-The following address was delivered by the Rt. Rev. Gregory Rickel at the 107th Convention of the Diocese of Olympia
I want to offer my greetings to all of you lay leaders, clergy, colleagues, visitors, and friends. It’s good to be together once again for our yearly family reunion, and I want to say thank you to the churches and people of Vancouver and the Columbia region.
Many of you who live out this way are actually going to get to go to this diocesan gathering and finally get to stay home tonight, or at the very least do not have to drive so far. And I want to say, bless you and thank you for the many times you do make that drive to be among our diocesan events. It’s the least we can do to come here and see you. Let’s thank them now.
Besides, things are good in the south and I love being back here this year. Thank you for welcoming us.
I want to start with a poem by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, from his book The Art of Drowning. It’s called On Turning Ten.
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light-
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now if I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
(Billy Collins, from The Art of Drowning, © 1995)
I remember reading that as my son, Austin, turned ten and the powerful impact it had on me. I preached one Sunday using that poem. I looked down at my son almost if to apologize for life. The poem picks up on the sadness of leaving imagination behind, how life can take all creativity away if we let it. And sometimes even if we don’t. And, I would guess, also how sometimes those turns in life look a lot worse when we’re taking them than they really are. No matter how that plays out, it is true we always leave something behind, which then sets us toward something new.
In those days, it reminded me just how fleeting the days were as my son grew older. It would only be a year later that he, his mother Marty, and I would begin our journey towards you, the Pacific Northwest, the Diocese of Olympia, our new home. He was 11 years old then.
And now after a journey we shared, we – you and I – are so to speak, turning ten. This will actually mark my 11th convention address to you. You may remember that it was just a few weeks after having had hands laid on my head that I stood before you, in my first convention address. I didn’t look up what I said to you that day. I might at some point, but frightened too much to think it about so… we may leave that for another day. I hope whatever I said resembled something of what we’ve become, what we’ve done, where we’ll be in the journey together.
I don’t know how much you have learned in that ten years, but I can tell you I’ve learned a lot, with you, but most importantly, from you.
I was naïve about a lot of things – no one really trains for this office – and one of my most naïve thoughts was not realizing just how fast ten years would go by.
I remember the day I was consecrated, I decided to wander the streets of Bellevue on my way to Meydenbauer Center, dressed already in my alb, out through the hotel lobby, down the street, into the lobby of that convention center when a dutiful usher came running up to me, clicking his fingers, and said, “Hey, you! All the acolytes are meeting in room 16, you better get up there.” And I looked at him with worried eyes and assured him I was well on my way.
And many days since, I’ve longed for that anonymity.
I do remember being very green at running such a council as this at the first convention. I remember a rather protracted debate, not really contentious, but dwindling down all kinds of amendments and parliamentary procedures on the floor. I was certain, sitting up here, that there was a conspiracy afoot to test me right off the bat. As the whole thing began to unwind, one cleric at the microphone paused, looked up at me, and asked, “Well Bishop, what are you going to do?” And I remember looking back and saying flatly, “I don’t have a clue.”
There was lots of laughter and I huddled with my parliamentarian and my Chancellor. Eventually we unraveled it all and got back to some kind of equilibrium. I pray I have gotten somewhat better in all of that, but I have to say I have enough humility now to say the answer I gave that day is still real and effective on almost any day. And many of you have much experience knowing this as complete and utter truth. I haven’t got a clue.
There’s so much to cover just in this last year, let alone ten. Suffice it to say, I’m thankful for these years, and as we make the turn I’m conscious of the ride we have shared, and it’s time I will always cherish and be grateful for.
So, where are we now? That’s what this address is most about and I would say, we as a diocese are in a very good place, a healthy one, and still a learning and discerning one.
