Letters from Our Bishop
"Go, Baptize and Make Disciples:" the Bishop's Address
Good morning, and welcome to all of you! Muy buenos dias y bienvenidos a todos. Ojalaque hoy está lleno de alegria y alabanza todo el dia. I hope today is full of joy and hope all day long.
I give thanks to God for you all, gathered here for the 119th Council of this Diocese. I give thanks to God for the (now) 86 parishes and missions and one church plant from whence you have come, and that I’ve been blessed to serve for almost 17 years, the last six as your diocesan bishop.
Our three gracious and still-good-humored host churches – St. Andrew’s, Corpus Christi; St. Mark’s, Corpus Christi; and St. Peter’s, Rockport – have been working hard for many months to prepare for us. None of them are big churches, and despite a combined age of 230 years, they’re still quite spry, with more than 120 volunteers helping. Members of our three host churches – please wave so that we can thank you.
I’m not sure what a group of bishops is called – a bevy of bishops? A pomposity of prelates? A plethora of purple? An overload of obispos? – Whatever we’re called, I’m very grateful for my colleagues and friends in the episcopacy who are present with us. My two predecessors are here – the 8th Bishop of West Texas, Jim Folts, with his wife, Sandy, and the 9th Bishop, Gary Lillibridge, with his wife, Catherine. And in this Year of World Mission, our gathering is strengthened by two bishops who are also mission partners: Bishop Pons Ozelle of Nebbi Diocese in Uganda and Bishop Jonathan Folts of South Dakota, with his wife, Kim. If Bishop Jonathan looks and sounds familiar, it’s because he is “of the family,” a child of this Diocese, but more importantly to his parents, he is Jim and Sandy’s boy. Also joining us is Bishop Sue Briner of the Southwestern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who has become a good friend and colleague as we cover very similar territory with many of the same challenges and opportunities.
I also want to welcome today’s luncheon speaker, the Rev. Dr. Chuck Robertson, who serves our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, as his Canon for Mission Beyond the Episcopal Church. I’ve long suspected that nothing is beyond our Church, but Chuck will tell us at lunch of his work in the mission field and encourage us in our own work.
When I became Bishop Suffragan in 2006, the West Texas House of Bishops was crowded with retired bishops and spouses. I have a picture of the group in my office with 16 bishops and spouses in it. But 17 years is a long time, and now, I miss many of them who are numbered among the saints in light and I’m doubly grateful for the support and friendship of those who remain. I ask that the Secretary of the Diocese send word of this Council’s love and affection to the widows of two of my predecessors, Shirley MacNaughton and Nancy Hibbs.
Against her wishes, but from the safety of this stage, I need to say, “Thank you and I love you,” to the clergy spouse who lives in my house. Patti and I will celebrate 35 years of marriage this summer, which may qualify her to be assumed bodily into heaven. She carries always a great love for clergy spouses and has been a strong voice for them, sometimes speaking to me of their needs in more than a whisper. Though her ministry was hindered by serious illness in 2019 and then by the global pandemic, her love for that special group abides.
In earlier, simpler times, Patti and I enjoyed a great partnership in ministry – leading Bible studies, youth groups, summer sessions at Camp Capers and Vocare weekends. The nature of a bishop’s work, and having young children at home, changed that – a loss for me and for the church. I could not have possibly done this without her love, support, strength, and forgiveness. When we talk about life after retirement, being partners again in ministry is something we’re looking forward to, though probably not leading youth groups.
If I were to thank everybody I want to thank, we’d never get out of here, but I need to name a few more. I give thanks to God for our Assistant Bishop, Rayford High. Since even before he accepted my call to come help out in West Texas two years ago, I have been blessed by his cheerful enthusiasm, good humor, and faithful friendship. I am so grateful to Rayford, and his wife, Canon Ann Normand, for making their home among us and for joining their life and ministry to ours.
Amazing. Awesome. Literally incredible. And other words I’m hesitant to use because of their overuse. But that is your diocesan staff. Whether at the Bishop Jones Center or at our three camp and conference centers, this team shows up ready to serve, ready to support the churches of the Diocese with creativity, energy, and joy. They are steadfast, hard-working, and fun, and have made me a better bishop. I ask them to stand and wave so that this Council can express appreciation for their ministry that supports your church’s life and ministries.
This will likely be my last time to speak to the gathered clergy of West Texas. I enjoy teasing them, and my best line is, “We have some of the finest clergy in the whole Church in West Texas. I’m sorry none of them could be here today.” But mostly, I just love them. Clergy, I love you. I was a parish priest for almost 25 years, and as much as I’ve loved serving as bishop, I loved being a parish priest more. Our clergy are doing some of the most important work in the world. What could matter more than to be entrusted with the care of souls, to be reminders of Christ’s call to all the baptized, to preach and teach the Good News of Jesus to offer the sacraments at that place where Church and daily life meet; and to stand against division and disintegration with the reconciling love of Christ?
