February 4, 2023

The Bishop’s Address

St. John’s Johnson City

The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole

Before I begin my address to you today, I would like for us to begin with prayer. The prayer I wish to offer is also a poem. So, consider it a prayer poem or a poem prayer. It was written by Madeleine L’Engle, noted writer and faithful Episcopal layperson, and is entitled, “Word.”

Let us pray.

I, who live by words, am wordless when

I try my words in prayer. All language turns

To silence. Prayer will take my words and then

Reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns

To hold its peace, to listen with the heart

To silence that is joy, is adoration.

The self is shattered, all words torn apart

In this strange patterned time of contemplation

That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me,

And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.

I leave, returned to language, for I see

Through words, even when all words are ended.

         I, who live by words, am wordless when

         I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen.

Today, I stand before you all for the sixth time to address you as your Bishop in Convention. This is our first time back in person for this gathering since February 2020. In 2021 and 2022, in pandemic time, we learned how to gather and govern and do business and seek connection and communion online. I want to thank you all again for all the ways we learned how to show up for each other in a new format, to somehow stay connected while disbursed, to carry on essential work in stressful days.

For this year’s Convention, we have discerned that there are things we can continue to do online, to keep more parts of the diocesan body connected to our work and prayerful process. Convention Orientation, followed by presentations and hearings and workshops have all been offered online. Along with clergy and lay delegates, we have seen a goodly number of other East Tennessee Episcopalians show up for these online offerings.

Still, as a Christian people given to the belief that God moves through the tactile and the tangible, through gathered people, be it two or three or a number that cannot be counted, we have come to believe that we do our best work together when we are in the room together. So, thank you for showing up, for making the trip to the Upper East, to St John’s Church, Johnson City.

As your bishop, I am mindful that our diocese is primarily centered around Chattanooga, Knoxville, and the Upper East. One of the most important things I do on a Sunday visitation is simply show up. Someone from away has come to be here.

So, today, those of you who have traveled some distance to be here, to the Upper East, before you did anything else, your simple presence here is a blessing and a gift to the Upper East. When we show up for each other, before anything else, we are communicating, to borrow the MetMin motto, You Matter.

My sense of an Episcopal bishop’s address at Convention is that it is an opportunity for a bishop to give an accounting of what has been, to consider where a people might go, to offer hope, to offer challenge, to pledge again to each other, to mark the time, both in the bishop’s vocation and in the history of that diocese.

While it is good to hear from me, if I am not careful, I will simply offer you my words, my take on things, my vantage point. While I do feel as if I have a good sense of our common life here in East Tennessee, no matter how much I try to say, too many other voices will end up not being heard, too many other perspectives and insights will be missed.

So, I hope it is helpful for you to know that we, as a bishop and diocese, have just completed a second Mutual Ministry Review process. For all clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, an expectation of a Mutual Ministry Review process is included in our Letters of Agreement. My first Mutual Ministry Review took place at the beginning of my second year. This most recent process took place in early December of the year just past.

Catherine Massey, an Episcopal layperson, who serves on the diocesan staff of the Diocese of North Carolina as Canon to the Bishop, facilitated our Mutual Ministry Review. It is not intended to be a job review. It is not intended to give a grade. It is intended to be a time for mutual reflection, in this case, mutual reflection on my ministry as your bishop, and our shared ministry together here and now.

To quote from Massey, “an MMR is a reflection on how the relationship is serving both groups, both the good things and where there might be areas for reflection and adjustment. It is intended to be a relational, intentional process, which is candid, Spirit-filled, and constructive.”

Over the course of three days, Catherine Massey held four sessions, each of which I attended. The sessions gathered the Diocesan Staff, followed by Bishop & Council, Standing Committee, and a final group which was a cross-section of additional East Tennessee clergy and lay leaders. Each session was two hours in length.

For each session, three questions were asked:

  1. What are we giving thanks for from this season of our ministry together?
  2. What are we grieving from this season of ministry together? What are we disappointed in from this season?
  3. What are we hopeful for as we look ahead? And as we look ahead is there anything that makes us nervous?

For the sake of time, let me say that the Standing Committee and I will be meeting soon to come up with the best means for sharing the data collected from the group responses during the Mutual Ministry Reflection process.

 I would like to invite each of you, in your own ministry contexts, both as clergy and lay leaders, to take these questions back home and consider how you would respond. In your ministry setting, what are you giving thanks for from this season of ministry? In your ministry setting, what are you grieving? What is disappointing or frustrating you? In your ministry setting, what are you hopeful for in the days ahead? Even as you hold onto hope, where might you be nervous or afraid?

