The State of the Council
The Rev. Jonathan M. Barton
Virginia Council of Churches
“The most serious factor is not so much the divisive and other sinister forces which oppose the Christian Church but the divisions in the ranks of the Church itself and the apathy, indifference, and lack of heroic response with which Christian meet the summons to a far closer cooperation and unity. Without doubt our divisions are still our greatest handicap…
A failure to achieve closer cooperation and unity means the impoverishment of the leadership of this Christian enterprise.” John R. Mott, 1931
“Believing that the time has come in the providence of God for the followers of Jesus Christ to cooperate more effectively for the progress of the Gospel, we, representatives of the evangelical churches in Virginia, do herewith establish a State Council of Churches”.
Preamble to the Virginia Council of Churches Constitution, 1944
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; and welcome to the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Virginia Council of Churches. This will be my 18th and final report on the State of the Council, as I will be retiring as your General Minister on May 31, 2018. It is time to pass the mantle of leadership to a new generation. As I prepared this report I was tempted to wax nostalgic and reflect on the incredible journey we have been on for almost two decades. We have hosted some very remarkable individuals: Ambassador Andrew Young, Fr. Lyndon Harris, Rev. Bob Edgar, Dr. Michael Kinnamon, and Dr. Charles Kimball are just some. We have struggled together on issues surrounding death as well as the beginnings of life. We have supported refugees coming here to begin new lives. One of those we resettled, Bol Gia Deng is here today and will share his story with us. We have mentored new mothers on parenting skills and we have provided head start opportunities all across the Commonwealth. We have stood firmly with our native brothers and sisters sharing in their story and journey for justice, fairness and recognition. Together we have sought to address concerns around the implementation of the death penalty and mass incarceration. Yet, to only look at where we have been does not necessarily provide the prophetic wisdom needed as we face the challenges that lie ahead. To only focus on the path ahead is to lose the wisdom of our shared journey to date.
Like the communions it brings together, the true strength of the Council lies not in each of its individual programs, but rather in its unified mission and vision. No other organization or entity can bring the Church together as the Virginia Council of Churches does—no other state entity can mobilize the Church to work and act as one body. The history and longevity of the Council speaks to it value. The Council has been a voice of reason, compassion, strength, and hope in Virginia for almost ¾ of a century, and has proven itself a trustworthy steward of the call it has embraced. Even with all the exciting effort we have been a part of, we are now invited to revisit and fashion a new kind of ecumenism.
Ecumenism has been wandering in the wilderness for some time now as the denominational landscape changes and financial stress have forced councils to reexamine their mission and their structures, to reorganize for a new generation. Just as when Joshua accepted the mantel of leadership, we now find ourselves emerging from the wilderness and the riverbanks are in view. We still have a long way to travel even before we are able to make camp let alone cross over, yet we see more clearly a new horizon. Even as our signature programs end, new opportunities are opening before us.
The financial State of your Council remains very fragile. Continuing difficult economic times stress our budget and revenue shortfalls have taken their toll, forcing reductions in staff hours and capabilities. At the same time the requests, the need for, and the opportunities for the Council have never been greater. Thank you to all our member judicatories, congregations, and individuals who support the work of the Council. The financial core, that supports our work, is fragile and vulnerable. Our Judicatory support has been in a steady decline in recent years and hopefully has now leveled off — but at levels less than half where we were, just a few short years ago. With our current level of support and structure, we are not sustainable for long. The current work levels and capacity will need to reduce even further, without increases to our revenue we will not be in a position to meet the challenges that face us in the future. We are a council of the communions, and therefore challenges that denominations encounter touch us in direct and dramatic ways. More importantly we need to modify our thinking, from supporting another agency to do ecumenism for us; to realizing ecumenism is our commitment to one another through this forum we call the Virginia Council of Churches. Councils should not, cannot be as just another “do good agency” that competes with many other valid works for scarce dollars, rather the Council is our means of expressing our commitment to one another as followers of Jesus Christ.
