Witnessing Transformation

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A Presentation by Bishop Benfield to Diocesan Convention 2014

The story of the founding of any institution is always subject to interpretation. For us Arkansas Episcopalians, we will never have perfect clarity about what really took place in the winter of 1839. The lucky ones were the people at Christ Church in Little Rock who managed to get an article published in the Arkansas Gazette about Bishop Polk’s alleged first Episcopal church service and sermon on March 10, 1839 at the downtown Little Rock Presbyterian Church. After the service, he organized a parish. So began our official history, and ever since then we have been finding ways to proclaim the good news of God’s love for us.

If you were at convention last year you saw a video about those early years. From the beginning there were both disappointments and successes and many stories that have kept repeating themselves for 175 years. We started out in a Presbyterian Church building, and our two most recently established congregations are worshipping in buildings of other denominations. In our earliest days the people of Pine Bluff were worried that all the Episcopalians were leaving town, and they still are. Back in the early 1800s the call kept going out for ministers who could speak a language other than English, and that call is still going out.

There has indeed been some consistency in our life as a church, even if at times we do not recognize it. But there has also been change. When the state’s prosperity was largely agriculturally based, we opened congregations in the Delta. In this day and age, when the state’s prosperity and population growth are the result of 21st century trends in commerce, we are developing congregations in northwest Arkansas. We have gone from an age in which bishops spent almost half the year out of state trying to raise money for evangelism in Arkansas to an era in which the bishop visits a different congregation inside the state almost every Sunday of the year. We have gone from being the church of merchants and large farm owners to being a church that now welcomes mechanics and farm laborers and office workers.

What has been happening through these many years is that God is steadily transforming us as we discern God’s Spirit moving among us. Sometimes it comes in the form of prophets who call us to task, as we had to be called to task during the civil rights struggles of the 20th century. Sometimes it is in the form of young people who tease us about our being stuck in our ways. And often, whether we know it or not, it is in the form of the stranger who enters our churches and changes who we are by the stories they share.

What we do know is that our call is to go to wherever it is that people are hungering for good news. To quote Isaiah from last week’s lectionary, the goal is to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke, to share bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house, to see the naked and cover them. We are seeking the transformation of our communities and state and nation and world.

Simultaneously, if we are true to the call to be good stewards of what God has given us, we try to find ways to transform all of our Episcopal congregations and institutions to meet the challenges we expect to face in coming generations. The good news of God in Christ remains the same; how it is offered to people changes as circumstances dictate. Churches that wish to remain vital remember and act on that truth.

The question becomes how we are transformed so that we can become instruments to help usher in the kingdom of God. As I often tell myself when preparing sermons, I need to be preaching to myself before I dare to preach to others. Likewise, we need to be living out transformation in our congregations as a prelude to the work of transformation that God wishes for the world around us.

Arkansas map

Today I would like for us to focus on what some pieces of our own transformation look like in Arkansas in 2014. You see, whether we all recognize it or not, we are indeed transforming congregations and institutions and hearts and minds. I hope what you see today will encourage you to think about what transformation can look like in the context of where you live and worship.

Transformation in ways small and large is taking place all over Arkansas. Here are some examples:

  • St. Peter’s Church in Conway took on the challenge of turning an old house across the street from its church building into an attractive and welcoming place for area college students. There is an amazingly active ministry among students there. I bet that some weeks you can find fifty students in what is now named Morgan House. Just ask Andrew Hybl.
  • High school students in the Summa program that began here in Little Rock have found a way to young people to engage in scholarly debate of Christianity and its role in society. Ask Chris Keller what that group has been able to do.
  • St. Paul’s Church in Fayetteville has been instrumental in supporting the Episcopal Service Corps as a way to engage young adults in a long-term commitment to working in outreach-oriented programs and live together in community, and similarly, Camp Mitchell is finding new ways to use the farmland that has been one of its least utilized assets, and is being transformed by people who have served in the Young Adult Service Corps.
  • Emmanuel Church in Lake Village undertook something as seemingly simple as refurbishing its facilities so that visitors to the church would realize that this congregation takes seriously its role of hospitality.
  • The Iona Initiative is a major transformation in how we approach education for ordained ministry, this time among adults who have a call to serve congregations as unpaid members of the clergy.

I want us to take a closer look at three of these initiatives to see how we are being transforming and to offer you ideas that you might take away about what sorts of transform are possible in your local communities.

TRANSFORMATION THROUGH SERVICE

First, let’s talk about transformation through service. One thing about The Episcopal Church that differentiates us from many Congregationalist churches is that we are consciously connected with Christians throughout the world. There is a reason that our weekly prayers in church often include prayers for Anglicans around the world. Being so connected gives us a chance to learn from others, to find ourselves transformed by the people whom we meet, and then commit ourselves to a life of transformation. That is what is taking place among young adults in various parts of the Episcopal Church. The church offers two programs for young adults that connect us with others in situations that offer possibilities for transformation. One is domestically focused and one is internationally focused.

Ark Fellows

The domestically-focused program is the Episcopal Service Corps, in which young adults commit to live together in community in a house that has been rented of purchased for the purpose, and work in work in the community for its betterment. Living together with a group of fellow followers of Christ is an idea as old as medieval monasticism, and we have found new models for this century’s needs. In Fayetteville, the Rev. Lora Walsh, who spoke to us briefly at our last diocesan convention, leads an Episcopal Service Corps house. She has a group of young adults who are named the Ark Fellows, and who are based in a Fayetteville house as they work in various locations in northwest Arkansas. But it is not simply a one-way street of people coming to Arkansas. We have also sent one of our own, Michaelene Miller, to live for a year in a Service Corps house in Missouri. She finishes there this summer and will likely be a seminarian in another year.

