Being an administrator is about focusing the resources. When I began serving at Fordham in the Bronx, we had fewer than 20 people, less than $8,000 in annual giving and three buildings that were falling down. When I resigned to serve in the Hamptons, Fordham had 120 members, annual giving of $72,000 with 65% of the members tithing, three new roofs, three new boilers, a Head-Start program, Our Sisters Place, a home for girls who had been in foster care and their babies, Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group for the homeless by the homeless, an expanded Sunday School, a full time youth ministry with mentors and tutors from Monroe College and Fordham University. At my next call, the Hamptons Lutheran Parish of Incarnation Lutheran Bridgehampton and St. Michael’s, Amagansett, we expanded ILSOLI (Immigration Legal Services of Long Island) to reach hundreds of immigrants weekly including those running from gangs and who had survived human and sex trafficking. At St. Michael’s, we built St. Michael’s Housing, the 40-unit, low income senior housing project and community center. The housing required we work with HUD (Housing and Urban Development), Raymond James Wealth Management, the town and various agencies of East Hampton among others. Both congregations grew in membership and expanded ministries by fostering a sense of shared call with the laity. A pastor is meant to lead by example, and people of faith want to create change and teamwork even in small congregations. We preach the gospel, and if necessary, we use words. At St. John’s in Brooklyn, we have fixed a collapsing back wall, fixed all the flashing, replaced the entire collapsed plumbing system, repointed, repaired and painted the front wall of the church, renovated the bathrooms and stopped all the leaks. And we have received 36 new members over the past three years, expanded the ministries of the congregation including new worship services, a social justice speaker series, a Saturday Community Meal which serves over 5,000 meals annually and we are founding members of the North Brooklyn Angels Mobile Soup Kitchen which serves over 55,000 meals annually in North Brooklyn. We have become a community partner with the 94th Precinct, and hosted an off-Broadway musical, Beardo, which brought over 5,000 people through our doors during the course of rehearsals and performances. All of this is administration. Seeing the needs, prioritizing, building support, finding the right people, clarifying the work, evaluating, adjusting, gathering and directing resources. Doing this well feeds strong ministry and mission.
A common theme in all the roles referenced in the previous section is the idea of bringing all congregations and conferences together. As Bishop, how will you use your time and staff to help congregations and conferences who may feel disconnected from the synodical offices and life of our synod?
I will visit, preach, teach and be present in this synod. This synod has all the gifts it needs to focus its human, spiritual and financial resources. We can bring the conferences together. As I see it, visitation is key to healing and rebuilding the relationships and ministries of the entire synod. As Bishop, I or my assistants will be present, preaching, presiding or worshiping, in every congregation of the synod by the end of 2020. I will have one on ones with every pastor, retired and serving in any capacity, and every deacon by mid-2020. We will meet with the president and vice president of every congregation by quadrants by the end of 2020. I or an assistant, working with each conference dean, will meet with each conference by the end of 2020. All calls placed to the synod office will be answered and directed to the appropriate person. All calls will be responded to within 24 to 48 hours. All emails will also be responded to in the same timely way. A GTD system (Getting Things Done by David Allen) to track calls, emails and responses will ensure the entire staff is on board with transparency and timely responses. Vital as we begin is our work we to rebuild our trust and connection. We must be present with one another. We must pray for each other and encourage one another. And above all else, we must hold onto the hope we have in Jesus. These are steps we can take as bishop and synod staff, pulling together with a common hope and vision of vitality. Congregations, pastors and deacons need to participate more fully in the life of their conferences and synod. We have pastors, deacons and congregations who are not active beyond their own place, or who only come to synod assembly. We have conferences that do not hold weekly or even monthly pericope study. We are not called in isolation or to work alone. We are better, stronger and far more capable when we support one another.
Congregational vitality and mergers are a primary area of focus. As congregations face a loss of members, youth, and income, what role do you see the Bishop having regarding issues of congregational vitality, mergers, strategic planning, and congregational renewal? Give any examples in which you ministered to people in a congregation in transition.
