, our hope was that we would provide the vision to the next woman or man sitting in the big chair, instead of depending who ever that might be to have all the answers and tell us what to do.
Our hope was that in our Episcopal search we'd be inviting to someone to come and join us on our adventure.
But first, we needed to move beyond the relatively short season of exhaustion and hurt feelings before those dynamics became hard-wired and habitual. But instead to build on the good work that was left to us by both Bishop Paul Marshall and his predecessor, Bishop Mark Dyer. We were blessed because we had a living history and memory of experimentation and innovation under those leaders, and this was precisely the moment when we as a community needed to pick up that tradition and use it.
Of course, not everything went according to plan. But that’s okay because generally speaking there was no plan. We were learning as we were going. Sometimes things were very bumpy and uncertain. We had some distractions along the way. For one thing, we had to do an audit that ended up going back seven years, and that led us to do the work of getting our financial and administrative house in order.
But the main thing was always the main thing, and that was to re-knit our relationships and together develop a vision for ministry. The Diocesan Pilgrimage was essential in accomplishing this. Instead of doing a massive strategic planning process, we did over a year of prayer, study, reflection and, significantly, attempting to develop partnerships between parishes, often ones that never worked together before.
While the formal Pilgrimage period is over, it is still bearing fruit. In my own parish (Trinity, Easton), for example, the partnership between us and St. Mark's and St. John’s Parish in Jim Thorpe that began during our Diocesan Pilgrimage and is still growing and expanding. Through participating in diocesan events and utilizing other resources like the RSCM-King's College Course, we have a deeper relationship with the Pro-Cathedral and other parishes to the north and west. The parishes in the Lehigh Valley are learning to work together and it has become almost holy tradition that we share Ascension Day services together at the Cathedral.
In addition, patterns of living established well before the transition still function organically. Every week, many of the clergy from the Lehigh Valley still meet for breakfast, as do the clergy in the Wyoming Valley, and the regional Bible studies occur under local leadership forming patterns of living that are right for each local region.
When I was in West Virginia, the diocesan staff was small. Maybe four people and a cat. We in Bethlehem don’t have the cat, but our staff is smaller than it used to be. This change was not just about money. Through it, we have learned how to distribute and share executive leadership around the diocese. Diocesan committees are learning how to function better and to be centers of leadership. Doing it this way actually takes more work than the old centralized executive model that we saw in the 1980’s and 1990’s across the Church, and is probably less efficient, but the pay off in participation, the tapping of resources that might otherwise be missed, and experimentation is very big. I believe we have set the table not only for our next Bishop but for all of us.
Mid-way through this process, my time on Standing Committee ended and I moved from being at the center of all this action to an observer. As much as it made my palms itch at times, it was important for me to learn how to let new leaders finish what we started. It was important for us as a community to learn how to make important transitions normally-- to stop thinking of transitions solely as endings-and-beginnings but to think of them as signposts along a continuous process. Generally speaking, the newer leaders saw things with new lenses, solved problems we didn't see, and kept the ball rolling.
But, both as a participant and as an observer, this transition has revealed that the changes we envisioned at the start of the process were right on the money. Many people share the credit for the imagination and chutzpah to do what we as a diocese has accomplished. We have moved from one kind of stability, into to a period of volatility, and now we look forward to a new stability. I believe that we have developed new skills, new energy and vision along the way that is deeply seated into our community. We are connected to our past, deeply present in this moment, and looking towards an expectant, faithful future.
We are coming to the end of a process of prayerful, working discernment. In just ten days, we will elect a new bishop. But getting here meant a lot of effort, heart, conversation (and controversy) and hard choices. None of us could have done this alone. God gave us the right people in the right places at the right time and this has allowed our time of episcopal transition to unfold in the way it did. This time allowed us to regain our innate strengths, build on the great gifts and work of our past, and regain-- no, develop new!-- trust in one another.
I believe that this was pretty much the outcome we were hoping for four years ago when the Standing Committee met with Bishop Matthews to decide how were going to proceed. We just had no idea how exactly we were going to do it or what it would be like.
The journey was an act of faith made real. We’re not done, but before we jump into the excitement of the next era of our common life, it is good to take a moment to smile, take a puff on our big cigar (or our candy cigarette), and muse in thanksgiving to God, “I love it when a plan comes together.”