The second program is Young Adult Service Corps, the international version of this community-oriented service program. Young adults go to another part of the world to make a difference among the people of varying cultures. Here is a short video of what that program looks like.

Young Adult Service Corps

Two Arkansas Episcopalians, Doug and Jenny Knight, participated in this program in Japan, where they engaged in missionary work and learned sustainable farming techniques. Their return to Arkansas was not the end of their transformation. They wanted to take what they learned and help transform what we are doing. Camp Mitchell, with its large tracts of unused farmland, seemed like the perfect fit. Let’s take a look at what they are doing.

Camp Mitchell Farm Project

Their work serves as an example of what we can do to transform our own communities. I would like for Doug and Jenny and Lora to join me so that they can answer a few questions about how they view their work among us.

[Q&A with Lora Walsh and Jenny and Doug Knight]

The program at Camp Mitchell starts making me wonder, for example, what some of our congregations with substantial pieces of real estate could do to serve as a catalyst to the neighborhoods in which they find themselves. Will our own transformation lead to the transformation of others?

TRANSFORMING CONGREGATIONS

That was transformation through service. Now let’s talk about transforming congregations. Anxiety and fear about the future has been a commonplace occurrence in those historic congregations we have that are primarily, but not totally by any means, in the Delta. 2014 is a very different time for them than was 1954 or in some cases 1894. In the extremely tough demographics of that region, it can sometimes be hard to envision a future. As a result, there may be great love for a church, but fear and anxiety over what the future might bring can lead to paralysis. I have to say that the comment I hear that reflects this unease is most often the following: “I hope we can keep this place open long enough for me to be buried from it.”

Emmanuel Church in Lake Village is a place that has faced tough demographics. Lake Village has a proud history, and many Episcopalians hail from that part of the state. But demographic realities meant that our church there went into decline. Attendance dropped. Enthusiasm waned. But the amazing thing is that within the last couple of years the people of that congregation decided that they would not continue simply to exist; they would find new life instead. They decided to do something as basic as to refurbish their buildings. Here is their story.

Emmanuel, Lake Village

When I visited there earlier this month, I was amazed at the transformation. The place looks inviting. People were excited. And guess what? Even with no resident priest, attendance has been picking up. I would like to invite Joe Dan Yee and Billy and Suzanne Hawkins forward so that I can ask them a few questions about how this transformation took place.

[Q&A with Joe Dan Yee and Billy and Suzanne Hawkins]

So there is an example of transforming a congregation. You don’t have to be large in numbers in order to have it happen. Even if Emmanuel Church in Lake Village does not grow substantially in size, it has a future and its people know it.

Now, let’s turn our attention to a very important and substantial transformation: how we train people for ordained ministry.

TRANSFORMATION IN EDUCATION

The Episcopal Church has always prided itself on well-educated members of the clergy. Aside from pride, there is a more important reason. The truth of the matter is that across Christianity, churches that are growing are churches have very well educated clergy, and dying churches generally declare the rigorous preparation of the clergy unnecessary. I would hope that we are looking for ordained leaders in churches, as well as lay leaders, who are excited and mission-focused rather than simply focused on chaplaincy to the dying. Well-educated members of the clergy are more likely to be the former. We have a mission in the church to restore people to unity with God and one another in Jesus Christ, and adequate academic preparation is an important part of preparing for that mission.

What some would call the gold standard for education is attendance at a three-year residential seminary. I agree. But not everyone is called to become a full-time priest, and if that is the case, we need to take a new look at what is entailed in a good education. And many congregations, particularly our smaller ones, need the presence of a priest as liturgist and pastor, but will not be able to afford the cost of a full-time priest who comes into the congregation with seminary debt and the need to support himself or herself and often a family as well. Thus, we must transform how we think about academic preparation for ordained ministry.

This is a challenge that every part of our church is facing. Local training programs have begun in many dioceses. After years of working on our own programs, we in the diocese of Arkansas joined forces with several other primarily southern and southwestern dioceses to form the Iona Initiative, a program led by the diocese of Texas and the faculty at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. We now have a three-year program that meets one weekend per month in Little Rock, at which students watch professors’ training videos, have extensive in-class discussion, and learn the liturgical and pastoral necessary to serve as a priest or deacon. All of this is undergirded by substantial amounts of reading, regular testing, and internships in congregations. Here is what is taking place in Little Rock.

Iona Arkansas

This program is also being used to train our candidates who will be ordained as permanent deacons. Parts of the training is the same as that for priests, and parts of it are on a separate but similar track that reflects the reality that priests and deacons have different functions in the life of the church.

Today I want you to get a chance to experience what a portion of that educational process looks like because a number of your congregations might be working with priests trained in this program, or you might have a deacon in your congregation who has been through this program.

Sandra Curtis, who was ordained as a priest last night, is the dean of the program here in Arkansas, and she works with a number of people throughout the state to teach our students. Today we also have with us Larry Burton, who is one of our local teachers and who came to us after a lifetime of work as a member of the clergy in the Methodist Church. They will walk us through a small slice of what is taking place when our students gather at Trinity Cathedral each month.

[Class presentation by Sandra Curtis and Larry Burton]

My hope is that the church in Arkansas continues to be transformed in every generation so that we remain a vital expression of Christianity, so that understand the lives the people among whom we minister, so that we are ready for whoever it is that God next sends to us in an effort to change our hearts. It is a tall order, but we have managed to do it for 175 years, and with God’s help, we can do so for another 175 years.