It is a joy for me to welcome you to this our first diocesan convention together. It was exactly two years ago that I was first nominated to run for bishop here. Just a year ago I was preparing to come for the November walkabouts. And six months ago I was consecrated as your Bishop. One of the most important things I want to say to you at this convention is my profound thanks to everyone in this room, everyone in this diocese, for all that you have done to form me as your Bishop. I will not single out anyone, because it would take the rest of this speech to thank all the individuals involved in the generous way you have prepared me for this ministry.
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Bishop Franklin’s Address to the 174th Convention of the Diocese of WNY.
For two years, your story and mine have been intersecting. They are now becoming one story. So it seemed very appropriate to me to have the theme of this convention to center on storytelling.
“Tell me a story!” Few words in the English language evoke warmer feelings of love and support than the words—“Tell me a story.”
Yet what does storytelling possibly have to do with a Diocesan Convention? But then I remember—isn’t Jesus one of the greatest story tellers of all time? Hasn’t the Gospel been called “The Greatest Story Ever Told?”
There are four ways we can be transformed by stories:
1. Sharing a story is a primary way we share our life in community.
2. Understanding a story is a way we come to understand our experience.
3. Hearing other people’s stories can help us to see our common life more deeply and
point us in new directions.
4. Building trust—knowing one another’s stories is a way to build trust
in a diocesan community.
When I was serving the Episcopal Church in Europe, I always introduced this method of stories for a church convention by telling the story of how the Bishop met his or her wife or husband and fell in love. I did this first with Bishop Pierre Whalon, and then with our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jeff erts Schori, and then with the Archbishop of York. And now, I find myself in the role of bishop! To be faithful to the method, I need to tell the story of how Carmela and I met. Each of our love stories, yours and mine, are such a part of our personal identities as we share in ministry that I really do need to begin with this.
The day Carmela and I met, I was just starting my first year of graduate school. Carmela was a college junior. My roommate was the cousin of Carmela’s roommate, and one day he said: “My cousin has invited us over to their dorm to meet her friends.” That day didn’t start out well for me. As I got out of bed that morning I stepped on my glasses, and I’m one of those people who really needs to wear his glasses in order to see. As a result, when I met Carmela later that day, I couldn’t actually SEE her!
It was the early 70’s, the age of revolution. I was a radical and all for action. Carmela was studious and conservative. We got into a big argument about the Viet Nam War protests. She scolded me and said I should be in the library studying instead of out in the streets demonstrating. And let me tell you, this is an argument that has continued for a lifetime.
Blind, but undeterred by her strong opinions, I suggested we go on a date, and she said yes!! Our first date was to the Christmas Carol Service at the Harvard Memorial Church, not very romantic but it said something about the shape of things to come: I like to spend time in church. Even so, that first date led to many more. Despite our differences over politics and my obsession with Church, we shared so much, and we fell in love. We married the next spring in that same church where we had gone on our fi rst date, and the rest is history.
We were in our early 20’s. Of course now, we tell our children that we would never allow them to get married as young as we were. We were so naïve about so many things, but we set out on this adventure of life together. Carmela followed me to my first teaching position at St. John’s University in Minnesota—where we thought we learned all about winter. I say thought, because after arriving in Buffalo last February, we found we had much more to learn about snow! Years later, Carmela followed me again, this time to New York when I accepted a call as professor at The General Theological Seminary of our Church. Several jobs later, the tables turned, and I followed Carmela to Europe for five years. Because her parents had moved to Buffalo, when I left for Europe in 2005, I sent all of my books and furniture to Buffalo, not really knowing why I was doing that. I mean, what was the purpose of that? But here they were waiting for me here when I arrived to be your Bishop.
My daughter Beatrice once asked Carmela—“How can you be connected to one person for all this time?” And Carmela said, “Because it is not just a person, your whole story, your whole life becomes part of their story, you share houses and children, and you share ups and downs, and sometimes when at one moment it looks like a down, in reality something wonderful is happening.”
Carmela and I now live at either end of New York State, me in Buffalo, Carmela in New York City, but she is here every other weekend, though not this weekend because she represents us at the meeting of the Board of the Institute for Advanced Study, where she can bring what we are doing to the attention of other board members like Bill Gates and the head of Google. But she was here last weekend and will be here next weekend. This is the pattern we will live out. When we look back on our life, we can see a pattern, and as Christians, we believe that God is at work in the patterns that appear to shape our lives. I have to say, and I can tell you that Carmela agrees, God has definitely been working among the patterns of our life together, from that early argument about my activities and ever since.
