The Rev. Canon Whitney Rice
The Rev. Canon Whitney Rice (she/her/hers) serves as the Canon for Evangelism & Discipleship Development for the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has served as a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, is currently a staff writer for the Episcopal Digital Network’s Sermons That Work, is a member of the national Episcopal Church Evangelism Council of Advice, and is an active participant in the clergy community working for racial and economic justice in St. Louis. Passionate about building connections between people and helping faith communities live into their gifts, she has pioneered church planting and missional community work in her diocese along with winning a Roanridge Grant for her groundbreaking Requiem or Renaissance congregational revitalization program. When she’s not thinking about the changing church, particularly the intersection of evangelism and justice work (which is all the time, seriously), you’ll find her swing dancing. Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).
Our bishop nominees have produced videos to introduce themselves to us in advance of our September meet-and-greet sessions.
As part of the application process, each nominee was asked to respond to a set of four questions.
How have you navigated a changing church in a changing world to enhance congregational vitality?
My core initiative in the Diocese of Missouri is a revitalization program called Requiem or Renaissance, which I built from the ground up based our diocesan mission and vision. Requiem or Renaissance is an 18-month discernment and skills-building program for congregations seeking reimagining and renewal. Prior to this, aided congregations received no support, training, or accountability in how best to use the financial resources entrusted to them as a part of the constellation of their life and ministry.
In this program, our aided congregations have entered a discernment process to help them determine God’s call to them: to a Requiem, a holy ending of this congregation’s ministry in this location at this time, or a Renaissance, a church re-plant with a new vision. As they discern, they build skills to live out the call they articulate. Any and all outcomes are on the table, from starting from scratch with house church meetings, to closing and selling buildings, to collaborating with other ministries or secular partners to revitalize, and no doubt many other possibilities we can’t imagine yet.
We want our congregations to walk into their futures with eyes wide open and clear self-determination—not be forced into fewer and fewer options by declining money and membership. Both the Requiem path and the Renaissance path are intended to lead to resurrection—but just as in the gospels, the resurrected Body of Christ will probably look unfamiliar and different from what we used to know and what we expected to see.
The Program Objectives are:
- Guide congregations to self-reflect in terms of the congregational life-cycle
- Equip leaders to be proactive about their future
- Walk with communities as they discern their next steps
- Equip congregations for leadership in a time of transition
- Create cohorts of connection across congregations
I spent the bulk of 2021 building this program, particularly in terms of advanced communication to the participating congregations as well as recruiting and training the Shepherds team, the coaches from across the diocese who work with these congregations. Each participating faith community formed a team of 4-5 lay leaders plus their clergy (if they have clergy). We launched in January 2022.
The entire group gathers quarterly on zoom for content presentations and the bulk of the day is for team work onsite at their own church, sparked from the presentations. The day is bracketed by worship led by the program Chaplains. The entire program—all videos, worksheets, homework, zoom meetings, discussion boards—is hosted on our online course platform. (The platform has proven to be one of our most helpful innovations. Once we saw it working, I moved our entire ordination process onto the platform as well, and we hope to eventually drive all diocesan formation through the platform.)
We have 18 participating congregations in one of two cohorts, and the results are far more than I could have imagined. The diversity of wisdom arising from the congregations and the Shepherds’ team is spectacular. During the first year, we cover topics including:
- Congregational Discernment
- Lifecycle of a Congregation
- Congregational Snapshot: Data & Demographics Inside and Outside Your Doors
- Missional Community
- Spiritual Practices including Rule of Life
- Community Listening
- Parallel Development
- Stewardship, including Stewardship of Buildings
- Experimental Ministry: Craft & Call
- Church Conflict Fire Insurance: Adaptive Leadership in Changing Systems
At the year mark, congregations decide whether to pursue the Requiem track or the Renaissance track:
- What is a Holy Ending?
