I’m not a big fan of January. Ever since I was a child, January has been my least favorite month of the year. I’m not quite sure why. I guess it has something to do with the weather and the general let-down that comes after the Christmas holidays. My father always insisted on taking down the Christmas tree on New Year’s Day which I always found rather depressing. As an adult married couple, my wife and I much prefer to wait until January 6th or beyond to perform this least favorite task of the year. Maybe my problem with January is also the frustration about New Year’s resolutions that go unfulfilled, although I have been sticking to my diet so far. It’s not that interesting and even enjoyable things don’t occur in January. Also, in January, the days start to become longer by one or two minutes each day which will be rather noticeable by the end of the month. Nonetheless, I know that when February 1st comes around, I will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
I used to feel the same way about Epiphany. I always thought it was just a way for the Church to fill in the time between Christmas and Lent. As I have matured in my faith journey, however, clearly a life-long pursuit, I have come to appreciate how subtle but powerful and rich this season of Epiphany really is especially with its images of manifestation and light. After all, it begins with the visitation of the Christ child by the Magi in Bethlehem and ends with Jesus being transfigured before his apostles on the mountaintop. That is some pretty significant stuff.
Christmas is always a special time in New York City. With the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the department store window displays, and the throngs of tourists and shoppers, the city sparkles, bustles, and hums during the holiday season. After settling for virtual events and subdued celebrations in 2020, there is plenty of pent-up demand and even expectations for a “normal” New York Christmas this year. And I know that this sentiment is shared by people throughout the country and even the world – we need a normal Christmas, and we need it now.
Since the COVID 19 pandemic began over 20 months ago, all of us have been longing for returning to normal as quickly as possible. Yet, at the same time, we realize that life, as we knew it, will never be the same. And probably, Christmas, as we knew it, will never be the same as well. While many of our typical holiday practices are beginning to return, we are also faced with the threat of a new Omicron variant, supply chain shortages and delays, inflation, and the continued need for masks, vaccines, and testing. So much for a normal Christmas.
But maybe Christmas, as life itself, is not meant to be normal. After all, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago was anything but a normal event in human history. Even the angels, shepherds and wisemen, who celebrated and praised the newborn baby in the manger, did not fully recognize or appreciate the true significance of the Incarnation - God becoming one of us. Little did they know that this Jesus, by his birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, would transform the world. And this process of transformation was not a one-shot deal, nor can it be described as normal in any usual or typical way.
Earlier this year, our Board of Directors adopted the “ECF Compass” – a rearticulation of our Purpose, Mission and Vision. This document also highlights who we are, what we do and how we do it. In addition to describing ourselves as Episcopal, Independent and Lay-led, we also state that ECF is inclusive, i.e, “we are anti-racist and committed to social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”
While the process does involve an important missional and strategic conversation, it is fairly easy for an organization to make bold statements about who it is or hopes to be. The challenge becomes whether these articulations are more aspirational than actual. When it comes to being Episcopal, Independent and Lay-led, ECF has a long track record of demonstrating and living out these core qualities of our identity. When it comes to being Inclusive, or more specifically Anti-Racist, we have a much longer way to go. Clearly, our commitment in this area is aspirational but, at the same time, very sincere.
For over a year, we as a church, a nation, and a world have been challenged like never before. But as people of faith, we are confident that God is in our midst and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. I have been amazed and encouraged by the creativity, resiliency and flexibility demonstrated and witnessed by Episcopal faith communities like yours. Our congregations have embraced new ways to worship, gather and engage with our local communities. And throughout this entire period, the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) has been there with you - striving to live into our mission of leading Episcopal faith communities into the future as a partner for transforming ministries. We did this by nurturing, supporting and inspiring lay and clergy leaders throughout the church.
For example, we have developed and disseminated a whole array of online resources. On our new organizational website ecf.org, we are rolling out ECF360 – a self-directed tool for raising financial resources for your local ministries. Our Vital Practices website, ecfvp.org, hosts a resource hub on racial justice and reconciliation as well as information on hybrid church and COVID-19. In partnership with FaithX, ECF has introduced a new version of the Congregational Vitality Assessment, cvatool.org, a practical and user-friendly way of assessing the present and planning for the future.
