Saturday, October 8, 2016


Looking back on 2016,
         I need to acknowledge it has been a hard year
         in the diocesan office with a complete turnover
         of the support staff.
We are all grateful to Michelle and Wendy
         for their efforts to orient their replacements.
In Wendy’s case, that’s 3 replacements
         because the first two didn’t work out.

There is a silver lining in all that.
It has given us a chance to begin building
         a staff morale that we’ve never had,
         the kind of spirit that will make us
more of a heart center for the diocese
                  -- not just an administrative center.
Also, financial constraints did not drive the staff turnover,
         but the staff turnover gave us an opportunity
         to significantly reduce our operating expenses
         and pass that savings on to parishes.
But for us in the office it has been a hard time,
         a vulnerable time –
         and it will remain so for about a year
                  while we rebuild our staff.
The diocesan office does a lot more than we used to.
It will take time for us to get all this working the way we want.
So that’s vulnerable.

In times of hardship,
         it’s human nature for other people to take advantage
or kick people while we’re down.
But the gracious power of Christ Jesus
working in his human body, the Church,
responds the opposite way.
God’s mercy offers support and encouragement.
I am enormously grateful to the Standing Committee
and almost all of our parishes who have been patient, caring, and encouraging through this whole ordeal.

Out in the field, there’s a whole lot of good news.
In my 9 years here,
I have never seen so many green buds on the bough.
I’ll highlight just a few examples.

In the Reno-Sparks-Tahoe area,
our congregations are working together
with each other and ecumenical partners
         to sponsor refugees from the war in Syria.
Some folks are not here today because they are
in Reno welcoming refugees.
That’s good news in two ways.
First, these churches are working together
-- that’s good news no matter what they’re doing.

Second what they are doing together is right
It’s right because it’s exactly how Moses told us
         to care for the alien
         and how Jesus told us to welcome the stranger
         for this is how Jesus comes to us today
-- as the refugee.
It’s especially right because this ministry takes some gumption.
The voices of fear and politicized bigotry
are shouting that we should
         turn these people from our shores
         the way we sent Jews back to Germany
                  into the hands of Hitler.
But our churches have the courage to follow the voice of Jesus
         instead of the voice of a frightened angry mob.

In the Las Vegas Valley,
         I think you are familiar with our work
         with Nevadans For the Common Good.
We won an omnibus bill
         to fight the modern day slavery of sex trafficking,
         helped increase funding for public schools,
         expanded home health care to keep elderly
and disabled people in their homes
instead of institutions,
         advocated for funding Meals on Wheels --
The list goes on.

What you don’t know – because this is breaking news –
         is that every single Episcopal Church
in the Las Vegas Valley is now a dues paying member
                  of Nevadans For the Common Good.
We are the only denomination with more than one congregation
         at has a 100% participation rate.
And let me tell you: the other denominations have noticed.
We do by our own good work, but we also inspire others.

The end of this month, our Diocese
and Nevadans For the Common Good
will co-host a Regional Forum on how to form partnerships
with public schools.
Only a few of us have such partnerships at all.
Only one or two have actual interpersonal partnerships
         which is where the best stuff happens.
And none of our partnerships have yet flourished
         into advocacy work for education equity.

We will have trainers from Boston, Communities in Schools,
         the Clark County School District ,
and Nevadans For the Common Good giving workshops.
This Regional Forum will be a game changer
         for the relationship between our churches
         and public schools in Nevada.
I hope many of our congregations – not just those in the South –
         will send people.

Back in Reno, the Empty Bowls Banquet which supports
         the food pantry at St. Paul’s, Sparks
         outgrew its old venue and had to move into The El Dorado.
To the East, St. Paul’s, Elko has taken on a new role
         in Underdog Ministries serving the homeless;
and St. Bart’s, Ely is a driving force
in the Committee Against Child Hunger.
Grace in the Desert had an overflow crowd
for its Vacation Bible School this summer
and Epiphany has a burgeoning children’s ministry
with 30 to 40 kids each Sunday.
After Trinity Church’s exhibit of Russian icons
         made Reno sit up and take notice,
         they began a Wednesday night education program
         that is well attended by both adults and children.

Our largest congregation in central Nevada doesn’t
         have anyone at this Convention
         because Probation and Parole wouldn’t let them out.
Our largest congregation in central Nevada is
         St. Thomas the Believer.
They  worship inside
         the Lovelock Correctional Center.
They are also the most Biblically literate
and theologically educated congregation in the diocese.
Last time I was there with their priest, the Rev. Trudy Erquiaga,
         who serves them regularly,
         we met a young man who was in absolute despair,
unable to go on.
Some folks are built better for prison than others,
         and this young man just wasn’t cut out for it.
We baptized him, and now he’s finding new hope
in the Body of Christ.

All of that, and many ministries I have not mentioned,
         help explain something.
In 2015, the membership of The Episcopal Church
         throughout the United States and 7 other nations
         went down by 2%.
But our membership went up just shy of 3%.
That’s a 5% spread.
Sunday attendance in the wider church went down by 3.5%.
Nevada’s attendance went up by 3.4.%
That’s almost a 7% spread.

I don’t know the 2016 numbers yet.
But just as I eyeball our churches going around Nevada,
         I expect the growth trend will continue.
Most of our larger urban congregations are growing
at an impressive rate.  
Our rural congregations continue to amaze me
         with their resilience comparable to that of a sagebrush.
Death and relocation deliver blows that look crippling,
         maybe fatal.
But their attendance remains just as strong,
         sometimes stronger,
and while the wider Church is getting older,
our rural congregations are getting younger.
I see more young adults and more children.
There’s no accounting for it but the love of God.

