[Episcopal News Service] The General Convention last summer set a bold agenda for Episcopalians to work for racial reconciliation and evangelism; work that now has begun in some unexpected ways.
For instance, church leaders have begun the work of racial reconciliation by deeply listening to each other rather than immediately asking staff members to develop new programs. And, the church’s new and continuing evangelism work includes plans, for example, to gather and support the church’s hidden evangelists and to revive revivals.
Convention’s 2016-2018 triennial budget includes $3 million for starting new congregations with an emphasis on Hispanic communities, $2.8 million for evangelism work, and also funds a major new $2 million initiative on racial justice and reconciliation.
Working for racial justice and reconciliation
Last summer, convention attempted to shift the church’s focus on racial issues by way of Resolution C019, which gave the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies an extraordinary mandate to “lead, direct, and be present to assure and account for the Church’s work of racial justice and reconciliation,” especially targeting systemic racial injustice.
Resolution C019 acknowledges that racism continues to plague society and the church despite repeated efforts at anti-racism training and other racial justice and reconciliation initiatives, including more than 30 General Convention resolutions dating back to 1952. It calls on the church to begin anew.
The decision to place the supervisory work of implementing the resolution with the presiding officers, rather than a committee or task force is unusual but “impressive,” in the words of Anita George, chair of Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Advocacy and Networking.
George, commenting during a Feb. 27 joint meeting of her committee and council’s Joint Standing Committee on Finances for Mission, said that the fact that the church decided to speak on this issue and to speak starting with its leadership “is what some of us have been requesting for such a very long time: That when the leaders speak, the church listens.”
First, the leaders had to discern where to begin. Curry and House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings joined vice presidents of the House of Bishops Mary Gray Reeves and Dean Wolfe, House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing, and General Convention Executive Officer Michael Barlowe in Austin, Texas, Feb. 3-4 to discuss the directions of the work called for in Resolution C019.
During that meeting, they heard from New York Deputy Dianne Pollard who chaired convention’s Social Justice and United States Policy Committee, which sponsored the resolution. Representatives from the Dioceses of Atlanta and New York described anti-racism work in their communities. Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Reconciliation the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, who joined the presiding bishop’s staff in December; Missioner for Social Justice and Advocacy Engagement Charles A. Wynder Jr.; Missioner for Racial Reconciliation Heidi J. Kim; and Domestic Poverty Missioner the Rev. E. Mark Stevenson supported the work of the meeting.
Most importantly, Curry told the Executive Council, rather than plot out a course of action on the assumption that the group knew where to go, the participants listened to each other. “We told dimensions of our own racial stories,” going back to childhood in some cases, he said.
“There was some pretty powerful sharing,” he added, “and it was out of that that we began to think: How can we help the church to engage on a deeper level?”
It is at that deep level that changes will happen, Curry suggested. Taking time to listen to the stories of each other’s experiences both inside the church and in the world, he told the two council committees, “in the long run may bear fruit both for our church and our country and for the various countries in which the Episcopal Church is located.”
The outline of a plan to implement C019 “emerged out of listening to each other’s stories and hearing the pain and the hope of our culture through our own stories,” he said.
Included in those outlines are such possibilities as:
* Convene a churchwide gathering to discuss racial justice and reconciliation, similar to the 2011 gathering to discuss same-gender blessings, or perhaps a series of smaller gatherings around the church. Spellers said during council’s recent meeting that these meetings would not be about people presenting ways to spend the $2 million. Instead, they would center on “listening for where God is moving, where the wisdom is, what are the best practices and, frankly, how does transformation happen, as we hear deeply how do we become reconciled.”
* Identify other ways to share our stories, develop “reconciling relationships,” listen to the church’s neighbors (including around the Anglican Communion and in other denominations), and increase formation opportunities for all ages.
* Consider a census to gain a clearer understanding of the church’s demographic makeup and its historic and current participation in systems of racial injustice. “The simple fact is we don’t know the racial makeup – or for that matter, really, the gender makeup or age makeup – of the Episcopal Church, and so to speak of reconciliation, to speak of transformation, to speak of righting historical wrongs is hard when you don’t know who’s here,” Spellers told the committees.
* Identify the church’s current assets and ministries of racial justice and reconciliation, perhaps by means of an audit. The Episcopal Church has apologized for various aspects of its behavior over the years but, Spellers said, as important as that is for people to hear, “what we haven’t necessarily done is a churchwide listening for what hurt, what went wrong, historically and currently, how are we still participating in systems of injustice and racial disparity as a church … how have we been engaged in the work of making things right.”
Council member George said the plan for having the “whole church listen and then speak” is important because of the stories that will emerge. “All of those stories are essential, all of those stories must be heard,” she said.
