Bishop’s Address of 2009

FEBRUARY 5, 2009

My Brothers and Sisters,

Welcome to the 187th Convention of the Diocese of Georgia.

The Rt. Rev. Henry I. Louttit, Jr. giving this address

I know that a number of you know me very well and others have been with me for a short period. I would like everybody to have a little sense of my background before I move forward with my last Diocesan Convention Address.

I value my education that I received from an Episcopal Boarding School at Christ School in Arden, North Carolina, The University of the South, owned by our diocese and other Southern dioceses in Sewanee, Tennessee, and at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. However, the most important part of my formation as a priest took place at Trinity Church, Statesboro where the people made me a priest, supported me, and helped me to become the priest that I am. Then the people of Christ Church, Valdosta were willing to take the risks and change congregational size and parish life while challenging me about the risks involved every step of the way. From Christ Church, Valdosta you elected me your Bishop and I am very thankful for the support this diocese has given me over the past 14 years.

I came to Georgia from the Diocese of South Florida where a number of years as I was growing up the diocese was starting a new church every six weeks! I arrived from seminary having served at St. Stephen’s and The Incarnation Church in Washington, D.C., a church committed to ministering to the large numbers of Southern blacks fleeing segregation! I arrived in Georgia where a very brave Bishop, Albert Rhett Stuart, was moving to integrate the church and who was the public spokesperson for the integration of the City of Savannah. I have never known a braver man. I had seen the Klu Klux Klan burn a cross on my families’ front yard in Winter Park, Florida. Also, when I came of voting age I registered as a Republican. My family may have been the only white family registered as Republicans in Orange County, Florida. How the world has changed!

The world and the church have changed much during my ministry with you in Georgia. I am thankful for the many people throughout this diocese who have supported me as Priest and then as your Bishop in our ministry together in a changing world.
When you elected me I had, in the previous thirty years, been invited to do some kind of an event in all but five congregations in this diocese! Thus, I knew a little bit about almost all our congregations and some people in almost every congregation knew me. The odds are that my successor will not have had that opportunity. So remember, I came with the baggage of my mistakes and my minority views on some issues when I was elected. But I also came with friends all over this diocese. You may well be electing a Bishop who won’t know many of us so put on your natural hospitality and make it easy for the new Bishop to know you.

I believe I have been very blessed as Bishop surrounded by the love of so many people across this wonderful diocese. A couple of lay persons have been inspired by my talking about the diocese and set out to visit at least the other churches in their convocation! They report to me how different and yet how welcoming the congregations were from their own parish. The Central Convocation actually, this year, traded clergy on one Sunday. I have heard very positive reports from both priests and congregations about getting to know another congregation or priest. How wonderful this sounds to me. I wish all our congregations would copy the Central Convocation. However, I realize that the persons most likely to make such a decision are those responsible for many things in their own parish and that it’s hard to get responsible people to cover the things that we normally do if we are going to be absent.

Bishop Louttit giving the Address to the 2009 Convention

I have only one regret as your Bishop and that is the financial picture that I have left at Honey Creek. Most of you know that I love that place. Most of you know that I think it is an irreplaceable location and facility for the diocese. Many of you know that I am not comfortable in asking people for money. However, I did not recognize the financial troubles one or more of our previous Conference Center Directors were making. I trusted Jim Cox who had built a Conference Center in Southwest Florida. He was licensed as a building contractor in Florida and so I trusted he could both manage and renovate our Honey Creek. We also had some knowledgeable people on the Conference Center Commission.

However, when issues arose that necessitated his removal I named a new commission headed by Fr. Ted Clarkson with a number of new members with business experience. Their first task was to find a new manager. As they moved to do that task we began to realize the size of our “deferred maintenance of buildings” and our debt, which supposedly involved solving the maintenance issues.

The new Conference Center Manger, Mr. Hamp Stevens, who you will hear at this convention, is a person with experience in turning around failing businesses. He has the financial knowledge and the love of our site to lead us to a renewed facility and programs.

