Bishop Jennifer’s Convention Address

The greatest thing we can do is help someone know that they are loved and are capable of loving.  You may recognize those words spoken by the Rev. Fred Rogers, Presbyterian minister and creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Perhaps you have seen the movie released earlier this year, “Won’t you be My Neighbor?” [Watch the trailer.]

It took me awhile to see it because I couldn’t make it past the movie trailer without tearing up.  Like many children of Generation X or their Boomer parents, I grew up watching Fred Rogers and the cast of characters—puppets and humans both—teach the way of love by modeling relationships across diversity, talking about difficult topics, and being unselfconscious enough to laugh together and vulnerable enough to cry together. Though his primary audience was children, there was nothing about Fred Roger’s life and ministry that was child’s play.  It was the Jesus Movement, the Way of Love that is loving, liberating, and life-giving. As a child I wore blue tennis shoes like Fred Rogers. And I remember doing projects like making paper crowns at our little dinette set in our tenth floor apartment in the housing projects of Brooklyn.  All the while dreaming and hoping that the neighborhood where Mister Rogers spent his days was a place I might one day live.

Perhaps that’s why Mister Rogers has resonated so deeply for so many generations—we all want to live in a neighborhood that is more than about geography—but about a network of loving and caring relationships where everyone can belong and flourish.  We all just want to know that we are loved and capable of loving. Those are the same hopes I have for our diocese and everyone we encounter.

This is one of the reasons why I’m so intrigued by using the word neighborhood to connote our regional areas.  The very word helps us to refocus on our neighbors—those with whom we share both geographic proximity and/or topical affinity. Think about the neighborhood you call home or the neighborhood in which your congregation worships.  Can you close your eyes and see it?  Can you see the people who live and work there? Do you know the people in your neighborhood? Maybe a few? What might your life in Christ look like if you understood your call to be about letting those in your neighborhood know that they are loved and are capable of loving?

As I have explored every corner of the neighborhood that is central and southern Indiana, I have had the privilege of worshipping with you, and presiding over the sacraments of Eucharist, baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burials.  In every visit I’ve delighted in our post-worship question and answer sessions to hear what is on your minds and hearts, and to share what I have seen.  You’ve been gracious and have obliged my selfie-taking with good humor.  I’m so thankful for all of it.  As I’ve gone around inevitably someone will ask if I’m having as much fun as it appears on Facebook.  I get it, Facebook and other social media can be used to tell a very filtered story.  But I always say, yes—we’re having that much fun. With every visitation, I get to witness the faithful and beautiful ways you embody the love of God in Christ; and my heart rejoices, every time.  With every visitation, I get to remind all of you that you are loved; and I get to see how more than capable you are at loving.  I hope that you’ve been able to see that we are indeed making a bold witness and offering a radical welcome in the name of Jesus Christ.

But as good as the photographs look, I know—you know—that it takes a lot of work, a lot of commitment, and a ton of faith to make this bold witness and radical welcome.  We have faith communities that face more challenges than others as the time, energy and resources needed to sustain our congregations make it difficult to reach out to our neighbors.  Last year, at our 180th Diocesan convention, we spent time in conversation about the work set forth before us—the same work that formed the heart of the listening sessions we conducted across the diocese last year. When the question is asked—what is a diocese for?  I answer, that if we are going to serve and transform our world, a diocese is our best way to organize for transformation and the work before us is this:

  • To be beacons of Jesus Christ for central and southern Indiana and the world
  • To articulate a generous invitation and welcome
  • To stand with the vulnerable and marginalized and transform systems of injustice
  • To network and connect with other Episcopalians, ecumenical and interfaith partners and others
  • To develop clergy and laity to lead the church of today and tomorrow.

This work in action looks like Evangelism with Integrity workshops—developed by one of our own clergy, Whitney Rice, field-tested at St. Francis in the Fields, Zionsville, and then taught around our diocese so that together we might be beacons of Jesus Christ more faithfully.

