Bishop Benfield’s Address to Diocesan Convention

February 13, 2021

It was only a year ago that I stood at diocesan convention and told you that one of the best ways I know of gauging a congregation’s health is in the quality of its potluck lunches. Given what happened to the entire concept of public health a month after I made that comment, I have come to realize that all my old ways of measuring things have to change.

Right now, potluck lunches are non-existent. My normal visits to congregations around the state are on hold until we can meet in person; confirmations via Zoom don’t work. We have had to find different ways to do church … and even do diocesan convention, as my talking to a camera atop a computer screen attests.

But as much as this pandemic has raised our anxieties and brought stress and hurt and grief to so many people, and as much as we have had our worship lives disrupted, it has resulted in at least one good thing: it has made us take a new look at what it really means to be the church.

What we are discovering is that church is not a building, and church is not defined solely by a number of people who gather on Sunday mornings. But rather, church may be better defined by using the imagery as Jesus indicated in the parable of the yeast: We Christians are not all clumped together, but rather are scattered out in the midst of a much larger world, bringing new life as we ourselves live lives of concern and compassion and justice.

It really has been quite amazing to see the many new connections and ministries that have formed in the time following the decision last March that it would be impossible for us to continue church gatherings as usual. We hear of people who have never been in church in-person, now tuning in to online worship. I have heard story after story about church members who have begun calling and texting others to see how they are doing. The number of congregations that have begun or expanded feeding programs for people who are hungry in this economic crisis, as well as congregation-sponsored efforts to help erase medical debt, are testaments to your desire to treat all who are around us as tangible parts of the body of Christ for which we have responsibility. And for all the Episcopalians involved in one way or another with health care or grocery store work or other essential services, I offer thanks. I can only imagine, for example, the many hours that our Arkansas Episcopalian Jennifer Dillaha has spent trying to give good health advice for all Arkansans. 

As far as meeting in person is concerned, even as infection rates seem to be declining, our calling is to continue to take actions that place the health of others on an equally important footing with our own. So let’s be patient. We will return to normalcy. I know that after a year of online worship many of you are growing restless. I know that I am. After all, the best part of my job is visiting congregations, getting the chance at least once a year to see you, and being honored in that you present yourselves for confirmation, your own witness that you intend to live a life that recognizes the risen Christ in all others. My last confirmation service was on a sidewalk on a chilly Sunday afternoon. We all have had to do things differently, but it is wonderful that we have been given the gift of a chance to take a new look at what it means to be the church. Speaking more broadly on that opportunity, I want to bring you up to date on some things that I have learned in the larger church this past year.

The anxieties of the effects of Covid and the political turmoil in which we have found ourselves in this country and the insidious, ongoing racial inequalities that have been made so clear recently have caused many of us bishops in the Episcopal Church to take a fresh look, of all things, at baptism. For so long, many of us Episcopalians likely viewed baptism as an entrance into the club that we call the Episcopal Church. Or we would say that we are washing away sin in baptism; I have used the analogy of a shower or a bath more often than I can remember. 

But what has happened in our country has forced us to begin talking differently. I am working with the Episcopal Church’s bishops’ theology committee, and what we are discovering is that if we still want to use the language of washing, we might need to say that baptism is washing away the defensive shell that we humans instinctively have that has protected us from seeing other people as God’s children, and in losing that shell, we are made vulnerable to realities of the world around us. Where it starts getting personal for me as a bishop is that one of my jobs is to confirm, and because we use the baptismal covenant anytime we have a confirmation, then confirmation is a recognition that we now commit to seeing the world with a certain vulnerability. When we look at others, we cannot avoid seeing the body of Christ. And that changes every decision we make. I am not simply talking about feeding the hungry. I am talking about job opportunities and the right to vote and access to health care, three responses to our current economic and racial and pandemic crises. Being baptized and presenting ourselves for confirmation has concrete implications. We have work to do as Episcopalians if we are going to live into that baptismal covenant. The pandemic and racial and political turmoil have made that clear, nationally and in Arkansas as well. Baptism and confirmation may indeed be calls to repentance, just as much as is the Ash Wednesday liturgy in our Book of Common Prayer.

