It’s hard to believe that in just over a week, I will have been consecrated and serving as bishop for six months. And while that’s the technical amount of time, there were two additional months that I spent in July and August serving as Bishop-elect (though, admittedly, much of that time was spent following my GPS around Central PA discovering new grocery stores, doctors, dry cleaners, hiking trails and with our realtor, tracking down a new home.)
And so, what an opportunity this presents- to do some reflecting in this blog entry about what I’ve been learning as I move through my first year.
It’s the Listening Year. You may remember that from some of my early offerings about how I thought that I might begin, borrowing a friendly warning from my brother bishop Alan Gates (MA): “You may grow impatient with my patience.”
It’s been six months full of listening, indeed, and driving and walking and meeting and seeing… in an effort to “learn” the places, people and passions of Central PA. I’ve tried to listen deeply to the people in our 64 Episcopal Churches, and to observe the local context- the place in which each of our parishes is “planted.”
Of our 64 parishes, I’ve made it, physically to 44, and have spent time in one way, or another, at the churches- for a meeting, tour, formal visitation or picnic. In the summer each Convocation hosted gatherings for me to meet a broad section of our parishioners, and since then, I’ve been in a different church nearly every Sunday, led our deacon’s retreat, went on a Youth “Happening” event, attended the ECW annual meeting, spent time in a 3 day “immersion experience” in the Susquehanna Convocation, gathered for luncheons with our retired clergy, facilitated our clergy conference, met three times with each of our area clergy councils and have had lots and lots of appointments in my office where, in one-on-ones, I am beginning to learn the shape of this diocese’s soul and the timbre of its song.
Here’s what I’m hearing-
The Top 6 Themes from the First 6 Months
· History is very, very important. It may be that because I’m “not from here” that there’s an extra effort to bring me up to speed on “the way it used to be.” There is a strong affection for the memories of this place and an intense desire for me to understand the present through the lens of the past. Many of my conversations begin with a re-counting of “how we got here,” and are filled with a pride in the stamina, persistence, hard work and faithfulness that has carried our congregations to the present day.
· Our geographic regions help to define who we are. There is a marked difference between the cultures of the Northern Tier; the coal region; the urban centers of Harrisburg, York, Lancaster and Williamsport; the mountain parishes; Cumberland Valley and Lancaster County. These differences are marked with pride and when I come to visit, I hear about the strength of each place from her people.
· We are worried about the future of our Church. The signposts of decline are not lost on our parishioners: almost every vestry meeting I’ve attended includes the refrain: “Our people are graying, our children are few, the budget is shrinking, what shall we do?” One of my chief responsibilities, as I see it, is to acknowledge this truth, to assist in finding some practical solutions for immediate problems and, most importantly, to turn our hearts towards vitality and mission. If we are doing the work of the Church- participating in the mission of God through worship and service- then we have got it right. And the rest will become what it needs to be. “What it needs to be” might not look exactly like we are accustomed to, and may require shifts in our physical manifestation of the Body of Christ Gathered as The Church, but when we are living and loving and serving and worshipping in Christ, we are a new creation, and that is exactly what God has intended us to be.
· We value Community. Every single congregational conversation that I have visited includes a passionate note of appreciation for the community in Christ that has been formed in the parish.
· There is a passion for Service in our churches that is exciting. Our parishes are actively engaged in the Mission of God, serving as agents of reconciliation and peace-making in our wider communities. We host community suppers, stock food pantries, grow community gardens, tutor children, teach ESL, host senior lunches, provide parenting classes, clothing distributions, run after school programs, a health clinic, a home for the aged, three HUD housing projects, provide programming for children and families with special needs, host 12 step programs, and visit people in prison. We understand, many of us, that our professional lives are also the arenas in which we live out our Christian vocation and the transition between “church” and “the rest of our life” is seamless. We receive spiritual nourishment in our faith communities which draws us to serve and love our neighbors as ourselves. We are challenged, some of us, when I talk about the distance that the word “outreach” implies and we are stretching to understand the importance of dissolving boundaries between “us “ and “them” and seeing our relationships with those whom we serve as mutually beneficial.
· We love our natural resources. Central Pennsylvania is a beautiful place. And we are proud of its resources and strive to be good stewards of our mountains, watersheds, farmland and forests. This desire to preserve our land has been challenged by the economic benefits of logging, mining, fracking and housing development, and it grieves us. There is a passion to arrest the loss of these natural resources. (I received a fly fishing rod from my staff as a consecration gift. That speaks volumes.)
So, what’s next?
More visits, more listening, more learning.
One of the things that I’d like to do is discover how I can spend more time listening to and learning from parishioners in our congregations. I am so grateful that I have regular opportunities to hear from our clergy and I want, somehow, to broaden that circle to include parishioners, as well. I’ve changed the format for visitations, asking that congregations consider how they might engage with me on a Saturday afternoon or evening preceeding the Sunday visit, and I’ve also received invitations to mission projects during the week to participate alongside all of you, in service. For that, I am glad. And, my calendar is full. The reality of time makes it impossible to do everything that I want to do, just yet. This is a marathon, not a sprint, I have to remind myself, and so I am finding it necessary to become patient with my own impatience.
Six months in. I wonder, for those of you here in Central PA, what you’re hearing, seeing and learning…? Do tell.
* the next blog entry will be on Friday March 18th as next week I will be gathering in Texas with the House of Bishops.