Bishop’s Address from the 239th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut

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Offered at Christ Church Cathedral on Oct. 28, 2023 by the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey W. Mello, Bishop Diocesan.

Last year I stood in front of you just three weeks after my consecration and told you that I would spend the first year as your Bishop listening.  I was looking forward to getting to know you, and for you to get to know me.

I pray you feel you know me a little better than you did a year ago. I certainly feel like I know you a little better. And I am grateful. 

I told you I would listen.  And I have.

I told you I would spend time working to build our relationship and trust as Bishop and people of the Diocese.  And I have.

I told you I would disappoint you from time to time.  And I’m sure I have.

I’ve heard it said that Bishops tend to overestimate what they can accomplish in their first year and underestimate what they can accomplish in their first five.

I am grateful for that wisdom, for I can be impatient with myself.  And you might be feeling impatient as well; impatient with me; impatient with the church; impatient with the slow pace of change when the need feels more and more urgent and the solutions are slow in making themselves known.

There is so much we have done together in the past year, and there is so much more for us to do.  Together. With God’s help.

One of the questions I have been asked a great deal as I approached the one year mark in my Episcopacy is “Bishop, what has brought you joy?”

The joy that I have found in my first year, the joy that feeds me and sustains my hope has been the amount of Good Courage that I have witnessed in every corner of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.  Every visitation, every meeting, every conversation, and every challenge has had, as an integral part of it, a deep sense of you all, the people of God, leaning into some very Good Courage.

Everywhere I have turned, in every corner and region, I have found faithful followers of Jesus Christ daring to be the people they believe God made them to be. 

This courage takes many forms.  Courage to try a new ministry.  Courage to risk.  Courage to merge.  Courage to change.

It is for many, a hard time to be the church.  It is hard to see the challenges we face as a denomination, as a state, as a country and as a world and still hold out hope that change is possible.  It takes hope to imagine it.  And it takes courage to do it.

I have found you, beloved Episcopalians in Connecticut, to be a people of very, very, very Good Courage.

And that fills me with hope, and excites me beyond measure for what we might be able to do together, with God’s help, for the sake of the world.

The are challenges in front of us are real.  But so is the hope that is in us, and the God that is with us in Christ Jesus.

Over the past year, you have told me of your joys and frustrations, your concerns, your hopes and desires for the future. They fall into roughly five buckets.

  1. ECCT at the Diocesan Level
  2. Advocacy/Justice and Reconciliation Work
  3. Ordained Vocations
  4. Lay Vocations
  5. Congregational Life, Support and Transitions.

I’d like to talk about each bucket.  What you’ve told me, what we’ve done so, and what we can do next, together.

Let me begin with

  1. ECCT at the Diocesan Level.

You shared your frustration that it is easy to get lost in the phone system, and a desire for a voice on the other end of the phone to answer questions, or direct you to the correct person for your concern.  Those of you who speak Spanish expressed a particular challenge in getting needed information from the staff at the Commons.

To that end, we hired a bilingual receptionist. The incredible Roxi Flores has been a much-needed voice on the other end of the phone and welcoming presence at the Commons.

You told me about a desire for clarity about who, exactly, does what at the Commons.  I assure you that those who work faithfully at the Commons share this desire.  We have begun a review of portfolios, clarifying roles and relationships.  We will, by February, have a clear organizational structure that aligns ministries and portfolios to foster communication and clarity with each other and with you.

We have hired a new Canon to the Ordinary, Canon Ranjit, who will serve as a major support to the office of the bishop, and also as Chief of Staff at the Commons, helping us to more fully become a resource and support to each of you and your communities.

The space at the Commons is bright and it is beautiful.  In a post-COVID world, however, more meetings are on still held Zoom, and available space for these conversations are limited in an open space floor pla..

We have begun an evaluation of our space needs at the Commons and are exploring how best to use and configure the space to meet the needs of today.

You have also shared with me that our Communications department needs more support.  Our website and database are in need of update and ongoing maintenance, and our overall Communications strategy is due for a review.  Just this week we hired our new Canon for Communications & Media, Sarah Woodford, who will help support our internal and external communications, helping us to better connect to one another in clear and faithful ways, and to get our message out to a world who needs to hear the Good News of God in Christ that we proclaim.

Finally, we have begun evaluating our property portfolio and will, in the next year, pursue opportunities to leverage the resources of the Diocese to support ministry and mission in new and exciting ways. In the same way we are encouraging parishes to explore creative opportunities to diversify your income and the use of resources to their maximum impact, we at the Diocesan level are committed to the same work.

  • Advocacy/Justice and Reconciliation Work

The second focus area is the work we have been about regarding Advocacy, Racial Justice and Reconciliation.

There is much work being done in this area of our common life.  And we know there is much work still to do, including the resolutions we are considering as part of this Convention.

We know that leadership positions in parishes and in our common life are still not fully reflective of the diversity of our ordained and lay members in ECCT.

We know we live in an uncertain time for our LGBTQIA+ siblings and the church as a lot of work to do reconciling and healing for past harm done to this community.

