Executive Council Meeting, January 27, 2012: Opening Remarks
Bonnie Anderson, President, The House of Deputies
I am glad to be here with all of you. We have three days of hard work ahead of us, and I believe that, with courage and vision, we can make real progress toward a draft budget that will allow us to realize the future to which God is calling the Episcopal Church.
Yesterday was the feast of Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe. The story of these women, three of the church’s earliest disciples, comes down to us only through brief references in Paul’s letters. We can’t hear their voices, but we do know their work. As the collect in Holy Women, Holy Men says, they served God with the gifts each had been given: Lydia in business and stewardship, Dorcas in a life of charity, and Phoebe as what Paul called a “deacon who served many.”
I think there are two important things for us to remember about Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe as we begin this meeting. The first is that, without ordination, recognition, or status in a religious hierarchy, they used their gifts and resources to support the church in their local communities: Lydia in Philippi, Phoebe in Cenchreae, and Dorcas in Joppa. Dorcas, in fact, was so effective in providing clothes to the poor widows of her community that when she died they called for Peter, who prayed and brought her back to life.
The second important thing to remember about Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe is that we almost missed them. Few women’s voices were recorded during their time, and the scriptural record of them is slight. Their mission and ministry strengthened the early church at a time when its survival was uncertain and its form was unclear, but we didn’t even recognize their feast until 2009. Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe built up the church in essential ways during a period of great change, but we almost missed them.
Like Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, we too are in a time of great change. There are many ways to deal with the kind of rapid societal change we have seen in the last few years. A lot of people deal with change by avoiding it, hoping that it won’t affect them. But if we avoid it, eventually change will catch up with us whether we are participants or bystanders.
As Christians, we don’t really have the option to ignore change. By our baptism we participate with God in the quest to reconcile the world. So instead of standing by and watching change happen, we are called upon to use the change, even create the change that we believe will bring about a reconciled world. And so here we are, with a golden opportunity—the draft budget for the next triennium—to create some badly needed change.
Now, we all know that mainstream religion is on the decline and that membership in the Episcopal Church has dropped below two million for the first time. It’s true that too many of our congregations and dioceses are struggling financially, and it’s clear that the days of being able to support a huge headquarters in one of the world’s most expensive cities are about over. We can spend a lot of time mourning what’s past or trying to keep a patchwork of it sewn together, or we can try to discern God’s call for our future by looking for what’s right in front of us that—like Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe—we’re in danger of missing.
Which ministries in your dioceses are working well and need more resources to grow and thrive? What needs could your congregations respond to if you had more to work with? How could we revitalize the church if we put more of our money where our mission is—at the local level?
Just allocating more money for local mission and ministry isn’t enough, of course. We need to cultivate innovation, hone our skills at rapid prototyping, and look around for the people and places already supporting ministry that we’re in danger of missing. Who in your communities is doing the work of the church without credentials, without institutional authority and without recognition? Where is God at work in your midst in ways that we might have missed while we were mourning the world—and the church—that has passed away?
I hope that we will be brave, innovative and bold during this meeting. I don’t believe we need a transitional budget, one that takes baby steps but still holds on tight to the old structures and old ways of operating. We don’t know exactly what the future of The Episcopal Church looks like. I was reminded of this by an article in The Economist that said a lot of what we called “the future” a short time ago is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed yet.
I believe that the best way to find out what the future looks like is to invest where we know that mission and ministry is already most effective and closest to God’s people.
Let’s reduce the amount that we ask dioceses to send to the Church Center. Let’s study the best use of the building at 815 Second Avenue with an eye to freeing up for mission the $7.7 million dollars that is earmarked for facilities cost and debt repayment during the next triennium. Let’s expect that dioceses and their networks know best how to build up God’s church and support ministry where it is most effective. And as we change the budget, let’s acknowledge that we also need to change our models of accountability and responsibility to be mutual and respectful of the entire people of God, not just those with ecclesial power.
Now is the time for us to be courageous. We won’t emerge from this meeting with the perfect budget, and we don’t have to, because Program, Budget and Finance and General Convention will add their skill and wisdom. We won’t even have the perfect budget on July 12 when we leave Indianapolis. But we can have a budget that reflects our courage and commitment to follow in the footsteps of Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, who built up the church where they were with what they had.