Being bishop is often humbling. Sometimes because it just gets so damn hard. And sometimes, you feel like Wylie Coyote discovering you’re out past the limits of your ability – off the cliff – and about to freefall into the pit, with that anvil not far behind. But mostly, I’ve grown in humility by finding myself in the company of these clergy scattered around the hall. Gathering with them in the holy places, mutually supporting one another in ministry, and going out to work alongside them in the fields where our Lord leads us – they have humbled me with their self-giving, their devotion to their call, their love for another, their perseverance, their good humor and enduring joy. As St. Augustine said to his clergy in the late 4th century, “For you, I am a bishop; but with you, I am a Christian, one is an office, accepted; the other is a gift, received.” Thanks be to God for you, my brothers and sisters, for the gifts you are. I will carry you in my heart.
However, this isn’t my farewell address, and I’m not saying goodbye yet. Reusing that great line from Monty Python, “I’m not dead yet.” There’s still lots of holy adventure and heaven-raising to do before I’m done with this work that will never be done until our Lord comes again.
An In-Between Time
We’re in a time in the life of our Diocese when the Advent-shaped nature of the Christian life, of human life, comes into sharper focus. We are always, all of us, living in an in-between time – between what has been and what will come, the known and unknown. For those who acknowledge and proclaim this truth week by week in worship this in-between-ness isn’t news. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. Past, present, and future come together. And yet, there are days and seasons when change is in the air, like the wind shifting just before a norther hits, and we feel keenly the “now and not quite yet” nature of our lives. We are, perhaps, in such a time. The tensions of transition are real, and our possible reactions might be to freak out, or blame others, or hunker down and hope it goes away. But following the Way of Jesus, our response as Christians is to go into full-on Advent mode: to remember how God has led his people in the past; to look expectantly for signs of Christ’s grace and presence in the present; and to tilt toward the future with expectation and hope.
Our Lord offers guidance here. Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel (you’ve heard of it?), Jesus says, “Therefore…” That is, given all that I’ve just told you about kingdom living, therefore…Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or drink, nor about your body, what clothes to wear, or who you shall elect as bishop. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing, and your church more than bishops?” (I may be paraphrasing.) “Consider the birds of the air, look at the flowers in the field…pay attention to what’s there to be seen. Your heavenly Father knows what you need. So seek first his kingdom and its righteousness, and everything else will take its proper place.” (Matthew 7:25-34)
75th Anniversary of Camp Capers & St. Francis Chapel
With that in-between-ness in mind, let’s look back at a few notable moments in 2022 and then look ahead. With this Council, we conclude the 75th Anniversary celebration of Camp Capers. In the Hill Country and alongside the Guadalupe River, it has proved to be holy ground for generations.
I think it was Bishop Folts who first described Camp Capers as “the cathedral of the Diocese.” It was a good time to reach this anniversary, as our summer camping programs began to find their footing again after two difficult COVID summers. I first went to camp when I was 15, so for 50 years, it’s been a significant part of my life. While the buildings I knew so well as a teenager and young adult are mostly gone, camp is still very much camp – a place where beautiful, holy, and enduring things happen. I see this every time I visit camp sessions, and I saw it at the 75th Anniversary Weekend this past October. Campers and staff from 1947 to 2022 were represented and the many, many stories and photos shared from every decade of Camp Capers had much in common: lasting friendships, joy and fun discovery of the living Lord, deepened relationship with God, the beauty of a Christ-centered community, and a call to service.
It was my privilege to preside at the Saturday evening Eucharist in St. Francis Chapel that weekend, and it was moving to be in that beautiful space where I first heard God calling me to ordained ministry. Our closing worship Sunday morning felt like so many closing services over the years. People didn’t want to leave; they wanted to keep singing.
As part of the 75th anniversary observance, I convened a Master Planning group last spring to assess the “now, next, and later” needs of Camp Capers. The group was ably chaired by Mr. Brian Kates, and you’ll hear from him later this afternoon. The plan was thoughtfully prepared by people who love camp and honor its mission and many traditions. The team presented it at the anniversary weekend, where it was well-received. The plan is not finalized – nor is it time to launch into a capital campaign. Its order of priorities and phases will serve as an “evergreen plan” that can be adapted to new circumstances.
Throughout the master-planning process, I cautioned the group against addressing St. Francis Chapel. It may truly be the most beloved spot in that beloved place, and I didn’t want a long debate to derail other priorities. The beautiful, simple, open-air chapel has served for 75 years; it fits camp perfectly; and it’s badly in need of repair. As our summer camp capacity has grown, the chapel has become cramped and overcrowded – a problem we wish all our churches had, right? Built to seat about 120 people, the chapel now might have as many as 200 crammed in, with counselors and staff members sitting on the floor or ground outside.
So I changed my mind. Now is the perfect time to renovate St. Francis Chapel, and I believe the heart of camp is precisely the starting point we need for the new master plan, as we launch into the next season of Camp Capers’ mission and prepare to welcome a new bishop.
The sticking point was whether to repair what we have and add a little more space or tear it down and build a new chapel that honors the old. I’m pretty sure if I said we’re tearing it down, you’d carry me out and throw me in the bay. And let me assure you, we will not add air conditioning or TV screens. But we’ve found a good old Anglican via media solution. We will repair the front end, the sanctuary, so that what you’re looking at when seated in the chapel – the altar, the cross, the window, the image of St. Francis in the wall – look the same. And we will widen and deepen the nave where the congregation sits to accommodate 200, raising the roof just enough to keep our proportions the same. We will also be able to save and reuse much of the beautiful stone that makes up the walls and floor. And if we get it right, and right-sized, grown-ups who worshipped in the chapel as campers long ago will feel like little kids again.
