I am blessed to be Bishop Provisional in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. When I was still Bishop of Missouri, and even before the Standing Committee and I set in motion the machinery toward an orderly succession, I knew that I might not be done. In fact, it was clear to me that I would want to make myself available to serve as a bishop, again, in some capacity, somewhere in our Church.
Retirement suited me, I have to say, and I will be glad to pick up that manner of life once again at the end of my time in Southern Ohio. But being among you, the clergy and people of this diocese, is an unexpected blessing for me. For which I say, Thank you.
I say that it is a blessing not because the work is easy. It is not. I know, however, that hard things and blessing are not inimical. The work, honestly, looks pretty daunting. But in this challenging landscape I have at least identified three clusters of issues that will shape the work ahead for me, and for us.
For almost two years this contagion has touched everything that we do. Health care professionals, teachers, and service workers are among those directly affected, every day. Many of them, and so many other workers and professionals, are completely exhausted. Your clergy, to varying extents, feel this exhaustion also. I see it in them, and I hope that you can also. Tell them that you do.
There have been tantalizing moments when the end appears in sight, but then it vanishes. This cycle has repeated, and its familiarity has dispirited us; and the cycle goes on, seemingly without end.
For the meantime, I will continue to consult our task force of public health experts, and I will strive to keep the protocols simple and direct. The basic practices do not change: Wear your mask. Keep your distance. Get your vaccine. And for the clergy and other leaders – I have your back.
This cluster of issues links directly to the previous. People and clergy alike express a sense of disconnection – some of which has to do with COVID, yes. But there is more to it than that, something deeper. Leadership feels overstressed, underappreciated, and lonely. Again, not everyone will claim these feelings to the same extent, or at all. They are, nonetheless, widespread and systemic.
I want you to know that I see this reality. And I also see that, paradoxically, so many among us have moved forward and functioned heroically, mostly by putting one foot in front of the other, every day. God still reigns. And the Church goes on. People in the pews, vestries, clergy, diocesan leaders, staff – all have been affected. Many have done the work of heroes. But morale remains a big concern in our diocese.
Losing a bishop, even in the best and well-ordered of circumstances, causes anxiety, mostly from the sense of limbo and uncertainty about what’s next. When Bishop Tom Breidenthal resigned, it was not in the best and most orderly circumstances. His serious illness, compounded by his admitted addiction, happened during COVID, all of which made this transition chaotic from the start.
My job is to provide room for you to have the conversations that circumstances and culture might have suppressed. My job is to offer something besides chaos – to offer, dare I say, a non-anxious presence. My job, ultimately, is to provide leadership toward the election of our next Bishop Diocesan.
Everything in these three clusters connects to the others, and it is a package deal. The way ahead requires courage, from all of us. Even so, we need not lose heart. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18 NRSV)
Indeed. We do not lose heart.
The Rt. Rev. George Wayne Smith serves as Bishop Provisional for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.