Now, that is what I have been doing and talking about with other bishops. I hope that it affects how I preach in the coming year. Now, I would like for a moment to turn our attention to some of the things that have taken place in Arkansas this past year and what we can do in the future.

This past year was our first full year to have Guillermo Castillo, as a member of the diocesan staff, with work focusing on our Latino members across several congregations in northwest Arkansas. Just as he was getting ready to start worship services in his third congregation, Covid-19 put the brakes on in-person worship. But he will continue that work. And All Saints’ Church in Bentonville, one of the congregations where he works, has completed a major renovation of its worship space it had bought from another church, and I hope to consecrate that space in November. 

Also, this year’s diocesan budget for the first time has money set aside for work with the Karen community that lives near Clarksville. These immigrants came from Anglican Communion churches in Myanmar and are a vital part of the life of All Saints’ Church in Russellville. By happy coincidence, one of their bishops in Southeast Asia was a seminary classmate of mine many years ago. I am so happy to have the diversity in our diocese that the Karen people represent. They remind us that we are not individual congregations, but are instead closely connected to Anglican Christians worldwide. 

Particular to Arkansas, I know that many of you have questions about the status of Camp Mitchell.  Even before the pandemic, the camp had serious financial challenges, about which I talked at last year’s convention. Following some initial recommendations, Executive Council and I approved a pause in its operations and the formation of a working group on how to reimagine the mission of the camp and the future scope of its work. As a part of this effort, and due to the fact that it is impossible to have programing at the camp during the pandemic, Camp Mitchell expenses have been rolled into the diocesan budget instead of the camp having its own budget. The working group will make its report and recommendations to Executive Council later this spring, and we will then decide how to move forward. In the meantime, the camp’s physical wellbeing is being overseen by Julie Westbrook, our onsite manager, and a group of extremely dedicated board members and volunteers, Dr. Harold Hedges being at the top of the list. Also, even if the physical camp’s operations are paused, we still want to make opportunities for Christian formation for youth available. Randall Curtis and youth workers from across the diocese are working on some health-conscious, outdoor experiences this summer for young people. One thing that we will carefully consider is how such activities will be affected by the availability of vaccinations for young people.

Some of you have asked questions about your congregational commitments to the diocese in a year when you have no clear idea what to expect financially in your own congregations. I am asking that we hold to a steady course on how we commit to support one another with a continued reliance on a 10.5% pledge of operating income. Notice that I said that we commit to supporting one another. What I mentioned earlier about work with the Karen people and the Latino communities are examples of the ways that your pledge directly supports and connects us with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Of course, at the same time that I ask you to commit to a steady course, I understand that we do not know what this year will bring about financially. Please know the people in my office and I are more than ready to work with any congregation that finds itself financially strapped this year. Do not look on your commitment as a burden but as an opportunity to reach out.

Local circumstances indeed bring new challenges. The long-serving and faithful members of St. Paul’s Church in McGehee have told me that it will be impossible for that congregation to continue to meet, and it is time to close that church. After this convention, those of us in the diocesan office will look carefully at the options for that building. There may be one or two more congregations for which returning to worship will be impossible, and we already have two other empty church buildings from congregations that have disbanded. This is not an Arkansas-only problem. I talked with about forty bishops this week from around the church on how we might best utilize our real estate for the mission of the church. We all want to be creative and ensure that somehow good work can continue in a community through the use of our buildings even if we no longer have a worshipping community there.

We indeed have some real challenges ahead of us. But if what I have seen from so many of you so far is any indication, we will meet them. We have all learned more about Zoom and online streaming than we ever wanted to know, and we are getting the hang of it. I have seen lay leaders in our smaller congregations rise to the occasion to provide much-needed leadership. I have seen priests and deacons who continue to work in ways that no one ever taught us about in our education before we were ordained. And I have had a diocesan staff that works hard, continuing to be physically present in the office more than about any staff in any diocese in the Episcopal Church. I thank them. And I thank you for continuing to be the church in ways we never imagined, even a year ago. One of these days we will get back to those potluck lunches and confirmations, but until then keep doing what you are doing; all will be well, and we will find challenges turned into some fascinating opportunities to proclaim Gods’ love.

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