We will not sell any more property in our synod. Not one more. We will also have transparency and accountability in all conversations regarding mergers and ministries of our congregations. Nothing will be hidden. When I began serving in the Metropolitan New York Synod in 1994, we had 252 congregations. Today we have fewer than 190. We did not get into this condition in one day or even in one decade. It will take faith, prayer, evangelism, hospitality, vision and courage to focus Synod resources. However, with some grit and elbow grease, we will revive that health. Consider that every congregation I have been called to serve was expected to close. None have. It is not magic that keeps congregations alive, but faith, vision, prayer, worship, organizing, resources and tremendous work. We have been reduced to fear and scarcity. We have been overwhelmed by changes in culture, community and technology. We have not had a positive, hope filled vision of what can be. We have not had the courage of imagination. We have lost our foundation of theology and mostly we have come to expect nothing of Jesus. I see clearly that we have all we need to respond to the call of Jesus in this synod and beyond. We have an abundance of resources. We also have the best theology that calls all the baptized to vocational living and we are clear that the church is not the building, but the people gathered around Word and Sacrament. The buildings must be a tool for ministry and some of the buildings can be used differently to respond to these needs. A pastor needs to come into a community, with concrete, planned support and training and supervision from synod and mentoring. A few churches will require a change in lay leadership and re-equipping of the pastor for ministry there or elsewhere. And sometimes congregations will merge and the property that is no longer used will become an asset to the merged congregation, developed in some way to provide an income stream for the merged congregations.
Some of our congregations need to become multi use facilities that can include new sanctuaries, housing, medical facilities, daycares and more. In all this, pastoral care of people and pastors (deacons and ordained) must be at the front, middle and end of whatever direction a congregation moves in response to a call to ministry. Through the next six years, trust and transparency have to be the operating principles always. We must have maximum disclosure with minimum delay as we move forward together.
Faith formation is a vital part of congregational and synodical life. Children, youth, young adults, adults, and diaconal formation are especially important. As Bishop, how would you encourage and strengthen faith formation? Provide examples of faith-formation efforts you have led.
I see two major opportunities for increased faith formation. First, I will call an assistant to the bishop for Young Adults, Youth and Family ministry. Their focus will be to strengthen relationships between congregations, synod and youth ministry including the Lutheran Youth Organization (LYO), the national youth gathering, Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM), campus ministries, Wagner College, the Upsala program, Lutheran Schools Association including our local schools such as the Lutheran Elementary School, Lutheran High School, Martin Luther High School, Pinecrest Lutheran Leadership Camp, Camp MaHeTu and more. The assistant will also be responsible for annual synod wide retreats for families with young children, vocational discernment retreats for junior high and high school kids, single young adults. And there will be regular gatherings of Sunday School/Christian Education teachers to equip them to more effectively shape and share our faith and how to use technology to this end. Second, we will also strengthen our Diakonia : Growing Together in Faith programs by engaging more congregations, hosting more sites and raising the profile of this synod wide ministry. Included in this will be day long retreats for targeted populations to share in depth study of scripture and the basics of Lutheran Theology, a synod wide Catechism study to help introduce more people to Diakonia. We will also have regular opportunities to gather together to study Stewardship and Evangelism to positively change our culture and equip our everyday saints to share their faith in Jesus Christ, to change our scarcity outlook to one of abundance and generosity as we pursue our call to be Christ to our neighbors.
What is your understanding of our synod’s current strategic plan, and how would you advance that plan as Bishop?
Marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are Claimed, Gathered and Sent for the sake of the world.