And that will take time.
“This really isn’t a triennial program; this is the long haul,” Jennings told the meeting of the finances for mission and advocacy and networking committees during council’s Feb. 26-28 meeting. “It’s clear that this is not predominantly or only a black-white issue; [it’s clear] that we have a multicultural, multiethnic, multinational church and so that the issues around racial justice and racial reconciliation are extremely complex.”
During that same committee meeting Navajoland Bishop David Bailey warned that carrying through with the work would require strong leadership across the church. “Whether we like it or not,” a large part of that leadership in a church called “episcopal” (meaning bishop) rests with the House of Bishops and success depends on whether its members “choose to move things forward.”
Curry and Jennings said they plan to send a letter to bishops and deputies soon inviting them and, by extension, the whole church into the work.
Tess Judge, the council member who chairs the Finances for Mission committee, urged Curry and Jennings to find ways to get information about the plans out to every diocesan convention and to urge those participants to talk about it back home. “We need to get this in the pews,” she said.
As church leaders made clear at Executive Council, the work of racial justice and reconciliation and the evangelism work to which convention also called the church are intertwined.
‘How about we make evangelism the new normal?’
The presiding bishop and others in the church would like to banish to the history books the days of when Episcopal evangelism was an oxymoron.
Curry said he can “remember very clearly the days when evangelism was on the back burner and not taken seriously.” Now the Episcopal Church is poised “to take a step to reclaim our heritage as Christians and followers of Jesus in the Anglican and Episcopal tradition” to find and nurture new disciples, he told another group of Executive Council committee members.
There was a time, Spellers said during her sermon at Executive Council, when a parish outreach or mission committee was a rarity; now it is unusual for a parish not to have such a group.
“How about we make evangelism the new normal?” she suggested.
Just as there were always Episcopalians doing outreach and mission work with or without committees behind them, there are evangelists already at work in the church. “They’re out there, they’re hiding; we can welcome them home,” Spellers said.
One of the first ways to do that, council heard, will be an evangelism summit, tentatively planned for Nov. 18-19 in Dallas, co-hosted by Forward Movement, and to be followed by a conference for the wider church.
“The idea is to build a network of evangelism professionals and others across our church who will be able to carry the Jesus Movement into their local communities,” the Rev. Susan Snook, chair of council’s Joint Standing Committee on Local Ministry and Mission, explained during the council meeting.
There are also plans to adapt and share existing evangelism formation materials across the church and create new materials where needed.
And there are those revivals. “Revivals are part of our history,” Spellers said of the Episcopal Church, “We’re going to reclaim that part of our history.”
While those gatherings will have a dynamic preacher, they will also be about training local teams “to practice relational evangelism and deep listening with their neighbors, schoolmates, friends, co-workers.”
Included would be what Spellers called neighboring artists and musicians and “local folk offering testimony.”
“There’ll still be an altar call, but this time to church fellowship and neighborhood action,” she said in her sermon.
Because the revival ought not be just a one-time mountain-top experience, Spellers said follow-ups will link newcomers to churches and ministries, strengthen those ministries and look for places where new communities of faith might be planted.
Evangelism doesn’t just take place face-to-face these days and convention funded a major digital evangelism initiative. The Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism will facilitate the creation of new materials designed to train “digital storytellers for Jesus,”
Spellers said during the council meeting.
The church’s Office of Communications is tasked to manage a renewed online evangelism effort that will not be about pushing new content but, instead trying to meet people who come there with their “big questions about God, faith, about community” by using such tools as Google AdWords, Spellers explained. This effort will take place both in English and Spanish.
Convention also envisioned a “churchwide network for planting congregations, training and recruiting planters”; Resolution D005 allocated $3 million for the work, including just more than $1 million for Latino/Hispanic ministries.
Work is underway to update the grant application process for church plants and more Mission Enterprise Zones. That new process is due to be released soon.
The work also involves ways to increase accountability and assessment, and be more proactive in recruitment of people and places, Spellers said. And the budget includes a new missioner for new church planting capacity to join with the Rev. Thomas Brackett, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for new church starts and mission initiatives.
Snook described the new position as “another laborer in the vineyard” and Spellers said “without more infrastructure, without growing staff capacity, we are just throwing the seed of grant money on dry, shallow soil.”
Those involved also want to develop a “community of practice” among church planters and other evangelists because “it can be very lonely work,” Snook told the council.
The members of council heard over and over again that, in all the interconnected work of evangelism and racial reconciliation, collaboration across the church and with like-minded people in other churches is essential.
“This is not a moment for competition,” Spellers said in her sermon. “The days of competition between denominations are over. It’s a moment for collaboration for the sake of the Jesus Movement.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.