The Rev. Dr. Bonnie A. Perry
Rector, All Saints’, Chicago, IL
Based on your reading of our diocesan profile, what excites you most about leading this diocese and which of your spiritual gifts, talents and passions do you see as most relevant to the opportunities and challenges facing us?
Your entire profile excites me. I feel called to see how we might live our faith in a way that enables us to glimpse God’s abiding presence in our fragile, fractured world. I’m drawn to the diversity of people, cultures, races, classes and ethnicities present in the Southeastern corner of Michigan. Rural, urban, suburban your varied geographic locales and contexts are compelling. I am intrigued by both your needs and your resources.
I believe in the power of Jesus Christ to change the course of our lives and the lives of people around us. My preaching reflects the belief that Jesus came that we might have life and life in abundance and he calls us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, strength and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
I’ve the ability to create abiding relationships; I listen deeply to people and assist individuals in naming and using their gifts. I’m able to draw people together from disparate groups, invite them to focus on a common goal and use their individual talents and passions to enable the group to meet the common goal. My work with the Chicago Consultation, and Ravenswood Community Services are two examples of that process.
I believe in incremental, measurable changes to achieve long-term transformation. I have the elastic ability to move groups along step by step, celebrating our successes, recovering and learning from our temporary setbacks, without losing sight of the long-term seemingly unattainable vision. My steadfastness, my belief in Christ’s unshakeable love, and my sense of humor enable me to encourage groups to persevere and prevail, all with a sense of joy and wonder.
I lead and serve a congregation with an average age of 38, the youngest in our diocese. I know how to marshal social media and 21st century technologies to connect with people, young and old, who do not typically participate in religious communities.
I’ll relish spending time, encouraging, partnering with and caring for the clergy of the diocese. In my tenure at All Saints’ I’ve mentored more than 30 seminarians and sponsored 12 people for ordination, I’m currently coaching 4 new rectors. Healthy congregations are led and served by healthy clergy. I’ll do all in my power to support clergy in their quest for spiritual, emotional and physical wellness. I’ll also create venues for developing meaningful relationships between key lay leaders from every congregation.
Developing and redeveloping congregations, examining parish systems, raising money for new initiatives and capital campaigns are some of my most cherished activities. Meeting with leaders throughout the diocese, collaboratively discerning God’s call would be an honor and an enlivening privilege.
Lastly, the Diocese of Michigan should be at the decision-making tables in our towns, cities and State. If called I’ll engage existing and create new partnerships with secular groups so that we may fully embody our baptismal promises in all areas of our lives.
Describe a time in your ministry when you built relationships between diverse groups. What did you do well? What do you wish you had done differently? How has this experience informed your approach to relationship building?
Mote said, “I need to talk to you. I have wronged you. I need your forgiveness.”
I was taken aback, Mote and I had known each other for 36 hours.
“What is it, Mote?”
He said, “I did not know until yesterday that someone could be gay and be a Christian. I am so sorry.”
He continued, “But I’m a priest and a principal and I will tell my parishioners and students that I was wrong.”
I was without words. I hugged him and we both cried.
Mote, an Anglican priest from Tanzania, and I were having this conversation at a theological conference in Durban, South Africa, in the fall of 2011. This conference was the first gathering held in the Anglican Communion on the continent of Africa focusing on issues of sexuality. The Chicago Consultation and the Ujamaa Centre at the University of Kwazulu-Natal sponsored it. In 2007, I co-founded the Chicago Consultation with the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers bringing together prominent theologians, church leaders and bishops to work for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in all aspects of our church. Our gathering in South Africa of 30 African leaders and 15 North Americans was the first of three such events that we would hold on the continent. The next one was in Limuru, Kenya in 2013, and the third in Cape Coast, Ghana in 2015.
Our gatherings were the most diverse events I’ve ever been a part of, with participants from 16 different countries. We were different cultures, classes, races, ethnicities, theologies, genders, and sexualities. Yet we held Holy Scripture in common. When we planned the gatherings we included two hours daily of small group bible study and prayer. In our consultations we didn’t wave our conflicting philosophies or theologies, instead we swapped exegetical insights and translations of different words from the Hebrew and Greek to Swahili, Igbo, French, and English. We learned of each other’s context, we listened and learned of each other’s worries and joys, and began to see and know each other as individual Christians. We heard each other’s stories and began to see how Christ is alive in each one of us.