Stories are also an important part of our spiritual lives and our lives in community. Parishes and dioceses also have ups and downs. It’s what we do when our stories hit a downward curve that really matters. It is often in these times that we are most likely to cry out to God, looking for protection, solace, help. In Carmela’s and my story I have known this to be true time and time again.
So as I come here to serve you as your bishop, I recognize that our own region of Western New York and some people within our diocese, perhaps even some of you, are experiencing that downward curve right now. The purpose of this convention, and hearing the stories we are about to share, is to remind us that whatever the cause of your downward curve, there is always a way to turn upward, there is always hope. This is the fundamental point of the Good News of Jesus Christ that we proclaim.
The latest Pew survey says that only 40% of the American population attends a house of worship, Christian or other otherwise, twice a month or more. Pew also finds that 95% of the “new” members at all churches have come from people who were members of another church who attended the church they left at least once a month or more. We are trading members back and forth, and for the most part are not reaching the un-churched. Perhaps reaching out to the unchurched will net us better results, certainly, I think better results in the eyes of Jesus who charges us with making NEW disciples, not just recycling old ones!
And who are the unchurched in our diocese? Every five years the Gallup organization compares the population of every county in the country with the membership of churches in the county. In its 2005 report, Erie County showed a 55% “churched” rate. The “churched” rate for Niagara County was 50%, and for Orleans County it is 45%. So here’s the good news: We live in missionary territory! There is great opportunity out there.
I could give you many other examples of challenge and opportunity, but let me mention just one more. Within the next 10-20 years we will see the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the United States as the Builder Generation dies and passes their wealth on to the Baby Boomers. Since the Boomers have a significantly lower level of church participation, as well as more debt and less savings—if the church does not focus on planned giving and serious fund raising soon—we will see a huge decrease in the resources available and we will never recover it. Our diocese has a choice this afternoon, we can either grow significantly or be diminished significantly.
It is very clear to me that my single most important goal for the next eight years is church growth—growth in the numbers of people who are members of our Episcopal Churches; growth in our financial resources through planned giving and capital campaigns, both in the parishes, and for the diocese as a whole, and most important—growth in spiritual depth made possible for all who worship in our churches.
And let me emphasize something that I think is critical to our growth: the Episcopal Church is and must continue to be a big tent church. What does this mean? It means that all are welcome in our churches—all races, all ages, all genders, people of all sexual orientation. Conservatives are most welcome, liberals are most welcome, and even moderates! People of all stripes and hues have a place among us, for the Episcopal Church is not a place of rigid conformity, of my way or the highway; it is a community that demonstrates that all people are beloved of God.
Therefore as your bishop my primary focus is on the parishes and their growth. My highest priority is to be with you whenever you call me:
1. For visitations, and Eucharists, and preaching
2. But also for Wednesday night suppers, chili cook-offs on Saturday afternoons, Fourth
of July parades, any occasion to welcome newcomers to the parish, or to assist
with your fund-raising efforts by visiting a potential donor.
3. I also want to be with you at ecumenical and public events as I did for the September 11
commemorations, as I have done already in meeting with the ecumenical
clergy fellowships of Springville and West Seneca and other towns.
4. Finally I want to exercise my totem pole ministry, and by this I mean that by just
showing up I can support something important that is happening in your parish.
Please call on me.
I want all of our spiritual movements, our social outreach, our support for ministries abroad to circle back and grow out of and nurture our parishes.
And I wish our parishes to be focused on a double mission:
• Transforming people’s lives through worship, preaching, music,
and the programs we present.
• And building communities large and small through welcoming hospitality
and social outreach.
My theology around this is pretty simple:
1. God has created us for a purpose.
2. God’s grace comes to us in God’s Word and in the sacraments to give us grace—
spiritual energy, which transforms us.
3. We experience God’s grace deeply in the communities of the Church.
4. We are given the spiritual energy to grow into the full stature of what
God intends us to be in our parishes.
