The 144th convention of the diocese may have taken place is a new location, but it definitely wasn’t in Egypt.
At the gathering, which drew more than 200 people to the Best Western Lehigh Valley Conference Center and Hotel, delegates debated six resolutions, elected lay and clergy leaders to five diocesan leadership bodies, and were called to go on pilgrimage.
“The Kingdom of God does not operate under the same principles as Pharaoh’s Egypt,” said the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, bishop provisional, in his convention address. “We’ve been led across the Red Sea waters of baptism into a new life in Christ … We’re not suffering in the chains of bondage to sin, we’re not beholden to hopelessness, we aren’t building bricks for Pharaoh because we’re not in Egypt anymore, and Pharaoh can pound sand,” Rowe said, to laughter and applause.
“But as a people, particularly in our diocese, we might say we are in a wilderness time,” he continued. “And, if we’re intentional about our wilderness time, we might say it’s a time of holy pilgrimage … Brothers and sisters, over the course of the next year, I am inviting our diocese on a holy pilgrimage.”
Rowe has asked the Very Rev. Tony Pompa, dean of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity and the Rev. Charles Cesaretti, a retired priest of the diocese and Renewal Assembly Founder, to guide the process, which he referred to as a time of “discernment, planning and decision making about the mission strategy of the diocese.”
Clergy were given a pastoral letter about the upcoming pilgrimage to be read in congregations across the diocese. The process will begin at Epiphany and conclude at next year’s diocesan convention, when a new mission strategy for the diocese will be presented.
“It is a unique and fascinating, a stressful and challenging, and a hope-filled and creative time that we find ourselves in as a people of God,” Pompa said in introducing the pilgrimage process that will include prayer, song, reflection, and conversations.
“The pilgrimage brings us to a wonderful place of building community that we over the next year will share with each other and will come to a place that God wants us to be and welcome others into it,” Cesaretti told the convention delegates.
To lay the groundwork for the ten-month period of discernment and planning, Rowe invited Hugh O’Doherty, a native of Northern Ireland, a much-sought after conflict resolution consultant and an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, to address convention. During his presentation, O’Doherty urged delegates to distinguish between technical problems—ones that the community has the skills to fix—and adaptive problems, which are unclear and complex. Adaptive problems, says, O’Doherty, require “transforming deeply held values, beliefs and norms … It’s going to be at one level, about loss. People don’t resist change, they resist loss.”
With O’Doherty’s guidance, convention attendees developed an initial list of adaptive issues facing the Diocese of Bethlehem. “Love” ranked first, with 39 points of agreement from delegates, followed by “learning to trust all parties enough to be transparent with information, challenges, hopes and difficulties.” The list was recorded for use in the mission strategy planning process by the Rev. Megan Dembi, priest-in-charge at St. Thomas in Morgantown who was attending her first convention in Bethlehem.
Dembi, who was sponsored for ordination by the Diocese of Idaho, where she grew up, most recently served in the Diocese of Washington. Her husband, the Rev. Dennis Reid, serves St. David’s Church in Wayne in the Diocese of Pennsylvania.
“We have to think more innovatively, but we can still do a lot of good,” she said of her new diocesan home. “I kind of view the diocese as the ‘Little Engine that Could’ in comparison with the Diocese of Pennsylvania, which has more money and more resources. But I don’t get the sense that people are discouraged. They just have to work harder to do what they’re called to do.”
The pilgrimage offers an opportunity to the people of St. Thomas and other congregations across the diocese, Dembi says. “I think it’s a good idea. It will be very difficult; it’s not going to be a quick fix. If you’re going on a pilgrimage, it’s meant to be a long and difficult journey.
“It’s not the easy things that help connect us to God,” she says. “If we’re willing to enter into it hopefully and prayerfully, and are also willing to put the work in, I think we can accomplish amazing things.”