ATLANTA – Three years after the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted everyone’s life the people of The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta have emerged stronger, more adaptive, and more able to confront epic changes brought by the pandemic.
The most visible example of this was a gathering on Nov. 10-11, 2023, at The Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta where more than 500 delegates to the Diocese’s 117th Annual Council leaned in to learning new ways of being church.
During the pre-council worship service Bishop Rob Wright preached on the theme for the Council, “With Our Lips and Our Lives.”
“From the 5th chapter of the Gospel according to St. John and the 6th verse, we hear Jesus pose a life changing question to a man, ‘…would you be made whole.’ This story is one of my favorites,” Bishop Wright said. This story is about a wholeness and healing made of the coming together of word and deed.
“And here he comes, the poet laureate of Nazareth, always the poser of poignant questions. And this morning he lobbed a doozy into our laps. It’s a direct question. All cake, no icing. ‘Would you be made well.’ What a caring question. It seeks to activate agency and commission capacity. I like that question for this man. I like this question for us individually and for our congregations and ministries. I like this question for us as the Episcopal Church in Middle and North Georgia. ‘Would you be made whole?’ Read The General Thanksgiving slowly and you will get a glimpse of wholeness from these familiar words, ‘…and we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives….”
You can watch Bishop Wright’s entire sermon here. The music was led by Will Buthod, Holy Trinity Parish Decatur.
Bishop Wright later opened the Annual Council in The Cathedral’s massive gathering hall with prayer for all of the human family and a video of people sharing what they are thankful to God for that highlights the theme, “With Our Lips and Our Lives,” and diversity of the Diocese.
Data Driving Decisions
Data based presentations on the lessons being learned from the disruption and how the Diocese’s leadership and people are adapting were presented about the status of the Diocese’s worshiping communities.
In his address to the Council Bishop Wright began with data.
”According to the most recent data available, the Episcopal Church in total has just over 1.5 million folks. And those 1.5 million worship in a little over 6,500 congregations. That’s in 109 dioceses, right? Some on the continental United States, some in other countries. And 120 of those congregations are in middle of North Georgia. And are represented in this room. In this room we have everything we need. Everything we need to continue and expand our proclamation of the name of Jesus. And to welcome people into fellowship with him. Everything we need. Everything. In this room. So don’t be consumed by narratives of decline. Data for me is important and thank God for Sally [Ulrey].
Ulrey, Canon for Congregational Vitality and Ministry Development, further drilled into data in her report. Membership rolls went down 4 percent but giving increased by 10 percent to $3.2 million, Ulrey’s report said.
For more information, see Ulrey’s presentation.
Despite his focus on data, Bishop Wright cautioned delegates not to focus on data alone.
“And yet do not be consumed by the data. Because there are opportunities right now, right in front of us, to make a difference in the world that Jesus loved,” he said.
“I’m proud to say that the Diocese of Atlanta is the leading light in the church. In the areas of racial reconciliation and healing. Liturgical imagination and innovation. Communications. The recruitment and development of Hispanic clergy. And the speaking to the intersection of mental health, suicide, and faith, just to name a few. And yet. There’s more leadership work to accomplish. Work that requires new levels of selflessness and collaboration.
“Do not neglect to do good. And share what you have. For such sacrifices are pleasing to God,” Wright said, referencing Hebrews 13: 15-16. “I believe this text gives us a road map as individuals, congregations, and a diocese towards new measurements of vitality.
“We should be distinguished as a people of God by praising our really good God. And it should be palpable to those who are in our midst that we may not agree on the 2nd Amendment. We may not agree on abortion rights. We would not even agree on the Holy Land – Palestinians and Jews, But one thing we can agree on is that we will be the people who praise the Lord.
“And so, the ask is as you plan worship going forward just try to strike that balance. Petition, of course. intersession most definitely. But also praise and thanksgiving. Yeah. It’s praise and thanksgiving that generates the energy necessary to break the grip of numbness and malaise of life and ministry.”