There are of course two or three soft spots       
         where congregations are going through one thing or another.
But most of us are vital, energetic, and growing.
It’s because people can see
         we’re up to something that looks
like God’s Kingdom happening here.

That’s the good news.
But wherever the gospel advances
         there is a always a backlash and we do have one.
While our growth in membership and attendance is strong,
         our average pledge is the lowest in Province 8.
Our pledge & plate giving per church attender
         is the second lowest.
So on the stewardship front, we are already doing badly.
That makes the parish’s projections for 2017 especially troubling.
As we prepare our budget, we ask the parishes
         to predict their income for the next year.
Despite the growing number of people in the pews,
         our parishes are forecasting for 2017 declines in giving
         by 20%, 24%, 16%, 24%, 18%, 20%, 46%, 100%
and so on.
There are widespread predictions of catastrophe.

I am mostly confused about that.
I do know a few things.
As a former missionary diocese,
         we have a habit of expecting the Church back East
to pay our way – but that stream has done run dry.
Also the social norms of our state work against us.
Nevada ranks 27th in personal income but dead last
         in charitable giving.

Then there’s the decision whether to teach stewardship or not.
Some of our churches have gone to stewardship trainings
         and put what they learned into practice.
They are having remarkable success increasing giving.
But many of our churches have chosen not to do the trainings
         and are doing minimal stewardship programs.
It sounds like that might mean the answer is just go to training
         and do a stewardship program.
A few years ago, I’d have said that.
But I know believe that’s a technical fix tot an adaptive problem.

My sense is that there is something deeper going on
-- a spiritual thing.
It comes down to the basic question
of whether we want our congregations to live or not.
Being church takes a heart felt sense of mission
         born of spiritual discernment and self-awareness.
If a congregation knows itself
and knows the community beyond its wall
-- if a congregation knows people and cares about them
-- that congregation has the lifeblood pumping through its veins.
A congregation that has a reason to live and a will to live
         will do stewardship, evangelism, and all that is necessary
         to flourish for the sake of its mission.

For a long time St. John’s, Glenbrook wasn’t clear
         on what it was doing,
         so they slogged along and had their troubles.
It all blew up in a fight over bylaws.
That left them on the verge of folding.
So Chuck McCray, Sue Smith Kinney, and I
         had a series of talks with them
         and they settled on a mission.
It wasn’t a grandiose mission.
It wasn’t a politically hip mission.
They didn’t engage the street gangs of Glenbrook.
But it was a real mission that fit them
         and the community where they lived.
They embraced that mission and grew.
Five years later, their giving has more than doubled.

But there are strong forces in human communities
         that distract us from our real purpose.
We wind up obsessed with trivia,
         sometimes fighting over who gets their way
         on issues that are completely insignificant.
When we become distracted from what we
         deep down care about,
         the congregation loses its heart.
Then we slog on just keeping the doors open as a duty.
Something subtly grudging slips into how we do church.
It feels like a burden instead of something that surprises us,
         inspires us, and wakes us up.
If we should discover one morning that our church is gone,
         it would be like “one less bell to answer, one less egg to fry.”

If that’s what a congregation chooses,
         there isn’t much anyone from the outside can do about it.
I recently read a biography of the mathematical genius,
Kurt Godel, who chose to starve himself to death.
It was a painful read.
Watching a church without a purpose starve itself
         is like that.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.
That isn’t the spirit of the Holy Doubt group
at Grace in the Desert,
         or the Pelagian Book Club at Epiphany,
         or the Refugee Resettlement program
                  of our Reno congregations.
Those folks have some fire in their belly.
That fire is available to any congregation that wants it.
I don’t mean a church should look at another church
and think, “We ought to be doing what they do.”
It isn’t about copying someone else.

As St. Paul said, we are all different.
Each congregation’s mission is unique.
I am saying that each church,
if it wants to come fully alive,
         needs to look around at its community
         and look inward to the hearts of its own people
                  to find what God is calling you to do and to be.
It’s like Miracle Max in The Princess Bride        
         shouting at the almost dead Wesley,
         “Hey, you in there, what you got to live for?”

Real life takes self-awareness that happens only when
         the congregation has an honest conversation
         about what it is and what it wants to be.
 Canon Catherine can facilitate those conversations.
I can facilitate them.
We have others who can do it too. Just ask.
If you want an expert from across the state line,
         we’ll help you pay for it.
If even a small congregation does a Jairus’s daughter number,
         we’ll get the money back in no time.

The idea isn’t to write one of those slogans
         and paste it on your worship bulletin.
We’ve been there and done that.
The mission is broader, more fluid, more organic than that.
It’s an ongoing conversation as the congregation
feels its way into serving each other and its neighbors.

There is a step two -- sharing the vision
and inviting people to fund the mission
-- what we call a stewardship program.
But here’s what I’ve learned the hard way
the last few years.

If a congregation doesn’t have a sense of its unique mission,
         its raison d’etre as the French say,
         its purpose in life,
         a Bishop going on about stewardship
                  is wasting his breath.
A diocese paying for stewardship training
         is wasting its money.

But if you do the first step,
if you do the hard work of self awareness
and find your calling,
you will do the second step
as naturally as an outbreath follows an inbreath.

After these nine years, it is still a joy and an adventure
to serve Nevada.
I continue to be grateful for a great Standing Committee
and the advisory committees who help them
make wise decisions.

We have always been blessed
with great Standing Committees.
I am glad that today it is structured to insure
         representation from all over the Diocese.

I am grateful for the staff we had before
         and for the staff we have today
---those staffs bringing very different gifts.
I am grateful for the clergy and lay leaders
who call our congregations
         into vital spirit-filled life-giving ministries.
Finally, I am grateful for the prayers and words of encouragement
         from all sorts of people in the pews that keep me afloat.

So thank you and God bless you all.