Bishop Jennifer’s Convention Address

It is a wondrous and joyous thing to me that I have the privilege to stand before you as your bishop. The Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis—the Episcopal Church in Central and Southern Indiana—blows me away each and every day. This is a diocese of faithful, loving, committed, growing, and engaged Christians. The great joy of being your bishop—with the explicit call of episcope; having oversight, means that I get to see all of you and the places where you live, move, and have your being and experience how deeply you love God in Christ Jesus. You are beautiful. As I encounter all of you being church, making the love of Jesus known, having fun, making a difference, it is hard to imagine being anywhere else. It is an awesome thing to feel that all of my life, in ways I never could have predicted or yet fully understand, God has been leading me to be with all of you.

Though I’ve not been here long, it is all too evident to me that God is doing something very, very special here, among us. This Episcopal Church, our diocese is called to go deeper into knowing and expressing God’s deep and abiding love for all, to be beacons of Jesus Christ bearing the Christ-light whether there is sun or shadow, and to be living breathing agents and witnesses to the power of God to transform the world. I believe we have been called for just such a time as this.

We are all too familiar with what’s at stake. We have come to the River—and it brings us to the epicenter of the opioid crisis in our state—Indiana itself being a flashpoint for the national crisis of opioid addiction, overdoses, and deaths. Our culture and our communities—rural, urban and suburban— are too filled with the violence we abhor, we are polarized politically, segregated racially and economically, and we suffer from trauma-overload that makes turning on the news or watching social media feeds difficult. We are wearied by wars abroad and worried about adequate health care for our families and loved ones. And here we are, some 10,000 Episcopalians scattered across central and southern Indiana, seeking to bring the healing message of God’s unconditional love to our communities. We feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned. We work for justice, advocate for immigrants, and help LGBTQI youth know that yes, the church loves them too. We have 48 aid stations of hope, love and healing and God’s just getting warmed up with us.

Since arriving in Indiana nine months ago, I’ve been to 30 of our 48 parishes and 1 campus ministry. I’ve touched every corner of our diocese. In twenty years of ordained ministry serving in five other dioceses, I’ve never encountered the consistent clarity of identity about what it means to be the Episcopal Church. That we desire to be welcoming and inclusive without qualification or apology is a message I’ve heard everywhere I’ve been. EVERYWHERE.

We have a clarity about who we are and who we hope to be—faithful followers of Christ; more diverse both racially and socio-economically. And I have seen that we love each other enough to confess our struggles with being called into deeper diversity. We are able to discuss the often difficult and complicated topics of race, class, and money with an honesty and vulnerability that is simply stunning. Oh my friends to be sure, we have our own work to do to reflect the fuller image of God—the beauty of God in all the ways God comes to us, differing races, cultures, languages, classes and status. But that you desire to lean into this intentional work of growing our diversity is in and of itself a big deal. And I believe that desire is pleasing to God.

So yes, we have some understanding about who we are—but the questions that still lie before us are these: Why are we here and where are we going? Why is the Episcopal Church here and where is God leading us? I believe that, grounded in God’s love in Christ, we are called to reach out with a generous welcome and bold witness to serve and transform our world.

Grounded in God’s love in Christ, we are called to reach out with a generous welcome and bold witness to serve and transform our world.

I’ve spent the past four months attentively listening to the hopes, dreams, and concerns of our diocese and I believe we are being called to embrace anew the missional spirit of Jesus that is about bringing, living, and sharing good news with the world. The words from the collect for Bishop Jackson Kemper continue to ring in my ears, that we would have “the vision, courage, and perseverance to make known to all people the Good News of Jesus Christ”. The Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis is called to that work with a generous welcome and a bold witness to serve and transform our world.

I’ve been listening to you and have heard the call for us to be bold about our love for Jesus. To be bold about our desire to transform unjust systems that keep people vulnerable, hungry, and excluded. I’ve been listening to you and have heard your desire for us to dream big dreams and to risk trying new things. When I think of the work before us I see us redefining mission strategy, supporting congregational vitality and ministry innovation, growing deeper spiritually to build the beloved community and becoming better connected and networked with one another and our communities.

We are called to redefine mission strategy for this age that we might be a nimble and agile church, ready to be proactive and not just reactive to the ministry before us. I’ve discovered that our diocese has been nimble throughout its history, planting congregations and reassessing ministry all along the way. Though we have closed some 35 buildings since our beginnings in 1838, our muscle memory for planting new congregations and worshipping communities is strong. Nearly 25% of our existing congregations didn’t exist 60 years ago. We are the youngest old diocese I know! We have the tools and energy to create yet more faith communities with new models. I believe we are called to reclaim our evangelistic and missionary heritage using digital media and face to face encounters to collaborate, connect and create new ministry opportunities.

I hear and recognize the anxiety about the viability of our congregations. What I find as I visit and come to know the impact we have in our communities is that most of our existing congregations are mission-critical. The loving, liberating and life-affirming ministry of Jesus is being done in ways that no one else is offering. We must be there. So we are building a staff in the bishop’s office to help existing congregations grow and innovate for the church of today, not the church of 1957. This is a key reason why the first person I called to join the team, Mr. Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale is charged not only with administration but with evangelism—to help us, as a diocese, and all of you in your particular contexts, develop new ways to be church and share the gospel.

