Each of the nine convocations convened a “listening session” where the Nominating/Search Committee presented the data obtained from the questionnaire and listened to additional comments from attendees. Both clergy and laity attended the sessions. After the presentation of survey data, the discussion and comments were guided by three validation statements.
First: We are able to overcome our differences by focusing on our common worship.
The first validation statement was rooted in a recognition that the Diocese of Southern Virginia comprises a considerable variety of people and perspectives, which in the secular world have been the source of societal fracture and division. More importantly, the first validation statement attempted to identify the ground upon which the diocese could express unity and healing.
The statement generated substantial discussion. In some of the sessions, attendees expressed confusion as to what “common worship” means—some suggesting liturgy and others the message of the Gospel or mission. In some sessions, support for the validation statement increased as the understanding of “common worship” expanded beyond liturgy. Others did not think that differences needed to be “overcome” and noted instead that our differences are essential to our identities and should be celebrated or embraced. One attendee suggested as an alternative that “our worship invites very different people to come together as one” as a replacement for the validation statement.
In a society that is increasingly fragmented, our diocese has shown a commitment to finding unification.
Second: We must think creatively about new ways to express the strengths of our traditions in order to reach new demographics.
The second validation statement recognized a tension between tradition and innovation that was present in the responses to the questionnaire. The discussion around this validation statement showed a tremendous energy to confront the tension rather than avoid conversation. Many churches across the diocese have noticed a decline in attendance. Even still, the questionnaire responses and discussion at the Listening Sessions showed considerable optimism that the Anglican tradition is relevant to contemporary society. A few voices recalled previous attempts by the diocese to reach new demographics, but could not recall whether those attempts were fully implemented. Others noted that outreach is a process rather than a fixed goal: the church must constantly “evolve into our future.” Still others thought the diocese should “focus instead on how we live into our call,” which includes “listening to people instead of talking AT them.”
The discussions generated by the second validation statement showed a diocese with a heart for outreach and mission, but also a considerable energy and willingness to embrace thoughtful change.
Third: We ought to have a meaningful sense of diocesan identity alongside the strong parish identities we have created.
The third validation statement gave voice to numerous responses from the questionnaire that indicated a desire for stronger diocesan leadership. The consensus emerging from the discussion during the Listening Sessions was that, while identity is generally centered on an individual parish, there is a strong desire for a more meaningful sense of diocesan identity. Specifically, many want to see parishes pooling resources and working together in greater frequency. Some attendees pointed to the ways that Camp Chanco connects the diocese, and still others said mission is key. One attendee stated that “we need a better network for sharing information and common programs to foster interaction [between churches].” Although the increased communication envisioned by many will require greater central leadership, many admitted that a bishop is not solely responsible for determining the identity and mission of a diocese.
The Next Bishop of the Diocese
Both the questionnaire responses and the Listening Sessions showed that there is a strong desire for a bishop who is visible. People realize that it is impossible for a bishop to visit every parish regularly, but there are also many tools—such as social media—available that can help a bishop foster a sense of presence. These tools need to be utilized. Many responses in the questionnaire lamented that they had not seen the bishop for a while, and one response noted that other dioceses do not require a parish to request a visit from the bishop.
The questionnaire responses and conversations from the Listening Sessions have also indicated a desire for a bishop with strong pastoral gifts and spiritual leadership. The new bishop must be able to communicate a vision as a means of inspiring and motivating to action. The message of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has resonated in our diocese. The church is eager to recognize its part in the Jesus Movement and follow our presiding bishop’s lead.
The characteristics discussed above also indicate that it would be desirable for the next bishop to have significant gifts in evangelism. The new bishop should be welcoming and inclusive. An interest in ecumenical affairs (Church of the Holy Apostles is an Episcopal and Roman Catholic community) and creation care (Holy Trinity in Onancock is a certified green parish and wants to see more churches certified) would also be positive. The 11th Bishop of Southern Virginia must be “excited to work in this world that is crying out for Jesus.”
The questionnaire responses and Listening Sessions also provided insight into challenges facing the diocese and the next bishop. Many responders show a desire to be honest about the current state of the diocese and how our past actions affect our present. One of the greatest challenges facing the Diocese is that small parishes have suffered from neglect. Most small churches in the diocese do not have full-time clergy and depend upon supply priests for a clerical presence. As a result, these churches struggle to find clerical leadership. Moreover, the lack of permanent clergy contributes to the poor communication between these congregations and the Diocese—although it is worth noting that both rural and urban parishes feel disconnected from the Diocese. Other challenges include a lack of a diocesan identity, pockets of serious poverty in Virginia, and the need for racial and political reconciliation.
Very few youth responded to the survey, so two members of the Nominating/Search Committee attended the November Weekend—a diocesan youth event at Camp Chanco—and presented data from the questionnaire. The youth were also given questions to discuss in groups and then shared their responses in an open discussion.
The youth at this event value the inclusive community of being Episcopalian. Many serve their churches as acolytes and find their church (whether through youth group, mission trips or diocesan youth events at Camp Chanco) to be a way to meet new people and make new friends. They appreciate that the ECUSA is grounded in tradition, but also open to new things and willing to adapt to make room for different people.
Our youth enjoy being together and crave more opportunities to gather, either for volunteer work or just to hang out. The youth desire to connect with parishes who are not involved with youth events. Some also expressed a wish to reinstate an elected youth board so that they may have a voice at the diocesan level.
They hope for a Bishop who is a kind and virtuous role model for the church and who will bring the diocese closer together. The youth want a bishop who is visible and who will be seen praying with the community. Many also expressed a desire to see someone younger and more relatable to youth.