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Towards a Strategic Plan

The address of the Rt. Rev. Andrew M.L. Dietsche to the Convention of the Diocese of New York, November 9, 2013

Note: The full text of this address is available as a printable pdf by [wpfilebase tag=fileurl id=69 linktext=’clicking here’ /].


Bp Dietsche

Bishop Dietsche Addressing the 2013 Diocesan Convention

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This will be my second time addressing you at convention, but my first as the Bishop of New York.  I have just passed the nine-month mark as bishop, and I must say that the transition into this new ministry has been at times a bit overwhelming.  But you all have been patient and generous with me, forgiving and forbearing, and I am eternally grateful.  The greatest pleasure of this office has been the time I spend in your congregations, Sunday after Sunday.  The miracles and wonders that I see God working through you and your churches is the inspiration that carries me through everything else.

And we are in the midst of a number of transitions, not only my own.  Four weeks from today we will elect the Bishop Suffragan.  The nominating committee has given us a very thoughtful and able slate of candidates.  Three are priests of our own diocese and two others have history here, but all six are accomplished, they all bring different gifts and backgrounds to the election, and I believe that the diocese has been given truly interesting choices.  I ask that we continue to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit for this election, and that we hold each of the candidates very much in our hearts and in our prayers.  I well know the extraordinary level of vulnerability that attends nomination to this office, and I pray every day and ask you the same for the six who will meet you next week in the Walk Abouts.  Please be gentle with the politics of this process, and take the time to love them and hold them up before God.  And mark the date of May 17th, as that is the date for the consecration of the new Suffragan.

Since April, Bishop Chilton Knudsen has worked alongside me as Assistant Bishop.  I cannot tell you what it has meant for this neophyte to have someone of her experience and wisdom walking with me.  A friendship of thirty years has been deepened and enriched by our working together, and I have learned so much from her.  But far beyond her value to me in my office has been the varied and rich contributions she has made to our common life in the Diocese of New York.  She makes wonderful visitations to parishes (usually followed by golf in the afternoon with the vestry), has brought insight and counsel to vestries and clergy on matters of stewardship, evangelism and good church governance, and has brought advocacy and leadership for women in the church.  She has also proved herself to be an invaluable resource for mediating conflict, and has been able to enter into a couple of difficult situations and lead people through them to peace and a renewed sense of goodwill.  That is hard work, but her loving and gentle approach to everyone, and her firm convictions about what it means to be the church, have brought blessings where there had been crisis.  Chilton will continue her service to this diocese through the month of May next year, joining in the consecration of the new bishop, and then return to her home in Maine with our thanks, our love, and my forever gratitude and loyalty.

Last spring I asked her to convene a task force to study several matters related to clergy compensation and benefits.  She brought together a superb committee to do this work, and you have recently received their report.  Among their findings they are offering some resolutions and recommendations to this convention.  I will ask that the report be made and its resolutions offered by Bishop Knudsen and members of her task force immediately following my remarks.  I want to say that a great number of priests in our diocese are paid exactly at diocesan minimum, and some are paid less.  Jesus said that the laborer is worthy of his hire, and fairness and justice demand that we all take responsibility for the well being of the clergy who serve our churches, deliberate with generosity of spirit and make compassionate decisions, and that is what I am asking of you today.  I will add that one of the recommendations of the task force is that I create a continuing human resources committee for the diocese, which I will surely do, so that these critical matters remain continually under review.

You know that both Deborah Tammearu as Canon for Transition Ministry, and Charles Simmons as Canon for Ministry, have begun their service to the diocese during 2013.  More recently you have heard from me that Blake Rider, Rector of Christ Church in Poughkeepsie, will become the new Canon to the Ordinary as John Osgood retires, and that Jeanne Person, Director of the Center for Christian Spirituality at General Seminary, will fill the vacant position of Canon for Pastoral Care.  I am confident that each of these new canons will bring integrity, wisdom, and grace to their work and we will be blessed by them.

Williamson Taylor and Claudia Wilson, as Canons for Congregational Development, and Allen Barnett as Chief of Operations and Finance, have done remarkable service for the Diocese of New York.  I hardly know how to thank them.  But all are nearing retirement, and rather than have the first three years of my episcopate marked by constant staff turnover, I want to take the steps I need to now to complete the team that will take us through the strategic plan and over the next decade.  Claudia and Williamson will transition back into their parishes on a full time basis.  I have invited them to continue to serve parishes as consultants in congregational development, but now on contract with the parishes which engage them.