5. Therefore, our parishes are outposts of grace—spiritual energy for transformation
is freely available for the asking in all of our churches! And because transformation
is possible, for individuals and communities—we are a people of hope: and that is
going to be a great theme of the stories you are about to hear this afternoon.
I think we can do this by becoming a web of grace. If the parishes are outposts of grace, then the diocese as a whole is the web, the structure, the matrix, which allows the parishes to hold together.
Someone said to me: “Bill, it is hard to understand what you mean by the web of grace.”
I mean capitalizing on the interconnectedness between the Bishop, the diocesan staff, diocesan resources, and the clergy and laity of all of our churches to form one team for the people of Western New York.
The web of grace is absolutely crucial for the success of the first theme I have outlined—growth. If as your bishop I am to play a key role as a very present leader, as a spiritual leader, as chief evangelist, as the chief motivator of the diocese, I cannot do this alone. I need this to be a team effort. And I am organizing a team to help me do this. As I learn about the diocese I am gradually allowing the team I need for support to evolve.
Some of the keys to the team that I need as bishop to exercise my ministry are:
1. The diocesan staff, which plays a fundamental role in allowing me to do my work.
2. The deans with whom I meet regularly and on whom I rely to help me perform my
ministry. I would also like at least twice a year to meet with deanery councils as I did
at the pre-conventions workshops.
3. I also rely on the key ministry of Mother Barbara Price who works with me on
deployment and transition and parish development.
4. I rely on the commissions and committees of the diocese—the Standing Committee, the
Commission on Ministry, the Trustees, and the Diocesan Council.
5. In addition I have so far formed 11 advisory committees to flesh out in greater depth
the interconnectedness of our growing web of grace. These advisory groups focus on:
Structure, education, campus and 20/30 ministry, and deacons. These four are now
starting to meet. And youth, ecumenism, buildings, evangelism, and coordination
of social outreach both at home and abroad. These will begin meeting soon.
6. All of these bodies and groups help create the web of grace and make the web of grace a
reality. The essentials needed for all this to function in a way that will benefit us are:
a. Clear structures, known to all. Clarity is pastoral.
b. Clear communication.
c. Welcoming and fair treatment to all in the operations of the diocese.
d. Financial support. I am working with Howard Gondree to start the first stages
of a diocesan fundraising campaign. The initial stage now is to locate donors
who would like to give to make the growth of the diocese possible—for buildings,
youth, and education, and our diocesan center.
7. And finally we have the opportunity to build the web of grace using our new diocesan
center. It is a great place to create one community, to get to know one another, and
to worship together on a regular basis. The Diocesan Center Board is filled with energy
to start developing this diocesan headquarters.
8. And because some people feared that we have abandoned the city of Buffalo by moving
our headquarters to Tonawanda, Carmela and I have purchased our own house in the
middle of Buffalo at 176 Bryant Street, a house capable of being a place of hospitality
where over time I can entertain many of you in the diocese. The bishop’s hospitality is
yet another way to build the web of grace.
In summary, what do I mean by creating these structures of a web of grace? I mean fostering a shared sense of mission, ministry, and programs binding together our deaneries and congregations. I mean nurturing a spirit of cooperation and trust between our leadership by clear standards, procedures, and fair evaluation. I mean rolling up our sleeves to work together, and whenever possible to laugh and play together, through events like the Bishop and Friends Concert, the Diocesan Softball Tournament, Youth Overnights at the Diocesan Center, and special parish events, especially I love the ones that include food like fish fries, barbecues, chili cook-offs, and your spectacular wine and cheese parties.
The web of grace already exists and is growing each day— just a few examples:
1. The Eastern Erie Deanery and the Central Erie Deanery came together last January to
celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Mother Gloria arranged for the youth of
both deaneries and some adults too, to tour one of the major Underground Railroad
stations in Buffalo and hear about the role this region played in helping slaves escape.
2. The backpack blessing that has taken off with so many of our congregations reaching
out to teachers and students in ways that work for each individual congregation
supported by communication and resources from the diocesan office.