Our Governing Bodies are working exceptionally well on your behalf, and, in my opinion, have better collaboration in their work than has ever been the case. Our diocese investments have nearly doubled in that ten years, and we’ve been willing to start some new and innovative ventures, and been willing to allow some of them to be spectacular failures. But one thing I love about this diocese is the understanding that we don’t make discoveries without some false starts, some risks, some failed hikes.
We are a learning community, and I think we all share a better tolerance for that now. What comes with that is an expectation of risk, of trying new things, of testing what might be needed. So many of you inspired me on that count every day.
Shortly after that consecration day ten years ago, we started the College for Congregational Development. It has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and in fact, has been held up as a standard of excellence not only in our diocese but across the Episcopal Church.
We have graduated teams from over half the congregations in this diocese and trained more than 500 clergy and lay leaders in congregational development. It has spread to five other dioceses in the U.S. and Canada, who all have full programs. And next year will begin to spread across Canada with a launch in Ottawa.
We are training clergy and lay leaders from around the church, with teams or priests coming to us from many dioceses around the U.S. and Canada, from as far away as New York and as close as our neighbors in the dioceses of Spokane, New Westminster, Oregon, and Alaska. The ECLA Lutherans in our area continue to send teams.
Attendance and participation this past year was as strong as it has been in the history of the College and shows no sign of slowing.
Over and over again on survey instruments we use, the College is cited as one of the most positively viewed and experienced programs that the diocese offers.
At least one of our participants has become a bishop this past year, Gretchen Rehberg, the new Bishop of Spokane. The College will make it’s ten year turn at the end of 2018, and with that milestone, it is clear that there is more need, interest, and visibility for this program than ever before. Not only in our diocese, but also in the greater church.
One thing I can announce to you today is that our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, will visit the Diocese of Olympia June 14th through the 17th of next year. You will be hearing much more about his visit and details, and maybe asked to host him as well. But one thing he specifically asked for was to see and spend time at the College, which he will be doing.
My hope in launching the College here was to help us all share a common language around developing our local congregations and to provide the skills and tools to promote, develop, and revitalize our congregations. But we also, from the very beginning, made the decision that it was our goal to give this away to the church, to anyone who wanted to take it, learn from and be part of it, and we have lived up to that. And that is more realized today than any other time, and it continues to grow.
I think one of the best things I’ve ever heard about the College was a conversation I had with a lay graduate who said never before in anything she had learned in church been so very important for her in her work, and in her home. She went on to say that the things she had learned in the College had made her a more valued worker, and she felt more confident and more prepared. That’s exactly what the church should do – help people go back into the world better prepared, with more confidence in themselves.
Our financial situation in this diocese, which was a major concern in the profile I considered when looking into being your bishop, is much stronger.
When we started this ten years ago, the annual unmade assessment preceding was ten and a half percent. That means, that was expected to be taken in from assessments in congregations, ten and a half percent did not come in.
And I knew we would have to bring that down in order to do things we all needed to do locally as a diocese. So we worked together with those not paying and I made a promise. If you will pay it, we can lower it.
And this diocese, all of you, responded. In remarkably short order, that gap was dropped immensely and in a few short years we began the steady decrease in assessment rates.
In fact, in the last ten years of our life together, the assessment rating has dropped from 20 percent to 15 percent. That is an across the board rate cut of 25% for all congregations – and no one had to file to apply any paperwork to get that reduction.
There was a tremendous amount of unpaid assessment being carried on the books and burdening congregations. And we worked on a plan to clean that up, and this past ten years we’ve forgiven 3.3 million dollars in unpaid prior year assessments – regardless of the reasons for the unpaid assessments. Moreover, for the last six years, the diocesan policy has been to forgive 90 percent of any unpaid assessment as long as the congregation has paid their assessment in full for one year.
And in that same time, the diocese has granted a total of 5.4 million dollars in grants directly back to congregations for work they do locally.
Some of these grants require applications and some are competitive, though all congregation are eligible, a change made shortly after we began this journey together. And for the last four years, all grant funds are excluded from the assessment calculation, a very important thing.
