October 28. 2023
St. Martin’s Episcopal School
My friends, it is so good to be here with you and I officially welcome you to the 186th convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.
Almost a year ago, during my ordination weekend, I shared with you the story behind the design of my ring and how this cross, representing faith, hope, and love, became the centerpiece of its design. My great-grandparents carried this embroidered cross with them when they immigrated from Greece to the United States. I can imagine it carefully tucked away in a suitcase of family heirlooms, a symbol of the faithfulness of generations that had gone before. And now, many years later, it is a daily reminder of not only my call as your bishop, but it also provides a roadmap for our life together.
In a conversation with a clergy friend, I shared with him the idea of focusing on faith, hope, and love over the course of the first three years of my episcopacy. He said, “Shannon, I think that sometimes the word faith needs a little rescuing.” The word can get lost in sentimentality. It becomes something to be put on a shelf for another day…a nice thought, for sure…but somehow disconnected from the reality of our lives. So, as we planned this convention, as we reflected upon the past year, and as we look ahead, we have so much to share with you. This morning we will take a close look at our faith and how this faith connects us to each other and the ministry that we share.
As I have traveled across this diocese, from our urban centers to the bayou, from the north shore to the banks of the Mississippi River, the answers to how to begin to approach the important conversations around our common vision and mission began to come into focus. Framed by our common faith, and bound together in our common worship, you help me to see. Week after week, visit after visit, I am inspired by the impact that you make on people’s lives, the welcome that you extend, and the love of Jesus that you so proudly share. I see it in big and small churches, in our schools, on the streets of our urban centers, and along the banks of a bayou. The realities of our struggles are real, but so is our vitality. So, my vision for this diocese is to wrestle with what is hard while also lifting up the many things which are alive and well. There is so much richness in our life together. Our task is to look with new eyes, new perspectives.
I invite you to walk with me for a few moments as we explore our lives of faith here in the diocese of Louisiana. Our theme for this convention is Faith Amplified, and throughout the day, you will have a window into three different characteristics of this word that are outlined in Marcus Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity,
Faith as Fidelitas: The commitment of self at its deepest level, the commitment of the heart.
Faith as Fiducia: Radical trust in God…and additionally, how we grow that trust with one another.
Faith as Visio: A way of seeing what is. Seeing God and therefore seeing God in each other.
Today as you listen to the Convention presentations, attend the breakout sessions, and watch a series of videos that focus on our shared ministry, my hope is that you will catch a glimpse of how our faith in Jesus Christ is put into action in the diocese of Louisiana.
Fidelitas calls us to a commitment to nurture our relationships with each other. My friends, the relationships that I am building with you are the joy of my heart as your bishop. As your Canon for 9 years, we spent a lot of time together. But, in this new role as your bishop, I felt that it was so important for us to get to know each other in a new way. It’s been a busy year indeed! In addition to 30 parish visits since my consecration, I have also been grateful to share in making many other memories with you.
Over the course of the year, I have also visited 7 of our 13 parochial and diocesan schools with more visits planned for 2024. A commitment to the formation and education of our children is a top priority of my ministry. I have also walked with Inclusive Louisiana in the Pride Parade, tapped my feet at the Battle of the Clergy Bands, and celebrated the opening of the Dodwell House Community Resource Center, a ministry of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church. Additionally, I have connected fully on a national church level, both by attending several bishop ordinations as well as fully participating in meetings of the House of Bishops. I also serve as a trustee at the University of the South at Sewanee. Not only are these events an opportunity for me to grow in my ministry, they are also a way for others to know the great things happening in Louisiana.
You mentioned in the profile that you wanted the diocesan office and the bishop to be more visible on social media. Each week, on Facebook and Instagram, you travel with me across the diocese and the wider church. I hope that cataloging my journey in this way has highlighted not only the unique gifts of each of our congregations but has also demonstrated how we are all linked together and the joy that we share.
Early in my episcopacy, I revitalized the Episcopal Schools Commission, under the direction of Dr. Carrie Steakley, Head of School at Episcopal of Baton Rouge. Participation in this group provides an opportunity for school heads, rectors, and chaplains to meet regularly and draw wisdom from one another. The centrality of our Episcopal Identity and the values that it instills in the lives of our children and our families is vital to our growth.
