Pressing On: Bishop Lawrence Addresses the 2021 Convention

Bishop Mark Lawrence

“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12-14

It is now less than a year before our next bishop is ordained and consecrated. I remember how Bishop Salmon once described his last months as bishop when asked if he was winding down. “Think NASCAR.” He said. “I feel like I am driving in a race. On February 24th I will drive into the Pit Stop. Jump out and South Carolina XIV will jump in, that’s what winding down looks like to me.” It was not only an apt description of how it felt for him, it is also an accurate description of how it felt for me jumping into the driver’s seat. The only thing Bishop Salmon got wrong was the date. It turned out to be January 26, 2008 rather than February 24, 2007. I said during my first bishop’s address in 2009 that the one thing giving me solace was a quotation  from that famous racing driver, Mario Andretti—“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” I’ve finally quit waiting for it to get under control, for as Andretti declared, “If you wait, all that happens is that you get older.” So we might as well press on. And if you’re pressing onto something it might as well be, as St. Paul’s says, to the upward call in Christ Jesus.

I have long forgotten the source, but there is a story told of a renowned artist who was teaching some students to paint out of doors, with broad strokes, and under a fading light. They were on an overlook above a rural scene. Farmlands, an old barn, and a gloriously setting sun. As he walked along surveying the work of his understudies, he stopped behind one student who had begun with the sunset but left it almost in mid-stroke to begin painting in detail the shingles on the barn. In exasperation, the great artist exclaimed. “There isn’t time for shingles and for sunsets. You must choose!”

As this is my penultimate Bishop’s Address, I trust it is not yet time for the backward look. No time for both shingles and sunsets. With just one more lap around the ecclesiastical track, I ask myself two questions:  What do I owe my successor? And, What do I owe the diocese before jumping out of the driver’s seat? They are but flip sides of the same coin.

What do I owe my successor?  First, order of business here is an administratively strengthened diocese. I do not mean that which usually falls under the category of CFO, which is the work of Nancy Armstrong, Susan Burns, or Saralyn Ortiz. No, that aspect of the diocese is in fine shape. I mean that which fits under the biblical understanding of the gift of administration, which in the New Testament is derived from the Greek word for the helmsman of a ship. Administration, as many will attest, is not one of my strong suits. While I recognize how terribly important it is, when I function in the world of the executive leader I do it more from my office of bishop rather than as a spiritual gift or natural ability. I have to re-read books like Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive in order to get myself in the frame of mind to face into such things. Nevertheless, I call administration the huggable and buggable gift. Many of you across the diocese have heard me say that churches come in many sizes—cats, collies, gardens, houses, mansions, ranches, and continents. So too with church administrators. The good ones I have known put me in mind of the peanuts cartoon where Lucy tells Snoopy, “There are times when you really bug me, but I must admit there are also times when I feel like giving you a big hug.” Snoopy in reply thinks “That’s the way I am…huggable and buggable.” Most good administrators are both huggable and buggable, and do their work in the middle of the organization. There are times, however,  the leader needs to address matters in concert with others to devise and execute plans. As Peter Wagner describing this gift, notes, “Administrators can make a church organization hum. They enjoy long hours in the office, overseeing the business matters of the church, relating to staff, making phone calls, closing deals, writing letters, and taking satisfaction in their organization.” Canon Lewis ably fits this description. They also can build routines, which as Peter Drucker observed, is the skill of making “… unskilled people without judgement capable of doing what it took near genius to do before; for routine puts down in systematic step by step form what a very able man or woman learned in surmounting yesterday’s crisis.” It rejoices in and defines win in terms of teamwork. “The key to stardom is the rest of the team.” (John Wooden) So looking at the things in the diocese that need to be addressed during this transition—what are the things that deserve a long look?

Diocesan Staff/Ministry Departments—I have been meeting with our diocesan staff to assist in leaving strong ministries in the various positions in the diocese. Such areas as Student Ministry; Faith Formation; Men’s Ministry; Church Planting ; Communication; and St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center.  Todd Simonis, our Canon for Church Planting sent me a video recently of our newest church plant. I share it here as a representation of just one among the other ministries that I have just mentioned. (Show Church Planting Video) Each of these staff members and departments can play an essential role in preparing the diocese for the next season. It is my plan to continue these meetings with diocesan personnel and to follow up by meeting with their departments.  As we work to prepare each of them for transitioning, so as the new bishop arrives each department has clear focus on their gospel initiatives and kingdom work particularly as they relate to our congregations, which, as Bishop Salmon was fond of saying, are the diocese.

Diocesan Council—is one of the canonical entities of the diocese that is too often seen as perfunctory and a matter of routine practice. However, not only is the Diocesan Council the body that fulfills the role of the convention when the convention is not in session, it is also one of the ways that many laypersons are introduced to our common life beyond their local parish. It is also a means that clergy, especially new and younger clergy catch a larger view of our diocese. Council is responsible for a variety of committees ranging from Stewardship to Liturgy & Music; Student Ministry to Social Outreach; Camp & Conferences to Evangelism.  Some of these committees have waxed and waned and in some cases functioned under different names than are designated in our canons. My intention this spring once new council members are elected is to huddle with Canon Jim Lewis and the current leaders of the various departments to discuss how we might strengthen each of these committees for the furtherance of our common life, our gospel reach, and our ministry as a diocese. I believe it will be helpful for the next bishop to have these either reasonably functional or quietly at rest awaiting a fresh set of eyes as to their viability in the future. As when a rector comes to a parish, not every ministry or practice has to be highlighted at previous levels or even continued if they are not vital, though prudence might suggest a measured assessment.