3. When the Mission Trip that St. Paul’s, Harris Hill planned for this July fell through,
Christ Church, Albion came to the rescue and allowed the youth of St. Paul’s to paint
their parish hall to help make it more welcoming for the members of the Albion
community who are coming there for a meal each Friday night. Harris Hill has
also made some financial contributions to Albion to help the community meals keep
A third theme I want to share about my vision for the future is parallel development. As I said earlier, growth is key to my vision for the future. Because of all the changes in the world in the last fifty years, the most effective church growth technique in terms of building our numbers seems to be parallel development—keeping the more traditional forms of church life for those (of all ages) who grew up in the church, while at the same time developing some form of worship, formation and service that meets the needs of the unchurched in the local community. These take many different forms and this method cannot be boxed up and used in a different place without adaptation. Let us try to start something new, while at the same time we maintain the old, and find some way to do both at the same time. It is difficult and challenging, yet some are already trying this in our diocese, and where it is done, it produces amazing results.
One story that illustrates how parallel development works: There was a small Methodist church in Wisconsin. The Sunday morning congregation had become smaller over time until there were only 30 people on Sunday morning. There were large numbers of families with children who were on the soccer fields near the church on Sunday morning. But most of the games ended by 4 pm. A new pastor learned all she could about church planting and after eighteen months of planning, talking to the families about what would interest them, and advertising, they started a service at 4:30 pm. There were 150 people at the first service and after a year the service was averaging nearly 200 people each week. A church that was on the verge of closing soon had a full-time youth minister who ran most of the evening services.
I have posed to many of you since I arrived almost nine months ago this question: How might our churches better market themselves to the unchurched within our communities? There is no one single answer to how to market a church, because every parish has particular strengths and all minister within differing localities that have unique demographics and specific needs.
There is however a process that has appeared that any parish can use to discover how best to market themselves. Communication Officer Laurie Wozniak has located for us a process developed by church communication specialists to be used by churches willing to take an honest look at themselves and their community in order to develop an intentional plan for reaching out to the community with the aim of drawing new people in.
On Wednesday, November 9 at 7 pm at the Diocesan Center Laurie is hosting an informational meeting at which you can learn much more about this innovative process. I encourage all of you to find two or three people from your congregation and come to the meeting. This is exactly the web of grace at work; mapping our assets together, taking a look at new strategies, gathering together to brainstorm at our new diocesan center, learning about bold ideas to help us move forward to growth. This is exactly the sort of programming I believe our diocesan clergy were asking for at their summer retreat when one table group said: “We need the diocese (both the staff and the committees/commissions) to be places we can turn to find good resources and connection with each other and to be good resources themselves. We are interested in having effective resources—people, programs, mentoring, staff, materials from the diocese and education on the best way to connect these resources to the actual needs and hopes of our congregation.”
All of these strategies and innovative ideas are important, but in conclusion I want to come back to where I started: to the importance of telling our story. Sharing our stories with one another and with the wider community is key to the growth of our parishes in numbers, finances, and spirituality. A friend, colleague, and former student of mine, Dwight Zscheile, Professor of Congregational Development at Luther Seminary in St. Paul has written a new book on church growth coming out in 2012 called People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity. Here is a young guy who comes up with some wise conclusions that I trust he got from his old professor, me. Dwight writes:
“There are profound new opportunities for Episcopalians in today’s changed American setting. People in today’s world are looking for a LIVED FAITH, not just a set of propositions to believe in. They are seeking a word of healing, hope, liberation, and promise—a trustworthy word in which they can abide and find life. …When the church gathers around the bread and wine, retells the story of God’s relationship with the world, remembers Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, and experiences it as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, it shares a thanksgiving meal. We gather in God’s presence…to be transformed into symbols of God’s new creation, and to recall how God has bound us together in the Spirit. In a society of many false promises and insecure futures, we affirm God’s promised future—the restoration of all that God has made.”
If someone asks you, “What is the new bishop’s vision and plan for the diocese?” I say to you, it is summed up in Dwight’s words. After a lifetime of sharing this vision with my students in seminaries and universities, I am so grateful that one of them was able to articulate it so well in this passage. And I am even more grateful to God for what I believe
is God’s call to us now to try to live out this faith together in Western New York.
I know of course, I am not bringing this vision to you by myself. No, it has been your possession for lo these many generations, and now we will hear these marvelous stories of how you have lived this through storm and through change, and how God has brought you out through crisis time and time again to new hope and new birth. This is the great story that God now calls us to continue to tell in Western New York.
May God Bless us all in this great endeavor.
Thank you very much.