Wright also pointed to another marker of impact the Diocese can have.
“May I also say to those congregations who are blessed to have more than one clergy person. May I say to you as humbly as I know how it only takes one clergy person to officiate on Sunday. So many talented lay people. So gifted and so many respects. Would you please consider with your wardens and vestries sharing your strength with others in the diocese? I’m talking about human resources now. You have so much. And thank God. Thank God you’ve worked hard to achieve so much.
“But there are among us in Middle and North Georgia so many who have so little. Won’t you share? What an example we could set for the whole church if we, without a resolution or a mandate or arm twisting or browbeating. What if we became that diocese renowned in the Church? For the way in which we took care of each other. That would be extraordinary.”
Bishop Wright also announced an effort to start new worshipping communities.
“I’ll be standing up a committee this year to explore the planting of new worshipping communities in locations of the diocese that are experiencing population growth and are not presently served by our existing congregations. There’s more to do. There’s more to do. Starbucks can figure it out. We can certainly figure it out, right?”
Also, he challenged parishes and individuals to act in ways that may be new.
“Sacrifice for the common good. Sacrifice because it pleases God. And in that vein. The author of Hebrews inspires me to dream. About some future bishops address. Where because of our desire to sacrifice and please God, we will be able to say things like. All of our congregations give away at least 10 percent of their annual revenue to the needs of their neighbors. That every congregation in this diocese has at least 10 percent of its membership that regularly visits correctional facilities. That 10 percent of every congregation visits facilities where seniors long for a kind touch and a listening ear. That young people grace our pulpits, all of our pulpits, at least 10 percent of the Sundays of every year. To tell us what it must be like to try to be faithful to Jesus and live as a young person.
“Some in the church are trapped in cul-de-sacs of despair. While others in our midst. They see broad and hopeful horizons. I see both. The cul-de-sacs and the horizons. And I take comfort that God is trustworthy in both. In both. Again from [James] Baldwin. ‘Love has never been a popular movement. And nobody ever really wants to be free.’ What holds the whole thing together? Really, it does. It’s a very few people who love. And who have passion. Who love and have passion. With their lips and in their lives. Palpable. Real. Joyful. Buoyant. Thoughtful. Smart. Brilliant. Diligent. This is my 13th address to the Annual Council. And here’s what I know. God is still good. And we still have good work in front of us. Amen.”
Innovations Task Force Disbanded
Ulrey recognized members of the Ministry Innovations Task Force – Ginny Heckle, Beth King, Harry Groce, and The Rev. Janet Tidwell – as the group winds down more than a decade of work.
“After more than a decade of service, the Ministry Innovations Task Force is wrapping up its work,” Ulrey said. “Since its inception in 2012, the Ministry Innovations Task Force has supplied seed money, coaching and support for churches who wanted to try something different some. using the money that you provided by parishes that gave above and beyond their Canon 20 assessment and went to the Ministry Innovations Fund. And then the task force would grant money for innovative ministry experiments.
“So even though we’re celebrating them today, we’re also celebrating your generosity and together we’ve made all of these things possible. That’s partnership.”
Ulrey said the task force granted more than $150,000 over the course of their work. Providing grants to the Canterbury House at Saint Paul’s in Macon, Theology From The Margins at Church of the Common Ground. The Freedom School in Macon. The Go Summit and to produce The Go Guide. It provided a grant to purchase a keyboard for Imagine Worship, an innovative new ministry formed in response to the pandemic. And beyond our diocese, it also provided grants to ministries in Rio de Janeiro and Cuba.
“And this year, as it wraps up its work, the final grants went to support the new Hispanic ministry at Saint Augustine’s in Morrow. A grant to reimagine the Canterbury Club at Saint Luke’s in Fort Valley, to support the Jesse Norman School of the Arts at Holy Cross.
“In Cuba, for parishes to distribute food and to Saint Teresa of Avila in the Diocese of Cape Coast Ghana in order to build housing for its priest and Sunday school space. They have faithfully stewarded your generous offerings to make an impact across the diocese and literally across the world.
