Church Structure: Be Servants to One Another

By the Rev. Susan E. Goff, Bishop Suffragan-Elect, Virginia

Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.”

A bishop, two priests and a homeless man were walking down the street.  It sounds like the beginning of a joke.  In reality, it was the beginning of an illustrative encounter – one night here in Indianapolis.

As my husband and I were returning to our hotel in the soaring heat, a visiting bishop from another country came to us with a look of distress in his eyes.  He could not find his hotel. I pulled out a downtown map, but the hotel did not seem to be where the map said it was.

Just then, a homeless man came along and we asked him for help.  He gave us directions, then pointed to the place where he was going to spend the night.  He asked if we could spare a few dollars so that he could get something to eat.

In thanksgiving for his help, we gave him enough to get a meal.  He then gave us even more specific directions. Together we found the entrance to the seemingly hidden hotel.

With relief visible on his face, the bishop thanked us and we all parted to go our different ways.  In that brief encounter of people from different races, languages and socio-economic backgrounds, it wasn’t clear who was servant and who was served.  The roles kept changing as we entered into relationship with each other.

At this General Convention, we have talked much about structure, both of the convention and of the Episcopal Church.  We have talked much about the power and authority that structure represents.  Our encounter on the street reminded me powerfully of the whole point of structure.  It is intended to be a vessel, like the hull of a great ship, which holds us together in relationship with each other.

Our life of faith, after all, is all about relationship with God and with one another.  The mission of God in which God calls us to participate is all about serving one another and the world in Christ’s name.  So our structures need to be all about relationship and service.

A few weeks after I was elected bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Virginia, I had a waking dream that gave me a visual image for structure in service to relationship. In my mind’s eye, I saw hands placing a miter on my head, but it jumped off as if it were on a spring.  Another set of hands placed it on my head, and again it sprang off.

Then I put the miter on my head myself, and it leaped even higher than before.  But it landed in my hands, upside down.  As I held that inverted miter, it filled with fruit of every shape and color.  The upward pointing triangle of the miter had previously looked to me like the hierarchical structure of the Church.  Held in a different way, looked at from another angle, the structure became a vessel that holds God’s people in loving, fruitful, faithful relationship.

May whatever work we do to restructure General Convention and Church institutions always be for the sake of bearing fruit.  May it always be for the sake of building relationships.  And may it always teach us how to be servants to one another and to a world in need, for Christ’s sake.


Categories: GC2012