Friday, April 13, 2018

Lessons Learned: Can a Bishop Make a Difference?

In this blog, I am going to address a provocative question for Episcopalians and other Church bodies that have a Bishop.  The question is this; can a Bishop really make a difference?

In 1992, I was the Director of the Leadership Training Institute located in Evergreen, Colorado.  For 5 years, I had coordinated and lead a series of weeklong leadership development course for over 500 Episcopal clergy and around 800 lay leaders.  Then, the Board of Directors of Episcopal Renewal Ministries, the umbrella organization of the Institute, called a new Director.  Even though the new Director wanted me to continue my work, I knew that my time at the Institute was over.  What was I now to do?

What had I learned running the Institute?  I learned that we had dynamic and creative Episcopal Congregations throughout North America with outstanding clergy leadership.  I used many of them for our teams that presented at each event.  I had no doubt that TEC had a vibrant future given the quality of such leadership and so many capable leaders.  However, having spent my entire ministry from 26 years of age onward in the Episcopal Church, I had a churning question.  “Did it matter that we had Bishops?”

Let me be clear.  I had and still have a high doctrine of the Church and the three fold ministry of Deacons, Priests, and Bishop, or as we like to say it, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.  Yet I found that many of these creative congregations were notable outliers to their dioceses and often at best were tolerated by their Bishops.  I certainly had experienced this when I was Rector of a congregation in Southern Ohio.  Now, let me re-frame the question then forming in me.  “Could a Bishop really make a difference for the mission of a Diocese, or, were they merely obstacles toward the accomplishment of such a mission, or even worse, ecclesiastical remnants that had worn out their use? I realized that to answer this question, I had two choices.  I could attempt to become a Bishop or I could go to work for one. 

While pondering this and my transition.  A friend nominated me to enter the election in the Diocese of Texas for Bishop Coadjutor to follow Bishop Benitez.  I had no illusions that I could be elected there.  I knew folks in the Diocese and had spoken there on several occasions, but I was an outsider.  What I wanted was the experience of being in an election and telling people what I thought the ministry and work of a Bishop should be.

Ironically, and to make a long story short, Bishop Benitez and Claude Payne, who was elected as Coadjutor, were impressed with answers and ideas and to my surprise and delight, Bishop Benitez invited me to join his staff as the Canon for Mission. 

I spent the next year working directly with Bishop Payne and he extended to me the opportunity to continue in that position with even greater responsibility and authority in the training of our leaders in Texas.  As a personal side note for those interested, Bishop Payne would probably never have hired me had we not had that year together.  As one member of the staff said once to me, “Bishop Benitez had the wisdom to hire you, but had little idea how to use you.  Bishop Payne wasn’t sure he wanted you, but he learned quickly how to use you and your skills.”  Serendipitously and in God’s timing, it worked out and I spent almost 10 years working with an outstanding Bishop, leader and person who along with his great team made an incredible difference in the Diocese of Texas and its future.

When elected, Bishop Payne had been the Rector of St. Martin’s, Houston.  He was 62 years of age and I suspect for many in the Diocese he was seen as a somewhat short term interim.  However, the story he always told was this.  He and his wife Barbara were planning their retirement when he was asked to stand for Bishop.  He decided that he would only stand for election “if I could really make a difference.”  You may wish to pause right now and stop to think about the significance of that statement!  

I think many people seek election to the office of Bishop as a natural progression of their vocation and a fulfilment and affirmation of what they have done.  There is a big difference between these two attitudes.  What did Claude Payne do to create momentum and make a difference?  This, as you can imagine will take more than one blog, but let me begin with this.

In the interim period before becoming Diocesan Bishop, Claude Payne built his staff.  He worked through with us the articulation of the core values of the Church and the Diocese and prepared to hit the ground running.

He recast the image of the Diocese in one sentence that he shared at the council where he took over as Diocesan.  “What would happen if we stopped seeing the Diocese as an organization make up of 156 parishes and missions, a hospital, 40 some schools, and numerous committees and commissions and saw ourselves as ONE CHURCH with one mission lived out in local mission outposts of congregations, schools, outreach ministries, specialized chaplaincies, board and commissions?” 

Then he articulated the Mission of the Church, “To reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ” with its two core values of The Great Commission – to love one another, and the Great Commandment – to make disciples of all nations.  

From that moment onward, he never stopped articulating that vision of One Church with One Mission and Two Core Values and directing that all we did in the Diocese on every level was guided by and measured by that vision. 

For his first seven years, the Diocese of Texas was the fastest growing in TEC in in average Sunday attendance BOTH numbers and percentages.  We started 7 new congregations.  And the Net Disposal Income of all Congregations from stewardship DOUBLED!

In my next blog, I will expand on one of his greatest strength.  As Bishop Payne would say, “it is true that the devil is in the details, but so are the Angels!’  In other words, he knew how to put legs on this vision, to do the hard strategic work that had to follow from such a high vision.