State of the Diocese Report
144th Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh Convention
The Rev. Dr. James B. Simons
October 17, 2009
"Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it."
As I consider the State of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, I believe that over the past year we have lived into this truth and made it our reality. We are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
St. Paul penned these words to the church in Corinth. The church was wracked with controversy on several fronts. First, it divided over theological schools. Some pledged their allegiance to Paul, some to Apollos and some to Peter. Arguments and disputes arose among the factions in the nascent church about whose theology was right and about whom they should be following.
In the face of the controversy, Paul points the church to the Cross.
"For the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God."
Over this past year it would have been tempting for us, like the Corinthians, to break ourselves into theological camps and proclaim ourselves to be right when others are wrong, pure when others are tainted, or wiser when others are not. But we did not do this. Instead we chose to live into our differences, listening to each other and working together. We were able to do this because we recognized that what united us was greater than what divided us – the Cross of Christ. Our common belief in Jesus’ salvific work and subsequent resurrection, the acknowledgement that were are all sinners saved by the grace of God, our affirmation that God loved you so much that he sent his son to die for you, put us all in a place where we knew that we needed to treat each other with God’s grace. We did not break into factions but instead chose to gather together – to gather together at the foot of the Cross.
Last year I used an analogy from my background in aquatic science: namely that the diversity of an eco-system is dependent on the quality of the environment. The better the environment, the more diversity is fostered.
I believe that we have, by the grace of God, made tremendous progress toward creating such an environment – an environment in which we feel free to be ourselves and are eager to know each other’s stories and to rejoice in and with one another. There is more work to be done, but we are in a much better place than before.
But the cross also signifies sacrifice, and we, as a diocese, were willing, together, to sacrifice for one another. In the weeks leading up to our special convention last December and in the months to follow, I found myself in a position to ask many people to take on a myriad of tasks, many of them significant in the amount of time and energy required to accomplish; many of them handed to individuals who, while gifted, had never before assumed such responsibilities. Not once did any one tell me “No,” complain about the work, or shrug the responsibility. Instead, my experience was that everyone said “yes,” said “yes” and tackled their tasks with enthusiasm and joy. And often this was done at a sacrifice in terms of time, in terms of family, and sometimes at a significant personal cost. To all of you I say thank you.
The second controversy that faced the Corinthian Church was a debate around who was the most valuable among their members. A controversy had arisen over giftedness, with some saying that tongues were more important than prophesy, or prophesy more valuable than teaching. Ironically the Corinthian Christians were being torn apart over the debate about who was the most spiritual.
This is where Paul begins to talk about the Body of Christ. He declares that everyone is gifted differently and that all gifts are valuable. Paul proclaims that, just as the body has many different members, all with different functions, each important, so the Body of Christ has many different members, all of them important. It is when these members, while diverse, work in unison, that the Body of Christ is whole and a witness can be made to the world.
This too, is a controversy, I am happy to report, we refused to enter into.
I am often asked by those outside the diocese, "So, how’s it going, it must be very stressful" – and while it is true that the past year has entailed some significant stress it has also created significant joy. I have repeatedly remarked about the quality of people working together in this diocese, and have rejoiced at their giftedness.
In the book of Esther, the Jewish people are under an edict to be destroyed. Mordecai approaches his niece Esther, the beautiful Hebrew woman who has become the Queen of Persia, asking her to intercede on behalf of her people. He says to her, "And who knows whether you have come into the Kingdom for such a time as this?"
I believe that God has faithfully provided many people to this diocese "for a time such as this." It is clearly the most gifted and talented group of people I have ever worked with, and it my distinct privilege to call them colleagues and friends. And while I do so at the peril of forgetting somebody, I want to mention several of them to you.
In the days following the October convention, Alice Ramser volunteered to manage our reorganized office. Alice worked tirelessly for untold hours to begin the overwhelming task of getting us organized. I am deeply grateful to her.
Alice undertook this effort with Joan Gundersen who eventually became our diocesan administrator and treasurer. Joan’s amazing attention to detail and her inexhaustible energy (I cannot count how many emails I have received from her with a 3 AM time stamp) made her exactly the right person at the right time.
As archdeacon, Jean Chess has organized our deacons’ meeting regularly in a ministry of encouragement. Jean has also developed our Diocesan Cycle of Prayer. She has been a blessing to us.
Lou Hays has chaired our Commission on Ministry. This past spring the commission held a very well attended day for those interested in exploring their vocations. And of course this afternoon we will witness and celebrate the ordination of Linda Wilson.
Our newest Priest Kris Opat has taken upon himself the task of ministering to our youth and along with others have created the Diocesan Youth Initiative. This valuable ministry is already bearing fruit.
Carol Gonzalez, Walter Bowman and Cynthia Bronson Sweigert have been working hard at creating opportunities for all of us to form meaningful relationships. Through prayer worship and other activities they have aided us in this important work.
Jim Shoucair, along with his excellent convention committee, have made this day possible. I need to add that last December Jim led that committee to organize our special convention ex nihilo (and, I might add, in less than two months’ time). We are fortunate to have him and the members of his committee rendering such faithful service.
Over the past year, the leadership bodies of the Diocese (Standing Committee, Trustees and Council) have been meeting together monthly. When we decided we needed to develop goals and direction, Dana Philips stepped forward to facilitate. Dana, who does this work of facilitation professionally, volunteered her time and talent to lead us to an understanding of our common vision and focus. She has been a true blessing.