Commission on Ministry (COM), Diaconal Training Program, and Board of Examining Chaplains (BOEC)—are key entities within our diocesan life and structure. They have been highly productive and fruitful ministries and I have leaned on them for many important decisions in discerning call to ordained ministry and asserting proficiency toward ordination. They have also been relatively stable during my time as bishop. I will likewise meet with them to make assessments as we look toward transitioning to the next bishop. We will have a transition coming in our vocational diaconate preparation as Canon Mike Malone retires after over a decade of outstanding work training our deacons.

Deans and Standing Committee—Words fail me in expressing how grateful I am to the Deans and each succeeding Standing Committees with which I have worked and ministered during these past 13 years. Diocesan Convention of course elects the Standing Committee, while the bishop appoints the Deans. These too I will be meeting with in the next months to discuss how we can best prepare the diocese for the upcoming transition.

All of these committees, commissions, and ministries I place under the rubric of our Lord’s command to the church in Sardis in the Book of Revelation, “Awake, and strengthening the things that remain…”   

What do I owe the diocese before stepping down?

The Pandemic—what an inspiring video clip put together by our staff and folks from St. Helena’s documenting how our churches have continued to minister during what has seemed like a Kafkaesque dream for some of us. Our churches without exception have found ways to minister with creativity and care. Ordinations, confirmations, baptisms, marriages, funerals have continued often by exercising a remarkable resourcefulness: Zach Miller ordained in his family’s back lawn on Johns Island, Chip Bateson at a drive in style service at Resurrection, Surfside and Bill Clarkson under a tent in the parking lot of St. Matthew’s Fort Motte. The work of the gospel and the ministry of the Church has gone on. We have seen small congregations have a big reach, and local churches minister globally in ways rarely seen before.  I showed up recently for visitations at congregations even as small as Advent, Marion and they all have their I-Phones there to broadcast the service and sermon online. Congregations in the Pee Dee have not only reached their members with inspiring and sustaining worship through praise, word, and sacrament, but in many cases, they have a growing “virtual congregation” faithfully viewing their worship from as far away as Virginia, California and the U.K. Those in the Beaufort deanery have told me of viewers in Sweden and Tanzania. Our rectors and vicars have people from across the country who now consider them and even refer to them as their pastor. Just yesterday, I was talking to one of our priests who told me that he has people throughout the southeast joining in on a bible study that he offers virtually. Several are members of other churches but they now call him “my pastor.” I asked him, “What are their churches doing?” He said, “I don’t know.” I told him, “Over and over I hear this story all over the diocese.”  Many offer virtual services of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline as part of the rhythm of their lives—the rhythms of grace for their isolated members. Our larger congregations have invested in developing or upgrading their capacity to live stream or professionally record their worship services. In some cases tailoring these services primarily for those who partake only in home worship. While our smallest congregations have found ways to offer high pastoral touch in this low touch world. I want to pause in the midst of this convention to celebrate our clergy—rectors, vicars, assisting priests, and deacons and their lay members for your extraordinary ministry during these extraordinary times! Not only that but for how you have helped and learned from one another building up the body of Christ. I have thought for years that we are a remarkably unique place in the Anglican world. For years, we had visitors coming to Charleston for our Mere Anglican Conferences and various offerings. I pray that we shall have that once again. But for now, we are broadcasting via the internet and social media the vibrancy of the life in Christ among our congregations both great and small through worship and word in ways many of us never imagined. While I am offering kudos, I don’t want to forget what Bob Lawrence and his staff have accomplished in keeping St. Christopher in the game, or the Men’s Ministry with their zoom Summit, and the Anglican Women with their fall retreat. Well done good and faithful servants!

With that said and celebrated, I want to sound a word of concern. Chalk it up, if you must, to the world view of a septuagenarian, a curmudgeon with an Anglican bent, born in the exact middle of the past century, the son of a WWII vet and survivors of the Great Depression, who himself remembers all too well the cold war, and who as a young man took graduate courses in Marx and Soviet Thought.  As I said, I feel at times that I am living through a Kafkaesque dream, concerned about things many others are not.  We have entered a masked, isolated, atomistic world controlled or at least being shaped by that, which is erasing, deleting, unfriending, or cancelling a culture that once shaped our understanding of self and society. Certainly all the once was was not good; not every handshake, kiss or hug came from heartfelt conviction; and not every Easter or Christmas worship was glorious and resounding; but they were formative, and shaped earlier generations. Now, from what I have seen more of our older members have returned to in-person worship in numbers greater than the young.  Generation Z those born after 1998 according to reliable research is the most unchurched generation in American history. These are their formative and perhaps in many ways their defining years. The axiom we have used in the past of “Every Congregation Engaging Every Generation” has never been more challenging nor more critical than it is today. There are few sustaining replacements for family life and lively worship in the midst of the family of God made up of “all sorts and conditions of men.” These need not be in large gatherings; yet as our Lord revealed to his first followers and was (at the risk of their lives) the irrefutable experience of the early church; it does need to be incarnational. There is much that I would like to say about this but now is not the time; I shall save it for my upcoming gatherings with the clergy. Just know I will shortly be assembling a team to consider updated guidance regarding how we chart the course to whatever normalcy may lie ahead.

