Bishop’s Address of 2011

Given by the Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase on February 11, 2011
at the Rainwater Convention Center in Valdosta, Georgia

“The world in which we live has changed and is changing so that it is very difficult to keep one’s bearings. Compared with twenty-five years ago we live in a new world… However we might wish for the old days and old patterns, they aren’t here and they aren’t coming back. It is a new world but it is still God’s world with new opportunities.”

I didn’t write that. I borrowed it straight from Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart’s 1966 address to the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Georgia some 45 years ago. Of course, it has resonance for us today. I wouldn’t be surprised if a future bishop of the Diocese 45 years from now quotes this address and arrives at a similar conclusion. Even though context and culture change over time, human nature and the challenges we face living in community do not change.

That should give us reassurance. You and I aren’t the first ones in the Diocese to face big challenges. We’re always standing on the shoulders of those who’ve gone before us. I find solace in knowing that our forbearers faithfully met the challenges they faced. Such perspective allows us to remain calm and avoid running after quick fixes for today’s challenges. What we need is sustained, faithful commitment for the long haul.

In the first year of my episcopate, I’ve been overwhelmed by your love and support for me and my family. Your faithful witness and generous hospitality has on more than once occasion brought tears to my eyes. Whenever I’ve been homesick for my family, you’ve received me into your churches as a member of your family and that has meant so much to me.

During this year, we’ve made great strides in addressing some issues that have hamstrung the Diocese for years, particularly around financial management and administrative oversight. We now have our diocesan finances available for all to see on the diocesan website. We have a clear, unambiguous budgeting process. We ended 2010 in the black without having to use any budgeted reserve funds to prop up income as had been done in previous years. Canon Mary Willoughby has done an extraordinary job managing all this.

We’ve also developed clear standards for how we support congregations in transition and those needing special assistance or, in some cases, intervention. I believe such clarity and transparency is vital to building healthy mission-focused congregations. We can’t keep moving the goal posts and expect clergy and lay leaders to serve faithfully. That just leads to confusion and distracts us from mission.

Under Canon Frank Logue’s brilliant leadership we now have clear, predictable support services for our congregations. Go on the Diocesan website, particularly the Reference Library, and you can see all the resources we offer congregations. This support helps congregational leaders focus their time and energy on what’s most important: making disciples for Jesus and compassionately reaching out in their communities.

We have also re-energized and re-focused our youth and young adult ministry through the strong leadership of Canon Leigh Hall. We often say that young people are the church’s future. Then we correct ourselves and say they are the church’s present. But both of those ways of thinking treat young people as if they were alien entities out there that we need to somehow conquer.

The truth is that young people today desire the same thing older folk desire: a true relationship with God, incarnated in Jesus, and lived out in community. Now they may express that differently than older folk; they may live out their faith in new ways, but they long for the same thing. Our call is to create opportunities for young people so they can express and live out their faith in ways that resonate with them while remaining true to the Gospel. Canon Hall is focusing our youth and young adult ministry on just that and she is doing outstanding work.

I’m blessed also to serve with Gayle Dawson and Vicki Schuster both of whom manage on a daily basis to keep me from looking like a fool based on some mistake they’ve helped me avoid or some detail for which I failed to give attention. If I still appear the fool, it is not Gayle or Vicki’s fault. I’ve earned that on my own. They aren’t only the public voice of Diocesan House. They do so many things behind the scenes that make things work.

So, I’m truly blessed to have Vicki, Gayle, Mary, Frank, and Leigh as colleagues. And we’re blessed as a Diocese to have them serve. What they’ve accomplished in such a short time is nothing short of miraculous.

What we’ve done in the last year is get the garden ready for planting, so to speak. We’ve removed the weeds, tilled the soil, and spread around plenty of fertilizer. Soon it will be time to plant and tend toward growth, so we can become the kind of church God intends for us to become.

But we still have three lingering concerns that need addressing or that growth won’t be possible. The first of these we’ll address at this convention, that is, the proposed canonical change for funding the mission and ministry of the Diocese. I don’t need to tell you the current system is broke. You know that.

We have four giving percentages asked from our congregations based on their size: 17.5%, 15%, 12.5%, and 10%. Most of our congregations struggle to meet their asking. Few are able to do so. It makes no sense to me to have a system with which only a few can comply. It also doesn’t make sense to have a system that creates resentment between congregations where one meets its asking and the other does not. The proposed canonical change isn’t perfect, but it goes a long way to bring fairness and mutual accountability to the system.

Some have questioned the need for Section 4 of the proposed canon. I think it’s needed. Here’s why. If a congregation goes two straight years without meeting its tithe or a mutually agreed on reduced percentage, and if that same congregation ignores all efforts of Diocesan Council to find a fair compromise, then there are deeper problems than mere finances going on in that congregation and its going to need diocesan intervention. And this isn’t particular to this diocese. I believe the church often waits too long to intervene when there are growing problems in a congregation. Often when the Diocese has finally intervened, the scene looks like the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy. So, I believe we need mutual accountability built into the canon. It will help ensure greater connections and commitments between all the congregations of our Diocese.

The second lingering concern we need to address is our camp and conference at Honey Creek. We’ve allowed wishful thinking and benign neglect to guide us for too long. We have nearly $900,000 in debt at Honey Creek. That debt grew over the last decade with no real plan for eliminating it. Fr Ted Clarkson has done a superb job chairing the Honey Creek Commission. Later today you’ll hear a detailed report from Charlie Hough for how we can climb out of this hole. I believe we have a solid plan for going forward and we have the right people in place to lead us. We don’t, however, have a guarantee the plan will work. Your Diocesan Council is committed to the business plan developed and we will give it three years. If at that time, we’ve not solved the problem, then we will have to sell Honey Creek.

