Episcopal Parish Network conference inspires leaders, nurtures Episcopal witness

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Mar 8, 2024

Journalist John Burnett, left, moderated a panel honoring Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s leadership and his legacy on March 7. Panelists included Alice Freeman, Bishop of New York Matthew Heyd, James Williams and the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, during the 39th Episcopal Parish Network Conference. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Houston, Texas] During the first plenary session of the Episcopal Parish Network’s 39th Annual Conference the moderator asked a full room: How many of your parishes are growing? At least two-thirds of the hands went up.

Some 650 clergy and lay leaders are gathered at the Westin Galleria and Westin Oaks hotels here for the March 6-9 conference. Formerly known as the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, the network is a national, membership-based organization of clergy and lay leaders representing 200 parishes of all sizes and budgets. It hosts an annual conference where members come to share experiences, learn, and generate ideas and practices for creating dynamic ministries and parish life. It also offers peer-to-peer online education and thought leadership initiatives throughout the year.

Episcopal Parish Network “connects clergy and laity across parishes doing their best to survive, thrive and lead The Episcopal Church and its unique witness into the future,” Executive Director Joe Swimmer told Episcopal News Service.

When asked what he meant by “unique witness,” he said, “It means we’re reasonable. Of course, we believe scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, the creeds contain a sufficient statement of our faith, there were two sacraments that were handed down by our Lord himself. And we are reasonable, which means my husband and I can be married, which means that we can have women priests and bishops, which means that we talk about climate, which means that we talk about race and racial reconciliation.”

The Rev. David Copley, The Episcopal Church’s director of global partnerships and mission personnel, talks about Global Partnerships. “Our office exists to remind us that we are all children of God on a global basis, and that there are no walls and no fences in our neighborhoods,” he said. “In this day and age of divisiveness that’s hugely important … having partners around the Anglican Communion is so, so important for us today.” Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

It’s that witness, Swimmer said, that is so important in today’s fractured society. “For us to do anything but nurture it and help it to endure and to maybe offer healing to some of those wounds or ways of bringing people together would be criminal.”

The conference’s theme, “Inspiring Leaders,” is intended, organizers say, to inspire leadership to move the church forward and to consider those leaders, like Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who have inspired others with their leadership.

The conference’s first plenary session on March 7 was meant to be a discussion between Curry and veteran NPR journalist John Burnett. But with Curry unable to attend as he recovers at home from surgery, it became a panel discussion honoring him moderated by Burnett, who is also a longtime member of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin. Panelists included Alice Freeman, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Wilson, North Carolina, a member of the Diocese of North Carolina’s Standing Committee and a member of Executive Council; New York Bishop Matthew Heyd, who was born and raised in North Carolina; James Williams, an investment banker and member of Houston’s St. Martin’s Episcopal Church; and the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care.

Before the discussion started, Burnett, taking an idea from Spellers, asked those in the room to think of one word to describe Curry, a quality or gift received from him. Over the next 30 seconds, the individuals offered the following words: “joyful,” “dynamic,” “humble,” “enthusiastic,” “courageous,” faithful,” “preacher,” “openhearted,” “Buffalo Bills” (a nod to his favorite NFL team), “love,” “love,” “love,” “Jesus,” “belly laugh” and “Bible.”

Later, Freeman, who outside her service to the church is a longtime friend of Curry’s, told ENS when asked about his legacy, “His legacy is love. It’s pure and simple. His legacy is love.”

“He listens to people, he understands people, and they understand that about him; when you are in his presence, you feel a spirit, a gentle kind spirit, a loving spirit.”

Curry is recovering at home in Raleigh, North Carolina, following a series of medical procedures. His successor will be elected in June at the 81st General Convention and installed in November at Washington National Cathedral.

The Rt. Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, suffragan bishop of Dover in the Church of England’s Diocese of Canterbury, and the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, engaged in a keynote conversation on March 7. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

Later in the afternoon on March 7, the second keynote event featured a discussion between the Rt. Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, suffragan bishop of Dover in the Church of England’s Diocese of Canterbury, and the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis.

The two bishops were asked to consider the “chief challenges” they face over the next one-to-three years and what opportunities might come from those challenges.

Hudson-Wilkin said the challenge question often comes up in her diocese. What she always comes back to, she said, is “the lack of confident Christians.” The bishop explained she was referring to the Eucharistic prayer that ends by saying: “Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.” As she travels her diocese, she tells people not to say those words if they don’t mean it.

“I want to see Christians who live into those words, who really want to be sent out in the power of the Spirit, to live into what it means to be the people of God,” she said.

Following on Hudson-Wilkin, Baskerville-Burrows said, “The way I often talk about it is that I want people in our churches to be all in on Jesus.” During her Sunday visitations, she said, the questions she wants answered are, why are you here and what keeps you here? What she finds, she said, in the U.S. context of what’s being described as an “epidemic of loneliness,” is that people want “belonging.”

Still, she said, people struggle to answer her questions, and that speaks to the lack of confidence Hudson-Wilkin mentioned, and possibly to insufficient formation.

“I don’t want faith to be lived in the shallow end of the pool, I want it to be deep,” Baskerville-Burrows said. “And I want to help form folks who are knowing why they worship Jesus in the way they do, and why they’re taking the time to be in community, why they’re giving up the resources to support transformational change, and to be articulate about it.”

Formation is something people in the Diocese of West Virginia are thinking about. Catherine Saxe, the diocese’s canon for mission and ministry and a first-time conference attendee, told ENS formation is part of the diocese’s congregational development plan. She attended a March 7 session, “Belonging: Young Families Searching for Spiritual Communities.” One of the challenges in her diocese, post-pandemic, she said, is welcoming back young families.

“One of the things particularly about the young families is offering a really authentic space where parents are supported when their kids are asking the big questions about spirituality and life, because I think one of the themes they talked about is parents feel very ill-equipped,” Saxe told ENS. “It’s hard for them to have those discussions because they feel like they don’t have the support or education, and so how do we give them that support, help them to navigate those questions?”

The conference is organized around six workshop tracks designed to educate and inspire on subjects including leadership, financial resiliency, innovation, strategy, inclusiveness and real property management. It began on March 6 with pre-conference sessions designed for colleagues and peers working within specific roles — rectors, deans, sub-deans, associates, curates, wardens, vestry members, lay leaders, communications professionals, etc. — to share, learn and inspire each other to strengthen their work and their ministries.

The conference offers a way to engage in “cross-disciplinary study,” said Karen Kraycirik, chief operating officer at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston and co-chair of the conference planning committee.

“Every parish has something to bring to the table; that’s a value,” she said. “What I also find is a lot of us, no matter our size, are experiencing the same thing. To feel that camaraderie, to feel that solidarity with one another no matter if you have a $40 million endowment or if you have no endowment, we can still be facing the same thing in the world today.”

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn Jr., rector of Epiphany Parish of Seattle, Washington, Diocese of Olympia, first attended one of the network’s conferences in 2004 as a seminarian. Back then, it was still the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.

“It was wonderfully impactful because I met all sorts of priests who remain role models of how to be a priest,” Conn, who serves on Episcopal Parish Network’s Board of Directors, told ENS.

Twenty years later, he’s still attending conferences along with members of his staff.

“When I go to EPN [conferences] I encounter churches and their rectors who are doing interesting things, who are owning the traditional patterns of The Episcopal Church, wherever they are, and completely thriving. They’re also doing innovative things, but they continue to be a model for me of how you can be an Episcopal church.”

-Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service. She lives in New York City and can be reached at lwilson@episcopalchurch.org.