The Rev. Paul Egensteiner
Bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod
My dear, dear siblings in Christ, the peace of Christ be with you.
I hope you responded, “And also with you!” I am still adjusting to this way of being together… remotely. And, truth be told, I miss you. I had such dreams and plans to be out in our congregations and places of ministry during my first year as your bishop. That has become more possible in recent months with the lower infection rate and having received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine at the end of April. However, as I prepare this report, the Delta variant has rekindled concerns about gathering and keeping one another safe.
In the midst of this changing situation, I must say at the beginning of this report how grateful and proud I am of the amazing work you have all done to continue to be church, Christ’s Body in the world, in these new circumstances. The learning curve for pastors and congregational members to stay connected to one another and their communities has been steep but time and again I have seen great effort, creativity, determination (and sometimes exhaustion) as you have put worship, daily prayer time and Bible studies on Zoom, Facebook live, YouTube and other platforms and done so with everything from someone’s personal cellphone (fine for the task) to an investment in state-of-the-art media equipment. On whichever platform with whatever equipment, what has been communicated consistently has been love and faithfulness to God and one another. This commitment to telling the story of Jesus for “those who know it best” and “some who have never heard” is inspiring and making a difference.
Often people have said to me something like, “Wow! I bet if you knew you would be bishop during a pandemic, you might have changed your mind!” Among the many possible responses to such a statement (including the impossibility of “changing my mind” when called by the Holy Spirit!) and appreciating the empathy and support behind those words, I have time and again pointed to the good work you are doing “on the front lines” and how my call is to support and equip you in this good work. I pray my staff and I have done that in ways that you found helpful. Serving you is the reason we exist as the Office of the Bishop. And I know every one of us was focused on doing that: providing Services of the Word, covid-19 and anti-racism resources, Zoom accounts, education, guidance and loving care as we moved through these challenging times.
And the truth is, by the grace of God, we have accomplished a lot.
This report is an opportunity to share some of those accomplishments with you. (You will be hearing more about our vision for moving forward later in our assembly.)
If I were to use one word to describe my first two years in this call, it would be “engagement.” As I said in the process of the election for bishop of this blessed synod, I wanted to build relationships. I wanted my staff and myself to be present with you to support and encourage your mission in the name of Jesus and to walk with you through times of challenge and transition. Clearly, the focus of that engagement would be you, our leaders, congregations and ministry sites. This would bring opportunities for wider engagement along the way, among our ecumenical partners and the cities, communities and society in which we live. Let me share some of these engagements with you.
My first official pastoral act as Bishop was to baptize Carlena, infant daughter of Pastor George and Maria Dietrich of the Hamptons Lutheran Parish. What a holy beginning to this ministry! (And what a beautiful baby!) I am so grateful to Pastor Dietrich and Maria for inviting me into this sacred, significant moment in their lives. It would not be the last time Pastor Dietrich and I were gathered around the font as co-workers in the Gospel. We would later be together for the closing worship of Christ Lutheran Church in Suffern, one of the oldest congregations in our synod and, in fact, in the ELCA, a casualty of a drastically changing neighborhood and demographics. Pastor Dietrich was baptized in that congregation and received the font as a gift from the remaining members of Christ.
Also, within the first year of this call I lived out my pastoral ministry by visiting with and then officiating at the memorial or funeral services for three of our pastors, Pastor Jay Longan of Trinity, Middle Village, Pastor Ülf Lünow of First, Throggs Neck and my dear friend Pastor Fred McElderry of St. Andrew, West Hempstead. I also preached for the funeral of the Rev. Dr. Lee Wesley and the memorial service for Pastor Kjell Jordheim. These faithful servants, and sadly others since, have left us for that great cloud of witnesses who continue to inspire our work as the Church Militant. But their physical presence among us is missed and they are mourned.
We have a saying around the office with which I am sure you will be able to identify. “We had a plan.” How many of your stories of the past year and a half have included the words, “and then covid hit.”? My dear Executive Assistant, Deacon Gayle Ruege, was diligently scheduling opportunities for me to be in each of our conferences, spending time with pastors and deacons and congregational leaders and members. These were going really well, and I was energized to meet so many of you, to hear your stories of ministry, to pray for you in your struggles and to get a picture of what our synod looked like. These gatherings made me feel grounded in the work you were doing so my leadership could be more relevant and effective. I intentionally held off taking on new staff until I had a better sense of the needs. And then covid hit…. The improved vaccination rate and caring for one another through safe practices allowed me to anticipate returning to those visits and getting to spend more holy time with you soon. In the meantime, I have been able to stay connected by meeting, either in person or remotely, with congregation councils and individual pastors and checking in as much as possible.