Now I need to name some realities for the diocese:

  1. We have parishes that differ greatly. A few of our congregations have families with considerable money whose children can go skiing in Switzerland during winter school breaks. The other young people may be able to enjoy skiing in Tennessee.
  2. We have great distances between congregations in Georgia. People in Valdosta, Albany, and Bainbridge don’t think driving three hours is awful. People in Savannah, St. Simons and Augusta won’t drive 50 miles to a congregation in their own convocation for a meeting the other churches must always drive to the city!
  3. Augusta’s more affluent members have gone for years to Kanuga. My wife spent her summers there. It is a very special and wonderful place. However, it is much larger and with a much larger base of income than our conference center has. It can offer outstanding speakers because they can pay what they charge. But it does not serve a large portion of the people of our diocese in Georgia.
  4. Some people say a less expensive site in the middle of Georgia should be sought.

The Diocese of Florida did move from a gulf front site, for which I have never forgiven them, and moved to Live Oak, Florida. It worked – but all three of its metropolitan areas are at most an hour and a half drive from their conference center! Our middle is no closer than three plus hours from most of our congregations and is in a direction which few of our people ever drive. Also, it should be noted that it took at least three million more dollars to complete the facilities in the Diocese of Florida than they got for the beachfront on the Gulf!

Fr. Clarkson’s committee employed a very knowledgeable consultant. As I remember, she has been used by several hundred large conference centers, Methodist, Baptist, and some Episcopal. She surprised me by saying that our center’s facilities could provide better children and youth programs than Kanuga if we wished to move in that direction! She also explained a number of things we would need to do to pursue that. She stressed that the setting we have is irreplaceable. She stressed that the cost of improvements at the current facility is much less than if we started over. I do think the distance issue is real, but think about it, three buses – one from Augusta via Dublin, one from Albany via Valdosta and one from either Statesboro or the Savannah area down the coast, would solve the transportation for camps and for other events and should be possible through renting busses. Also, busses would make the beach at Jekyll Island, an attraction for many young people, a possibility.

Honey Creek is a very special place – yes, there are sand gnats some times a day some days. Yes, some people prefer the mountains and some the beach, but the great marshes are a very important and critical part of our state and the world’s ecosystem. I hope you know that Georgia’s marshes or more than a half of the marshes left on the north Atlantic. They are critical for the life of all the creatures and fish who live in their Atlantic.

Now we have a new Summer Camp Commission headed by Fr. Don Hutchens of Calvary, Americus and the Rev. Loren Hague from Good Shepherd, Augusta. They need to use their imagination because the world is changing and what parents want out of camp has changed. The summer break from school has become much shorter. Many families have to look for someplace for their children to be safe while at work all summer. This makes transportation to camp a bigger problem as well as an added expense. I believe we can have a quality camp for each age group that we all can be proud of. I believe we have a good committee working on that.

Sunday, January 25th, I was at Honey Creek in the afternoon for a Happening closing for our teenage program. The chapel was absolutely packed. Forty plus teenagers had made their Happening and a number at least that large of other teenagers were there in support of them as were parents, grandparents and friends. The church was absolutely full. The energy, the love of God, the love of church and its people were palpable. But for this Bishop seeing parents whom he remembered as Happeners and seeing sometimes grandparents three generations of families now living in several states reconnected because what happened with God’s love in a very special place filled with very special people on a Sunday afternoon, brought tears of happiness to my eyes.

I believe in most congregations the easiest money to raise is for our ministry with children. We have a number of congregations with no children, perhaps each of them could pledge one child’s cost of Happening or one child’s cost for one of our summer camps.

I am very thankful for our Episcopal Youth and Children’s Services financial support of our children who need help in our camp programs and in many other ways.