Then in January we will begin the process of transition in administration and finance.  Allen Barnett was the fourth person to head the financial offices during Bishop Sisk’s episcopate.  He and I are committed to making a good transition with an eye toward long-term stability in our diocesan services.  By year’s end I will call together a task force to study the structures and services of our diocesan administration, in conversation with Allen, the diocesan staff and with people across the diocese, before we begin the actual search for the new administrative and finance officer.  I expect that we will complete that transition by mid-year.

Canon Patricia Mitchell has brought tremendous commitment to our ministries of Christian education and formation in recent years, but now she and I are in conversation about a position of pastoral leadership in the new regional parish structures we are building, and as we complete our conversations you will hear more about them.  But in any case, for the time being the positions of Canon for Congregational Development and Canon for Christian Formation will not be continued as staff positions.  I am happy to say that Bill Parnell will continue as Archdeacon for Mission.  And finally, I am looking to create one additional canon in a specialized ministry, but that is not far enough along for me to speak to it yet.

These changes will all be effective as of January 1st, and they represent a 25% reduction of the canons on diocesan staff.  A reality under which we work is that since 2008 the budget of the diocese has fallen by a third.  This restructuring reflects that, and means also that services which the diocese has provided to parishes at no cost will now have to be picked up by the parishes themselves.  However, I remain committed to providing access to the resources every parish needs to foster health and nurture vitality.  To that end, I hope in the coming year to further a favored project of mine, which is to establish two resource libraries for Christian education and spiritual formation;  one in Manhattan and one upstate.  You will raise up disciples for Jesus and apostles for the church, and we will give you the tools.

•     •     •     •     •

In late summer, I wrote to invite all of our congregations to enter into the Indaba conversations, which have now begun, and at that time I said that the Indaba represents the first steps of a strategic plan process that will engage the diocese over the coming years, and cited by title ten letters that I would write in anticipation of this Convention under the umbrella heading “Toward a Strategic Plan.”  As we embarked upon the Indaba, I made the decision to hold publication of them and instead encompass those letters in two documents rather than ten, and bring them to Convention.  The address you are now hearing is the first of those communications, and the second will follow as a letter.  Both are broken into sections corresponding to the titles I cited earlier.  Today I will talk about those areas which have to do with the health of parishes and some principles of the strategic work around parish transformation.  The letter to come will address those issues of witness, mission and the social outreach and justice work of the church.

Let  me say that I am thrilled that almost a third of our churches are participating in the Indaba.  I always knew that not all churches would be able to do this.  The name Indaba itself is a mystery, and the process is quite new to the culture of this diocese and something which will take time to work fully into our common life.  It also required a steep and significant commitment by its participants.  Finally, we had to make the difficult choice of rolling it out during the summer or waiting until next year, so we introduced this at a difficult time.  However, we have about sixty churches, each teamed in partnership with two other parishes, engaged in these cross-cultural, cross-diocesan weekend-long encounters and conversations, the first of which took place three weeks ago.

All of the responses to the first weekend that I have heard have been more than positive, but some of them have been downright astonishing.  I have been told by people with tears in their eyes that their life in the church has been changed forever.  I have been told by one priest that it was “awesome,” and that their team has decided to come together more often than the program asks.  A member of one of our significant Manhattan churches, in partnership with a small church upstate and a congregation in the Bronx, told me that by the end of the weekend everyone was crying.  She said that this has changed her life.  It has changed her understanding of church.  She told me these things from a heart welling over with feeling.  And I confess that the passion of some of these reports has taken me aback.  What have I done, I wondered;  I’ve started something and I don’t know where it’s going.  But later she came back to me and said, “You know, Bishop Dietsche, this Indaba has an unintended consequence for you!”  And when I asked what that is, she said that if we go to close one of those smaller or poorer churches, we need to know that “they are our friends now!”  And I laughed and said that that was the whole point.  It is this which I have prayed for this diocese:  the beginning of A Shared Understanding of Our Common Life;  it is the beginning of Everybody All Together, Everybody Being One.

But let me say that no one will be left out of this.  Clergy and people who were not able to take part in this first Indaba have asked me if there will be other ways to participate.  Know that Indaba is not an event;  it is a process.  And it is how this diocese will talk to itself and do discernment and deliberation going forward.  What we are doing now is an introduction to a new way of being.  Early in 2014 we will engage a consultant to help us initiate a formal process of strategic plan for the diocese, but following the same principles of cross-diocese, cross-cultural communication and conversation which characterizes the current Indaba.  The strategic plan will not be a staff-driven or top-down process, but as with Indaba, one which will bring long-time leaders of the diocese together with grassroot voices which have not always been invited to the table.  Those who have been part of this Indaba will bring the fruit of this work to the strategic plan, but there will be opportunities for everyone to talk and to listen.  To pray together, to retreat together.  To cross over into the lives of other people.  It is Continuing Indaba.