I have been impressed with the other members of the Standing Committee who have sought to do their work and see our circumstances through the lens of grace and charity. I am particularly grateful to Jeff Murph and Mary Roehrich for sharing the responsibility with me of being the ecclesiastical authority between October and December of last year.
The Trustees, led by Russ Ayers, and the Diocesan Council, led by Joan Morris, have embraced their responsibilities with joy and enthusiasm. Together with the Standing Committee we have navigated some difficult waters. Their leadership has served us well.
It is doubtful that any diocese has a communications team better than Rich Creehan and Andy Muhl. Rich’s experience in the world of the press, his writing talent and his ability to see us as others do has been a tremendous blessing. As I travel around the church I am constantly approached by people who say, "Who does your web site? It is so good," or, "I wish we could develop a web site like that of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.” The design and freshness of our site has been enormously beneficial as a communication tool, and we are grateful to Andy Muhl for his constant attention to this. (The site receives an average of over 5000 visitors a month.) Rich and Andy together developed two e-newsletters, one which goes out to every member of the diocese with an email address and one for the clergy. These have been essential communication tools. If you are not receiving them, I suggest that you sign up at the web site.
In last year’s address I said that one of our qualities as a diocese, that we needed to embrace, was incarnational ministry: that is, we take the love of Christ into the world. As St. Francis is reported to have said, "Preach the Gospel, and, if necessary, use words." Our web site and electronic newsletters are filled with stories about the incarnational ministry of the diocese, which is reaching out to the world in the name of Jesus.
One of the first appointments I made was that of Scott Quinn to be our director of Pastoral Care, a role which eventually became Canon to the Ordinary. We all knew that the year to come would bring significant stress to clergy and their families, and Scott has been the point man for these situations. Scott has spent countless hours with members of the clergy, listening to their experience, advising them as to their future, and, most significantly, praying for and with them. Scott never talks to me that he doesn’t say, "How ya doing Jim, are you ok?" I know that every member of the clergy present has had that experience, and we are deeply blessed to have Scott ministering among us.
Our diocesan Chancellor, Andy Roman, has been an invaluable resource and counselor. His familiarity with the law, his attention to detail, and his willingness to listen to others (even non-lawyers) has been invaluable. Along with Walter Deforest, Andy has represented us well as is evidenced by the court decision announced last week. Andy has been for me a non-anxious presence –and believe me when I say there have been many moments when I needed a non-anxious presence – which has been, along with his friendship, a true gift for which I am deeply grateful.
Near the end of the film The Wizard of Oz , Dorothy is saying goodbye to her three dear friends whom she has met and traveled with along the yellow brick road. First she addresses the Lion, then the Tin Man, and lastly she embraces the scarecrow, saying, "I think I’m going to miss you most of all." For some reason, that scene comes to mind as I think about Bishop Johnson.
One of the true blessings of this past year has been the presence of Bishop Johnson. He understood that his primary responsibility was to be a pastor and a healer and he embraced both roles with extraordinary enthusiasm. He has been a wise counselor, a gracious pastor and a prayerful mentor. At one of our clergy days, Bishop Johnson (who has the reputation of being a liberal) was preaching. During the sermon, a colleague leaned over to me and said, "This guy preaches like an evangelical!" (Which was meant as a compliment, incidentally.) Because of his love for Jesus and his church, Bishop Johnson left his retirement to minister to us, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of his love and service. Thank you, Bishop Johnson. You will be missed more than you know. And I would be remiss in not mentioning Julie Johnson, who has done without her husband for many weeks this year including their recent wedding anniversary. Julie, the Diocese of Pittsburgh thanks you.
There are of course many more who could be mentioned and to all of you I say thank you
We are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
We are the Body of Christ. Over the past year we have applied elbow grease, put our shoulder to the wheel, and our nose to the grindstone. We have looked each other in the eye, listened to each other’s stories, and spoken the truth in love. We are the Body of Christ.
While we have accomplished much over the past year, it will come as no surprise for me to say that there is much yet to be done.
To help us to accomplish what lies before us, we welcome Bishop Kenneth Price. I am excited by his presence among us and believe that he is now here for a time such as this. Bishop Price is a native of Charleston, West Virginia, and served several parishes in the Diocese, which included ten years at St. Matthews in Wheeling. Bishop Price has a feel and familiarity for our culture and region, which will serve us well (he’s even already a Steelers Fan). He was elected as the Suffragen Bishop of Southern Ohio in 1994, and when the diocese was between diocesan bishops, he served in the capacity of interim bishop. In other words, he has done this before. Bishop Price is held in high regard by his colleagues, having twice been elected by the House of Bishops as their Secretary. Bishop Price has already impressed the Standing Committee with his desire to be our pastor first, leading us forward into healing and continued Gospel ministry. He has also expressed a strong desire to move with grace and charity through some of the more difficult issues we face.
And so one chapter closes and another begins. We look toward our collective future with hope and anticipation, assured that the Lord who called us to this task will enable, empower, and encourage us to do the same. We move forward together as the Body of Christ.
May we, like the prophet Isaiah when asked who would go into the world for God, be able to continually say, “Here I am; send me.”
We are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.
Let us go forward in peace in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour.
The Rev. Dr. James B. Simons
President, Standing Committee
Rector, St. Michael’s of the Valley Episcopal Church, Ligonier, PA