In addition to outlining the New Directions that we are taking with our youth program, Fr. Peter Wong, a member of our Diocesan Youth Leadership Team, will also host a breakout session this afternoon. He will focus on a few simple principles that you can carry with you into your own church context as you seek to grow your church.
Along with Archdeacon Charlie deGravelles, I re-established our Deacons Council. Charlie will share more later this morning, but we were thrilled that over 50 people attended our recent Day on Deacons at the SECC, a time for deacons, those in the process, and others to discern their own sense of call. I am beyond grateful to share ministry with him.
Under the direction of my staff and the Diocesan Youth Leadership Council, we embarked upon a bold new adventure at the beginning of 2023. We applied for a Lilly Foundation Grant, focused on how to approach modern Christian parenting. After months of work, we submitted the grant, and this summer we were awarded $1.25M. We are engaged in exciting conversations with our grant consultants, Ministry Architects, about how our “Episco-parenting kits” can meet families where they are and help build generational bridges to our faith communities. You will be hearing more about this exciting new project later this morning as well as ways for you to provide feedback to us. Additional materials to map our next steps will be available to you in the coming months
The second aspect of our faith journey is Fiducia. How do we live out our faith by trusting God? In addition, how do we, as a diocese, build your trust by being faithful stewards of the precious resources entrusted to our care?
I strongly believe that any budget practice should be a prayerful, spiritual journey. And, when we engage our lives in this way, we allow our faith to shape our priorities. As your bishop, I am committed to put the structures in place to make this diocese strong and sustainable. Plans are already in place to implement a finance committee that will meet throughout the year to discuss budget priorities, rising insurance and property costs, endowment and assessments. We will commit to regularly check our budget priorities against our vision. I am deeply committed to the wise use of these funds entrusted to my care.
Since December, I have been working closely with Tanja Wadsworth, Executive Director of the Solomon Episcopal Conference Center to seek ways in which we can continue to ensure that the SECC thrives well into the future. We identified and hired Rob Watson, a seasoned consultant with Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers, to conduct an intensive evaluation of the SECC. What he discovered is that SECC is a place with tremendous potential, deeply loved by the diocese, and committed to first-rate hospitality. But, like so many other camp and conference centers, it struggled in the wake of the pandemic. Yet, his report pointed to a bright future. Rob returned to the SECC about a month ago to engage in long-term strategic planning with the board. They are committed to business development and sustainability. I want to express my deep gratitude to the Solomon Family for their continued support of the SECC for so many years, most notably a very generous gift to repair and replace key HVAC systems on the campus. Thank you, Gary. Your love of the SECC and its ministry in this diocese has stretched for so many years. Thank you for having our back.
A year ago, this convention clearly expressed a desire to continue to engage in Latino/Hispanic Ministry. In March Karla duPlantier stepped skillfully into her new role as our Latino/Hispanic Ministry Coordinator, supported by the generosity of a $100,000 gift by Don and Kathy White. Thank you. In addition, over the last two years, ERD has granted us $250,000 towards direct relief to Latino families affected by Hurricane Ida. We just received word that this will continue in 2024, with the potential of an exciting expansion. We have also received a $5,000 discernment grant through the Episcopal Church to support this ministry and have applied for a larger seed grant that we hope will be awarded next month. Our Latino and Hispanic Ministry is dynamic and growing and we looking forward to sharing more about later this morning.
Bishop Brian Prior, a board member of the Episcopal Church Foundation and resigned bishop of Minnesota, reached out to me a few months ago. He said, “Shannon, your diocese is a small diocese doing mighty things and ECF has taken note.” With that, he shared with me that the board identified Louisiana as one of 4 partner dioceses that will receive support over the next year through their Episcopal Church Foundation’s Diocesan Vitality Initiative. DVI partners with dioceses in identifying adaptive challenges and creating processes for renewal, redevelopment, and revitalization. I couldn’t be more excited. I have identified 4 clergy and lay people to be a part of my “dream team.” We will engage in directed and supported conversations with ECF about long-term strategic planning for the diocese as we set budget priorities. And, in the meantime, will we have the opportunity to establish relationships with other dioceses doing the same work.