We believe we need $750,000 to complete this renovation. I’m confident that, if our hearts were so inclined, we could raise the money and end the campaign today. But we’ll give it six months. There’s information on your table; we’ll be sending more to you and your congregation in the weeks to come. I hope you and your church together will prayerfully consider supporting this project. I don’t like asking people to give to things I’m not willing to give to myself, so Patti and I will give $7500 this year and $7500 next year to help renovate St. Francis Chapel. That’s two percent, so just 98% to go. I hope you’ll join us, as you’re able. Every gift, every size, matters.
Now, I’m aware that $750,000 is a lot of money. But Camp Capers belongs to all of us. We are its stewards, and for 75 years, people of all ages have gone away to camp and returned to their homes and their home churches changed by their time there. We are a healthier Diocese, and our congregations are healthier, because of the discipleship formation that happens within the camp community.
Chapel of the Holy Family at Mustang Island Conference Center
My conversion regarding the St. Francis Chapel renovations may have started during the dedication of the new Chapel of the Holy Family at the Mustang Island Conference Center on October 30. Named in recognition of a primary and growing ministry – the summer Family Camps – the open-air chapel is nestled into the backside of the dunes, with a sight line that skims the tops of the dunes and out across the Gulf to the far horizon. It is a beautiful, simple, and stunning place. Like St. Francis Chapel, it fits perfectly into its environment. Holy Family Chapel provides a dedicated and spacious house of worship, and it, too, marks holy ground.
A final word about chapels. Bishops are responsible for chapels within their Diocese, and I am glad to have that oversight. Chapels become open doors to the presence of God for many who wouldn’t walk through the doors of our churches. They are sanctuaries where people can catch their breath, where prayer and worship lean toward the homegrown and spontaneous. God’s people have built altars and houses of worship to mark places of meeting with God since at least Jacob set up a stone altar where he dreamed of the angels descending and ascending the ladder to heaven. We have a third campsite, Duncan Park, set in the cathedral called the Rocky Mountains. Later today, you’ll hear from Mr. Tommy Mathews, chair of the Duncan Park Site Committee, about plans to build a chapel there.
St. Martin's Church & St. Nicholas Church
Thank you for welcoming the people of St. Martin’s Church, Mason, into the diocesan family yesterday. With them, we are now 87 congregations. It was a great way to begin Council and a wonderful reminder of the call to mission we all share. St. Martin’s will be the next church I visit, on Ash Wednesday. It’s a day of penitence and fasting, and I’ll try to stay all ashy and solemn, but it will be such a delight to be with them again. It’s also a morning service, so we likely won’t be able to enjoy their customary reception at the winery after church.
St. Martin’s self-organized in 2010, and they were recognized by Bishop Lillibridge as a worshipping community in 2014. I worshipped with the congregation early on, when they gathered in Rob Welch’s office on the courthouse square. All they wanted from the Diocese at that point were some Prayer Books, communion vessels, and a list of supply clergy. At a meeting that first year about becoming a mission congregation, I learned that while the Episcopalians in the congregation were favorable, others were less so, expressing skepticism about getting too close to organized religion. Despite my assurances that, once they got to know us, they’d see we’re not all that organized, some seemed to regard the Diocese as something like the looming Death Star in Star Wars, and so the matter was dropped for several years. Meanwhile, the congregation grew, moved into a closed-down church, and worshipped according to the Book of Common Prayer, served by West Texas clergy.
St. Martin’s is completely homegrown and locally sourced. They will benefit by being part of the diocesan family, and we’ll be blessed by them. There’s a lot they can teach us about being a vital and vibrant church that welcomes all and visibly cares for its community. I encourage you to seek out their delegation and get to know them.
Like St. Martin’s, our diocesan church plant, St. Nicholas Church is flourishing. St. Nicholas is also homegrown, started from scratch by the Rev. Beth Wyndham and her husband, Jeremy. Unlike St. Martin’s, St. Nicholas sits in the middle of a wildly growing area about 15 miles north of San Antonio. Like St. Martin’s, St. Nicholas is intentionally directed outwards, curious about the needs of their community and committed to being a good neighbor to all. Remarkably, St. Nicholas Church was launched in December 2019, just four months before the world shut down because of COVID.
Beth, Jeremy, and lay leaders kept the little group connected, kept worshipping and doing Bible study online, and emerged on the other side, dazed, but intact. In November 2021, Bishop High and I were blessed to dedicate their beautiful new church, located in a former restaurant and bar in downtown Bulverde. Presently, the average Sunday attendance of St. Nick’s is about 80. They are a healthy and growing church, and my hope is that at the 120th Council, they’ll be parading in like St. Martin’s did.
I mention both of these churches at the same time to illustrate what groups of mission-minded people can do, in different ways and in different settings in the Name of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Though there are plenty of differences between the two congregations, both are thoroughly and joyfully Episcopalian, with lively and reverent worship, a desire to share the Good News with others, and an active love for their communities. They are signs of life and hope for all of us, and a reminder of the many different ways that the Spirit can grow churches and knit people together in the Body of Christ. I’ve said many times in plenty of your churches that God has given you everything you need to be his church where you are. St. Nick’s and St. Martin’s show that I haven’t been crazy to say that.
