So I attended my first ever clergy conference as an Episcopalian this week. It’s an annual conference for all the active Episcopal clergy working in the Diocese of West Texas, a geographical area of more than 69,000 square miles, larger than the state of Florida; and which includes more than a hundred active clergy. Some highlights and reflection follow.
A first highlight was the weather. In a word, it was perfectly beautiful. Okay, that was two words, I know. But one word could not express it. Seventy-five degree days, forty-five degree nights, dry air, bright sun, clear stars, evening campfires to offer a liminal balance between painful cold and heat to shorts-wearing folks like me, and two delightful rides on my motorcycle, there (to quote Bilbo) and back again.
A second highlight was an impromptu kayaking trip. Yeah, at the clergy conference! You see, we met at Camp Capers, a diocesan facility. And by no common providence we, as in the Diocese of West Texas, just closed on a property deal that adds 108 acres to the campus. The new piece of undeveloped land includes some riverfront some distance up the Guadalupe River from the original property’s riverfront. So, while most of the clergy were obediently submitting to the yoke of Safeguarding God’s People, a half-day course required of all clergy to be updated every five years (which I didn’t have to do since I endured this yoke in Sewanee just two years ago), two of the camp staff and I scouted the river. Someone had to after all. Anyway, in a word, perfectly beautiful. Okay, that was two words, but see the previous paragraph if you need clarification. The water was high enough that I got hung up only twice–hangs ups that were remedied easily enough–and again I experieced that liminal balance between cold and hot: this time from the sun on my head and the water on my tail.
A third highlight was the collegiality. Admittedly, I entered this conference knowing only a handful of clergy in the diocese. That is, I could tell you the names of and a significant detail about maybe twenty of the clergy present. (So that’s actually two handfuls and two footfuls, I suppose.) I therefore made a conscious decision to spend every meal and other opportune time, when we broke into small groups for instance, with a different person or group. The result is that I now know the names of and a significant detail about more than half of the clergy who were present. And, just so you know, these are bright, talented, thoughful, enjoyable people all of whom I’m glad to call colleagues and friends.
A fourth highlight was the keynote speaker, Laura Ahrens, Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Connecticut. She was right in the middle of the aftermath of the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting, a visible representation of Christ for the world to see. Man, does she have a story to tell!
As for reflection, I’m thinking a lot these days about the main purpose of the Church, and how we Christians have largely lost sight of that. This is the subject matter for many a lengthy post, a book, or even several books, so look for more in the future. But suffice that I heard clergy say all sorts of different things that miss the mark to some degree or another: “The Church is dying; how do we resurrect it?” or “It’s all about hospitality,” or “The most important thing for us [clergy] to know is how to deal with dysfunction,” or “We must make everything we do relevant.” What about offering Christ’s love and bringing the kingdom of heaven to a needy world? Point is, clergy are apparently all over the map when it comes to discerning the Church’s purpose (and if clergy are, what does this suggest about laypeople?); and I hope to bring greater clarity here during my priestly career.