The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards
Rector, St. Thomas, Columbus, Georgia
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?
As soon as I read your profile, I found myself getting excited. The Diocese of Michigan is blessed with powerful gifts. You clearly value spiritual formation, learning, and prayer. You embrace and deploy the baptismal gifts of all people. You are not afraid to experiment with different ways of being Church together. You prioritize the leadership of young people. You embody the rich diversity of The Episcopal Church. You love one another and hope to deepen that love. You are seeking to be faithful to Jesus. All these gifts lead you to reach out in mission, challenging unjust structures of society and bearing witness to the Way of Love. Your approach to ministry, grounded in intentional formation and the baptismal gifts of all, truly excites me.
I also found myself excited about the potential before you. You mentioned challenges around declining membership, aging buildings, lack of youth involvement, and those who find faith irrelevant. Whatever the challenge, I am excited about the Diocese of Michigan because I believe your gifts prepare you to address the challenges before all of us in the Episcopal Church today.
If you think of the Church as a tree, your commitment to faith formation for all ages has helped you tap into deep roots of faith that make the tree strong. Your willingness to experiment and use the gifts of all people helps the tree grow. Encountering God in scripture and learning to pray boldly leads the tree to branch out in witness and justice. You are well-prepared to grow like trees planted by the water.
I am interested in serving with the Diocese of Michigan because I love what you are already doing. I share your passion for forming people as thoughtful, prayerful disciples of Jesus. I value your history of utilizing the gifts of God’s people in creative, effective ways. I also value where you say you want to go. You sound like the kind of diocese I would enjoy serving in any capacity. To add to the gifts you already possess, I bring an ability and desire to share the gospel in the Church and beyond the Church. I am passionate about care for clergy and congregational leaders. I am a relationship builder. I have served congregations in the cathedral city and congregations far away, a perspective a bishop needs to understand. I have experience in working with young people, worshiping in different ways, leading on the diocesan level, and living in the Midwest. I enjoy the administrative side of ministry. I am good at helping groups identify what they are called to do and develop strategies for getting it done. I embrace justice as part of the Way of Love. And I am deeply thankful for the Episcopal Church.
It would be a privilege to serve with you to strengthen what God has already planted in the Diocese of Michigan. Thank you for the opportunity to be in discernment with you.
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?
I have been blessed to serve many types of ministries. I currently serve as rector of a growing congregation in the second largest city in Georgia. In the past, I served as a Christian education director, music minister, youth minister, interim pastor, church consultant, ministry developer, associate rector, and school chaplain with congregations of all sizes in rural and urban communities across Indiana.
Each of these ministries involved building relationships among diverse groups. An ecumenical youth ministry I served consisted of five congregations from five denominations. I helped launch a satellite campus for a United Methodist congregation where some supported the new campus and some did not. Episcopal congregations I served all welcomed people representing diverse socio-economic groups, racial groups, sexual orientations, political leanings, and liturgical preferences. The school where I was chaplain claimed diversity as a core value and recruited a diverse group of students. For the last ten or so years, I participated in interfaith work in Indiana and Georgia and with global mission work across the Episcopal Church. All required building relationships among diverse groups.
For me, the most significant factor in helping diverse groups work effectively is simply to recognize the great gift diversity is. Our work for God grows much stronger as different people offer their experiences and voices. I also find it important for the group to be clear about common purpose – why the work matters. It is likewise important for group members to own their individual values – why they want to contribute to the group. When we share a common purpose, diverse groups working together can accomplish great things.
While past experiences were helpful, in the Diocese of Atlanta over the past few years I have learned more about the gospel work of reconciliation than at any previous point in my life. Several years ago, the Diocese of Atlanta Beloved Community Commission realized that racial healing work is spiritual work, not technical work. What we need is not another version of corporate diversity training but a process of spiritual formation to allow God to transform our hearts. Taking part in training offered by the Diocese of Atlanta, and later serving on the Board for the Center for Racial Healing, was life changing for me. It opened my eyes to how racism and privilege shape my own life. It gave me the freedom to name and confess my sin without shame or guilt. And it taught me to be more intentional about valuing the gifts all people bring. Looking back on decades of building relationships across diverse groups, I have been more successful when I have welcomed the gifts of all people. I have been less successful when I have been anxious or rushed in my approach to people rather than curious and open. I am deeply grateful for the blessing of working with so many different people in the Church.
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 think of prophetic and pastoral ministry as two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. Both are visible in the example of Jesus.
Pastoral work is about shepherding and caring for everything God made – congregations, neighborhoods, creation, everything. All Christians are called to pastoral work, not just clergy. Teachers shepherd students, neighbors shepherd neighborhoods, employers shepherd employees, and so on. Pastoral work is the work of all the baptized.
Prophetic work is about protecting the vulnerable. Prophets defend the flock from wolves. As we shepherd the world around us, pastoral work demands that we act prophetically when people or creation are being harmed. All Christians are also called to prophetic work.
The challenge I encounter most in pastoral/prophetic work is the challenge of waking up to it. I wake up most mornings easily, ready to start the day. Some wake up slowly and need more time to open their eyes. The same is true with waking up to ways to care for others and defend them from harm. Some wake up quickly to certain issues, others more slowly. As pastors/prophets, we all have to wake up, but different people may need different sorts of alarms.
