Bishop’s Address of 2014

Given at the Jekyll Island Convention Center on November 7, 2014
By the Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase, 10th Bishop of Georgia

Some of you know I’m a huge fan of the singer-songwriter John Prine. And it’s a testament to my love and devotion to the Church and to this Diocese that I’ll be present at this evening’s Convention Eucharist because John Prine is performing tonight at the Savannah Civic Center. Prine’s lyrics are magical and almost always funny while also plumbing the depths of the human condition. A song he sings as a duet with Iris Dement evokes an affect that I want to share in my Bishop’s Address this year. The song is entitled “We’re not the Jet Set,” and part of it goes like this:

No, We’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set
Our steak and martinis, Is draft beer with weenies
Our Bach and Tchaikovsky, Is Haggard and Husky
No, we’re not the jet set, We’re the old Chevro-let set. But ain’t we got love

In this Diocese, we’re not the jet set. Most of us are more comfortable with draft beer and weenies than we are with steak and martinis. Haggard and Husky are more likely to be on our play list than Bach and Tchaikovsky. Here in the Diocese we don’t have what a lot of dioceses have in terms of financial resources. We don’t have many large metropolitan areas that provide amenities that would draw people to move to them. With a few exceptions, the counties in our state that are projected to have significant growth are all in that certain diocese to the north, just above the gnat line.

So the demographics aren’t very favorable to us. Demographics, however, aren’t destiny and dwelling on them isn’t faithful. We trust in a providential destiny only God provides. Plus, as John Prine sings, “ain’t we got love.” We have God’s love for us incarnated in Jesus and we have our love for one another. And we have hope, hope that God is moving in our midst working out through us God’s plan of salvation.

Our call, then, isn’t to bemoan what we don’t have or what’s not favorable to us. It’s to celebrate and be thankful for what we do have and the favor God has shown us, and then to put all that we have and all that we are into the coming of God’s Kingdom on this earth, as it already is in heaven.

No, we’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set. But this Chevy has many great miles to go and we’re fueled by the hope of what God will do through us to bring about the Kingdom. And I want us to dwell on that sure and certain hope for these next few minutes. For as the Scriptures say: such hope will not disappoint us.

Now, we’re schooled by cable news and through social media to be afraid of just about everything from Ebola to the dirty ring around our bathtubs. If that were all the news we had, then it would be prudent to be afraid and to feel hopeless. Yet, if we have eyes to see, there are hopeful signs all around us.

1. While as a whole our diocesan Sunday attendance is basically flat, we now have more congregations that are significantly growing than are declining.

2. The core leadership training we’ve offered for clergy and laity through the Church Development Institute (CDI), Emotional Intelligence training, and peer coaching has now begun to bear fruit in many places. Clergy and lay leaders in many congregations are now better equipped to lead growing, vital congregations in the 21st century.

3. Our support for and focus on community ministries has led many congregations to reach out in real, concrete ways into their neighborhoods developing signature ministries that serve to transform people’s lives. We must remember that Jesus did not leave people stuck in their hunger or their sickness or their sin. He fed, He healed, and He liberated them. That’s what our community, signature ministries are all about. From Thomasville to Augusta, from Cordele to Darien, our congregations are embracing a vision of vitality through engagement with their communities.

4. Honey Creek, as you will see this afternoon, is being reborn into a more strategic missionary asset of the Diocese. In the last year, 70% of its ministry directly supported the mission of the Diocese. And 93% of its ministry was church-related. That didn’t happen by accident. We consciously renewed Honey Creek’s mission to be all about supporting God’s mission in and through this Diocese. And, I should add, we’re doing all this operating in the black for the 3rd straight year. When you see Honey Creek’s Director, Dade Brantley, this afternoon, please give him a big hug and a thank you.

So, there are many things we’re doing to help our congregations thrive. And thriving congregations must be our goal if we’re to accomplish God’s mission.

In this last year, while I was on retreat with the Sisters of St John the Baptist, I spent long periods of time praying for you. I did. I spent hours of time praying just for you and for each of our congregations.

There on retreat, thanks to Canon Logue, I brought with me the Field Guide to the Diocese. With that objective data and with my own direct experience with each of our congregations over the last four years, I placed each congregation in three, separate categories: Those that were thriving, those that were treading water, and those that were in decline.

I had some assumptions ahead of time about what congregations in each of those categories had in common that would tell me why they were in the category they were in. I discovered that my assumptions were mostly wrong (it’s good to have our assumptions challenged on a regular basis). It wasn’t the congregation’s location, or its size, or the amount of financial resources it had that defined whether it was thriving. The thriving congregations were of all sizes, in vastly different locations, and had widely differing resources.