We are a leaner council in the midst of great change. At the center of this change is the need to balance our thinking. How do we increase our unity and our visible oneness in Christ while at the same time engage in prophetic witness that often divides our churches? The Council is our means of expressing our commitment to one another as followers of Jesus Christ. This visible mutuality of Christians in turn magnifies the authority of the Church to witness to its Lord. On the other hand “if an unbelieving world in these days sees a growing unity… and at the same time observes Christians of different communions, nationalities, and races unable to demonstrate that they love and trust one another enough to unite, what other conclusion can it form than that the Church has lost her way and vacated her spiritual leadership…” [John R. Mott, 1931] The Council is one way we protect the integrity of our common witness “so that the world may believe.”
Your Council rests on a firm foundation, a foundation built on many years of strong ecumenical relationships and dedication. In recent years we have begun to see cracks appearing in this foundation, as if seismic tremors have shaken and stressed our footings. The financial structure on which the council rests is very weak. While we continue seeking additional financial sources of revenue we have not be able to acquire sufficient funding to offset the declining financial support by judicatories, as a result we have been addressing the shortfall by cutting program and staffing expenditures. These cuts are eroding the Councils ability to carry on its mission. Significant new revenue is needed to continue to function at a level to meet expectations or a radical new staffing pattern with a reduction in function needs to take place.
In 2003 one of our themes for that year was the biblical question: “Who is my neighbor?” During those times of economic and security uncertainty we saw an increase in anti-immigrant feelings. The question of who is my neighbor has never really disappeared from the moment Christ was first interrogated on the matter. While we have a clear and direct answer from our Lord to this question, the anxiety and our response still festers within our communal life. For the Virginia Council of Churches the current climate is problematic because several of our programs are directly impacted by these attitudes within our communities, whether they are refugees, migrant workers, at risk non-English speaking mothers, or the descendants of the peoples who have lived in this land for a thousand generations. The question of who is my neighbor, how do I relate to the other, the person who is not like me is in the forefront of our news. Building walls, deporting our dreamers, refusing to assist the refugee, even the ongoing discrimination of persons we have lived side by side with for generations. It is tearing at our communities in ways that undermine our relationships to one another, creating suspicion and mistrust. As people of faith from across Virginia, we believe that our calling is to welcome “the other”, offering them hospitality and justice, just as we were once welcomed and shown hospitality. While we recognize that immigration policy is a complex issue that divides people of goodwill, our faiths compel us to stand with immigrants in their struggle for justice. We recall the words of Moses when he said, “Do not mistreat foreigners living in your land, but treat them just as you treat your own citizens. Love foreigners as you love yourselves, because you were foreigners one time in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Earlier this year Church World Service invited your General Minister to be part of a panel briefing the staff of new Republican members of Congress on the importance of the Refugee settlement program.
The Council has played a key role in advancing the dialogue around the death penalty this year and was key to the commuting the death penalty of Ivan Teleguz. During the year we have been working with others to address issues of solitary confinement and mass incarceration and were privileged to be part of a delegation to meet with and examine conditions at Red Onion, maximum security prison in Southwest Virginia. We have a chance to make a real impact on the great decisions which affect each of us. To actually do this requires the release of the tremendous spiritual potentiality still largely hidden in the Christian churches. Simply stated, the work of the Virginia Council of Churches is essential, now more than ever.
For almost two decades, the Council has joined and stood firmly with the Virginia Native American Tribes seeking federal recognition. We will continue to walk with our Virginia Tribes in this journey until the day this journey ends and a new one begins. The Council continues to play a vital role in the VA VOAD and provides a critical link to the Department of Emergency Management, FEMA, and the Department of Homeland Security. We have continued our Interfaith Dialogue meetings with leaders of the Abrahamic faiths. We continue to work closely with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and the Virginia Catholic Conference to address concerns in the Virginia General Assembly. Recently we have begun conversations with American Evolution: 2019 400th Commemoration, and Virginia Union University to participate in a legacy project on the religious evolution of Native and African Americans from 1619-2019, for a consultation culmination in a new edition of “Remembering Jamestown: Hard Questions for Christian Mission”
Plans are currently underway with LifeNet Health to continue the vital dialogue begun in the first Faith Leaders Summit on Life, Death, and Donation with a second summit in 2018. Rural Family Development has gone through some major changes in the past year with LaNeen Sample, a long time staff person with our migrant head start program on the Eastern Shore, as our Interim Director for RFD. Bob Rivers, president of the RFD board, is engaged in significant planning as we seek to discern new directions in our mission and work. While we no longer administer the migrant work on the Eastern Shore we still own property there which is now being rented to East Coast Migrant Head Start for their use, opening up a new revenue stream for the council and taking off some of the recent financial pressure we have been facing.