Recently, the Rt. Reverend Shannon MacVean-Brown, Bishop of Vermont, reported that the diocese was heading toward a “financial cliff” and that budget cuts alone would not prevent the fall. In her July 21 message, MacVean-Brown also announced a new task force that will consider long-term strategies for sustaining congregations and ministries, including the possibility of greater collaboration and resource sharing with the dioceses of New Hampshire and Maine.
The Diocese of Vermont is one of the smallest in the Episcopal Church with 5,700 baptized members in 2019, 10 full-time clergy, and 45 congregations with all but three reporting an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of less than 100. Like the rest of the Church, Vermont has experienced membership and ASA declines from 2014 to 2019, but unlike the other New England dioceses, also had a pledge and plate income drop of 3 to 7% in those five years. And Vermont is not alone. I would wager that there are dozens of other Episcopal dioceses facing the same fate but are unable or unwilling to admit it.
Donald Romanik: Hello, my name is Donald Romanik, and I am president of the Episcopal Church Foundation. I'm here in Abilene, Texas, with my son, David Romanik, who's rector, and my wife and I have the privilege and joy of spending Easter with our family and especially our granddaughters. And I know many of you will not have that opportunity after a very long, difficult year during the pandemic, but we must realize that it is Eastertime. And Easter is a time of hope and joy and new birth. Things are getting better. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we still have a lot of work to do. And Easter is about working for the kingdom and a new way of being and doing. David, why don't you share some of your thoughts with our friends at ECF?
David Romanik: So in the Easter Vigil, the celebrant addresses the congregation with these words, or similar to them: "On this most holy night, the church invites her members scattered throughout the world to gather in vigil and prayer." And I've been really interested to meditate on that experience over the last couple of months, this dynamic of being gathered, but also scattered at the same time.
Central to our identity as the church is this experience of being dispersed, this experience of being exiled, this experience of being separated from one another. And yet every year, every Easter, we are called to gather together in whatever way we can to celebrate once again the promise that God has defeated the power of sin and death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I am so excited that I get to gather with my parents for the first time in a long time for Holy Week and Easter this year. But I pray that you are able to gather in whatever way you can to celebrate a central assumption, a central truth of our faith, that the God we worship has the power to raise the dead to life and to make this world the place that God wants it to be.
Happy Easter and blessings to you.
Donald Romanik: Please know that we at ECF are with you, walking along your faith journey and supporting your local faith communities. He is risen indeed. Hallelujah.
Donald V. Romanik, President, Episcopal Church Foundation: Hello. My name is Donald Romanik and I am President of the Episcopal Church Foundation. It's been about a year since we've been living with this pandemic of COVID-19. When we locked down about a year ago this time, little did we know that 12 months later we'd still be struggling. Clearly, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. We have three new vaccines that people are starting to get, and eventually we will go back to some sense of normality.
As I look back, clearly it was challenging and frightening, but there also some good things that we have to remember. Personally, I got in touch with a lot of people I haven't spoken to in years, started appreciating the simple pleasures of life, like a meal with my spouse across the table. And in our local faith communities, we learned to pivot and do things in new and different ways, from online services to phone calls, to contacts with people; we really need to celebrate the successes over this past year.
Clearly, we have more challenges. Many of us will not be able to celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and even Easter in the usual way, but we are incredibly resilient people, as Christians, as Episcopalians, as people of faith. So I encourage all of us to continue to be vigilant, continue to follow the directives of our state and local authorities, continue to be faithful, faithful witnesses to the good news of the Gospel. We will get through this together.
I want to assure you that ECF continues to be here for you. We have also pivoted to more online supports and services, to our resource hub on COVID-19 and racial reconciliation. And we'll be there as we regather and regroup and re-discern what God is calling us to do with this time and place. I wish you all of God's blessings during this Lenten season and thank you for your continued faithfulness.
We all are shocked, saddened, and disgusted by the events of January 6. A band of rioters, emboldened by the reckless and incendiary rhetoric of the President, interrupted the constitutional business of the people, violated the safety of our elected representatives, and desecrated our nation’s Capitol, the seat of our federal government and a sacred symbol of our republic. How could this possibly happen in the United States of America?
It has become clear that not only our buildings, but our very system of government which we hold so dear and take for granted, is vulnerable, fragile and capable of being fractured before our very eyes. While our American democracy will survive, it will take a lot of hard work by everyone, elected officials and all of us alike, to make it thrive once again.