Our programs aimed at anti-racism and anti-white supremacy work need to be varied enough to meet each one of us where we are in our own work and that of our communities.  We are not aiming simply for education transformation.

And we know that Climate Change, Creation Care and Eco-Justice concerns must be central to our work, as it is all connected.

This is what you have told me, and what I have heard.

This year, we made progress in offering additional and varied opportunities for the work of anti-racism transformation, including the work of Dr. Christina Cleveland and partnering with Dr. Catherine Meeks and the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing to create a new opportunity designed specifically for ECCT.

Also this year, ECCT was present as a Diocese at both the Middletown and Hartford Pride Festivals.  Our presence was noted and made a real difference both to the spectators, and to those of us who walked and witnessed to the abundant Love of God for all of God’s children.

This fall, we authorized the use of Creation Care Liturgical Resources for use during the Season of Creation and collaborated with the Racial Justice and Healing Ministry Network to host an Icon exhibit at the Commons featuring diverse images of the Divine.  Those icons are with us at the Convention Center.

We are working with partners on the local level to help address affordable housing.

And in 2024, the office of Advocacy, Racial Justice and Reconciliation will be working with a consultant from Amos Resources to help deepen our relational work in our congregations and communities, which we know are the heartbeat of justice work.

We will continue the work of Advocacy, Racial Justice and Reconciliation at every level and, as we prepare to bring on a new Canon for this work, look to expand and deepen the portfolio of this office in order to best support congregations and communities to do this work where they are.

The third area is Clergy Support

Simply put, our clergy leaders are in need of pastoral support and care.  You have told me repeatedly that many clergy among us feel isolated.  Some of you report feeling exhausted and deeply overwhelmed.  Others talk specifically of the particular needs of clergy serving parishes less than full time; trying new and creative approaches to exercising their ministry and those who have been in the first group of priests to serve their parishes in the Priest-In-Charge, Transition is the New Normal process.

I’ll talk more about the specifics of parish transitions when I discuss congregational life, but we know that this process has brought particular blessings and a fair share of challenges to the faithful priests and communities who have been a part of our Transition process for the past three years, and we know there is work to be done in that regard.

In an effort to better meet the expressed desire for collegial support and pastoral care, I am establishing the role of Regional Deans. 

The role and function of the Dean is to create relationships of trust with, and among, the clergy in their regions.  The Dean may be the person a clergy person wants to call to run something by, without having to involve the Bishop’s office.  Monthly gatherings of the clergy with the Dean will provide opportunities for clergy to support one another, reduce isolation, and bounce ideas off one another. 

The Dean will also serve a communication role, bringing anything the clergy in their regions wish to the attention of the bishops, and vice versa.  The deans will serve a three-year term, appointed by the bishop, for a maximum of two, three-year terms.  The Deans will not, except as participants, have a role in the Regional Leadership Teams or duplicate the work being done by our Regional Missionaries.

As you may know, my experience as a Regional Dean, and my relationships with my regional colleagues, was one of the greatest rewards of my ministry, and I pray this will yield similar benefits.  I will announce the first set of Deans in the next couple of weeks.

The diaconate is a vital ministry in ECCT, thanks to the leadership of the Deacon’s Council and the guidance of Bishop Ahrens.  And we believe there is more that can be done to expand the diaconate in Connecticut. 

A particular curiosity I have heard is how we might better support those in our Spanish-Speaking and global-majority congregations in discerning a call to the Diaconate (and priesthood for that matter), and how we will support them in formation.

Lay Support

As much as our clergy need care and support, the Lay leaders of the Diocese do as well.  So many of you serve faithfully in roles that have changed drastically in the last decade.

You have told me that many of you are serving in churches without settled clergy and are having to design liturgy, create bulletins, find supply, all while tending to all the other duties of keeping a congregation going, to say nothing of jobs, families and other obligations.

We owe our lay leaders an incredible debt of gratitude.  And we owe them our support.

If you are a lay leader in a congregation, would you please stand?  (APPLAUSE)

We have asked you to serve in roles, often without the training or ongoing support you deserve and for which you have asked. 

There is a need for support and training for specific ministries.  Much like the lay preaching group that is a great resource, we must make sure that there are resources available for all the many ways lay people are offering themselves to ministry in the church.

On an evening call with the parishes in ECCT in transition, it became quite clear that our lay leaders, like our ordained leaders, need pastoral care and support.  We look forward to more opportunities like that gathering to provide support, care and guidance.

Your have told me you need resources and support to do the work of serving the church in the world as lay leaders in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.  Lay Vocation development and support will be a major focus of my ministry and planning for the next year.

Congregational Life, Support and Transitions.

Congregational Life, Support and Transition encompasses the majority of feedback I have heard over the past year.

We know that our process for parishes in transition is due for evaluation.  Transition is the New Normal created a three-year process, and we are now in year four. 

We have learned a great deal, and the wisdom behind Transition is the New Normal has facilitated hard conversations the church has been avoiding for far too long.

And, as with any initiative, reflection and adjustment is a part of growth.

Some of you have told me that the new model has been a great gift.  It has provided you opportunities to think outside the box, to ask bold questions, to try something new, to embrace brave change.