Before speaking about what’s coming later this year, I need to revisit one more event from 2022, this one awful and still painful to contemplate. On May 24, just before school ended for the summer, an 18-year-old with a semi-automatic rifle purchased legally a week earlier entered Robb Elementary in Uvalde and murdered 19 children and two teachers.
The facts alone repel us. The devastation to families and divisions within the community are heart-breaking. The suffering seems unending. The loss of these children to such evil and violence is an affront to God, leading us to cry out to God and to once again call on our politicians to stop politicking and try to be statesmen and public servants committed to a greater common good. If you’re now trying to read between the lines and figure out what I “really mean,” please stop. I said what I mean.
Wherever we are on that blurry political spectrum, following Jesus should lead us to act with love and charity toward all, referring to – and deferring to – the teachings of Jesus. All our opinions and positions must bow before the revelation of Jesus Christ, whose light illuminates the human faces that so easily become just “issues.”
Even with intractable, seemingly unsolvable issues like gun violence, the Holy Spirit calls us to be more than just another voice yelling across the divide. Cynicism is the abandonment of hope, and thus, is unchristian. We are given so much more – compassion, forgiveness, reconciling love, and an enduring hope. What can be more important for our Church to offer than that?
Following Jesus also means entering into the suffering of others, standing with those who are weeping in the ruins of their lives. That is what the people of St. Philip’s Church, Uvalde, and their rector, Mike Marsh, have been doing ever since that terrible day last May. Mike, his wife Cyndi, and the people of St. Philip’s immediately began assisting in the work of rebuilding, comforting, and healing. It’s hard work that will go on for years. The outpouring of support from all over the Diocese and the country has been wonderful. As of January, more than $518,000 dollars had been received by our Diocese and sent to Uvalde, where it is used to meet the immediate and everchanging needs of survivors and families.
Also, St. Philip’s very quickly opened its doors to the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas based in San Antonio, so that they could offer support and counseling services to children, families and others suffering in the community. Recently, St. Philip’s and the Bereavement Center entered into a long-term agreement in which the parish will provide the Center with an unused building on church grounds that the Center will refurbish to create counseling rooms, a large group therapy room, art therapy rooms and an enclosed garden.
I urge your continued prayers and support for our sisters and brothers at St. Philip’s and for Uvalde. Half of tonight’s offering will be given in support of the Bereavement Center. I don’t think I need to encourage you to give generously to this ministry of healing.
2023 - A Year of World Mission
Missionary activity has been part of our life together since the beginning of the Diocese, and 2023 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Department of World Mission. A steering committee has been preparing busily for a proper year-long observance that seeks to engage all of us. It’s not just having parties and celebrating what’s been done in the past. Most importantly, it will be a year to embrace our missionary heritage, re-engaging consciously and prayerfully in the mission we have been baptized into. We will look back and remember, so that we might look forward and move into the future with faith and courage.
Texas was the first foreign mission field of The Episcopal Church, which sent two missionary priests to the fledgling nation of Texas in 1838 to gather people and plant churches in that rough and sparsely populated land. Our own history begins in 1874, as the Missionary District of Western Texas when the House of Bishops called and sent Robert Woodward Barnwell Elliott as missionary bishop over 110,000 square miles, extending from Brownsville to El Paso and northwest past San Angelo. Long ago, far West Texas became part of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, simplifying my life a bit.
Next year, we will celebrate the 150th Anniversary of our Church in this part of God’s world, and so, this Year of World Mission offers a good segue for reclaiming our missionary heritage and focus. I’ve asked our hard-working Historical Commission to begin planning the kind of celebration such a milestone calls for, and we should all begin practicing saying the word “Sesquicentennial.” The Commission will be looking for help from around the Diocese, and you who are local and amateur historians can consider this your invitation to come to our aid.
This is a good occasion to dust off, update, and maybe even learn your church’s history. I encourage you not to limit your stories to the tenures and exploits of clergy or construction projects. Seek out biblical-type accounts: “Here is where we struggled…this was the year we grew in faith and this was the year we held back in fear…this was the season of our wandering, and this was the time the Spirit renewed us, when God showed up unexpectedly.” Those stories are worth remembering and important for us as sources of inspiration and learning as we look for the ways our Lord is now calling us forward in his mission. Recalling these memories, both the good and the not so good, connects us to the past. Like plant roots they are not intended to pull us down, but to nourish us and help us grow up.
An Aside in Recognition of St. Philip's College
I want to note briefly another anniversary happening this year within our Diocese. St. Philip’s College in San Antonio is turning 125. Established in 1898 by our second bishop, James Steptoe Johnston, St. Philip’s was created as a school for the children and grandchildren of former slaves. The school struggled with fewer than 10 students, until the bishop called Miss Artemisia Bowden from North Carolina to take charge in 1902. She labored in that vineyard for 52 years, and when she retired, St. Philip’s had grown into a fully accredited junior college, offering more than 100 degrees and certificate programs. Dr. Bowden is remembered on The Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints on August 18, and St. Philip’s is one of the few colleges in the country granted dual status as an Historically Black College and an Hispanic Serving Institution. It is truly a remarkable place, with an amazing history, and we can be proud that the origin of the college is part of our own history as a Diocese. We are better for it.