I would see that as a great tragedy. Honey Creek is wonderful resource for our common life and mission. But it’s also been a millstone around our necks due to its deficits and debt. We need to recognize the opportunity cost of the status quo. If we didn’t have to subsidize Honey Creek and service its debt, we could each year help one of our mission congregations grow into a parish. Or, we could start a new congregation every three years with those funds. So, the status quo is unacceptable for many reasons, the most important of which is our mission to grow the church.

The third lingering problem is related to the first two. We have no funds for future mission. We need significant financial resources if we want to accomplish great things for God’s Kingdom.

That’s why we’ve been engaged in a feasibility study over the last nine months to discern whether we should have a diocesan capital campaign. This campaign wouldn’t be about raising money although, as Dr Hedgepeth will tell us this afternoon, the study found that the potential for significant giving exists. The campaign would not and should not be an end in itself. The only reason for engaging in such a campaign would be for us to fulfill the Great Commission by developing greater strength in our congregations as vital, healthy centers for mission. Plainly, it’s about serving Jesus.

Those are the three lingering issues we’ll have to face soon if we’re to thrive as a diocese in the future. All this is about the future health and vitality of all our congregations. A diocese is only as strong as its congregations. We need all our congregations to be vital centers of mission where the Gospel of Jesus is proclaimed and lived out with energy and devotion. Only then, will we become the kind of Church God intends for us to become.

My family has always had dogs. Or, maybe more correctly, our dogs have always had us. The humorist Dave Barry once wrote that if an alien from outer space looked down and observed a 4-legged creature pulling a 2-legged creature on a leash and that 2-legged creature had a plastic bag for creaturely waste in its hand, then the alien would have to conclude that the 4-legged creature was the higher life form.

Bowtie had us for 12 years. He looked like a black Retriever on steroids. He was a constant challenge. He ran away every chance he got. He was rarely obedient. We even had a dog psychologist analyze Bowtie. She diagnosed him with separation anxiety. That explained his inability to be house trained. He was punishing us for leaving him each day. My reaction to her diagnosis was to ask that if he had separation anxiety then why did he run away all the time. She couldn’t answer that question. She just sighed, shook her head, and looked at me the way one pities the ignorant.

During this same time we had a rat take up residence in our house. And this was a tough, urban rat, the kind with nose piercings and tattoos. We tried traps and exterminators to get rid of this nasty fellow, but to no avail. We’d see his tail disappearing behind things, but we could never catch him. Each time, I’d always look at Bowtie and say: “God made you a Retriever; retrieve the rat!” He’d just look at me and, you know what, he’d pretend he didn’t understand a word I said.

Then one morning after running carpool, I was making coffee in the kitchen and I heard a bark, the sound of dog paws slipping on the wood floor, and then a loud squeal. By the time I got into the living room to see what had happened, I found Bowtie in perfect hunting dog form, lying with his paws in front of him presenting me with the rat he had just killed.

Bowtie had finally become who God had intended for him to become all along. After all his years, he finally discovered that he was a hunting dog trapped in a boring housedog’s body.

Likewise, God is calling us as a church to become what God has always intended for us to become.

And we know how to help our congregations become such a church. We know what works. There are four things we must do if we’re going to become the church God intends for us to become:

  1. We need to have long-term, experienced, and gifted clergy whose ministries aren’t interrupted by long vacancies.
  2. We need adequate funding for congregational mission work that’s in place for a significant period of time.
  3. We need to develop a pattern where our clergy gather regularly for ongoing support, continued training, and mutual accountability.
  4. And, we need a system of strong lay leadership development, where leaders are equipped to lead the church in the 21st Century.

My friends, I believe God is calling us to become a church of vital mission; a church that boldly and unapologetically proclaims the Good News of God in Christ; a church that is willing to pour itself out sacrificially for those who are suffering; a church that’s wise in its stewardship of God’s gifts. In other words, I believe God is calling us to become a church that looks like Jesus who himself proclaimed the Good News of God, gave himself to those who were suffering, and taught us the wisdom of being good stewards.

A church that looks like Jesus: That’s as plain and clear as I can make it. And it’s my vision for the diocese. I mean, if you’re going to have a vision, it may as well be an audacious one. I want people throughout Georgia to look at our congregations and say: “those places look like Jesus! Look at the sacrifices they’re willing to make. Look at the way they love people, no matter who they are. Look at how they care for the lost, the lonely, and the left out. Those people together look like Jesus!” What we can’t be alone, we can be as a church. Together, we can look like Jesus. I believe God expects nothing less of us. And we should expect nothing less of ourselves.

Philip Strong was Bishop of New Guinea during WWII. When the Japanese army invaded New Guinea, most westerners fled to safer locations, but not Bishop Strong and his clergy. They stayed with their people. Some of the clergy were captured or killed by the Japanese army, but no one ran away.

At the darkest hour for the church in 1942, Bishop Strong gathered his clergy and he said this to them:

We must endeavor to carry on our work…God expects this of us. The Church at home, which sent us out, will surely expect it of us. The universal Church expects it of us…The people whom we serve expect it of us. We could never hold up our faces again, if for our own safety we all forsook him and fled, when the shadows of the passion began to gather around him in his spiritual and mystical body, the Church.

The challenges we face today pale in comparison to what our sisters and brothers faced in 1942 in New Guinea. And, as Bishop Stuart said so eloquently 45 years ago, for all our challenges and struggles in this new world in which we live, “it is still God’s world.”

Yes, it is still God’s world. And we are God’s Church. We are the ongoing Body of Christ in God’s world. And Jesus will not forsake his own Body, the Church.

My sisters and brothers, let’s get on with becoming the church God intends for us to become: A church that looks like Jesus.

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