- Documenting History
- Tending to Grief and Loss
- Celebrating the Saints of Before
- Searching for Whom to Seed
- Handing Over the Keys
- Models for Renaissance
- Church Planting Principles/Techniques
- Spiritually Rooted Stewardship
- Community Engagement
- Getting Things Off the Ground: Project Management
Our Signs of Success for participating congregations include:
- Clear sense of God’s call for their future
- Feel supported and connected to the diocesan household
- Tools to live out their discernment
- Renewed sense of energy and possibility
- Deeper connection to faith and faith community
- Deeper engagement with town/city/county
Both cohorts will gathering in summer 2023 for an overnight retreat to compare notes and start to crystallize their sense of God’s call to them. They will meet with Bishop Deon to share with him how their discernment is unfolding, so he can provide further guidance and support to them. We will provide significant follow-up support when the program concludes, so congregations can really implement their plans and dreams for what’s next.
There have been few things more gratifying to me in my ministry than seeing these congregations really start to take hold of their gifts, reimagine what God is calling them to do and be, and take action on their discernment. Other congregations in the diocese have expressed interest in participating in the program, and we plan to launch a Cohort 3 of Requiem or Renaissance open to any church who would like to blend Spirit-soaked prayer and strategic thinking in a collaborative environment to build their path in ministry forward.
Other dioceses have expressed interest as well, so we are considering an upcoming phase of scaling this program to be accessible to the larger church. We’re finding that participating congregations are moving from despair and cynicism to curiosity and determination when they see how many other churches share their struggles, and realize together that God is not finished with us yet. The work is urgent and the time is now. As St. Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19)
I think the best reflection on this work comes from the congregations themselves saying what it has meant to them, which you can see in the Year 1 video I made for 2022 Diocesan Convention.
Describe a situation in which you needed to create a sense of shared interests and community among individuals or groups who felt disconnected from one another. What is the role of the bishop in bringing a diocese together, and what gifts do you bring to the ministry of connection?
A central role of the bishop is to forge and nurture connections. In my ministry, I build this work in layers. The bottom layer, the foundation, is spiritual. This is the life of prayer, scripture study, and sacrament that nourishes any Christian. That inner practice is what enables a bishop to be authentically present to lay leaders and clergy in the wide variety of circumstances that arise in the life of a diocese.
The second layer is the simple life of doing church together. Showing up, leading worship, preaching, sharing food and fellowship, praying together, wrestling through budgets and agendas, remembering and asking after people’s joys and griefs—these basic rhythms of care weave relationships into a fabric of trust.
After the first layer of spiritual disciplines and the second layer of living church together comes the third level of skill. This is where knowledge of systems dynamics comes into play. How is the history of the diocese affecting what’s happening? What is not being said? Who is missing from the table? Where are money, power, influence, historical injustices, or deep diocesan cultural norms both healthy and unhealthy driving what’s happening? The wider the range of people across the diocese the bishop is in regular conversation with, the clearer the balcony view of the system.
The most important quality a bishop can have for building community and relationship within a diocese is pain tolerance. This is a term that comes from systems work and refers to the ability to stay emotionally connected to others, engaged in the tough work of hashing things out together when it would be much easier to blow up or withdraw. This is an embodiment of scripture’s call to us to bear one another’s burdens and forgive each other seventy times seven times.
The clinical-sounding term “pain tolerance” encompasses behaviors like listening when it’s tempting to speak and not rushing to problem solve. It means always starting from generous assumptions about others’ motives. It means telling the truth even when it’s scary, and receiving truths from others with as non-defensive a posture as possible. It means setting clear, well-discerned boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others. This is doubly important when a system has struggled with alcoholic tendencies such as secret keeping.
When a bishop is praying, showing up for the diocesan household, and not shying away from the hard parts of life together, she’s got the grounding to serve her people well. These are the ingredients of a life of integrity. Not integrity in the sense of rigid moral correctness, but integrity in the sense of wholeness. And wholeness in God’s redeeming love means everyone’s brokenness fitting together, like ragged chips of broken glass being formed together into a multi-hued mosaic.