However, we’ve often been more proud of that historical tie than committed to maintaining and cultivating present-day partnerships with St. Philip’s College. In the renewed racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, I contacted the President of St. Philip’s, Dr. Adena Lawston, and asked, “What can we do together?” She has been a gracious partner in this ongoing conversation.
As a Diocese with 28 schools and a deep commitment to excellence in education, we should be eager for a renewed and growing friendship with St. Philip’s College. The building of relationships is essential for anything that is to endure, and we will be a better church for it. I ask that the Secretary of the Diocese convey our congratulations to St. Philip’s on its 125th Anniversary, expressing our gratitude for our shared history and our desire to grow closer in support of our shared mission.
The Church is God's Mission
We are a missionary people, baptized, called, and sent. Each of our 87 congregations began, in one way or another, as a church plant – a small group of faithful people given a vision, a dream of something bigger than themselves, and charged with translating that dream into reality. None of us would be here, if not for people who claimed their missionary identity enough to share their faith with us.
A few years ago, pre-COVID, we noticed a decline in short-term mission teams going out from the Diocese, and that fewer of those people were joining in missions for the first time. High costs of international travel and increasing danger in some regions were likely significant factors. As part of our response, I asked Dr. Marthe Curry, Director of World Mission, if we could consider a mission partnership with, say, the Episcopal Church in Navajoland. Her answer was a simple question: “Is it in the world?”
And so, when we talk about “world mission” this year, let’s expand our understanding of it to include acting nearby as well as far away. The Church exists to carry out Christ’s mission in the world, and the world begins right in front of us. Others have said it this way: “The Church doesn’t have a mission; God has a mission and it’s called the Church.” Several of our churches have signs as you exit that read, “Welcome to the mission field.” Our particular field – Texas – has a population with 88% “certain” or “fairly certain” that God exists, but only 40% who participate regularly in the life of a church. That sounds like plenty of good work for people serving God’s mission.
“Go, baptize and make disciples,” Jesus says to his followers, “Teaching them to obey all I have taught you. And lo, I am with you always.” From our Easter beginnings--recall the three brave women disciples running from the empty tomb to tell the others, “Christ is risen!” – the Church has been formed and sent to tell the Good News of Jesus. And we are sent not just to talk about it, but to abide with others so that they, too, might know surely that the Good News is for them and about them.
Our starting point in mission partnerships is always friendship in Christ. We don’t go out into the world to tell our neighbors what to do so they can be more like us. We go, trusting Jesus to be present and waiting for us in the people we will walk and work with. We go, curious to get to know our new friends, asking how we can assist. We go, expecting to see and serve Christ in others, to learn and grow in our faith because of what we receive so generously from our mission partners.
Let’s not romanticize missionary work. Whether short- or long-term, it can be hard physically, mentally, and spiritually, and the temptation to settle for surface-level “religious tourism” is strong. When we go, we are likely to be challenged by what and who we encounter. A mirror will be held up to us, and we’ll be asked to examine how we are following Jesus.
In 1996, around the time the Department of World Mission was starting up, Bishop Henry Orombi, then Bishop of Nebbi Diocese and later Archbishop of Uganda, traveled in our Diocese. I was glad to host him at St. Alban’s Church in Harlingen and eager to learn how my thriving and generous parish could support his ministry in Nebbi. Bishop Henry, though, turned the tables. He said that his Church had benefitted greatly from Western missionaries over many years. Looking at the decline and apathy he saw in American churches, he felt the time had come for African missionaries to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters here. He was joyful and humble in his remarks, not judging or self-righteous. He knew the realities of Western colonialism and current attitudes of superiority better than any of us, yet his desire was that we truly see one another, love one another, and walk together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Faithful, Christ-centered mission work is marked not by triumphalism but humility, not by superiority but curiosity. Jesus’ Great Commandment – “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself” – must inform and shape our participation in the Great Commission.
Whatever reservations we might have about harmful or arrogant missionary work done in the past – whether in the 17th or 21st century – we don’t get a pass regarding the Great Commission. Jesus commands his followers to “go, baptize, make disciples.” We cannot abandon the movement, but must engage with it more fully, for love of Jesus and love of the world.
Your World Mission Department has been sending and supporting short-term and long-term missionaries for 25 years and helped many of your churches organize and do the same. Though we go in response to Christ’s call to love and serve others, consistently we return to our homes and home churches transformed by the experience. We see opportunities and challenges differently. We regard the mission and ministries of our home church differently. We return renewed in our discipleship.
The Church’s mission – God’s mission – is the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ, that incarnational movement into the world to save us from our sin, to redeem us and reconcile us to God and one another in Christ. The Church – and to get more personal, your church – is a product of and a participant in God’s mission. We are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit into this mission. We’re called to start right where we are, stepping outward and outside ourselves, confident that Jesus’ love is for everyone and trusting that he is with us always, even to the end of the ages.