The story of how I woke up to the pain of immigrant families facing deportation is just one example of how the pastoral and prophetic merge. As I woke up to this issue, I tried speaking about it in sermons. However, as I reflected on my approach, I realized my words were based only on what I was hearing in the news. I was trying to act prophetically, but my prophetic work was not grounded in pastoral work. As I prayed about how to respond, I realized one of our nation’s largest immigration detention centers is forty miles from my home. I got involved with a ministry there to come alongside families facing deportation. The pastoral work of coming alongside this pain led to more authentic prophetic work.
As we wake up to the harm befalling us or others, we may feel angry. I encourage people to pay attention to this anger. Anger is a clue that something is wrong. For example, a member of a congregation I served mentioned that she was angry about many issues in our world and worried she might get stuck in her anger. I invited her to name what she was most angry about, and she named climate change. As a result, she became the leader of our creation care team. Caring pastorally for her involved helping her find her prophetic voice.
These examples illustrate how I think a bishop navigates the dual role of pastor and prophet. A bishop’s pastoral ministry becomes prophetic as a bishop comes alongside suffering to draw attention to it and amplify voices that need to be heard. A bishop’s ministry should also create a climate that encourages all people to find their prophetic voice.
The ministry of Jesus was both pastoral and prophetic. We who follow Jesus are called to follow as He leads the way.
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?
The most challenging and exciting paradigm change I experience in ministry is the Church’s shift in thinking about mission. Bishop Ian Douglas and others have described it. For much of Christian history, we thought of mission as something the Church did. Churches and denominations established missions and sent missionaries.
More recently, we have started to see that mission is bigger than the Church. Mission starts with God. God has been on mission from the beginning. God’s mission is about healing what is broken and creating abundance and safety for all. Jesus called it the Reign of God – God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. The invitation is to join in what God is doing, making this world more like what God intends it to be.
Verna Dozier made this point in her foundational work The Dream of God. Studying the Bible as she and others taught led The Episcopal Church to think about our work in a different way. Bishop Curry calls it The Jesus Movement. We go out not to take Jesus to people but to meet Jesus where he already is.
This shift in thinking about mission has profound implications for ministry. On one level, it means that church growth is not an end in itself. We seek to grow our congregations so that we may increase the number of disciples who engage God’s mission together. We gather people in for the purpose of sending them out.
This missional shift shapes how we approach challenges many congregations face around involvement, financial resources, and use of space. Since we trust God is working throughout our communities, not only in the Church, how might we work in partnership with God and others in the community? How might resources like space and location be used creatively for God’s mission?
This missional shift also shapes how we impact the world around us. The people we encounter in mission, whether locally or globally, are not clients receiving services. They are beloved children of God blessed with gifts to use and share. Models like Asset Based Community Development are practical applications of this missional shift. Under the ABCD model, partners in mission identify gifts God has already invested in a community and work together to build up those gifts. For example, while emergency food pantries are helpful in a crisis, ABCD has encouraged the development of food co-ops, community gardens, small businesses, and other practices that help communities address food needs long term. Leaders in my city are currently convening church and non-profit groups to consider how to implement ABCD principles throughout our community.
Based on these insights, if I were called as your bishop, I would want us to keep these questions in mind as we go about our shared ministry:
1) How are we going out into the world to engage God’s mission?
2) How are we inviting people and partners to join us in mission?
3) How might we build up the gifts God has planted around us?
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.)
The congregation I currently serve is blessed to be enjoying a period of significant growth in membership and attendance, but we are not without our struggles. Financial and staff resources are reduced compared to times when membership was smaller. For years, the congregation drew heavily on an endowment and got used to having those resources around. By the time I arrived, the endowment was reduced, the facility needed a great deal of maintenance, and the congregation was anxious about the future.
I helped us grow through our struggles by reducing anxiety, thinking creatively, developing strategies to address known concerns, and building on the gifts of God present among us. I reconfigured staff positions to reduce costs and direct staff time toward communication and family ministry. I led us to develop a multi-year plan for improving the facility. We emphasized generosity and worked to increase giving and decrease the endowment draw. I implemented a discernment process to expand the leadership pool and better utilize the gifts of our members. These steps helped us grow.
I helped a smaller congregation nearby address similar challenges. The Diocese of Atlanta does not use the Total Ministry model, and this congregation has not had consistent clergy leadership for years, but they have a strong team of lay leaders. I started meeting with their senior warden to see how our congregations might work together. I met with their vestry and asked them to name ministry opportunities around them. They saw a need for job training. The senior warden knew of a training program looking for more space, so they invited that group to move in. I connected them with a grant process in our diocese. My congregation partnered with them on the grant to provide scholarships for the training program. Through these scholarships, students learn job skills, the training program supports the congregation, and the congregation continues to serve their neighborhood.
A final way I have helped congregations grow through struggles is through building community among clergy and congregational leaders. I serve in a part of the diocese far from Atlanta and with few Episcopal churches nearby. Soon after arriving in this diocese, I saw a need for clergy to communicate more easily with one another, so I launched a Facebook group for Diocese of Atlanta clergy. This has helped clergy build relationships across distance, share resources, and pray for one another. I also reach out to congregations in my convocation without settled clergy to keep their lay leaders informed and connected to diocesan life.
I believe our best days lie before us as Episcopalians. The world needs the good news of Jesus as we have encountered it, and we are getting better at sharing it. It would be a privilege to walk with the people of the Diocese of Michigan as you produce abundant fruit for God’s new creation.