Creating a sense of shared interests and community among those who felt disconnected from one another has been my core work as a canon in our diocese. I have sought from day one to earn credibility with lay leaders and clergy by showing up, listening, encouraging brave truth-telling, and naming the joys and gifts that are arising every day from our congregations.
During the summer of 2022, my gifts of connection and leadership were put to the test. Both Bishop Deon and our Canon to the Ordinary were out of the country for two months, and I was the senior staff person in the diocese. I spent much time in prayer that I might have what I needed for this season. It was, shall we say, a baptism by fire.
After the Bishop and Canon left, historic floods in St. Louis left eight church properties seriously damaged and many clergy and lay leaders in crisis. One church was providing low-cost housing to a neighbor, and that neighbor was arrested for selling drugs out of the church. A deacon had serious complications after surgery. A priest in the diocese abruptly asked for Dissolution of a Pastoral Relationship. Our summer camp was cut short with twelve hours’ notice because of flooding–while also having to manage a positive covid case at the camp and a complaint of a Safe Church violation. It was all hands on deck to get the campers home safely and tested for Covid, while also beginning the investigation into the SafeChurch allegation.
This is the life of a bishop. These were situations that called for rapid and decisive actions, often with serious consequences for peoples’ well-being, and many had legal implications. Thankfully, Bishop Deon and I had already built up a foundation of trust in our diocese. We have made care for the most vulnerable our first priority in all our work together. Because of this, I was able to quickly identify and prioritize the most vulnerable in each situation and get them the practical, emotional, and spiritual support they needed.
My layers of practice served me well in this season of chaos. I don’t believe that God tests us, but I do believe that God may say from time to time, “Have you got what it takes for where I’m calling you next?” When I was making phone calls to the chancellor, sitting at our deacon’s hospital bedside, mustering resources for our flooded churches, and activating the SafeChurch investigative process and setting up pastoral care for everyone affected by it, I wasn’t thinking about my morning prayer rhythms. I wasn’t thinking about having shown up at a different church every week and brainstorming innovative ministry solutions with clergy and vestries. I wasn’t thinking about having studied systems work and trying to ask better questions about how the diocesan organism is evolving and growing. But those layers of practice made it possible to step into some big shoes for a short season, and hand the diocese back to my bishop when he returned knowing that the fabric of trust we had built together had not torn while he was gone. And for that, I am grateful to God.
What is your theology of money? Tell us a story of exercising your leadership to move an institution into a more Jesus-centered, mission-oriented relationship with money.
Jesus is so very clear about how he expects his followers to deal with money, and we are so very bad at accepting it (myself very much included). “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor,” (Mt 19:21). Woe to you who are rich,” (Lk 6:24). “It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” (Mt 19:24). It’s honestly hilarious how quickly we go toward a symbolic interpretation of these texts, and most of us do our best to quiet our pangs of conscience at not living up to Jesus’ high standards.
But I think that is Jesus’ point. There have been people throughout our tradition who have followed his commandments with admirable literalness—vows of poverty and so forth. But the drive to acquire money is primal, because we have to get and hold onto resources to keep ourselves safe, fed, and sheltered. Theology doesn’t stand much of a chance against survival instinct. I have never been part of a congregation that believed it had enough money. Not once. The mentality of scarcity is the natural outgrowth of the deep and abiding fear that lies at our core.
So why would Jesus give us commands that are so difficult as to seem virtually impossible? We are stuck in a lifelong conundrum of hearing what Jesus calls us to and yet being unable to live up to it. And I think this was Jesus’ intention all along. The Buddhist tradition has something called koans, a sort of unanswerable riddle that seekers live and work with sometimes for years at a time. I believe Jesus’ teachings on money are like koans, simultaneously incredibly clear and straightforward, but also an inescapable paradox for us to struggle within.