If one adds the forgiveness number to the grant number, congregations have benefited by almost nine million dollars in the last ten years. Of all the things that have changed, this is one we try not to change, the money going back to congregations for their work. And we’ve been able to deliver that.
Currently, over 50% of the total diocesan budget goes back to congregations in some form.
So today, the unpaid assessment rate is 3.8%. And though that’s fallen now, the congregations have a plan and are working with our office on how to move through it.
Over these years, both in our country and our church and society, the issue of race has continued to be a serious issue for us. We have spent a lot of time and energy looking into how to move that discussion along – how to move beyond the certainly effective, but also uninvolving, anti-racism trainings in the past. My vow to you was that we were not going to let this issue go. We were going to find a way to dig deeper, and hopefully a way for all of us, as a collective, but even more importantly, as individuals, to dig deeper into our awareness about our role in racism.
This year we made an important turn in the way we looked at how racism impacts our ministries as congregations and baptized ministers, and I will add, how that translates to how we carry Jesus in the world.
This model includes an assessment tool called the Intercultural Development Inventory, or IDI, which measures how people’s experiences shape their response to similarities and differences with people from other cultures.
In the diocese of Olympia, we are now offering IDI-based trainings for congregations or individuals who want their ministry with people of different cultures to be more effective and appropriate. These trainings help satisfy the anti-racism requirement in this diocese and they really are a great opportunity to dig deeper into how you talk to and live with your fellow Episcopalians and neighbors in your community. Our Diocesan staff has completed this and continues to work on what we found together. Our Governing Bodies are starting there. Our deacons’ community has done this too.
Later today, you’re going to get to hear more about this from Arienne Davison and Alissa Newton. We’re going to take an hour of time here to look at this as it remains a serious flaw in our life together as a church, and as a society, and it begs for attention. And personally, I think it will be an hour well spent.
Ten years ago, I brought three focus areas with me into this office based on the profile you created in your search for your bishop. They were congregational development, stewardship of all our resources, and a concentration on people under the age of 35. I have admitted to you before, and am going to again today, that the third one – people under the age of 35 – has been the most vexing. I like you, remain baffled, stymied by it a bit.
In the past year I called together a Young Adult Advisory Group. We share a meal on regular basis and just talk. And I have to say candidly, they are about as baffled as I am about this. But we continue to work on it.
And one new initiative that has risen from this is what we are calling Versed: Young Theological Discussions over Dinner. It’s going be held on Wednesday nights at D-House beginning January 3rd and running for the six weeks leading up to Lent. It’s going to take up topics such as the atonement, sex, money, prayer, and light questions like – Do we need a soul? It will be facilitated by some of our youngest priests and will be open to all 20ish and 30ish people. Like I have with this advisory group, I’ll be hanging out with them, learning too. I hope you will urge your young adults to attend.
And another exciting development this year, including an investment in our budget, will be seen as a dream a number of us have had for a while. About a year from now – next fall, most likely, early October – I’m going to call the diocese together for one week to concentrate on congregational vitality and development together as a diocese, and based on the size of your congregation.
Many have asked if we might offer the College in smaller chunks, and while the value that longer commitment cannot be diminished, we have understood what is it is being asked by you. This planned Diocesan Gathering Week is one way of offering this. It will run Monday through Friday, and each congregation will be asked to send a team based on the size of your congregation, for 48 hours. During that time, you will spend the first day looking into the unique issues of the size you’re currently in – on the next day, looking at the unique issues of the size you’re growing into.
While learning is important in this, what we have also found is one of the greatest values in the College program to simply being together with other people across the diocese going through similar issues, and for a time that allows for interaction and getting to know one another. If nothing else, this will provide a time for that. You will be getting much more information about this in the days to come and I hope that you’ll heed it and that you’ll send a team to it.