This work in action looks like billboards in Brownsburg and 24-hour prayer spaces at Nativity, Indianapolis, St. Peter’s, Lebanon, and St. Stephen’s, New Harmony: where the invitation to join the Way of Love is so clear and broad that we don’t even lock our doors.

This work in action looks like reimagining our deanery structures, building pathways for people and congregations to gather around common interests and ministries, reworking diocesan communications and partnering with allies through Faith in Indiana and other groups.

This work in action looks like Trinity Haven in Indianapolis, which will be first transitional housing for LGBTQ youth in the state of Indiana; and it looks like anti-bias workshops in our congregations, like the Compassion, Peace and Reconciliation team at Trinity Bloomington, and countless other efforts to stand with the marginalized and vulnerable and to relentless in dismantling the systems of injustice and oppression that are literally killing the beloved of God.

This work in action looks like retooling our assumptions about church and taking on new, innovative practices so that we can see what God is up to already in our neighborhoods; it looks like the College for Congregational Development and Pathways to Vitality, and Fierce Conversations and more. These various programs are not about “flavor of the month programming” but about building a rich and varied toolbox for lay and clergy leaders.

If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. And we are doing so much more than I have time to name. If it feels like the work to which we have been called is challenging and hard, it is. But I have never been more hopeful for a diocese and our ability to take an honest look at everything we’re doing, and I mean everything, in order to best align and support ourselves for this work and ministry.  I believe we have a special calling on us here at the crossroads of America. I believe that God is calling us to be bold in our witness and radical in our welcome, because what we have to offer is necessary for the healing of our world.  The love we desire to share is critical to the repairing of the breach in our society. And everything we do as a diocese, from staffing the bishop’s office, to our systems of governance and budget, to how we support congregations and where we look to plant new faith communities is worthy of deep inquiry, evaluation, and where necessary, change, in order to fulfill that calling.

There are going to be times when this work will get challenging and the change will seem to be coming hard and fast. That’s when we will all be called to tap into our passion for the work to which God is calling us—to answer “why”— and to share our stories with one another, like bread for the journey.

Here’s part of my story about why I’m so passionate about this work:

As some of you know, I didn’t grow up in any church but spent my childhood yearning for a church to call home. After we left Brooklyn, my family and I moved to another housing project in Staten Island, NY. I grew up in a neighborhood that was loving, familiar and tough. I would do my homework at the dining table each day as fights and often gun shots echoed from the basketball court below our apartment windows. I spent a lot of time dreaming of how to get out of that neighborhood and longing to be in a church I could call home. Turns out there is an Episcopal church four blocks from where I grew up but at the time it had no connection to its neighborhood—it was there the entire time I was growing up. And ever since I discovered that I’ve wondered about what if. What if that church had connected with its neighbors—might I have found my home in the Episcopal Church sooner?

Forty years later, as your bishop, I’m asking the same questions. You all see what I see, a world in which people are yearning to belong to something that matters. We see people giving of their time and efforts to make a difference in the world and many of them think the church is the last place where they can bring their passion and their faith. We see people who have been burned by the church and religion and don’t know that a generous and inclusive faith community is possible. We see our children dying from drug overdoses, transgender teens put out on the streets, small towns collapsing, and people of color being incarcerated at extraordinary rates. I feel an urgency to bringing the loving, liberating, and life-giving ways of Jesus to a world that is aching for reasons to hope. This is what the work before us is for. This is why our bold witness and radical welcome matters.

That’s why I’m especially thankful for the people of St. John’s in Speedway.  A congregation with a clear call to serve its community in a mission-critical area of our diocese, they realized that the cost of worship in their building was more than they could handle.  After months of evaluating finances, experimenting with being a church without walls, and a discernment process led by a consultant in congregational vitality, they have decided to end their time of worshipping on West 30th Street.  But they are not leaving their neighborhood.