After you consider your own responses, I would invite you to gather with others in your ministry context, be that a parish church, school, campus ministry, or outreach ministry, and ask the three questions out loud to each other.

Finally, I would welcome hearing your responses to these questions. Just as we will be sharing the data from my Mutual Ministry Reflection process, hearing how you respond in your settings would be illuminating for me in our shared ministry together.

One last thing I do want to say regarding my experience of the MMR. I left those three days with a renewed sense that we called to be in ministry together now and for the coming days. Together, I believe we have stretched each other. By doing this work together, you have been changed and I have been changed.

I remain profoundly grateful that you have entrusted me for this work. I am also grateful for your support of the members of the Diocesan Staff who support you in your ministries and serve with you in this region. Canon Michelle Bolt, Archdeacon Jerry Askew, Canon Beverly Hurley Hill, Brother Andrew Morehead, The Rev. Brad Jones, Alvin Blount, Caroline Wood, Mary Embler, Jon Humber, and Emily Kirk are all committed to the spiritual growth and flourishing of East Tennessee Episcopalians. It is a joy to serve with them.

Throughout the season of the pandemic, we spoke often about the need to move at the speed of trust. Even as COVID now becomes endemic in our world, we still need to move at the speed of trust. Whether the work in front of us is hopeful and joyous or uncertain and hard, we still need to move at the speed of trust. And as we do our work, along with the other outcomes with each task completed, my prayer is that we will see signs of trust growing as we go forward in shared ministry.

Let me also say to you a word about a personal learning of mine. I say this to you now because I offered a reflection to the Diocese of Tennessee’s Convention at St. David’s Nashville a couple of weeks past and spoke about this matter there. It would be wrong to not mention it to you.

For my entire life, I have always assumed my physical body worked for me. Except for eyeglasses in junior high and an astounding inability to grow hair on the top of my head, the rest of my body simply plugged along, even flourished. Tall enough to reach things, strong enough to tote things, the concept of strength made perfect in weakness was simply a theological idea, a paradox, a literary device. As far as my own physical body, it was all works righteousness.

Until now.

Over the last several months, I have become aware that I am experiencing significant hearing loss. I am now learning to live with hearing aids. I am learning to live in a body that needs help. In order to hear, I am having to learn to seek and receive help. It has been a humbling process.

It also has given me newfound admiration for so many of you who have known strength made perfect in weakness as something true in your own body for years and not simply as a literary device. You understand the grace of the gospel in your very bones.

As a people committed to the care and leadership of Episcopal ministry in this age, I am aware we may be experiencing a new need for grace to touch our very selves, our bodies, our gathered communities. We cannot do the work simply with our best thinking, our best efforts, our curated masks that attempt to convey everything is perfect.

God’s grace wants to find a true home in us, and not simply in our intellect and our theological reflections. God’s grace wants to find true home in our bodies, especially where we are weak. There, God can be strong. Where we are honest, hope lives nearby.

For many years now, this diocese has been clear in the conviction that all baptized Christians are called to ministry. Lay ministry is ministry. I would encourage you to read, or read again, Canon Hurley Hill’s report to you. This past year, Canon Hurley Hill and the Rev. Amy Morehous have been co-leading the Lay Preacher Training Initiative, which is offered through the Episcopal Preaching Foundation, and funded by a grant from Trinity, Wall Street.

I had an opportunity to lead one of the sessions for the Lay Preaching Training Initiative and I have had the opportunity to hear sermons prepared by members of the initial class. As you also had a chance to hear Allison Barton preach last evening, it is clear to me that God’s Spirit which equips us to preach the Good News is not falling simply upon the ordained.

The presence of lay preachers in our diocese and our desire to grow this ministry is not driven by economics or a lack of ordained clergy. It is driven by the belief that God’s Spirit is calling all the orders of ministry to show up. In seeking to be a diocese where all the orders of ministry are encouraged and equipped for mature spiritual growth and health, we will be a hopeful witness. We will demonstrate that lay people with pastoral gifts are not a threat to clergy, and that clergy who celebrate lay ministry are not shirking their duties.

Remember, we are the Body of Christ. We want the whole body to be strong. We want to exercise all the muscles of the body. So, let the whole body celebrate the whole body, both where we are strong and where we are weak. God’s grace desires to touch, heal, and renew the whole body.