Another way we as staff tried to stay engaged was through providing monthly digital worship services via YouTube and Facebook, so our pastors might take a Sunday “sabbath” off and direct their members to a service from the Office of the Bishop. If you tuned in, you got to hear some wonderful music and some terrific preachers. Occasionally you also had to listen to me! I am so grateful that all staff willingly participated in these worship offerings, sharing their gifts to bring meaning into the lives of God’s people.
In order to get out and see the effects of the pandemic in our communities and do something to help, I reached out and volunteered at many of the feeding and other social outreach ministries, including the Diaper Pantry of Christ, Newburgh. You, people of God, are phenomenal! So many people’s needs were tended to by so many volunteers in so many places because of your generosity of time, money, and holy space. Thousands upon thousands of lives are touched by these ministries as faith transforms prayers and intentions into concrete action on behalf of our neighbors. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community found love and shelter, children in detention received gifts and opportunities to get outside their confinement, seafarers were visited and brought essential supplies when they could not disembark from their ships, and so many more people were ministered to at the prompting of the Holy Spirit by this amazing Church. We New York Lutherans are powerful and compassionate!
At the same time, the effects of the pandemic have exposed deep inequities in our society and church. I have shared with you before my concern for the fact that our most vulnerable communities, the Black, Indigenous and People of Color among us, our Latinx neighbors and Asian American siblings, have been disproportionately harmed by this health crisis. All this on top of generations of rejection and oppression, both through state-sanctioned violence, vigilante hatred and the ordinary acts of everyday people who didn’t care and looked the other way or engaged in micro-aggressions that take life and spirit as surely as the hangman’s noose. In this sense, the pandemic has been a wakeup call for the church throughout the United States. And again we, as the members of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the ELCA, have an amazing opportunity to build bridges with one another, to advocate for the equality of all of God’s precious children, to break down walls of privilege in order to be part of the beloved community Jesus the Christ died to create because He saw and infused holy value into every life by his dying and rising love. Not only do we have this opportunity, but we dare not squander it! This is a crucial crossroads time for the Church. Amidst declining participation in those activities we find so life-giving, the world around us, in our communities and among our families, is watching to see how we live out our Gospel call to give our lives away for the sake of gaining life that really is life. Many years ago, Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote these words: It is customary to blame secularism for the eclipse of religion in modern society. But it would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive and insipid. When faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.” If we can get past the offense these words might incite within us, we can look honestly at ourselves to see what about them might be true. And we take this honest look, deeply trusting in the affirmation of our faith: We are justified by grace through faith. Works, then, on behalf of the neighbor, become expressions of that grace and security we have in Christ. As I said during our State of the Synod address earlier this year, I am sometimes amazed at how we as followers of the Crucified One find it so hard to die. In order that we might live! To die to “we always did it that way before.” To die to self-protection and hoping the decline will not hit us in our lifetime. To die in order to share prodigally the abundance of gifts God has given us. It is with great intention and Spirit guidance that the theme of this assembly and one of the four marks of the ELCA is that “We Are Church Together.” I am reminded of the words of one of the great thinkers and heroes of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin: We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately. We must, indeed, all hang together and see our identity as children of God, as those redeemed by Christ, as members one of another as our primary identity, the only one that will go with us into eternity. We are called in our time to, in words that might be more familiar and relevant, from Hebrews, “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Because, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” those ancestors in the faith known and unknown to us who taught us what it means to live a Christ-like life.
We are Church together because the world still needs the Church and we need to be together, to hang together. And in the close confines of life in our synod, can we think of that shared identity not just in terms of our Lutheran witness but our Christian witness ecumenically? One of the first ecumenical activities I participated in after the election was to attend, along with Bishop McCoid, the enthronement of His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Orthodox Church. His Eminence is a tireless advocate for ecumenical witness and has become a cherished colleague. You will hear a greeting from him later in this assembly, for which I am deeply grateful. I was also honored to be the preacher at the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service held at the Interchurch Center here in New York City. The presence of Mother Gladys Díaz on my staff, “on loan” from the Episcopal Diocese of New York, is a reminder that our ecumenical siblings can partner with us and share with us the gifts of their wisdom, experience and courage. As we consider the future of our various ministry sites, we look for opportunities to be stronger in mission and social advocacy in partnership with those who with us also call Jesus Messiah.