There’s only one variable that all the thriving congregations have in common and it’s this: they’re all focused beyond their own doors and their own property lines. They’re concerned with that co-worker who had given up on God saying that if Jesus were real, then he must not love him. They’re focused on that hungry child down the street who won’t have enough to eat tomorrow. They’re alarmed to learn about that senior citizen who was all alone in the nursing home across town. Those are the topics dominating coffee hour conversations and discernment at vestry meetings. How might we reach them with the Good News of Jesus? How might we love them? How might we humbly serve them? Those are the questions being asked and discerned in our thriving congregations.

In contrast, what about the congregations in the two other categories? They’re anxious about their inward issues and talk mainly about surviving and protecting what they now have. Rather than be open to their community, they may feel that they have to struggle against it. While not always the case, this may lead to an unhealthy focus on things like the color of the new carpet in the narthex, or the rector’s recent haircut, or the choir’s lack of musical range. Or more dangerously, they may become focused on finding someone to blame for why their church isn’t thriving. And that blaming, often of the clergy, becomes what fuels the congregation’s life.

So my epiphany while I was on retreat is really quite simple: if we want thriving congregations and thus the transformation of our Diocese, then that’ll only happen when, as Bishop Lesslie Newbigin wrote, local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Now, it would be wonderful if the Diocese had the financial resources to help congregations engage the Gospel in their communities. We’re trying to raise those financial resources. We’re working to get every ounce of mission out of the limited resources we have in the Diocese. We have one of the smallest diocesan staffs in the Episcopal Church for a diocese our size. Frank, Mary, Elizabeth, Rudy, Vicki, Gayle, and Libby, not only put up with me on a daily basis, they’re committed to help all our congregations thrive. I’m blessed to serve with these amazing people.

Yes, it would be wonderful if we had more money and as I said, through the Capital Campaign, we’re working on finding those financial resources.

But, you know, we don’t need money to love our neighbor. We don’t need deep pockets to care about what happens to kids in the school next door or the overwhelmed single mother across the street or the lonely man in the nursing home around the corner. Each of our congregations can make a Gospel difference in their communities without having a dime to do it. All we need is the will to set aside our inward focus and embrace our neighbors with the Good News of God’s redeeming grace in Jesus.

I see hopeful signs of this in so many of you and in our congregations. We must not lose heart or believe we’re incapable of changing our local mission strategy. As a church, we’re facing nothing short of an avalanche of social and cultural change. I don’t need to list all those changes for you. You’ve read about them and you see them every day in your community.

When I was first ordained in 1983 to serve Lake Wobegone Episcopal Church, all we needed for what we understood to be “success” back then was a nice church building in a semi-decent location with passable worship and acceptable music. It didn’t hurt if the priest’s sermons were mildly entertaining, but not too challenging. If we added a clean, safe Church school, then we had a congregation sizable enough to pay all the bills.

But those days are gone and they’re not coming back. Please hear me when I say this: Those days are gone and they’re not coming back. Nostalgia for the past is hindering us from embracing our present mission.

The old road maps for “success” in our congregations are no longer applicable. We can’t just show up anymore, say we’re the church, and people will pay attention. We must take the Gospel into the public life of our communities with a passion and a commitment we’ve not had before. The people of our society are suffering from a lack of grace and compassion in their lives. They’re living in the “mean time” in both senses of that term. Mercy and empathy for one another is in short supply. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to renew and redeem us and our neighbors.

As Bishop Newbigin wrote: If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society…it will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Many of you are realizing that. That’s why I see so many hopeful signs of God’s redeeming grace in our congregations. You and I need to see more of these hopeful signs from one another, so we can encourage each another to live into the changes we must make locally in order to grasp the new mission God is placing before us.

The congregations that recognize what time it is will be the congregations that will thrive in the future. Those congregations who don’t, who insist on making the church’s mission only about those who show up, or only about what’s good for me and mine, those congregations will die a slow and banal death. That’s simply the truth.

So, can we let go of our inward focus and embrace our neighbors with Jesus and his Gospel in new and creative ways? Can we take the Gospel out of our churches and into the public square, not to nag or cajole, not to finger point or to blame, but to love and to serve and to bring hope to those who, as St Paul so aptly described, are literally perishing without the Gospel?

Can we do this? I know we can.

It’s true. “We’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set. But ain’t we got love.” We sure do have love. We have the love of Jesus for us and for this wonderful and beautiful, yet sinful and broken world in which we live. And the love of Jesus is all we truly need.

Bishop Benhase with the clergy of the Diocese of Georgia in a photo taken just after he delivered the above address.