Bishop Wright added his congratulations.
“Thank you, Ministry Innovation. You’ve been like the space capsule that helped us get out into orbit and do the work that we’re doing right now. So, thank you for that hard work.”
Report on Closing Oakwood Parish
Delegates also heard a report on the closing of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood, GA.
Bishop Wright said the final service at St. Gabriel’s did not end the impact of the parish.
“The word of God was preached there. People cared for one another there. People danced in that place. They cried in that place. They challenged each other in that place. There were innumerable deviled eggs served in that place.
“So let me just say to you, these are never happy occasions when a congregations ministry ends in a particular place. Listen. But we do take comfort and solace in the fact that the people who experience the risen Christ there in the fellowship and in the breaking of bread now have been distributed. So, they have not ended. The word of God went mobile at that final service. And people have now joined other neighboring congregations.”
New Partnership Between Companion Dioceses
An economic opportunity partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and the Anglican Diocese of Cape Coast Ghana was announced at this year’s Annual Council.
The DIGNITY Sewing Center is the result of collaboration between the women of Atlanta and Cape Coast to “encourage the youth in Cape Coast to experience the dignity of work,” according to Dr. Beth Sarah Wright.
The Sewing Center is already producing African inspired clothing items with beautiful Ghanian names in the Twi language “infused with power, faith, beauty, joy and dignity,” Dr Wright said when announcing the project to more than 500 delegates gathered at The Cathedral of St. Philip.
Camp Mikell Overhaul
A fundraising program to update Mikell Camp and Conference was presented by campaign Chair Mike McAuliffe. The $7 million fund will be used to:
- Rebuild some upper camp cottages to include a common area, private bedrooms, and baths, plus a kitchenette with fridge, and coffee maker.
- Construct a new multi-use pavilion with bathrooms will be built for use by the Blue Ridge Outdoor Education Center and large gatherings such as weddings and retreats.
- Reconstruct the adjacent Retreat Village will be reconstructed to replace outmoded buildings, provide additional single occupancy rooms, and create more indoor and outside gathering spaces.
- Upgrade dorm bathrooms.
A portion of the $2 million already raised has been used to:
- Create a new a handicapped accessible walkway to the Camp Mikell Chapel.
- A new two-lane driveway into camp.
- Modernize bathrooms in six dorms.
The Mikell Camp and Conference Center was established in 1941 and, over the years, it has developed into a year-round conference center. Youth and adults attend the property during each month of the year for retreats, conferences, and camps. The camp hosts many summer sessions for a traditional, faith-based camp for children and youth. Camp Mikell serves people of all ages in the Diocese and its parishes, as well as other groups whose purposes complement its mission.
Learn more about the Campaign for Mikell.
On the second day the Annual Council opened with worship led by the youth of the Diocese.
In his sermon Diocesan Youth Commission Chair Luke Netto said “The young generation’s relationship with God and his church has never been more important.
Watch Luke’s full Youth Address to Annual Council here.
Netto repeated the point that youth are on the forefront of tackling the most important issues of the day by introducing Council Resolution R23-3 on Mental Wellness
“To counter the harms posed by a mental health crisis, a polarized society and a world placing God in the rearview mirror, the Church must tackle the issues head on, with youth in mind and with youth at the decision making table.
“The young generation’s relationship with God and his church has never been more important. To counter the harms posed by a mental health crisis, a polarized society and a world placing God in the rearview mirror, the Church must tackle the issues head on, with youth in mind and with youth at the decision making table.
“We desire to sit at God’s table with all of His people, young and old. The Episcopal Church in this diocese has done an excellent job of fueling the spiritual needs of youth. But we must continue the work. Our generation wants to exist in community with one another and with our church families. We want a relationship with God, just as God desires a relationship with us. We want to give back to the church as the church has given to us. Given the opportunity, youth can bring our resources to the table for the betterment of God’s holy Church.”