Stewardship—I mentioned in my last address the need for us to strengthen our practice and teaching on stewardship at every level throughout the diocese—to parishioners, congregations, and diocesan initiatives. I have been encouraged by how many have stepped up. Our parishioners continue their generosity and giving to their congregations, our parishes and missions have to our diocesan work as well—even increasing in several cases. Stewardship, to paraphrase Henri Nouwen, is always a call to conversion. “And this call comes to those who seek funds and to those who have funds.” It is, as Nouwen says, a form of ministry, “…a way of announcing our vision and inviting other people into our mission. Vision and mission are central to life of God’s people … and give us courage when we might want to remain silent.” We in the Church need to overcome our reluctance to ask for the resources to carry out our God given vision and mission for the kingdom of God. Yet if we ourselves are not practicing it, it becomes the place where conscience doth makes cowards of us all.

Clergy/Deanery Clericus Gatherings—I also mentioned in the Bishop’s Address last October that my intention was to adjust my schedule to spend more quality time with the clergy. Time in prayer, time one on one, and time with them in clerical gatherings in our deaneries. I met in January with the Orangeburg clergy.  Covid-19 concerns elsewhere have slowed things but not entirely. What do I hope to take up with the clergy as we meet? To begin with, the things that are on their minds during this time of transition. What they believe need to be addressed, if possible, before the next bishop arrives. Secondly, some concerns that I see emerging in the culture, and some hotly debated in the Anglican Church in North America. Carl Trueman’s recent work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self deserves a thoughtful reading by all those in ministry today. The issues he raises are not going away anytime soon and the challenges he articulates bring us into the heart of the human condition that many are experiencing especially among younger generations. Another book, which I hesitate to mention as it brings us into the center of our highly charged cultural and political scene is Rod Drehers’ Live Not By Lies. Whether his warnings are correct may be debated. That the trajectory of the spiritual, corporate, and political climate is arced in that direction seems at least for the moment rather obvious. We have much work to do and much to share. Chief of which perhaps is what has been called “the gift of suffering” a truth many in the church in their search for comfort seem determined to avoid.

Visitations—I am committed to visiting every congregation before I finish my course as diocesan bishop. It has been my practice to visit every congregation at least once a year. In most cases and in most years, I have done so. In just over two months this year, I have made ten visitations—to preach, teach, confirm, receive and celebrate the Eucharist. At each I find myself wondering how I might come back to see them one last time. This, of course, is unrealistic. Though it reminds me how much you—clergy and laypersons—have come to mean to me. Each of our congregations has its unique qualities and gifts. As St. Paul wrote to the saints at Philippi, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace…. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:7-8)

As you know the Apostle Paul in this letter to the Philippians goes on to use an image from the Grecian Games. He compares himself to a runner who pays little attention to the mileage markers he has passed because he is looking towards the goal, which for Paul is the upward call of knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection. “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14) He is filled with energy, animated by a holy discontent. He knows that there are times for the backward look but it is not now. He hasn’t time for shingles and sunsets. He has chosen to press on to what lies ahead, to the upward call. “Don’t stop. Further up and further in. Take it in your stride.”  Many have followed his example. Like the 6th Century Irish Monk, Columbanus, who left his beloved homeland and ventured onto the European continent for Christ, establishing in his wake some 90 monasteries. The Irish saint said it well, “Life is not a resting place; Life is a road.”  Let us all do our part to prepare for the next bishop who will lead this diocese to new opportunities in Christ Jesus. Let us pray regularly for our Search Committee in its work. For our Standing Committee as they fulfill their charge. We know we have an enemy who seeks to distract, discourage, divide, defeat and, if possible, destroy the people of God. Let us be careful how we communicate through social media and email. Remembering who we are and whose we are. For over a decade, we have been making Biblical Anglicans for a global age. Even within this season of pandemic, we have reached across boundaries of denomination, state, and nations through virtual services and teachings. We have formed relationships with provinces and dioceses around the world. Some on a parish level, some diocesan level, and some through New Wineskins, or the Anglican Leadership Institute. Yet a new vision awaits us. We have journeyed from The Episcopal Church and taken our place within the Anglican Church in North America. Like St. Paul, let us press on to whatever God has in store for us. Not resting with where we have been. For in the memorable words of the English preacher, Joseph Parker, “An eagle doesn’t roost in a sparrows nest.” So we press on to upward call in Christ Jesus!

The address above was given by Bishop Mark Lawrence at the 2021 Convention of The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina which was held virtually on  Saturday, March 13, 2021