We do not know, as a synod, how the strategic plan impacts our lives or congregations. Therefore, we have no way to plug into the plan, to play a role in a unifying vision or to access anything beyond some grants. As bishop, with my staff, we will make tangible the strategic plan. By 2022, the synod as a whole will be able to see and experience how this plan makes a positive difference in the life of their congregations. We will continue the good work of leadership and projects grants. And we will focus on tangible, closer to congregation’s synod sponsored events. For instance, to respond to greater use of technology, we will have gatherings by quadrants to teach hands on use of software to build church websites with follow up tech support and grants to upgrade and use advances in technology for those who attend. We will also teach how to use Instagram, twitter and Facebook to further the reach of congregations. We will also hold trainings for congregations by quadrants with community organizers to equip congregations to work together on grass root issues in their shared communities. Learning to organize people, power and money to effect concrete positive change in the lives of everyday church members and their neighbors will increase the presence and power of congregations within their communities. And, we will hold trainings, by quadrants, on evangelism. We have congregations that have a higher than average number of adult baptisms meaning they are able to reach further out into their communities with a witness for Jesus. They are also able to welcome and help people grow in faith in Jesus Christ and are able to grow in leadership in their congregations. Members of these congregations, here and from other synods, will walk with other congregations to help them see their communities in a new way, to invite others to come and see Jesus, to walk with these new disciples for Christ and to equip them for ministry in their congregation and beyond. MNYS congregations that make a decision to participate will, by the end of 2022, experience changes in their membership, their ability to articulate and express their faith and will be better equipped to plan for and engage in ministry opportunities in their neighborhood and with their neighboring congregations.
What do you see as the principal challenge of our synod in the next six years, and how will you approach and address it?
Our principal challenge is rebuilding trust and connections throughout the synod. I know we can do this together. We have learned from our collective experience that isolation, fear and distrust damage us all. But recovery is possible and ultimately this experience has taught us we need greater trust, transparency, accountability and hope. As we rebuild together, will be able to have fact based, honest conversations about the vitality of each congregation, developing mission specific plans for each because we trust each other. As we rebuild together the feeling of isolation can become lessened and cooperative work among congregations, conferences, quadrants and the entire synod will grow. As we are accountable to each other, the generosity of our members will grow and our ability to support struggling and emerging ministry will increase, allowing us to properly resource ministries for success rather than continually struggling with issues of limited financial resources. And, we will work to lower the costs of health insurance which has made calling a pastor beyond reach for many congregations and a burden for congregations who have pastors. We should have far better insurance for the premiums and deductibles paid.
As Bishop, what steps will you take for self-care? How can congregations be a support for the office of Bishop? How will you, as Bishop, also encourage self-care for pastors, deacons, and synod lay leaders?
I will continue the self-care I already practice: weekly time off, vacations, working out, eating with people I love, visiting with my friends regularly, regular dates with my wife, prayer and worship. Lutherans are everywhere. The Synod reaches all over: Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess, Orange, Sullivan, and Ulster counties, in every borough of the city and over Long Island. We can support the work of the synod by growing in visibility and ministry everywhere we are. We support one another by walking our neighborhoods, volunteering in our fire departments, feeding our hungry neighbors, by having honest and courageous conversations about social issues and being twice as willing to listen as we are to talk. We can be the communities where faith is strong enough to face the challenges that have begun to tear the fabric of our society. Before it is too late, we can be the examples of Jesus loving, neighbor serving communities of faith. I will encourage all pastors, deacons and lay folks to have weekly sabbath, down time away from screens, to use spiritual directors and therapists, regular physicals, and to avail themselves of 12 groups that they may benefit from. I will also encourage all to ask for help without fear. I love this synod. I loved living for a summer after seminary at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Liberty. I got to preach my first post seminary sermons there and at Christ Lutheran Church in Ellenville. I loved being able to serve at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx for 16 years and being able to serve as the Dean of that conference. So many faithful pastors and people shaped me there. It was such a gift to be in the Peconic Conference on Long Island and to be able to serve with pastors in that conference.
Returning to the city to serve in Brooklyn was an unexpected call I am so grateful for. To be able to serve as the Dean of the Brooklyn Bridges conference is a joy. This synod has been my home for almost 25 years. It is the center of the world and it is a place of hope and holiness for us. I have a vision for our synod, for wholeness and hope, for reconciliation, resilience and renewal. It is grounded in the joy that Jesus loves me and you and all of us. Because of that, we have a future and a call. We will do this together, we have everything to gain and we have nothing to fear.