At its inception, the Council had two main goals; first to be a place for churches to come together for support and understanding, and second to help equip its members to practically live out the mission of Christ in Virginia. On July 6, 1944, thirty-one representatives from fourteen denominations gathered in the Washington Room of the John Marshall Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Their purpose was clear—to declare publicly their commitment to Christian unity by formalizing a relationship with one another. As representative after representative voted yes for the formation of the Virginia Council of Churches, each agreed to join together to strengthen each other’s ministry and purpose. The goal of this coming together was not simply for unity itself, but rather that, through the coming together of the body of Christ, the mission of Christ may be completely realized in Virginia. The Virginia Council of Churches is now the oldest and largest ecumenical agency in Virginia, and it includes thirty-eight governing bodies of eighteen Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox denominations. As in the beginning, today’s Virginia Council of Churches works relationally to build unity among member denominations and programmatically to give churches opportunities to serve together in their communities and around the Commonwealth. The Council seeks not to be an organization in itself, but rather to be a conduit through which the Church in Virginia can come together to be strengthened and unified, and from which it can then go out to serve. The exciting work we have been a part of, not withstanding, we are now called to reexamine and generate a new form of ecumenism. We require an ecumenism appropriate and sustainable for our times. Such a task entails ingenuity and creative thinking, which will not happen unless we are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us.
Seventy three years ago we heard the Spirit moving across the Commonwealth calling us together; are we hearing what the Spirit is saying to us today? Councils are not, and should not be, understood as another competing organization, but a shared asset enabling communions to fulfill their own desires for unity. “…councils dare not become service organizations aimed at self-perpetuation. Councils, through their programs and decision-making bodies, must always insist on the growing commitment of the member churches to each other” [Michael Kinnamon
Ninth General Secretary, NCCCUSA]. Nor, should Councils of Churches be an organization of likeminded persons of faith who share a common public agenda. A foundational component of every Council must be the intentional coming together, despite our differences as the Body of Christ so that world may believe that we indeed are a witness to one Lord. Councils of Churches act as communication hubs and forums where the diversity of the Church comes together.
As Washington Gladden observed in 1883, “The measure of unity to which the churches have already attained is by no means to be despised; their relations are vastly better than they were forty years ago…The spiritual unity to which we have attained, though not worthless, is ridiculously inadequate to the present need of the Church.” Today, as in every age, the world needs our common witness. How can we, who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior, find our common witness for economic justice, an environmentally sustainable world, and the peaceful settlement of conflict? How can we seek and find the image of God created in each of us, respecting one another and the precious gift of life that God has shared with us all? As the Virginia Council of Churches, we look forward to continuing and enhancing our role as a forum where the people of God can reflect together and seek to discern God’s will for us in this time and in this place.
“Every generation, in communion with the long chain of witnesses who have proceeded it under the guidance of the same Spirit, must grasp anew the tasks that the Lord of the church sets before it” [Suzanne de Dietrich, 1958 – founding staff member of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey] In order to complete an orderly transition the Council will need to re-examine closely its mission and plot out the next steps of the journey. You will hear from the General Minister Search and Transition Committee, under the able leadership of Rev. Larry Thompson and Rev. Jenee Gilchrist, a process and timeline are in place that expresses the hopes and expectation we have for our next General Minister.
Thank you for the joy and privilege of serving as your General Minister for these past eighteen years. I have sought to be a good steward of the legacy entrusted to me. May whomever follows me be as richly blessed as I have been to serve the church through the Virginia Council of Churches. May God continue to watch over and bless the Virginia Council of Churches and may the Virginia Council of Churches continue to be worthy of this blessing.
“The unity of the Church of God is a perpetual fact; our task is not to create it but to exhibit it.” William Temple, 1937