Netto asked that Council delegates review the Youth Commission’s annual report to learn more about its achievements and goals.
Afterward, delegates debated, amended, and passed resolutions to make changes to the constitution of the Diocese and the composition of the board of governors at Appleton Ministries, to protect religious liberty and support mental wellness.
13 Bishop’s Cross Recipients Recognized
Learn About This Year’s Recipients
Bishop Wright instituted the Bishop’s Cross to acknowledge and celebrate the ministries of exemplary clergy, and lay people throughout the diocese. These special people embody the diocesan purpose statement: we challenge ourselves and the world to love like Jesus, as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately and grow spiritually.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Abbott, Sr. nominated by the Middle Georgia Convocation. Gary is a former Baptist pastor, who was received into the Episcopal Church as a priest in the Diocese of Georgia and served at St. Luke’s, Hawkinsville. Upon retirement, he moved to Macon, and supports clergy and parishes alike as a supply priest, especially during the sabbaticals of the clergy in that convocation. We are grateful for his ministry and presence among us.
Denis Ariel Hernandez is the selected YOUTH recipient of the Bishop’s Cross. Aside from being a great student who’s performed across the state as part of his high school orchestra, Denis has a strong faith that is evident in his role as a youth leader at his parish. He consistently volunteers in different parish ministries (including his role as a musician in worship) and has been a positive influence in his community. We are grateful for Denis and excited to celebrate his ministry!
Joel Carver and Kay Durand, nominated by the Chattahoochee Valley Convocation. Joel and Kay are members of St. Mark’s LaGrange, and are recognized for their faithful and steady leadership during St. Mark’s search process for a new rector, especially as an Interim rector was not available to serve St. Mark’s during this transition. Lay leaders within the congregation stepped up to manage everything. Joel and Kay especially worked together to make sure St. Mark’s not only survived but thrived.
Melida Fitten, nominated by the Northeast Metro Convocation. Melida is a member of Christ Church Norcross. Mellie, as she is known, attended the first service of the Hispanic Community at Christ Church 23 years ago, and has been involved ever since. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s but continued to love and encourage others, to teach catechism classes, share her gifts with the community, and remind others of God’s constant and unfailing love, encouraging them to follow Jesus.
Julie Foreman, nominated by the Southwest Atlanta Convocation from St. Margaret’s in Carrollton, where she has served as the parish administrator for almost 25 years, and will be retiring this coming February. Her priest says that Julie has been a rock and the glue that held St. Margaret’s together between 3 rector tenures and 2 major transitions. She loves photography and captures thousands of special moments, and her love for St. Margaret’s and the people of God is readily apparent.
Ann Fowler, nominated by the East Atlanta Convocation. Ann served at Emmaus House for more than twelve years in many roles, retiring in 2022. During her ministry at Emmaus House, Ann helped start such programs as the Saturday Community Arts, Homework Relief, Freedom School at Emmaus House. Ann is a member of the Church of the Epiphany in Atlanta where she is currently leading the Community of Hope Ministry. At Epiphany, Ann has served as senior warden twice and has also served in dozens of other roles at Epiphany and around the Diocese.
Barbara Jamison, nominated by North Atlanta Convocation. At 88, Barbara is the oldest active parishioner at Holy Comforter, serving on the vestry and the Friendship Center. Barbara is the only remaining parishioner, to our knowledge, who was at Holy Comforter in the days when it was a more “conventional” church. She has been a parishioner for 46 years. Barbara lived through the changing racial dynamics of the Ormewood Park neighborhood which led to Holy Comforter’s decline. When Holy Comforter’s resurrection began by inviting individuals who were affected by poverty and a mental health diagnosis, Barbara was there. She was one of only a handful of people who had the courage to stay, and she’s the last remaining member from those years. But what’s most striking is how she goes out of her way to do little things for others which make them feel special and cared for. Bishop Wright called her on her birthday the past several years, and says he loves doing it because she inspires him!