When opportunity comes your way to learn more about mission partnerships in and beyond our Diocese this year, I urge you to take part. Clergy and lay leaders, please clear your calendar so that you can show up for mission gatherings. Dare to invite missionaries into your church. Churches – please support with your prayers and money those who want to join a mission team. As always, we are all encouraged to pray, give, and go as the missionary people of West Texas.
Formation for Discipleship
Inspired by the 25th Anniversary Celebration of World Mission, choosing our Council and diocesan theme for this year was easy-peasy. “Go, baptize and make disciples” provides the foundation for the Church’s missionary movement into the world. It’s not the Great Suggestion, but Christ’s command to us. I think most of us get the “going” part – we are regularly gathered and sent as a worshipping people. And we definitely get the “baptizing” part. We love witnessing baptisms and renewing our Baptismal Covenant. But the promises parents and godparents make, and the promise we all make to “support the newly baptized in their life in Christ,” implies an ongoing relationship within the faith community.
While God is the primary actor in baptism, and his abundant grace and merciful love are the driving force, the sacrament is not magic. It needs our participation. There’s probably not a priest here who hasn’t wrestled with how to respond faithfully and pastorally to a young couple with a baby and no connection to the church wanting to get their child “done.” No easy answers to that one, but it helps us remember that our responsibility to others – our “love of neighbor” – is larger than what we offer liturgically.
The “making disciples” part of this verse may be our greatest challenge. Discipleship is the lifelong work of becoming what we’ve been baptized to be. And it’s also the daily work we are given in our churches. Disciples are students, but being a disciple of Jesus is more than just learning about him. It involves being his apprentices and practicing the life we’ve been given in Christ. Discipleship is not a solo journey but needs a community of practice. Being made into disciples is like being thrown into a rock-polishing tumbler. We need to be bumping into others, in and out of the church, so that our rough edges can be worn away and our dullness polished off, so that light and beauty are revealed.
I like thinking of us as apprentices and amateurs, always practicing. The work “amateur” comes from the French and Latin for “lover” or “friend,” and it’s a good way to consider spiritual formation for discipleship – it’s far less about self-improvement and much more about the love for Jesus and love for his mission that calls us to love and serve others.
Some of our churches offer formation for discipleship carefully and intentionally – from welcoming visitors to inviting newcomers into Bible studies and fellowship, to calling members to serve in ministries. But many of our churches leave it to chance, or that people might grow in their faith by osmosis.
The challenges to making disciples, adding apprentices, and being renewed as disciples ourselves are not hard to identify. We are overly busy and distracted. We are impatient, wanting to be more spiritual quickly and easily. Habits of spiritual formation for discipleship sound like something for spiritual elites or folks without many responsibilities at home. The predominant culture no longer actively supports church-going, let alone disciple-making. And we are living in a time when so many people practice a religion that’s been called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” That is, a religion that is set down somewhere in the background of life. God exists and wants people to be nice. He’s not all that involved in the world, but he wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves. We should follow the teachings of Jesus, if we’re okay with them, but be true to ourselves and follow our bliss.
Given that context, it’s not easy to invite people to apprentice themselves to somebody who says things like “Repent! For the kingdom is at hand.” “Deny yourselves, lay down your lives, take up your cross and follow me.”
But God’s mission from the start has relied on disciples and on disciples making new disciples. I’m pretty sure that if God wanted to, he could figure out how to complete his mission of redemption and reconciliation without disciples, but he has chosen to call us to join his Son on this Way, which means recommitting to bringing our A-game to the worship, life, and ministries of our churches.
To that end, I’m convening a “Working Group on Discipleship Formation.” This group (which is definitely not a “task force,” so please spare me your ridicule) will survey the landscape of our Diocese, specifically what spiritual formation for discipleship looks like in all our congregations. They will seek out places where it’s being done with excellence and care; where communal and individual formation and study are highly valued; where congregations are making room for and entrusting ministry to new apprentices for Christ; where preparation for confirmation is practiced as an opportunity to make disciples. This group will also identify available resources and assess how the Diocese might better support this formation for discipleship that is so vital to God’s mission.
I have given the leadership of this group to our Archdeacon, the Ven. Mike Besson. It will be an interdisciplinary group of lay and clergy, drawing from the wealth of wisdom and experience around the Diocese. We’ll need many perspectives and voices, and we will need to call people out of our various ministry silos. For example, members will be drawn from Christian Formation, Evangelism, College & Young Adult Missions, the Youth Commission, Latino Ministries, Cursillo, Stewardship, Racial Reconciliation, Camps and Conferences. Oh yeah…and World Mission. I ask that this group meet and organize next month, and prepare to offer their findings and proposals to the 120th Council.
This is exciting, hopeful work, foundational to the life of the Church and critical to our mission. If we follow through, it will strengthen the life of our churches and enrich the lives of individual Christians. I’d love to have more of you volunteer to assist with this endeavor than we know what to do with. I trust Mike to figure it out.