But our efforts even go beyond ecumenical engagement. Following the vicious attack at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York during Hannukah in 2019, my staff and I reached out to Central Synagogue and participated in Shabbat worship as a witness to our solidarity with and concern for our Jewish siblings. Recall again the quote from Benjamin Franklin and how we can extend that understanding of “together” to encompass a wider and wider circle of God’s children. And, in doing so, not only do we break down walls, but we find incredible and holy opportunities for growth in our own understanding and discipleship.
Another of the marks of the ELCA identified by Bishop Eaton is that we are Church for the sake of the world. In that Spirit, our church here in metro New York has engaged with the world around us. We had an amazing presence at the Pride March in 2019, a truly moving experience for me as I participated with Bishops McCoid and Burkat and many members of our synod. Many of our members were present at the Global Climate Strike held in lower Manhattan to raise our voice of advocacy on behalf of our home planet. We see the negative effects of climate change all around us. We participated in Jericho Walks around ICE headquarters in lower Manhattan to protest the treatment of those in detention and those being deported, notable among them very young children, an effort strongly supported by congregational members across our synod. An outgrowth of this compassion was clear and faith-based advocacy at the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly for the declaration that the ELCA become a Sanctuary Church, a resolution brought by our synod.
Another of the highlights of my time as your bishop was to have lunch with Pastor Marc Herbst and FDNY Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro, a member of the Our Saviour, Manhasset where Pastor Herbst serves. Since accepting this call and as a chaplain for twenty years with the Pleasantville Volunteer Fire Department, I have been concerned with the health and mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of our first responders. The time with Commissioner Nigro was a precious opportunity to share these concerns, offer myself and the resources of our synod on behalf of our first responders, and to hear how the Fire Department in New York City is addressing these critical issues. It is my goal to be able to do the same with the New York City Police Commissioner and, of course, I would love the opportunity to do so in other communities of our synod.
Engagement with the world also found expression in a renewed relationship with Wagner College, where I serve on the Board of Trustees. I am very proud of the work of that institution affiliated with our church. Their new president, Dr. Joel Martin, took office at about the same time I did and faithfully guided Wagner through all the challenges the pandemic brought to education. As a result, Wagner has one of the highest success rates of any college in the country relative to keeping students, faculty and staff safe and still providing quality education. I hope you will consider Wagner for yourself or your children when thinking of college. (I also say this as a proud alum!) Seafarers International House, under the amazing guidance of Pastor Marsh Drege and probably one of the hardest working boards in social ministry, managed incredibly strenuous challenges and continues to serve with determination and faithfulness. We also had a part to play in the revitalizing of the ministry of Koinonia and I am happy to report that that ministry is returning to strength and the Conference Center and other buildings are open again for retreat. Amidst the many other incredible ministries happening through the Spirit’s work in our Church, on the congregational level and beyond, I want to mention the ongoing transformative work of Pinecrest in helping our young people live their discipleship. This ministry, approaching one hundred years of changing and saving lives, is an often-overlooked gem in the work we do together. Believe me, Jesus shows up every year! I am also thankful for the faithful work of Molly Blancke and the rest of the staff at the Lutheran Counseling Center. As you may know, the demand for counseling during this time of racially motivated violence, pandemic and quarantine has skyrocketed. Molly and her staff have always been responsive and generous, offering listening ears and wise, caring hearts, including many free sessions for pastors and other leaders in our church. Time does not allow me to include all the amazing ministries going on in our church, ministries which need your prayerful, financial and bodily support. I hope you subscribe to and read our email program to keep up to date on these opportunities to strengthen your discipleship.
But, before I leave ministry in the world, certainly one of the highlights of 2020 was our February trip to Tanzania to meet our siblings in the Northwest Diocese and to celebrate twenty years of Kibeta English Medium Primary School affectionately known as “KEMPS.” Bishop Keshomshahara was a gracious host; every place we went we were welcomed warmly and generously and one couldn’t ask for a better guide than Pastor Percuy Butiku! KEMPS continues to be an exceptional school in Tanzania, graduating students who go on to excel and contribute to the future of their country. Your support of this ministry of the Lutheran Church in Tanzania in partnership with our synod makes an unbelievable difference in the lives of so many.