I began to understand much much more about Kenyan villages and what the bible means to people in the repressive regime of Zimbabwe, while Mote learned that a person could be gay and be a Christian.
What I would have done differently is start all of the work 10 years earlier. If we’d known to begin international, cross-cultural bible study and prayer earlier, I believe we might have prevented some of the pain and misunderstandings that made the Anglican Communion so fraught at that time.
Going forward, I now know that the heart of all good work, for faith-based purposes, begins with immersion in scripture and prayer. It’s one reason why every vestry meeting at All Saints begins with significant bible study and prayer. It’s the single most important activity in which our vestry engages. The business of the church is prayer. And so all important movements in the church need to begin in prayer.
How have you navigated the roles of prophet and pastor in your ministry thus far? Which role have you found more challenging and why? (Please provide at least one specific example to support your response.)
I enjoy both pastoral and prophetic ministry. The role of pastor comes a bit more readily than that of a prophet. If someone is in need or sorrow, or completely delighted by a turn of events, I relish being a part of their life, bearing witness to the events as they are unfolding or sitting with the person later, hearing the story told in their own words. As I listen, I focus my attention on an individual’s whole self and try to hear the deep truths of the person’s life.
I’m not a stranger to prophetic ministries. Our fraught world is filled with individual and systemic injustices that are anathema to our Gospel Values. When I encounter an injustice, I identify why I believe it violates our values and then invite other people to join me in further articulating the issue and devising a sustainable effective response. It can be a mistake and draining of precious energy to joust prophetically at all the ills of our world, so I believe in narrowing and honing our prophetic work. I’ve also come to realize that sustained prophetic work succeeds more readily when it is linked to an articulated pastoral hurt. Thus I believe that pastoral and prophetic ministries are two interwoven strands connected in a double helix structure akin to DNA.
In November 2015, the city of Chicago released a video of a police officer shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times. Protests began throughout the city. A call went to the faith community for congregations to leave their place of worship, go to a local intersection, and as a group lay down in that intersection and stop the traffic.
We were horrified by the callous indifference to Black Lives that the video revealed. The congregation wanted to act. Some wanted to lie down and be arrested. Others were uncomfortable in doing so. How might we involve everyone and have the greatest possible impact? Eventually we decided to leave our 11:00 service directly after communion and invite our neighbors and local aldermen to join us. About 100 of us walked past the waiting police cars to a busy, nearby intersection. We split into four groups and positioned ourselves on all four corners. When the lights signaled, “walk” two groups processed in the crosswalk, stopped halfway and prayed and sang. When the lights changed they cleared the intersection and then the two groups on the opposite sides crossed to the center and prayed and bore witness. So we continued for an hour, circling the intersection, with hundreds of cars seeing our witness. In this way, everyone processed. Everyone protested. Everyone lamented. Everyone was included. Countless more cars witnessed our prayers, than if a few of us had lain down and simply blocked the traffic. This was a prophetic response to a pastoral ill, enacted in a pastorally sensitive manner that included everyone, thus expanding the prophetic impact.
This witness catalyzed our congregation into deeper work on white privilege, systemic racism, and racial reconciliation. We’ve much more to do.
Much has been written about the changing paradigms in 21st century Christianity. How are you thinking and working to engage these changes? How will this inform your ministry as bishop?
I teach a class at Bexley-Seabury Seminary on Reimaging Congregations in Mission. The central question of this class addresses the paradigms for effective ministry in the 21st century. I invite students to envision a world where Mission is central to all that a community of faith undertakes. Imagine the people, spirituality, structures, leadership, funding, and buildings we need to reclaim the mission Christ called and commissioned the first disciples to carry out. What would the Episcopal church be like if we were a movement, the Jesus Movement, in the words of Presiding Bishop Curry. In this movement, what if our faith communities were missions with churches rather than churches with missions?