At my first convention in February 1995, as your Bishop, I read a job description for my term as Bishop as I understood it. I would like to read it again today because I think that it is a good list of what the Bishop does. I think with the exception of the sixth one I have done fairly well in most areas. They are as follows:

  1. First of all, I see a major task of the Bishop to be the encourager and friend and also to offer prayer support for the leaders of the congregations and all the baptized members of this diocese (that’s priestly ministry).
  2. I see the Bishop as our link with those in other congregations in our diocese, throughout the world church, and also back through time to the apostles (that is the Bishop’s special ministry).
  3. I see the Bishop as the chief administrator, planner and vision sales person for the diocese (that parallels the responsibility of the priest in a local congregation).
  4. I see the Bishop as having a major responsibility – and this is the area that most people in the larger church don’t recognize – as the trouble-shooter, garbage man, and reconciler (This is the work that you can’t put in your diary if it goes well, and, unfortunately, if it doesn’t go well it will probably show up in the headlines of the local papers).
  5. I see the Bishop as the sharer of the family stories so as to help us be proud of each other and our relatives in Christ (this is the role of a grandmother or grandfather in a family).
  6. And finally, the Bishop, like every Christian, is called to be an icon model of Christian service (this is a role we normally call deacon).

I don’t feel that I have always had the energy and time to do the kind of modeling of Christian service that I believe to be helpful. I would add a number seven, at this point, and that is “to be a discerner of priestly and diaconal vocations.” Especially as a diocese like ours where half of the churches cannot pay a stipendiary priest and yet many of these churches have a real ministry in their civic communities. They need the Eucharist to empower their service in Christ’s name for others. Thus, we, for the foreseeable future, are going to need non-stipendiary priests to serve.

This Bishop has worked hard with our Area Discernment Teams, the Standing Committee, and the Commission on Ministry to carefully discern vocations. I have tried to encourage those in the process of preparing for ordination during their years of preparation. The result is that we have at the moment all but two of our congregations covered on a regular basis for Eucharist on Sunday mornings. However, those figures may change tomorrow as people do leave or become sick or for other reasons no longer wish to serve in a certain congregation.

Today we have 17 people in or authorized to go to seminary with 14 people preparing for priesthood in other ways. We have 16 people in or ready to go to the Deacon’s School to prepare for ministry as a deacon in our diocese. Tomorrow we will ordain 6 deacons who are moving towards priesthood. Before the end of Lent we will ordain 3 persons to the diaconate to serve as deacons in their congregation and one priest.

Brothers and Sisters we are in troubling times. Some of us have lost our jobs, some of us are retired and many of us have seen our savings become much smaller. However, at least five congregations have significantly larger pledges in 2009 than they have ever had.

The diocesan endowment funds are down by a third, congregational giving to the diocese is only down 8% – that is a positive miracle! However, my plans to leave money for an assisting part-time Bishop and a new staff person so that the new Bishop could choose a person(s) to help wherever she or he sees the need are most. Even more painful to me we were supposed to be able to plant a new church when one of our church starts became a parish. However, the increased cost of doing business and our falling pledges and endowment funds have wiped out these options for whoever you choose as your Bishop.

Bishop Louttit with Deacons of the Diocese following the closing liturgy, an ordination service

We are welcoming one of our church starts who takes their first step to becoming a parish at this convention King of Peace, Kingsland led by the Rev. Frank Logue. On the second reading next year, if passed, they will become a parish. Also, we are receiving another congregation who takes their first step to becoming a parish, St. Luke’s, Hawkinsville who after 139 years is ready for their first reading towards parish status. We have had another generous gift like we had that made St. Luke’s growth possible a couple of years ago amounting to $500,000 which we are using to restart a new life on ten acres the diocese owns in Pooler now named St. Patrick’s. St. Patrick’s, Pooler served by a non-stipendiary priest church starter Dr. Robert LeFavi is replacing a long-time congregation in Pooler that had almost totally died out. The church building, which was comfortably full at 35 people, was found to be dangerously near collapse and needs to be removed. We have almost finished a building that ultimately will be a parish hall and educational space, but, in the mean time, will give us space to grow a new congregation. Next we will plan the new church building.

We hope the excitement of St. Luke’s, Hawkinsville becoming a parish will be replicated at St. Patrick’s before too many years past.

I cannot end this address without again thanking the best group of lay people, deacons, and priests in the Episcopal Church for their love, their ideas, their energy and their money given to share Christ’s love in this diocese and throughout the world.

I love you. I still have eleven months before retirement – but you will always be in my prayers.