Finally, today, I wanted to speak about our new vision. You saw the video of it just as our time together began, and we’re gonna look at this in more depth together tomorrow.
We put this into place last year and have been working with it diligently over the year. I believe it sums up in words a movement and evolution we have been on since our journey together began ten years ago. As I’ve told you before, I came into the diocese fairly confident that I needed to take the reins and hold them and us to a focus and intentional path. As a conscious decision, I chose those three focus areas which I felt addressed many of the concerns, dreams, and hopes that were in your profile. Together, we did that. As we went about following and working on those, my hope was to also build up a leadership model and a practice that allows us to move much more into a collaborative, shared governance – essentially, my giving the diocese back to you. I believe that’s been exemplified in this vision, along with the very intentional work done over that decade in discerning just what it is diocese is or should be.
We all know the church is local. It is each of you who carries Jesus to the world. In your local context, you do that in many various and unique ways.
The Office of the Bishop is there to help you do that. All we do, everything, should be about that local work and any way my office can exemplify or amplify that local work.
So that’s how we arrived here. Now, these next years, it will be our work together to incarnate it, to bring it to life, to make it a living reality, and that’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take change, challenge, and probably some sacrifice as well. These words look good on paper, but when you start trying to live them, it can be difficult. But I’ve been here long enough to know this diocese – this people, all of you – can do it. We’re up to it.
My son was 11 years old when we came here. He’s now 21. He will graduate from Loyola University in New Orleans in May – and that’s a good thing because it matches the day I told him the Rickel college bank officially closes. My wife and I are about to get a huge raise and we’re looking forward to that.
In that ten years, he moved from a child to an adult.
Years do pass, and they pass quickly. We all know what’s most important is what happens in the in-between time. And a lot of important things have indeed happened here with us.
I, personally, have never held any position this long, ever. I was certain I would grow bored of it, but I still get up every day with great anticipation, great passion and energy, and with the belief that God is calling us, you and I, to still be on this journey together.
Around the time of my consecration, I was asked by a reporter, “What would you want said about your time in this diocese when it’s time to go?” And I said, “I would want it said that the Diocese of Olympia is one of the healthiest dioceses in the Episcopal Church, in all facets of its life, and that it’s looked to as a model by many throughout the church about what it means to be a church in the time we find ourselves in.”
I’m not sure we made it there yet, or if we ever will, but I do stand before you today to say, working together, we have made huge strides toward that vision.
We’ve gotten much at accepting and rejoicing in the fact that church is wherever bread is broken. That doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago. Nor indeed, how it looked ten years ago. We are evolving, and much of what we believed was so important in being church, no longer is. Times of test are refining times. Hopefully those times make us grow and get better.
And if you haven’t noticed, we are living in some of the most trying times in a while. If the church has anything to offer, now is the time to offer it – and certainly not the time to sit on the sidelines and watch. More and more people are falling on the sidewalks of life, and there’s a lot of bleeding going on.
These are times much like those of that little boy looking out the window in “On Turning Ten.”
You and I are making such a turn now. We have been at it long enough to have the new worn off. With the promise I made to you when I arrived, I suspect the days together yet to come are already less than those we have left behind. But that does not mean that the creativity or the excitement and the anticipation of what is yet to come has gotten any dimmer for me. Nor the hope I have in this place and people called Olympia.
There are many people of the church now that don’t really know it without me as your bishop. And to be quite frank, more and more of them could care less, which is a good thing to me. Because the church is not the bishop, it’s not at D-House or in my office, or only even any of your church’s properties. The church is present wherever bread is broken, be it through liturgy or a meal with those without homes, or around the dinner table or bar or anywhere else that God is spoken, acknowledged, recognized as present.
Wherever bread is broken, God is there. The church is there. It’s good to be part of all of that, with all of you. I’m thankful for you beyond words, and I consider myself one of the most blessed people on Earth to have been called by you and be able to minister together with you in this place. In the name of our loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.