Karol Kimmell, nominated by the Mid-Atlanta convocation. Karol is entering her 25th year as director of children and youth CHOIRS at All Saints’ in Atlanta, and she has built a life-changing program that has now affected a full generation of children and youth. One sign of the depth of her ministry is the dozens of college students who come back from school to sing with her choirs on Christmas eve. She has developed a cohesive program that teaches the joy and power of the Christian faith, through the compelling power of communal song. She teaches bible stories, personal growth skills, musical vocabulary, and she builds community through a comprehensive K-12 program that includes prayer books, bibles, hymnals, retreats, worship, and activities for parents and siblings. She shows people the love of Jesus through music.
Christie Stevens, nominated by the Marietta Convocation, and member of St. Benedict’s. In 2014, just after taking early retirement, Christie prayed about how she could, in this new season, get more involved in her church and community. Soon after she heard a sermon about the ministry of Path to Shine, a mentoring program for underserved elementary school students, and before the sermon ended Christie sensed a call to get involved. She began mentoring with Path to Shine in 2014, building relationship with three 4th grade girls. She continued with them in their 5th grade year and is still in touch with all three, now high school graduates. One was valedictorian of her class and Christie was thrilled to be invited and attend her graduation! Christie asked God for opportunity to serve and this was the faithful response.
The Rev. Ken Struble, nominated by the Georgia Mountains Convocation. Ken retired this year after having been a faithful servant of God and the Diocese of Atlanta for 30 years. He spent 21 years at Camp Mikell helping to mold and grow the young and old in the diocese and beyond. For 21 years, Ken led his staff with love and grace, and was always willing to lend a helping hand to any and all tasks. Ken is a great listener with a lot of patience. Ken also served his community by being a volunteer firefighter in Stephens County for 21 years.
Pictured Here: The Rev. John Hamilton receiving on Ken’s behalf.
The Rev. Louis Tonsmeire, Sr. is one of the Diocese of Atlanta’s longest serving priests. Even after decades of service, he has continued to serve in retirement in many interim rectorships, often helping to keep parishes afloat and well-cared for during times of transition. Many parishes in the Diocese of Atlanta have benefited from his ministry.
The Rev. Canon Isaías Rodriguez has been involved in planting Hispanic worshipping communities throughout the Diocese for decades. The first Hispanic mission was started at St. Luke’s in 1983, where it stayed until 1998, when it was transferred to the Cathedral, and in that same year, Bishop Frank Allan appointed Isaias as Hispanic Missioner from the Diocese.
Over the years, Isaias planted the following missions directly or indirectly.
- 1983/1998 St. Luke’s for 15 years. Now not existing.
- 1998 The Cathedral,
- 1998 Santa María,
- 2000 Christ Church,
- 2002 St. Jude´s,
- 2003 St. David,
- 2004 St. Bede´s,
- 2009 El Buen Pastor,
- 2011 Atonement, now Holy Innocents
- 2014 St. Edward,
- 2016 St. Gabriel´s Oakwood—now closed.
- 2017 Emmanuel,
- 2017 St. Peter’s
Youth Project helps Kids Going into Foster Care
At the end of each Annual Council youth from throughout the Diocese lead a service project. This year they chose to help a very vulnerable group of people: kids entering foster care.
Children are removed from their families every day in Georgia because of abuse or neglect. Too often, these children have to carry trash bags filled with their belongings to their new foster home.
“For a vulnerable child or teen in crisis, having a backpack that belongs to them and is full of some basic practical and comfort items can show them that they matter and are loved by God and others, even in the midst of chaos,” said Youth Missioner Holle Tubbs. Watch her video detailing the project.
More than 300 First Night backpacks were assembled at the close of Annual Council. Each included a note of love and encouragement. They were distributed to the Division of Family and Children Services offices in the Diocese.
The next Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta is scheduled for Nov. 8-9, 2024, at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church and School.
View Photos from the Event