What does a Bishop do?

As I visit congregations, one question from children recurs, “What does a Bishop do?”  I suspect the adults wonder the same thing.   Now, that I’m nearly four years into this call to serve as your bishop, I realize that my work is in three areas.

  • Say Thank you
  • Provide Clarity
  • Cause Trouble

Let me expound.

Say Thank You.

Gratitude is everything. It just is, you won’t budge me on this one.  I think it is the central value of the Christian walk, heck, I think it’s the central value to being human.  You want scriptural evidence for this?  OK, I’ll give you scriptural evidence.  (66 uses of the word Thanksgiving from Leviticus to Revelation click here)  You can also find almost every Letter of St. Paul beginning with exhortations of gratitude.  It’s everywhere.

I’ve come to realize that a big part of my calling as your bishop is to say, Thank you.  So, I’m visiting church councils and saying “thank you” for your financial Mission Support to the New England Synod and the ELCA.  I’m grateful because those dollars are translating into the work of renewing congregations, like Redeemer in Lawrence, MA.  Your Mission Support has made it possible for the theological education of the new pastor, Rev. Eric Worringer.  It also made it possible for myself, Diaconal Minister Susan Lindberg Haley, and Rev. Jon Niketh to receive training in the Lombard Peace Mediation school, and use those skills to help the congregation gain clarity for it’s future.

This past winter, at our 3G Generosity training events, I was able to articulate the value of creating a culture of Generosity and Thanksgiving.  These events, combined with my church council sessions of 2015, enabled us to connect with 50% of the congregations in our synod.  Not only did I receive ‘thank you’ notes from these events, but I also heard of congregations such as St. Andrew in Charlestown, RI, where 35% of the members increased their giving as a result of implementing an Ask, Thank, Tell approach to stewardship.

Are you saying thank you?  You can’t do it enough.  Are you writing thank you notes to people in your church, your family, your community?  People love it.

One third of my ministry is saying “thank you.”  Sometimes, I think it should be 50% or more. 

Provide Clarity

Some people have told me this should read, “Tell the Truth,” but I prefer “provide clarity.”  Tell the truth reminds me of Jack Nicholson in that courtroom scene in the movie, oh what was the name of that movie.  You know, the one with Tom Cruise as the young JAG officer, and he says, “I want the truth.”  Nicholson says, “You…”  Well, you know what I mean.

I’m called among you to provide clarity.  This means I’m often the one in the room that has to say, “OK, let’s be honest now.  It seems to me that what we are really talking about is…”    Another way of putting it is that someone has to say “no.” or variations on no.  This means I’m not always popular.  I’m learning to live with that, which is getting easier, cause I was never very popular in high school either. 

I’m finding that my role is to help congregations face some difficult choices when it comes to their future.  When you are down to 12 people, and your building is falling apart, and you have no money – it might be time to look at other options.  I know it’s tough, and the memories and legacy are hard to move on from, but maybe Jesus has something else in mind. 

In addition, my role in providing clarity is to this whole synod.  I have attempted to do that in many ways:  Describing the reality of our cultural context as the most unchurched region in the United States, outlining my strong convictions that this synod is to be a place of full inclusion of all people, honestly answering the question “what’s one easy thing we can do to grow our church?” by saying, “there is no such thing in life as one easy thing.”

I fully recognize that engaging in ministry in our time is challenging.  But, it’s not just us, it’s true all across the ELCA.  We live in a transition zone from a mode of operation as church to something new that is being born.  But, I have no reservations, that the way forward is through a spirit of experimentation.

  • Prince of Peace in Claremont, New Hampshire took the leap of faith and partnered with the local Episcopal church to form something new. 
  • The members of the Intersection ministry in Dorchester, MA  are courageously entering into a new venture with a developer so that their ministry can move forward with space and resources. 
  • The Campus Ministry at Yale is engaging in plans to sell their property and re-birth themselves as a 21st century campus ministry.
  • Bethany Lutheran in Cranston merged with St. Paul in Warwick, Rhode Island, and they begin a search for a new pastor this month.
  • Philadelphia and Gettysburg Seminary are coming together to form a new Theological School that in time will train the next generation of pastors and deacons for this church.

These are good things.  I celebrate them all as expressions of bold experimentation.  We cannot go forward doing things the way we used to do them.  Yes, we embrace the core elements of our Lutheran identity centered around the justifying grace through faith in Christ Jesus.  But, we must be open to new initiatives in the style and language of ministry.  I encourage congregations to be laboratories of experimentation with worship, mission, outreach, service, education, etc.

Cause Trouble

Yup, this is my own addition.  I could have a more sophisticated phrase like, “be a disruptive innovator.”  But, that sounds too clinical for my shoot from the hip, be a little defiant, iconoclastic personality disorder.  Or is it a syndrome?  Anyway.

Romans 12 has been a verse that has rung in my heart for decades, “Do not be conformed by this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing (experimenting?) you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

I do not believe we are called to be conformed to the standards of society,  whether that is in politics, culture or religion.  I’m not interested in being politically, socially or religiously correct.  I’m deeply interested in discovering what God is longing for in our world today.  I recognize that this third area of my calling has meant that I get in trouble.  That’s ok, I’d rather get in trouble by causing trouble, than stand around and watch, and do nothing.

In my role as Bishop, I want to be the cajoling, friendly yet cranky uncle who is pushing you to something new.  So, you will sometimes find me verbally poking  people, because I want them to think differently, act on creative impulses and move from safety to adventure.  The church of Jesus is an adventure, not a security blanket.  I push this out of love, not from a place of mischief or malice.  In other words, I’m not causing trouble for the sake of causing trouble.  Rather, I’m hoping to nudge, push and prod this church into a future that it does not know.  Why?  Because, it has been experience as well as my reading of scripture that the church has always been better and truer to it’s calling, when it is on the edge, fragile and slightly insecure.  The church is best when it’s on a mission.