If you’re thinking that it’s a little late in the game for me to launch something like this, rest assured I haven’t forgotten that I’m leaving. Sometimes I imagine the transition will feel a lot like handing over a sticky, tangled-up ball of Post-It notes and paperclips to my successor and saying, “Good luck with this.” Much will be unfinished, or not even started, when I retire. But formation for discipleship is ongoing work for all of us and it should not be stopped because of a change in bishops. I hope the report of this group will be a nice gift to my successor and perhaps a blueprint for strengthening the artful practice of welcoming apprentices and making disciples all over the Diocese.
The Election of a Bishop Coadjutor and the Transition
Let’s turn to what lies ahead.
Shortly after Easter last year, I informed the Standing Committee of my decision to retire and requested that plans be made for the election of a Bishop Coadjutor to succeed me. I didn’t say the precise date of my leaving, but indicated I would be done by the end of this year, 2023. That is still my commitment to Patti, to my successor, and to you. After informing the Standing Committee, I told the diocesan staff, met with the Executive Board, sent letters to the clergy and spouses, and then shared the news with the entire Diocese. It was a hard week.
As I said almost a year ago, I love what I do. I’m not burned out or worn out. Most days are good days, and I still look forward to showing up for work. I hardly ever hide under my desk. It simply is time for me to take this next step. 40 years of ordained ministry – 17 years as a bishop and the past six as your diocesan – is plenty. As much as I’ll miss it, and all of you, and as teary-eyed as I sometimes get, I am confident this is the right decision for me, for my family, and for you my beloved diocesan family.
Tomorrow morning – assuming I’ve finished this address – we will gather in prayer and then elect our Bishop Coadjutor. Who we elect is, of course, a serious matter, and your vote should be offered with the solemnity of a prayer. You all have a heavy responsibility and a difficult choice to make.
Ripp Hardaway, Alex Montes-Vela, and David Read are excellent priests and faithful men. They love the Lord and have a deep and abiding commitment to the mission of the Church. They are gifted and experienced, fine preachers and teachers, and they love the elderly, little children, and your pets. But they also are not good at a number of things; they are sinners, flawed disciples, and not the Messiah. They are human, just like the people one of them will be called to serve as 11th Bishop of West Texas.
Electing a bishop is a significant, historic moment in our life together. It truly matters, but it is not a matter of our salvation. We will elect, but it is the Holy Spirit who will make him a bishop, equipping him for ministry, day by day. And the Spirit’s work will happen primarily through the likes of you and me, and within our churches. It will truly be the daily work of spiritual formation for discipleship. This means that we have a responsibility not only to elect, but to do “all in our power to support this person in his life in Christ.” Just as congregations are called to support the newly baptized, we are called to participate with our bishop in the Church’s mission, not to sit around and watch him try to do it all.
And that means that how we elect might be as important as who we elect. I’m not talking about getting the technology right, but the spirit in which we cast our votes and how we respond when we have elected. One of these good men will be thrown into the whirlwind and be stuck with us, for better for worse. The other two will return to the life and ministry they love. All of them will be tender and weary, coming to terms with what the last several months mean for them. This Diocese has been greatly blessed by their willingness – and their wives’ supportiveness – to serve and their openness to this long, arduous discernment process. They have been honorable, collegial, and supportive of one another. They have been faithful to the mind of Christ.
But as much as I would love to have all three of them in the House of Bishops – what a healthier place we could be! – we can only elect one. We have to decide, guided, we pray, by the Holy Spirit.
So, how should you vote? With thanksgiving for all three of them, with gratitude for this Diocese and your own congregation, and with humility, aware that our knowledge is imperfect, that self-interest leads us to dream small, and that it is “faith, hope and love that abide, these three.”
And when we have elected someone, rejoice, all of you. Again I will say, rejoice and be glad.
Regardless of who it is, we will have elected a fine priest to serve as our bishop. God is good, all the time, and Jesus will keep showing up. This isn’t state and national politics. We have, indeed, been given “a more excellent way,” and we don’t have the time or the luxury or the permission of our Lord Jesus to be angry or resentful if “our guy” isn’t elected, to pretend that he’s “not my bishop.” If one of those not elected is a good friend of yours, or you’ve invested a lot of yourself in him, please begin offering that disappointment to God on the drive home tomorrow.
Like most churches, our Church has a tendency toward self-fascination with our own stuff, in a kind of post-game punditry. Let’s not go there. Seek first the Kingdom, so that the Light of Christ shines brightly upon us, and our light shine out into the Church and the world, so that people say, “See what love those West Texans have for one another.”
The Canonical Requirements
There are two requirements within the Canons of our Episcopal Church that I must meet in order for us to proceed with this election. What a bummer if I forgot. Please turn in your Canons to Title 3, Canon 11, Section 9.a.2…
First, as Bishop of the Diocese of West Texas, I do hereby give my consent to the election of a Bishop Coadjutor, who will succeed me upon my resignation from this office.
Second, I hereby announce that, when the Bishop Coadjutor is ordained and consecrated on July 8, God willing, I will assign him the following duties:
Oversight of several Commissions and Committees that are not explicitly the diocesan Bishop’s responsibility
The Bishops’ Sunday Visitation Schedule
The Fall Clergy Conference
And the famous “other duties as may be assigned from time to time”
As the transition proceeds, the Coadjutor and I may enlarge his duties, by mutual consent. Members of the Standing Committee, Clergy and Delegates, we are good to go.