For the last 26 years I’ve sought to create and lead a faith community that is focused on the mission of Jesus: loving the Lord with all of our hearts, minds and souls and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Our congregation’s average age is 38. Our ministries are filled with young families of all sorts of configurations, we are deeply involved in the pressing issues and concerns of our community. We seek to embody the Gospel, in ways that meet the longings of the people who are yet to walk through our doors.
Early on, we realized that people were hungry in our neighborhood. So we began to feed them body and soul. In 2000 we created Ravenswood Community Services. Today every Tuesday evening we offer groceries to 200 people who gather in our sanctuary, and a sit down family style meal and groceries to another 125 of our neighbors in need. Another 50 or so volunteers come every week to staff Ravenswood Community Services. More than 70% of the people who volunteer on Tuesday evening join us at some point for one or more worship services on Sunday morning. We consider the bread broken and the stories told on Tuesday evening to be every bit as sacred and Holy as the bread broken and stories told on Sunday morning.
We noticed that people worried about the quality of the local public schools in our neighborhood. For more than 15 years I, and leaders at All Saints, have been involved in this area. At one point half of our local school council was comprised of members and clergy from All Saints. We host an annual Backpack Blessing that includes local principals offering the Sunday morning sermon, 2000 pounds of paper collected and formed into our altar and pulpit. Lavishly decorated backpacks created by student artists, hang from our rafters and during coffee hour education forums address issues of inequities in school funding. I’m a founding board member for GROWCommunity, a not for profit dedicated to providing quality, K-12 neighborhood education.
As bishop, I’ll encourage clergy and congregations to engage in spiritual discernment focused on the intersection of the Gospel with the needs of their local communities and the gifts of their congregations. I’ll be involved in pressing civic discussions and represent the Diocese in matters of justice.
How do you in your ordained ministry help congregations grow through struggles, including struggles related to the size of the congregation and/or the ability of the membership to support ministries? (Please provide at least one specific example to support your response.)
In my 30 years of ministry, I have served large and small suburban churches and an urban congregation that has grown from 35 people on a Sunday to the fourth largest church in the Diocese of Chicago. I frequently say that I have served 6 congregations, three of which had the same address.
I understand the energy, tenacity, vision and “jack-of-all-tradesness” that is routinely required when serving a congregation with fewer than 40 people attending on a Sunday. I know what it is like to try to raise enough money and enthusiasm to create a pastoral size congregation with 100 people participating weekly. Likewise, I also know the intense pressures of leading a multi-staff congregation, managing conflicting programmatic interests, and raising money simultaneously for operating budgets and multi-million dollar capital campaigns. Twenty-six years into my tenure at All Saints I oversee our operating budget, our capital campaign income and expenditures, our not for profit Ravenswood Community Services, and our Limited Liability Corporation.
I have contended with both empty pews and over-flowing church school classrooms. I appreciate what it is like to worship in a space that not only has water in a baptismal font, but also dripping down through the roof and seeping up through the basement. Each is difficult, some of it is a mystery, but all of it is Holy.
In addition to leading All Saints through three different congregational sizes, I also spend a significant amount of time, mentoring colleagues and working with other congregations as they seek to navigate congregational size changes. I have worked with tiny rural congregations as well as churches seeking to transition from pastoral to program size. There is no one magic answer enabling a congregation to grow. Rather, I focus on working with the lay and ordained leadership to understand what their particular gifts and talents are, what the needs of the community may be in which the church is situated and then what their particular church is adept at doing. In addition, as I did recently with St. John’s in Royal Oak, I spend time discussing the various congregational systems that are frequently seen in different size congregations. How a family size church (fewer than 50 people on a Sunday) grows and operates and integrates members is very different from how a pastoral size church (55 to 120) or a program size church (120 to 350) would function. A key insight from my work with St. John’s was posing the questions as to whether or not the vestry wanted to embrace the operational changes necessary for the church to keep growing.
I firmly believe that no one size church is better than another. Rather each church should be the size it needs to be to carry out the mission God has given them. Our call is not to grow churches or to close churches, our call is to live out the Gospel in a way that positively changes the lives of those who come in contact with the church.