Monday, September 14, 2009

Bishop-elect of Georgia

The Rev. Scott Benhase was recently elected on the second ballot by the Diocese of Georgia. He has served for just a short while as rector of St. Alban's in Washington, D.C., and before that here in North Carolina at St. Philip's in Durham. Scott is a very smart fellow, and one who will bring a great deal of solid learning and thinking to the House of Bishops -- if consents are forthcoming (and I cannot imagine why they would not be.)

Here are some of his answers to questions posed before the election by the Diocese of Georgia:

1. What are you passionate about in your ministry, in your personal life, and in the world around you?

I am passionate about leading congregations that begin to see God’s vision for the creation in the Gospel of Jesus, embrace that vision, and then shape their work to be congruent with that vision. The spiritual energy created by such work is contagious. Once a significant number of people in a congregation begin working together for the Gospel (and not for their own agendas) then miraculous results happen. I have seen this happen in each parish I have served and I am humbled by it. It is a holy ground experience. This does not happen every day and my experience tells me it takes years of patient work to see it happen, but because I know it is possible, I remain passionately committed to the Church’s ministry. Some might see the Church as inconsequential to what God is up to in the world. I disagree. The Church is at the heart of what God is up to.

In my personal life I am passionate about my wife, Kelly, and our children. Kelly is just amazing. I am more in love with her now than when we were married 25 years ago. She is my rock and a special blessing from God. Our children are smart, funny, and becoming adults and it is quite entertaining (not all the time, mind you) to watch that process. They are good young adults who care deeply about God’s world. Their spiritual and moral centers are strong.

And I am also passionate about God’s world, even though some might think me na├»ve, or at least, not paying attention. That may appear pollyannish to some given all the blood in the ink of the headlines. I always try to see the world as God sees it, but that doesn’t mean I’m in denial about the world’s reality. God has never been in denial about the world God created. The cross of Jesus is God’s statement of acceptance of the world as it is. And the resurrection of Jesus is God’s declarative statement that the world (as it is) is unacceptable to God. The cross and resurrection help us all keep God’s big picture in mind, which means we can say with Dame Julian of Norwich that “all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

2. Please elaborate on an occasion or experience, during your ministry, of significant personal growth or change.

As Rector of St. Paul’s Church, East Cleveland in 1986, the Bishop gave me the charge of transforming the parish from an older white congregation to one that was predominantly black, reflecting the composition of the neighborhood. The congregation 20 years earlier had been over 1000 and all white. By 1986 the city neighborhood had completely changed and the congregation had dwindled to 40 mostly elderly white folk. My first day the Treasurer placed the parish checkbook on my desk and said: “Goodbye.” The parish was in financial free fall. I had to terminate the secretary and organist because we did not have the funds to pay them. Nothing I had ever trained for or experienced prepared me to deal with this situation. A few days later, six members (most of whom were over 65) came into my office and said: “We love God and we love our Church. We want to be a witness in this community. Whatever you need us to do to make that happen, just let us know.” I was amazed at their selflessness and their willingness to give up power and control for the sake of the Gospel and the witness of the Church. And they were true to their word. I have never met a group of people who were so intentionally committed to the Good News and less concerned with their own agendas. Their act and witness made possible the change and growth of the parish. For the next five years, we became a predominantly black parish. The white leadership humbly took a support role and worked diligently with me to build up new leadership within the parish.

My experience there transformed me personally and taught me a lot about my leadership role in the Church. In order to lead, people have to be willing to follow. In order to follow, people have to trust you and share a consensus with you about where we are headed. And then, we all need to stay focused on the essentials of our shared vision and avoid private agendas. When that happens, the church flourishes. Because this experience happened to me so early in my priesthood, it has stayed with me and been a guide for my leadership in the Church since.

3. What are the touchstones in your faith that will guide your responses to the issues now facing-some would say threatening-the Episcopal Church and the world-wide Anglican Communion?

I’m grounded by a humble faith in Jesus Christ as Lord & Savior of the world. Because Jesus is Lord and God is sovereign, I believe it is not my role to try to manipulate outcomes, especially during the current unpleasantness. Yes, it is messy now, but God is giving us an opportunity. This is a challenging time in the Church and culture. We are experiencing a massive shift. The “modern world” has given way to the “post-modern world.” People are reacting to this change differently. Some are resisting it at all costs. They have drawn a line in the sand and said: “no more.” Others are all too eager to adopt whatever the culture offers with no critical perspective. Still others are just plain stressed out by change.

Like everyone else, we Episcopalians are along for this ride. But we can bring something important to the public square as our culture endures this sea change. And this is where my personal practice of faith guides me. We can live into our common future by being more Elizabethan, that is by helping one another develop a capacity to attend to one another’s differences with a spirit of love (that’s the Anglican Via Media, that Queen Elizabeth helped create). This may be the most important call God is giving us as a Church right now: to stand between the virulent fundamentalists (no matter their religious stripe) and the cultured despisers of religion by witnessing to the reconciling love of Jesus.

I have no illusions about how challenging this is. It will mean that we will have to take seriously what it means to be people grounded in the Gospel. Such a call will have less to do with just trying to be nicer to strangers or more understanding of those who disagree with us. Rather, such a call from God will ask us to wade deep into troubled waters with both friend and stranger.

That’s a Church I want to belong to: a Church that takes Jesus seriously when he teaches us about love for enemies, forgiveness in order to be forgiven, and hospitality to the stranger. Being a disciple of such a Lord will be the hardest work we will ever do. Of course, the alternative for us is forget our Anglican roots and identity, hunker down, and become privatized in our religion; doing our religious ritual on Sundays and trying to pretend that what’s happening around us will go away if we just wait it out. We have the opportunity to be witnesses to a different way of being Christian: one that takes discipleship in Jesus seriously, but also one that is open to the new things the Holy Spirit is up to in the world. My hunch is there are a lot of Georgians who think they have only two choices: adopt the fundamentalist agenda hook, line, and sinker or reject Christianity as being irrelevant. Wouldn’t it be compelling to show them a different way of following Jesus?

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