Conclusion: My Tenure and Legacy
Following the election of the Coadjutor tomorrow, I will be the Bishop of West Texas. Still.
Much of my work will shift toward preparing the way for my successor, assisting him and his spouse in the transition. But the call of the Church to “go, baptize and make disciples,” following Jesus toward the Kingdom and serving with love in his Name – that continues. There is always more to do, and I look forward to serving with and for you this year. I was blessed with a father who taught me, among many other things, to always “run it out” in baseball, even when you thought you were definitely going to be out, to always do your best, no matter what. I can’t promise I won’t get senioritis somewhere down the road, but my hope and my intention is to keep showing up, until it’s time to stop.
Forty years ago, I was a 25-year-old senior at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. You know what we passionately argued about, usually with conviction not matched by actual knowledge? High-church versus low-church worship. The brand-new 1982 Hymnal. Whether Cursillo was an authentic movement of the Spirit or a bunch of Jesus-crazed people. Whether our priests should be called “Father”. Whether the tab collar or the Anglican collar was more appropriate…Simpler times.
I tell you that to remind you of something we all know and feel in our bones. Life moves rapidly, and change, whether wanted or unwanted, is on us in the blink of an eye. And in the end, so much of what seemed life-and-death is forgotten.
Throughout the past 40 years, our Church has been through sea changes in almost every way imaginable, alongside our country and our world going through seismic changes at a breakneck pace. Historians will have the luxury of looking back at our time and assessing where the change was good and right and where we went off the rails or did great harm for the sake of a perceived greater good. But we’re the ones called to live in it as it happens.
Kind people sometimes tell me, “You’re the right bishop for our time.” When I think about my time as bishop, and what we’ve experienced together, I wonder about that. Hurricane Harvey made landfall about two weeks after Bishop Lillibridge handed me the crozier. Our Bishop Suffragan resigned abruptly after only two years. In the midst of prolonged and devastating drought, we had Snowmageddon. And, oh yeah, there’s been this unprecedented pandemic. What’s the common denominator in all that upheaval? Me. Right bishop or master of disaster?
Listen: The prophet Isaiah wrote, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up and his train filled the temple…And the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of him who called, and the house of God was filled with smoke…And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me!’” (Isaiah 6:1-8)
That was the Old Testament reading at my ordination to the priesthood. My eyes then were on the call of Isaiah, but in the years since, I’ve thought more often about the beginning of that encounter. The king was dead. Everything about life as the people knew it would change dramatically, and nobody really knew what that change would be like. And in that year of the death of the king, when the foundations were shaking, God acted, God spoke, and God intervened.
Foundations get shaken. The “kings” that we counted on to bring stability weaken and fail, that which seemed so stable and knowable starts to fall apart, and the ground won’t hold us. And God acts. God calls. For us and for the life of this world, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever. “Lo,” he says, “I am with you always, to the end of the ages.”
Whether in our nation, in our Diocese, or in your local church, change comes, and the ground starts trembling. Then Scripture tells us to look up. Look up and listen up, because God is on the move and he’s speaking, seeking those who will respond, “Here we are. We’re still standing. Send us.”
We are still here. And you are a sight for sore eyes. Not just for me looking out from this stage, but for one another and in your communities if we are paying attention. We abide as our Lord abides, and we are still the Body of Christ – God’s embodied mission of love, redemption, reconciliation, and peace into a world that often seems determined to tear itself apart.
Lately I’ve been asked more and more, “What do you think your legacy will be?” I have no idea, and honestly that isn’t for me to figure out. But here are couple of things that will outlast me that I kind of like, besides the T-shirt cannon and that Call Me Maybe acolyte video. Not to brag, but there are two buildings in the Diocese named for me. There’s the Reed Outreach Center – the R.O.C. – at St. Alban’s, Harlingen. And a few weeks ago, at St. Michael and All Angels in Blanco, I was asked to bless a building, and when we processed out to it, was surprised to see a sign with my name on it – the “Bishop Reed Building.” It’s a wooden work shed on the back of their parking lot.
If I have to carry the weight of a legacy, I’ll take them both. A multi-purpose building used by a parish and Day School – for learning, growing, getting in shape, going out and serving, and fellowship, fun and feasting – the R.O.C. is a place where disciples of all ages are being formed. And the work shed in Blanco is a simple, but useful and important place where God’s people don’t huddle up inside, but come to get tools to work side-by-side out in the open, for the health and beauty of the church, which blesses their town.
I began by giving thanks, and so I will end the same way. My heart is full of joy, even as it breaks a little. I am grateful to God for this beautiful and strange ministry, and I give thanks to God for all of you and each of you, and for your churches in all their amazing variety and places.
I was brought up to be polite, always to say, “Please” and “Thank you,” and to be thankful. I was a very quiet child around grown-ups, which may be hard to believe having just had so many words inflicted upon you. But it’s true. I didn’t say much around my friends’ parents, but I always knew to say, “Thank you, I had a nice time,” as I was leaving homes or getting out of a car. Almost like one word – “thankyouIhadanicetime.”
And maybe that’s the best I can leave you with – a grateful heart. Thank you, and thanks be to God for this life shared. I’ve had a nice time.