Programs like Pathways to Vitality made possible with generous funding from The Lilly Endowment, now in its pilot year, is our first attempt in a long time to build collaborative learning teams in our congregations focused on congregational vitality. Feedback on the benefit of this program has been so strong and positive that we are committed to offering the program in some form after this pilot year. I’m incredibly grateful for the leadership of our team including Program Director, Ms. Melissa Hickman, curricula consultant, the Rev. Dr. Carol Pinkham Oak, and Pathways Chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Jim Lemler for their extraordinary leadership in shaping this program.

While it is a great gift to be able to create a congregational vitality program from the ground up there are also other amazing resources across the church that we will drawn upon to help us. Currently, Canon Debra Kissinger is evaluating the College for Congregational Development, a two-year comprehensive training program for clergy and lay teams to build faithful AND sustainable congregations. Far from keeping all of the know how in the office of the bishop, this program is about developing coaches among our clergy and lay leaders so that every congregation can effectively respond to the challenges and opportunities before it no matter its size or geographic location. I have experienced the first year of this program and have not experienced anything else as effective for growing congregations into health and vitality.

Alongside these more intensive programs, we will be inviting you to participate in offerings that will help enrich your ministry. Some will use technology like Skype and Zoom, to connect with folks doing evangelism in innovative ways, like Caffeinated Church. Others are national conferences coming to our diocese like Missional Voices next Spring and Forma in 2019. We are blessed to be at the center of the country where folks want to meet—some of the best resources, conferences and tools are coming right to our doorstep.

Supporting congregational vitality and ministry innovation gives us the framework and support for us to do ministry for the church of today and tomorrow. In the year to come I hope to announce that even more will be made possible by growing the Ministerial Excellence Fund to include grants for ministry innovations such as dinner church, alternative liturgies, and explorations in doing church differently. I don’t want any church to be held back from doing a new thing because of lack of financial resources. By hiring a part-time associate for resource development, it is my hope that we will be able to build on the generosity of former generations and grow our endowments. Though we have our challenges, to be sure, I believe our church has a future and it is worth investing in. The time to build an infrastructure for fund raising and planned giving is now. Likewise, the time to reframe our narrative from scarcity to abundance is now. All we need is here.

I’ve been listening to you and hear the desire to grow deeper spiritually. We take our faith seriously enough to want it to shape our lives and communities so that we are fueled to join with God in reshaping the world. How do we say, “I see you, I stand with you” as we encounter those who may be different from us? We are called to be unambiguous about our intolerance of racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, sexism, and all of the intersectional oppressions that keep the children of God from knowing themselves as beloved and valued. There is nothing new here. It is in our Baptismal covenant. This is about formation. The formation of knowing our Christian faith, knowing our Episcopal tradition, and becoming life-long disciples and students in the ways of Jesus. Formation is also about understanding our complicity in keeping unjust structures alive and learning how to build the beloved community for all. Formation is about Bible study and church history and its about community organizing and understanding systemic racism.

While much of this formation will take place at the congregational level, I’m hoping that we can continue to grow our Waycross Camp and Conference Center as a place of deep formation and spiritual renewal for all members of our diocesan household. There is something magical about Waycross and it isn’t just the cookies. Lives are changed there. As it enters its own time of leadership transition, I’m grateful to Van Beers and the ministry he has had to grow Waycross both its campus and the various church and nonprofit communities who love to retreat there.

In my listening and learning about the gifts of challenges before us, I’m mindful that our desire to be connected is central. The strength of our witness is built on our connection to God and to one another. Folks who track the trends note that our world is only going to become more dispersed and perhaps isolated as we narrow our individual sources of news and create comfortable bubbles filled with folks “like us”. But we are the church. And our entire reason for being is about reconciliation and relationship with God and one another in Christ. And with 48 aid stations of hope and healing around central and southern Indiana I pray, with more to come, we are already built for networking.

Creating more effective ways for you to feel connected is a priority. Your executive council has already begun conversations on our governance structure and how to align it with current needs and ways of being church. We have engaged a consulting group who will meet with us in two weeks to begin that work and to rebuild our communications from the ground up including website, electronic newsletters and social media strategy. We recognize that technology can do a lot to span the distances to bring us together but at the end of the day, nothing compares to showing up and being present. My team in the diocesan offices—which is to say, YOUR team—will be continuing to focus outward from 1100 W. 42nd street to be more present with YOU. There is no substitute for showing up so we are already plotting how we can be more present physically in all corners of our diocese and not just the Indianapolis metro area.

This is the work before us. And it will take all of us. We will have time today to digest the results of the listening sessions which have shaped the way forward. This will be the first of many conversations to come about how we address the hopes and challenges that lie ahead. As we do, let’s give thanks that we have such a firm and healthy foundation upon which to build. I’m particularly grateful to the long tenures of Canon for Administration Marsha Gebuhr and Executive Assistant Sally Cassidy for their decades of ministry—well done. We are all so grateful.

My brothers and sisters, we are called to dream big dreams. Dreams worthy of the reign of God. So let’s learn together how to dream big, how to take risks, make mistakes, and try again. Permission has been granted to get out of the box, out of our church buildings, out of the same old-same old and try new things. Keep what works, learn from mistakes, and keep on going. And let’s keep listening. Listening to one another and to the Holy Spirit, who indeed is already doing more for us than we can ask or imagine.

© 2021 Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis