Turning point: What is our true direction?

What do we feel drawn to by the Holy Spirit, and what do we feel pushed and dragged toward by the same Spirit? The answer to both questions will be the same, because the true direction of our journey will always involve a combination of eagerness and resistance on our part.

When Jesus was baptized, he was anointed by the Holy Spirit and then was immediately driven into the wilderness. As followers of Christ, we can expect the same dynamic in our life. The Spirit touches us and draws us into the work of God, aligning our will with God’s will and giving us grace to move forward with courage and vision. But sometimes this does not seem like our decision. Just as Jesus was driven into the wilderness, so we are pushed or dragged forward onto new and unfamiliar terrain.

question mark on black road signAs we approach convention and my ninth year as your bishop, it strikes me that we are at a turning point in our ministry together as a diocese. Much has been accomplished.

We have arrived at some clarity about our mission priorities. In 2010 over five hundred people from across the diocese indicated what those priorities should be: (a) healthy congregations, (b) engaging new neighbors, (c) formation (e.g. education and practice for discipleship), (d) mission (new and adventurous initiatives for advocacy and social change), and (e) faithful stewardship of resources. Since then these priorities have guided the planning of my staff and your elected leadership.

Most importantly, we have all been exploring how to be the church in a new time. How can we relate effectively to a culture that is mostly disconnected from religion, let alone the Gospel? Our natural reaction is to circle the wagons and tighten the controls, but exactly the opposite is required of us. Outwardly, we must identify every barrier and presupposition that separates us from our neighbors. Inwardly, we must literally loosen up and connect more deeply with one another. But as we loosen up we need to focus our energy. We need to be clear about the direction we are moving in.

What do we feel drawn to by the Holy Spirit, and what do we feel pushed and dragged toward by the same Spirit? The answer to both questions will be the same, because the true direction of our journey will always involve a combination of eagerness and resistance on our part.

So when I ask what direction the Diocese of Southern Ohio is going in, I’m not talking about mission statements or objectives or strategic plans (as important as they are), but about what we feel drawn to and driven by. Here are some observations which I have been checking out with others, and which I’d like to check out with you.

(1) I am observing a desire and a push toward deeper relationships on all sides. We are headed, slowly or swiftly, toward more conversation with one another about our faith, and more vibrant and collaborative partnerships with the neighborhoods that surround us.

(2) We’re beginning to see how these relationships could be a higher priority than our survival as an institution. Obviously, our true survival lies in our embrace of connection with friend and neighbor, since that is what it means to be the church. But it is easy to get bogged down in anxieties about building maintenance, Sunday attendance and the financial bottom line. Despite those very natural anxieties, I see many of our congregations – especially the smallest – digging down to the bedrock and claiming their place as a servant to their neighborhood in the name of Christ. One example out of many is Christ Church, Ironton. After participating in the Fierce Conversation work of the Commission on Congregational Life, they decided to open their church building to the community. As a result, disadvantaged entrepreneurs in the community have found new support for their nascent businesses, and neighbors are encouraging neighbors.

(3) I perceive we are beginning to trust each other more, and are seeking ways to do this even more deeply. Learning to trust has much to do with our growing realization that to be Episcopalian is to be connected to one another. Once we reject the false walls that separate us (worship style, class, race, economics, region, size, gender, sexual orientation) we can begin to be the church we as Episcopalians are called to be – embracing connection with one another for the sake of connection with the world around us.

As you may recall from last year’s convention, I have appointed a group of people to gather stories about how your congregation is partnering with its neighborhood for the common good. I have been calling this group the Listening Group. At this year’s convention we will continue to practice the art of listening and sharing stories. I hope you will be generous in your story telling, because I know that every congregation in this diocese has a story to tell.