Released from the pressures of supporting a building and the infrastructure that goes with it, St. John’s will soon have support from lay leaders gathered from other congregations as they forge their new future. The church building will find other ways to support the kinds of ministries that have long served that community, such as the food pantry, programs for children, and more. While St. John’s may change where they worship, what won’t change is our commitment to having a thriving ministry in that community.

This is one of the gifts of being diocese—we can share wisdom, journey together, risk together, and, God-willing, flourish together. We’ll also do that during 2019 as we reimagine and reinvent our commitment to thriving ministries on college and university campuses. The Rev. Peter Bunder of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at Purdue University has announced his retirement next year after what will be 34 years as chaplain. There will be ample opportunity to celebrate Peter’s ministry in the months to come, but it is not too soon to express our thanks and appreciation for his care and tending of this very important faith community. [applause]. With the legacy of Peter’s ministry, we will work together to explore how the presence of the Episcopal Church at Purdue and on other college campuses can continue to be a grace for students, faculty and staff.

In the next year we’ll also share wisdom and try new things in the way we form deacons. If ever there was a time when the ministry of deacons was needed, it is now. Our world is hungry for that vital connection between the church and the public square, between the sanctuary and the neighborhood. But the way we currently form and train deacons is too lengthy and no longer as relevant to the demands of our time.  We’ll be working on that together in the next year along with finding fresh ways to provide new clergy and clergy in new positions with colleague support, opportunities for reflection, and the skills they need to navigate transitions in these exciting and challenging days.

In all of this change-work, I am grateful to the incredible team that I’ve assembled to serve on Bishop’s staff.  As I’ve said from the beginning, the only reason to have a bishop’s staff is for the support of congregational vitality and flourishing faith communities. Whether it is Deacon Fatima Yakubu-Madus, our Missioner for community engagement, helping a congregation rethink its outreach ministries, to Canon Kristin walking with a parish as they discern a new future, or Canon Brendan as he trains parish treasurers and helps them get the financial books in order, or inviting resource development officer John Gedrick to preach a new Consecration Sunday sermon, or Victoria Hoppes meeting with parish youth leaders, or Kim Christopher helping with payroll questions, or Erinna Vandever keeping your parish information straight in our database or welcoming you to our office at the Interchurch Center, or Mary Taflinger checking in on a priest after the death of a loved one, or Melissa Hickman convening our Pathways Vitality teams, or Janet Brinkworth coordinating my pastoral visitations to your church—our desire is to be out and about and around our diocese with you—with all of you in your neighborhoods—helping you not just survive, but thrive.

All of you who are elected as delegates to convention, clergy, all of you here and those back home have critical roles to play in our vitality. Throughout this convention, Canon Kristin has been inviting you to meet and converse with the people in your neighborhood.  I call on her now to invite you in to the third and final conversation—Canon Kristin.

[one-on-one conversations]

Thank you for engaging in these conversations and for being willing to experiment with getting out into the neighborhood to see what God is up to—even if just to explore what God is doing in Bloomington.

At our last diocesan convention, I invited you to dream dreams worthy of the reign of God. To try new things, risk failing, and get up and try again.  That invitation still stands. And that invitation holds not just for you as congregations—but each of you as individuals and for us a diocese. As long as we are in a world that seeks to diminish and even demonize those we would call neighbor; as long as we are in a time when hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise; as long as we live among those who seek to devalue and denigrate people of color, those who are transgender, survivors of sexual abuse, those are undocumented, and other vulnerable populations, we will be about the business of serving and transforming the world to the end that all would know that they are loved and capable of loving.  We will not retreat in fear. Instead, we will move forward with a bold witness and a radical welcome to share the loving, liberating, and life-giving ways of Jesus. I pray that God will continue to bless us all as we seek to be faithful in these days.  May God grant us the grace to dream of a world where all would know they are beloved and the will to make that audacious dream a reality for friend, stranger, and neighbor. And now, glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.


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