We are going to change the culture of this diocese.  The challenges of being church in our day require it.  But remember that it takes eleven miles to turn around an ocean liner.  Time and hard work.  The Indaba, and the strategic plan itself, is not even beginning to turn the boat.  It’s just laying our hand on the wheel.

•     •     •     •     •


The Abundant Life
From Surviving to Thriving

What is the mission of the church in the twenty-first century?  We know what it means to struggle with fewer and fewer financial resources than we did not too long ago.  Plenty of people are ready to say that the church has lost its relevancy in the larger community, and more than a few view the church as a dying institution.  But there are inspiring signs of new life and growth everywhere in the church, with a third of our dioceses reporting growth in numbers, and stories of ministries among marginalized populations that are reshaping what it means to be church even as they transform the lives of people.  Even across our own diocese we see in our churches an extraordinary level of vitality, and everywhere we see evidence of profound health.  I get to sit with confirmation classes every Sunday.  I see what God is doing to touch and shape the lives of people.  I saw a young woman I confirmed take the face of her priest in her hands and say “I love you so much.  You have made my life possible.”  That this vitality and this health is not always represented in numbers can be frustrating, but is nonetheless wonderful evidence of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst and of the power of God to act in and through our communities in transformative ways.

We have profound work to do in creating a vision and a strategy for Latino/Latina ministry.  I will go so far as to say that if you are not on some level reaching out to and inviting in the Hispanic community where you live you are probably living on borrowed time.  Earlier this year I had a long lunch with Canon Anthony Guillen, the Episcopal Church Officer for Latino/Hispanic Ministries.  He and I are from the same part of California and maybe that’s part of why we hit it off right away.  We will be planning for him to come three times over the next year to New York and offer weekend-long workshops in each region to train churches for this critical work.

We also need to look at the opportunities for expanding our ministry through new church plants, but doing that in new ways — flexible, light on the ground, less real-estate-dependent — appropriate to the day we have been given.  We have an urgent call to re-engage the community development work that is the hallmark of our ministry in the impoverished pockets of our cities, and to witness to our communities of poor and working people in the Catskills some real, hope-filled Christian ministry of economic empowerment that isn’t a casino.  We must develop strategies for guiding distressed churches into regional or clustered ministries, or in some cases into mergers, strategies for alternative and non-parochial ministries, strategies for the engagement of young adults, and for the expansion of college and military chaplaincies.  We will find the language, the flexibility, the freedom and the means to encourage people to dream and imagine new ministries in non-traditional settings among people who don’t normally come to church and wouldn’t think that that is how to get their spiritual needs met anyway.  All of this and more is what we mean when we say mission today.

All of this will require substantial recommitment to our common life.  We are asking every parish to take responsibility for themselves:  for the pastoral, financial and structural responsibilities which undergird their ongoing life, and where they cannot to accept and embrace new structures and forms to live and work collaboratively with the diocese and other churches to make their life possible and sustainable.  But also and more so to take responsibility for making the church which has been given into their care a place of vibrant mission possibility.  Jesus expects us to be mature hard-working grown-ups, and I will tell you now that this diocese can no longer expend our limited financial resources to support the operating budgets of churches which will not take that responsibility;  which will not fully and passionately re-engage their mission, their future in God.  But we can help you.

To that end, the Archdeacon and I have spent a fair amount of time this year with vestries of churches in places where the existing structure of ministry is no longer sustainable.  And we are talking about new ways of being church that work and bring stability and possibility.  We are talking about shared lived toward the enrichment of our Episcopal presence from region to region across the diocese.  We are talking about mission and ministry and we are talking about Jesus.  And these conversations are exciting, and we are seeing the possibilities of new birth right in front of us.

Since becoming bishop I have attended most meetings of the Harlem clericus.  Across the ten churches of North Manhattan we are covenanting for a collaborative effort to raise all churches together, and to share resources for the sake of the a more vital presence for our church in this part of the city.  I scrounged up money to create a curacy for Saint Philip’s Church, where Patrick Williams is beginning his new priestly ministry.  We know that the transformations we seek will demand of us the raising up of good leaders.  Patrick is one of them.