I am grateful that the Rev. Dr. Jay Augustine has been with us in Convention to challenge us to move deeper into our reconciliation work and the call to become Beloved Community. Along with commending Rev. J’s work with the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, I want all of us to remember that Alvin Blount, our Diocesan Archivist, remains ready to assist you in your parish and ministry settings, as well.

Reflecting on our stories, learning from our stories, both where we have been courageous in racial healing and justice and where we have shown cowardice in not addressing systemic racism in our culture and in our church, is a critical work for us now. Alvin is ready to assist you.

One simple way to support Alvin’s work is to go home and help us promote the Trail of Tears Youth Pilgrimage, scheduled for early June. Alvin and Caroline Wood, our Missioner for Youth and Young Adults, are preparing a Pilgrimage for our youth where they will explore our region’s indigenous culture, our involvement with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and how we might redeem that history and move closer to Beloved Community. To learn more about this Youth Pilgrimage, please be in touch with Caroline Wood or explore www.etnyouth.org/pilgrimage.

2023 also is a year of new beginnings. At Grace Point Camp & Retreat Center, we are beginning to more fully embrace offering hospitality and physical space to welcome adults for retreat, recreation, and renewal. The Retreat Village, anchored by The Bishop William Sanders Retreat Lodge, is now partially open, having already welcomed a few Vestry retreats from our parish churches. Along with running Summer Camp, the Rev. Brad Jones has filled a critical role in his work with the contractors and builders who have brought this project to life.

This project has been a dream for years. With a total cost of nearly $3.5 million, late last year we knew we still needed to raise $1.1 million to fully underwrite it. At present, slightly over half of that $1.1 million has been received or pledged in new gifts. For the next few months, we will continue to present to parish vestries opportunities for how each parish church can be a partner in this campaign. All of us in this region will benefit from this new Retreat Village. So, it is good to invite all of you to help support the effort financially.

In 2023, Archdeacon Jerry Askew will continue to serve you as Missioner for Vitality, with an ongoing emphasis in coaching and supporting clergy and lay leadership in our small parish churches. Jerry brings a chronically optimistic spirit, along with decades of practical experience in bringing healthy practices to non-profit bodies.

Again, his mission is to serve you. Across East Tennessee, most of our communities, be they city or town, are seeing newcomers move to this region. I believe our parish churches, at their best, can experience renewal, if we understand there are new people all around us, if only we prioritize how to see, welcome, listen, and learn from them.

While this diocese is deeply committed to lay ministry, we also continue to raise up individuals for Holy Orders. Presently, we have a robust number of persons in formation at Sewanee, Virginia, and in online offerings at Bexley Seabury and Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Your support of our Diocesan Budget includes financial support for persons in theological formation and our aided curacy program.

Friends, you and I have been called to the ministry of servant leadership in East Tennessee at this time. My prayer is that we will be open to learning how to lead now, which will require some of us to unlearn how we have led in the past. 

Leadership is not simply about what can we produced right now, what can be harvested in one year’s crop. Long-haul leadership also seeks to grow good soil, to place health into the ecosystems where our ministries are already situated. A diocese committed to being a balanced, collaborative ecosystem will celebrate health wherever we find it emerging.

Our aggregate data for the whole of the diocese shows us to be a mixed ecosystem. That means we will need to be able to plan and dream with parish churches and diocesan ministries that will face futures plural and not one future singular.

Things are dying. Things are growing. Some of what is dying is not necessarily old. Some of what is growing is not necessarily new.

We are called to be disciples of Jesus for the long-haul in difficult times. For me, that means drawing hope from John, chapter 6, verses 66-69. In that portion of the story, the crowds are leaving, the good old days of the ministry of Jesus are quickly fading.

As the crowds are dispersing, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Do you also wish to go away?” In other words, Jesus does not cling, does not control.

And Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

So, even as the ministry of Jesus in John’s Gospel is hitting a low moment, Peter can admit and confess that he and the other disciples have been planted in good and healthy and honest soil. Somehow, through the mystery of God’s grace and the wisdom of the Word, the gospel life is already growing in Peter and his fellow disciples. Things are already taking root. The gospel of Jesus will prove to grow perennials, not annuals.

Friends, the Word has been with us since the beginning and will be with us always. In the time you and I have been given here, in this portion of the Lord’s vineyard as Bishop Sanders would put it, may we embrace all the gifts for ministry which God has entrusted to us now.

If we choose do so, then we have what need to go forward. I trust that God’s grace is already descending upon my body and your body, to perfect God’s work in us, not despite our weakness, but through our weakness.

May we continue to be a people always turning to the Word to pray. And may the Word always make us a prayer. AMEN.

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