For over 70 years, the Episcopal Church Foundation has encouraged and inspired our local faith communities to thrive as they empower their members to live out their faith as followers of Jesus. During this time of turmoil and uncertainty, we need the Church, now more than ever, to nurture and support us. But our wounded nation needs us as well.
The beginning of a new year is usually filled with energy, excitement and enthusiasm. While we are all relieved that 2020 is over and encouraged by the promise of the vaccine, we enter 2021 with uncertainty, anxiety and a sense of loss. For many of us the holidays were an incredibly lonely time, away from family and friends and unable to celebrate together in community. Each of us has been negatively impacted in some way by the turbulence of the past several months.
As we confront the reality of a long, hard winter, how can we look to the future with hope and even joy? I find comfort in the words from Psalm 121:
“The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe. The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”
What I find most troubling about these trying times is that we have all been thrust into a world of unknowns, especially in the Church. How do we worship when we can’t be together? How can we be the Body of Christ when we are scattered? What new technologies and skills do we need to embrace and master, both now and in the future? How does the Church stay faithful, meaningful, and relevant?
While the current pandemic has impacted all of us, the negative effects of COVID-19 are significantly more pronounced in communities of color in all aspects of life - health, employment, schooling and food security. Current data reveals that black and Latino populations are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Millions of our fellow Americans do not have the luxury of working from home or sheltering in place and are trying to navigate this crisis without the basics we often take for granted. Sadly, these are communities for whom life in this country has been consistently hard and unjust. The current situation has simply laid bare the systemic inequities that already existed.
Last week, we woke to a deeply disturbing video of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. About a month ago, we witnessed the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man in Brunswick, Georgia, out on his daily jog, being fatally shot by two white men. These incidents inform us yet again, of the injustices that our black and brown siblings live through every single day - injustices that put their very lives in peril.
While the COVID-19 lockdown over the past several weeks has been difficult for all of us, it has created incredible opportunities to connect with one another in new and innovative ways, even while physically apart. I have truly enjoyed my telephone and video conversations with many of you during which we have shared our struggles, fears and doubts as well as our hopes, dreams and yes, moments of joy. I cherish the many clients, colleagues and friends of ECF struggling to be faithful disciples during an unprecedented period of isolation and stress. This strange and difficult time is bringing out the very best in so many of us and it’s helpful to know that we are not alone.
We are also using this time to think, pray, discern and dig deep. We are trying to put aside those things that seem rather insignificant and rediscover values that lie at our very core – faith, family, friends and partners. Organizations like ECF are also engaged in this process, and we are reconnecting with our core values including partnership. I firmly believe that the only way the Church will move forward during and beyond this crisis is by identifying, developing and nurturing strategic, missional and transformational partnerships. I often say that partnerships are fun because they provide opportunities to meet and connect with other people who share our passion and commitment. But partnerships are also critical to our ability to survive, and even thrive, as the Episcopal Church. As we slowly emerge from this first phase of the pandemic and begin discerning what the Church and the world may look like, partnerships will provide us with the strength and courage to work together and carry us into a hopeful future.
This will be a very unusual Easter for all of us. If you are looking for a place to worship online this Sunday, ECF has compiled a list of services that hold special meaning to our staff.
I would love to invite you to join the service at Church of the Heavenly Rest, in Abilene, Texas where my son the Rev. David Romanik is Rector. The Easter Day Holy Eucharist service is on April 12 at 10:30am CDT. Click here for the live stream.
Kate Adams, our Senior Consultant shares the service of her parish, St. James Episcopal Church in New York City. She wants you to know that their music is rather special! The Easter Day Festal Eucharist is on April 12 at 10am EST. Click here for the live stream.
In this time of great fear, anxiety and uncertainty, I offer you the following words of comfort:
Do not fear, for I am with you, Do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
The COVID-19 infection is spreading rapidly and impacting all aspects of our daily lives. While there are a lot of unknowns, ECF, like other Episcopal faith communities, is following the advice and directives of our federal, state and local authorities, including those relating to “social distancing”. Our immediate priority is the health and safety of our staff, clients and other constituents while we plan on ways to minimize long-term disruption to our work and our ongoing mission to the wider church. To that end, we are encouraging employees to work from home, postponing gatherings and other events and imposing a moratorium on all travel.