The archdeacon has worked with his counterpart in the Lutheran synod, and I with Bishop Rimbo, toward the establishment of a joint Episcopal-Lutheran parish at Holy Nativity in the Bronx.  This is slow going, and the end of that work cannot yet be seen, but the relationship we are building with the synod has extraordinary potential for reshaping ministry together across the diocese.  A dozen years after Call to Common Mission and the Concordat, who would have guessed?  It turns out they are our friends.  And I meet regularly with leaders of some of the churches of the South Bronx, and they have presented me with the draft version of a plan for collaborative ministry across their ten parishes which is as exciting as anything I’ve seen.  It’s a draft.  It’s a beginning.  But it signals a new day in a part of the diocese where the challenges are profound and so is the quality of the faith that endures, that prevails, that thrives in the midst of human suffering and wearying hardship.

Deep work done among the churches of Mount Vernon, and in Eastern Dutchess and Putnam Counties, is moving rapidly toward new partnerships of shared ministry that are certain to free the parishes from their captivity to crippling fears about survival to their re-entry into the common life of the diocese as leaders, and as wellsprings of Christian mission.  We are doing the same in Sullivan County where I am convinced we will effect a county-wide mission plan that will stand as a model for other regions.  And conversations begun in Ulster and Dutchess are continuing.  But there are many more places where this work needs to happen and places where patterns of decline are so entrenched — we are barely scratching the surface of this work — that in order to get to the deep levels of discernment and unguarded self-offering that true transformation will require we may need the convention of this diocese to give us new tools to do so.

•     •     •     •     •


Identifying and Naming Imperiled Congregations
The High Spiritual Cost of Unsustainability

The Diocese of New York is unusual in having no canonical provision by which we may designate a parish as imperiled or distressed, with some means for the bishop and diocesan governmental bodies to intervene and act in definitive ways.  Many, if not most, dioceses have established benchmarks for health and unhealth, and when a congregation hits those benchmarks and demonstrates that it cannot by its own strength maintain the marks of a sustainable parish life, the bishop and larger church, in consultation with diocesan governing bodies, have some carefully regulated authority to intervene and create new structures to promote health.

I feel some particular urgency around protecting a parish’s assets from being catastrophically depleted in the struggle to survive.  We see churches plan the sales of capital assets — stained glass windows, artwork, land, rectories, or even whole churches — to support fleeting operating costs.  But mostly we see the gutting of endowments, as larger and larger draws are taken to compensate for decreasing revenues.  It is not unknown for us to see churches spend up to a quarter of their endowment annually with no plan beyond the exhaustion of those resources.  I am convinced that no church has the moral right to spend away assets that have been given in trust by earlier generations to serve the mission of the church, in lieu of genuine sacrificial stewardship or engaging, faithful evangelism.  In my judgment the assets held by our churches do not “belong” to those churches, but exist in trust to serve the mission of the whole church over generations now and yet to come, and the larger church has a right and a responsibility to protect them.

Many years ago Sidney Harris drew a cartoon for the New Yorker that has been widely reproduced.  It shows two scientists standing at a blackboard across which is written a long and very complex mathematical formula.  But in the middle of the formula is a blank space with the words “Here a miracle occurs.”  One of the men says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”  It is very easy for churches with seemingly intractable challenges to go into a holding pattern, waiting for something outside of their own strength or hard work to happen or for God to do something unexpected.  For a miracle to occur.  It is not uncommon to hear the sentiment “if God wants this church here, God will make it happen.”  That is not religion.  It is magic.

Early in the new year I will convene a task force, as an early piece of the strategic plan, to study the development of a Canon for Imperiled Congregations.  This will include people from parishes large and small, and with representation from across the diocese, and will engage the whole church through Indaba conversations that we may listen to one another across the multitude of contexts in which we live and minister.  This canon will establish certain basic benchmarks which we can understand and agree define and describe a sustainable and healthy parish, or which signal that a parish has entered into its final decline.

The inability to sustain continuing pastoral oversight of a parish beyond long term Sunday-only supply coverage;  the unwillingness to engage new structures as a platform for renewed mission;  the continued and ruinous drawdown of endowment capital with no realistic plan for sustainability;  dangerous neglect of properties;  consistently falling levels of stewardship giving;  divestment of capital assets to cover normal operating costs;  the inability to provide a basic program life of Christian education and spiritual formation to nurture people in the faith;  the inability to attract new people;  the inability to engage in the mission of the church locally and across the communion and world;  and, of course, catastrophic decline in numbers.  Any parish may find themselves in some of these situations from time to time.  I’ve been a parish priest and I know these challenges firsthand.  But I believe we will be able to identify patterns which we would agree define an Imperiled Congregation, one that without intervention may not be able to be saved.  And to shape an appropriate diocesan response with real canonical authorities to act.