Here in Louisiana, we have continued to develop our online resource library, ranging in topics from vestry training to stewardship ideas. Especially for our small churches, these videos provide training, best practices, and resources to already over-taxed volunteers and clergy. In our breakout session, Fr. Craig Dalferes will share his wisdom and experience on parish endowments and how you can foster long-term financial health, no matter how large or small your church is.
Finally, I want us to take a moment to think about faith as visio. Faith as the lens through which we not only see each other, how we celebrate and share the love of Jesus, and how we look forward together as we craft ministry in this diocese.
Blessed Frances Joseph Gaudet is a name that is familiar to many of you. Born in 1861, she dedicated her life to both prison reform as well as the education and formation of Black children at the school that bore her name. The school was extraordinarily successful during a remarkable time in our nation’s history and served as a beacon of light in the New Orleans community. Canonized as a saint in the Episcopal church in 2006, she stands as an icon of hope and advocacy. Her legacy, which compromises the largest percentage of our diocesan endowment, has carried forth her vision since its creation in 1952. Since then, scholarships and grants have been awarded to the same communities that she desired to reach. In the early days of my episcopacy, I began to wonder: What more can we do?
This began an interesting journey. In order to look forward, I felt like it was imperative to begin by looking back. So, over the last 6 months, the staff in the diocesan office has done a deep dive into the history, financial management, and stewardship of the Gaudet Fund. Once finalized, this report will be shared with the wider diocese. Yet, what I can share is that from our research, all indications point to the fact that from the time that we purchased the Gaudet Normal and Industrial School almost 100 years to today, this diocese has been fiercely committed to upholding the vision of Ms. Gaudet, ensuring that this fund is administered in a way that honors her legacy.
After undertaking this vital research and wondering out loud about how we could continue to honor Ms. Gaudet’s legacy in this diocese, an idea began to surface. The vision of a joint commission emerged – one that was inspired by Blessed Frances Gaudet and rooted in the Episcopal Church’s charge to engage in work around racial healing, environmental stewardship, and youth. Later this morning, clergy who lead these initiatives, as well as Fr. Rob Courtney, chair of the Gaudet Committee, will share with you some ideas about how we hope to grow and expand her legacy.
This morning you will watch a video about the renovation and grand opening of the Dodwell House, a ministry of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church. What began as a vision for children in the neighborhood by Fr. Bill Terry and Mr. Darryl Durham, has now blossomed into a creative and successful afterschool program that has caught the attention of institutions of learning far beyond Louisiana. Each and every day, the staff is committed to looking forward with holy hope and expectation. And then a home, with the walls and floors literally falling down, was transformed into a safe haven for children of the Treme. Additionally, in our breakout sessions, Fr. Andrew Thayer will host a conversation on how Trinity Church New Orleans engaged in their own journey of visio by establishing the Legacy Committee, a year-long process of conversation and exploration, which led to the renaming of Bishop’s Hall. Phoebe Roaf, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee, returned home to Louisiana last May to celebrate the conclusion of this holy work and to bless the space.
Vision inspires leadership. Mission follows vision. And, in turn, extraordinary things happen.
I love being your bishop. I love doing this work with you. This address only captures a small portion of what is so good about what it means to be an Episcopalian in the Diocese of Louisiana. You have your own stories. Share them! The world is hungry to connection and hope.
What I want you to know is this: I am here for you. My staff is here for you. The people in this room are here for you. And, although we have challenges…the threat of natural disasters, sea level rise, increasing property insurance rates, global unrest, and the ongoing struggle to re-connect after the pandemic…what is also true is that, over the course of the year, I have confirmed, received, re-affirmed and baptized 212 people. That is such a sign of hope! In fact, the line was so long at Christ Church Covington that Jimmy walked down the street to get coffee and still got back in time for communion! But know this: my hope…my faith in God and in each of you is not pie-in-the-sky sentimentality. It is firmly rooted in the dogged resiliency of this place that we call home. I see it every single day. I see it in each of your faces. You inspire me. No, we don’t yet know all of the answers, but I do know that there is no other group of people I would rather do that holy work with than each of you.