God has given us all we need to work together so that God’s kindom might come in our midst, as we pray every time we say the words of that precious prayer of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus reminds us that the kindom is near at hand. In my time in this call, I have become more and more convinced that one of the places in our shared life where we must work courageously and tirelessly to bring God’s kindom to realization is in the need for racial justice. Given the diversity of all our communities, the opportunity to make a difference is “near at hand.” I commend to all of you in your prayers and solidarity the work of our pastors and congregations of color over this past year and a half, already serving in incredibly challenging circumstances. I have met monthly with members of our synod’s Black Equity Table. They have graciously and honestly confronted me with my own misunderstanding and privilege, in order to help me to be a bishop who responds to the concerns of all our members. I participated in the Worship Service remembering four hundred years of slavery in this country, held at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Roosevelt in 2019. I also participated in our synod’s African Descent Lutheran Association Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration in which Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Bishop Patricia Davenport preached a powerful sermon! Relative to my own awareness of the continued dehumanization of racial injustice, in which George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice are only three names in a long and as yet unending line of victims, I am reminded of the words that motivate those seeking recovery from addiction: I am not what I could be. I am not what I should be. But by the grace of God [and, I would add, the compassionate care of those who patiently educate me] I am not what I once was. It is my prayer and my goal that we can witness more and more to that beloved community, that kindom of God that is within reach as God gives the ability and growth.
In a similar light, other communities of color, notably Latinx, people from the Caribbean and Asian and Pacific Islanders continue to grow in our synod. This is our mission field, from whom we have so much to learn! And to whom, in the name of Jesus, we have so much to give, ourselves most importantly.
As my time of sharing with you at this assembly nears its end, except for a new expression of our 2025 Vision tomorrow, I want to tell you how grateful I am. When people ask me how the new “call” is going, my answer is usually along these lines: I should probably have my head examined, but I love it! Our God is an awesome God, and this is a beautiful Church. My dear ones, there is so much good that is being done and so much transformation that is taking place and so many more opportunities for growing in our understanding of what it means, in our bodies, to be followers of Jesus! I thank God for this calling to serve you. I hope I’m doing ok. As I have expressed, I am also thankful to and for all of you. It has not been easy these past months but you – pastors, congregational leaders, members – show so much faithfulness and love! I am also thankful for the incredible staff in the Office of the Bishop. New assistants to the bishop began their work on January 6th of 2020. Two months later came the shutdown. Talk about a trial by fire! But over that time these remarkable servants, all of the staff, have consistently found ways to serve you, supported one another, helped us to be more faithful and good stewards of the treasures entrusted to us, worked tirelessly to be present to provide guidance and answer questions and to give God some glory in the process. A change in administration and the impact of the pandemic have invited us to see this as a new day where some of the historical confrontations and misunderstandings can be left in the past and we can work together for the future.
I also want to express my gratitude to some who have served so well but now are serving elsewhere: Dr. Jonathan Linman, ten years on Bishop’s staff but now back in the parish, Deacon Margy Schmitt Ajer now serving in California, Sue (and Pastor Joel) Brandt, now living in Michigan closer to family, Pastor Perucy Butiku, still faithfully serving congregations in our synod. We also want to express our gratitude to Ed Wagner who served for ten years on our synod’s Financial Management Committee, most of that time as chair, with wisdom and good leadership. Ed’s time on that committee reached its term limit during the summer. God bless you, Ed!
In addition to those named above, I have been blessed with many other co-workers in the Gospel. I think we have one of the most amazing Synod Council Vice-presidents in the ELCA! The fact that many of you know Renée Wicklund is a testimony to her commitment to be present and her outstanding leadership skills, exercised with good humor and a lightness of being that almost makes what we do not feel like work. She leads a deeply committed and wise Synod Executive Committee and Council, who give tirelessly of their time and insight for the sake of guiding the mission we are called to in this time and place. I also must mention Pastor William Baum and our consultant, Tom Massey. They have both provided insight and inspiration that have helped me serve better in this office. Sometimes (often), Pastor Baum will just share with me two words that I need to hear, “Courage, Bishop.”
I would be ungrateful if I failed to acknowledge with appreciation the work of our conference deans. Not only do they faithfully serve in their own ministry sites, but they also provide me with insight on congregations in their conferences and serve as liaisons between my office and those ministries. We have all benefited from their leadership, insight, prayers and willingness to build stronger connections between us.
In closing and in preparation for sharing an update to our 2025 Vision for our Synod, tomorrow, let me leave you with some questions to provoke your thinking and praying as we continue to engage this holy work:
Through this pandemic we have learned a different way of being church. What would it mean in terms of your understanding of your mission field if your church truly had no walls? Where would the limits be? Would there be limits to building the kindom in your community? And what do you think God says about that?
What is urgent for you? What do you want this Church – this congregation, this conference, this synod, this ELCA, this ecumenical family of Jesus to be? And what do you have to contribute to bring that vision into reality? How can we get there – TOGETHER?!
Humbly, your servant in Christ, Bishop Egensteiner