Bishop Sisk often spoke of the marks of a healthy congregation as encompassing Worship, Nurture and Mission.  I will ask us now to spend time together talking about what those mean, and what we mean when we say Health and what we mean when we say Unhealth.  I am sure that some parishes which are particularly challenged, or whose life has become characterized by unrelenting signs of decline might worry about such a conversation, or about the ramifications of being named Imperiled.  But I hope that every church will hear this venture as good news and embrace it.  It is not about closing churches.  It is about saving them.  It is about new life.

•     •     •     •     •


“Live Without Fear;  Your Creator Loves You”
The Price We Pay For Circling the Wagons

Every parish or congregation is already and always making a witness to the wider community of what they believe, of the mission they have been given, and of the evidence for the claims they make.  That witness may be of the miracles and wonders that God is doing every day in our midst, and of the brilliant and exciting lives that people of faith may live when they live them in God, and of the profound self-offering of Christians in service to those about them and the pursuit of justice.  Or that witness may be that the church is dying, that the claims of the faith are empty, and that the gospel has lost the power to transform lives and communities — that God has turned his face away from us.

I know that it is the vibrancy of the Christian mission, the heroic and grace-filled lives transformed by Jesus, and the profound service that has been the unbroken river of compassion and caring flowing from the church over two millennia which has been the teacher of the faith to the world.  It is by our fruits that we are known.  The gospel of Jesus is balm for the sin-sick soul (it is balm for mine), it is healing for the dying heart (it has healed me), it is the answer to the midnight wringing of hands and the yearning supplications rising from people who are daily steamrolled by the cruelty of an uncaring world or the storm of assaults by the impassive forces of change and chance.  Jesus looked out at the people and saw that they were helpless and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd, and he had compassion on them.  As the church, we are the heirs and bearers of Jesus’ own good heart.  But we know that the spiritual needs of people are so urgent (we know it because they are also our spiritual needs) that they must see evidence that the promises of God are true and the claims of the church are valid before they can give their lives to it.  It’s everything to them.  So they look to see and understand the witness we make by what we say, but far more by what we do.

The greatest threat to the gospel life, and the undoing of our mission in the world, is the fear that seems to be a natural byproduct of challenges and obstacles.  The inward-looking, survival-minded, always-cutting-back, always-lowering-expectations way of being that characterizes too many declining churches, and to which none of us are immune in uncertain times, is all about fear.  We think it is just being realistic, just being practical, just doing what needs to be done.  But it is raw fear. And the basis of all fear is that we don’t know if we can trust God.  And faith communities that are afraid to trust God and to step into the unknown in order to ensure and grow the unbroken proclamation of God’s loving and transforming heart are in fact making a witness, one they don’t mean to make.  And people flee from it.

We are called to the boldness of the apostles and the fearlessness of the saints.  In uncertain times (and we are in uncertain times), in the face of entrenched challenges (and we are challenged), the temptation is to think small.  To embrace austerity.  To pull back and cut back.  It is our temptation to whittle away at the life of our churches or the diocese itself to get it down to a manageable size that we can “afford.”  But I am convinced that the only way forward, certainly the only way in keeping with our call by Jesus is to think big.  To do more and to be more.  I do not underestimate the challenges ahead of us.  I know we have long, hard work to do.  But I am certain that if we are to overcome these challenges and thrive, it will be by growing ourselves out of it, not shrinking to meet our low expectations of ourselves, and ultimately of our God.  And this is going to take the willingness to risk everything for the sake of an idea, the courage to give recklessly to support the unknown and untried, and it is going to take some real leaps of faith.

And it is that fearlessness, that willingness to risk, to fall and rise again, and the chances that we will take in reaching higher and sometimes getting knocked down, that will make a witness to the world of our utter trust in God and our wholehearted conviction that the claims of the gospel are the medicine of the world.

Exactly what that means for us, and how we will live that out specifically in New York, will be the work of the strategic plan.  We’ll sit at kitchen tables across the diocese, and eat in each other’s homes,  and talk about what we believe and what matters to us and what we’ll give our lives for, and figure it out together.  I told you last year that I won’t settle for anything less than the Kingdom of Heaven.  Well after one weekend of Indaba there are people telling me that their lives in the church have been changed forever.  Thank you, dear Jesus.  May it be just so for the work ahead.

•     •     •     •     •

Let me close on a personal note.  On November 4, 1953 the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas drank himself into an alcoholic coma at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, and he died five days later, this day, at Saint Vincent’s Hospital.  Several hours later and five thousand miles away, I was born.  Tonight at 6:30 Margaret and I will be at the White Horse Tavern to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the passing of a great poet and the birth of a poor one.  And anyone who wants to join us is more than welcome.