We also know that, for others, it has proved challenging.  You told me it can too often feel more compliance-based than life-giving, and it has created unforeseen negative consequences.

We have already begun the process of adjusting our transition process where we can while we begin a thorough evaluation process that will involve listening to those of you who have experienced the process from every side.  Look out, in the very near future, for listening sessions and opportunities to provide input.

At parish forums and vestry meetings, you have expressed your desire for concrete, practical and technical assistance.  We are asking ourselves what can the Diocese do that might lift some of the burdens on the local congregation. 

I am curious as to what might be more efficient if done on the Diocesan level in order to free congregations to do the work you need to be doing in shaping disciples of Jesus Christ?

We, at the Commons, are clear that our chief role as your Diocesan staff is to support you all, the local communities and congregations of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut to do the work you need to be doing to form and transform the people of God more and more into followers of Jesus Christ who will do the work of God in the world that God needs us to be doing.

The possibilities in this regard are plenty, if not endless. 

Many of you have asked what is to be done about that fact that many of our communities are aging.  We know the church at large is aging.  Connecticut is aging.  I see this as an invitation from the Holy Spirit to embrace a new mission field.  Many of you have already heard me dream of a time when the Episcopal Church in Connecticut is known as THE CHURCH to get to if you are over 65.   A time when we are known for our empty-nester and newly retired gatherings, and our commitment to, and excellence in, providing Dimentia-friendly worship experiences. 

I would like us to be as gifted at elder ministry as we have been historically with children and youth.

Speaking of children and youth, we must continue to be places where children, youth and young adults find places to grow in their faith and get equipped to do the work of God out in the world.  A highlight of my first year was the week I had the blessing to stay at Camp Washington.  Though I spent a lot of time on Zoom meetings in my room, the sounds of young people growing in their love of God, and in their awareness of God’s love for them, filled my spiritual tank.

I plan to expand support at the Diocesan level for assistance to parishes in all areas of what I am calling Lifespan Ministries; child, youth, young adult and elder.  We can be a church that cares for every child of God equally from birth to death and at every milestone in between.

Certainly, I have heard your concern about your finances, and your wonder what will happen when plate and pledge can’t support the vibrant ministry you would like to be about.

At every level of our gathered life, there are opportunities to diversify our income streams and leverage the resources God has given us to steward.  We have pursued three such opportunities already this year.   

22 parishes are in conversation with Stewardship Realty Group, who are here with us at Convention, to imagine the best use of properties and buildings.  Another 40 are exploring the possibility of hosting new cell phone technology through AON 5G. 

Finally, 34 parishes have worked in connection with Diocesan resources to pursue monies through the Employee Retention Credit.   If you are curious about either of these opportunities, or have ideas for any others, please contact our Canon for Mission Finance and Operations, Rosanna Rosado. 

We have begun plans to renew and expand a corps of Congregational Consultants.  The consultants will be experts, lay and ordained, in a wide range of topics, who can be available to congregations and communities throughout ECCT.  Please keep an eye out for more news on this in the next year, and please consider serving as a consultant if you have an expertise to offer, which you all do.

Our historically black and Spanish-speaking congregations have shared with me the particular gifts they have to offer the larger life of the Diocese, as well as the systemic challenges they continue to face that interfere with their ability to truly flourish.

As we look at the rising costs of clergy and building maintenance, we are in danger of becoming a church only for those who can afford to have it.  And I believe Jesus calls us to a different future.  That will require creativity and sacrifice, and it will require we commit ourselves to the good of the whole body of Christ. 

The answers to these challenges are not self-evident and they are not quick, simple fixes. 

But if we are to take “We are all members of the One Body” seriously, we must commit ourselves seriously to this work.

So, friends, that’s some of what I have heard in my first year as your bishop.

I am sure there are other voices from whom I have heard, who have not heard themselves reflected in this address, but hope you have heard in this stories the underlying hope and good courage that is alive and well all across ECCT.

There is so much that is good and right, so much that is flourishing and thriving, even when it doesn’t always feel that way.

The challenges in front of us might overwhelm me if it weren’t for the hope and joy and longing I have heard from you, and the good courage I have seen in you, as I have been among you this past year.

I am excited and filled with hope about the future in ECCT.  I believe this is a time for which the Episcopal Church was created.  And I am even more convinced than I was a year ago that you, the clergy and people of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut have the heart, the hope and the courage to meet the challenges of our time.

It won’t all happen overnight.  It won’t all be linear. 

There will be trips and failures along the way, and that needs to be okay, or we won’t ever try. It will demand from some days more grace for one another than we think we have to offer. But we can do it, together.

We have every reason to be a people of abiding Hope.

Every reason to be a people of deep joy.

Every reason to be a people of Good Courage. 

What a difference a year makes.

What difference will we make, with God’s help, in the next one?

Be of Good Courage
Hold fast to that which is good
Render to no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint hearted.
Support the weak.
Help the afflicted
Honor all people
Love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the Power of the Holy Spirit.
And the blessing of God Almighty….