Because the answer is the same either way: dependence on the grace of God. If we literally give up all our possessions and live as mendicants, we are dependent on the grace of God as manifested in the generosity of others. If we face the fact that we’re clearly not going to give away all our worldly goods, thereby effectively disobeying Jesus, we are dependent on the grace of God, the forgiveness and patience Jesus has with us in the midst of our tightfisted fear. In the end, God drags us all through the eye of the needle, and everything we’ve been clinging to, our saddlebags of fear and hoarding, are scraped off and fall away by the work of God’s fierce redeeming grace.
The reason Jesus places such an emphasis on money in his teachings is because it is our most direct concretization of power (aside from actual weapons, which are bought with money).
With money, you can get your way. You can protect yourself. You can make other people do things or not do things. You can insulate yourself from others. You can escape labor and suffering. You can wield influence and undermine others. If you have money, you win—in our society or in first century Palestine.
Jesus knows our cravings and it moves him to deep compassion. In Mark, the rich young ruler runs up to Jesus, joyfully boasts that he has fulfilled all God’s commandments, and then wants to know what to do next. And next comes one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” (Mk 10:21). This is where Jesus meets us in our eternal struggle with our thirst for money and power. Before anything else, before the call to give everything away and follow him, Jesus loves us.
So where does all of this leave a diocese with the abundant financial resources that Southern Ohio has received? Where does it leave someone called to be their bishop? Honestly, I think being a bishop is the most dangerous office in the church, and someone serving in that role in a diocese with this kind of money and the power to control it is honest to God risking extreme spiritual peril. I don’t think there’s any way to do it without a continually renewed spiritual covenant of utterly sincere depth between and among the lay leaders, clergy, and bishop of Southern Ohio to call each other to interdependence rooted in Christ in every way possible.
One place in scripture where money is used well is in the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). The Samaritan, the wounded man, and the innkeeper are able to make use of money for the purpose of healing and flourishing because together they form a network of interdependence and trust. This is how I’ve tried to cultivate practices of stewardship in my congregations, and each church has manifested it in different ways.
One church where I was rector hosted a community art auction and variety show to raise money to pay off their mortgage, making their building a gathering place for the community outside their doors to celebrate their talents. They had plans to offer studio space in the nave for local music teachers to teach private lessons, with free and reduced cost lessons for young people who had need of financial support. I encouraged another of my congregations who was embarking on a capital campaign for a building expansion to build evangelism and community listening into every step of their process so the completed building would be deeply integrated into the community outside the congregation itself.
One congregation I served with an average Sunday attendance of twenty had an “Adopt a Bill” board to help keep the lights on, but had a 100% pledge rate. One member there tithed a side of beef from his farm every year, and once congregation members had taken what they needed, the remainder went to the food pantry. These types of practices are how a congregation brings discernment, resources, and spiritual gifts together to create networks of interdependence and trust with their neighbors. And that is when grace really starts to flourish.
In many ways, our region reflects the social inequalities (e.g. gender, education, health, housing, and race/ethnicity) that afflict our country as a whole. Please discuss ways in which you have had experience dealing with and supporting multicultural populations. What do you see as a bishop’s role in addressing and healing these disparities?
As Canon for Evangelism & Discipleship Development in the Diocese of Missouri, all of our church planting and missional community work is under my purview, and this is the locus of most of our multicultural work. I have worked with two New Episcopal Communities, one which is about 4 years old and one brand new in 2022, to secure New Episcopal Community grants from The Episcopal Church.
Faith Christian Church of India (FCCI) was founded by two priests from the Church of South India, and they and their community are pursuing their long-held dream of beginning an Indian cultural center to serve Indians and Indian-Americans of all faith traditions in the St. Louis metro region. When I came on board and began working with them, I brought one of their priests on as a Shepherd for our Requiem or Renaissance program, elevating his leadership in the diocese and placing our almost exclusively white churches in the program in apprenticeship to our fastest-growing brown church. This has borne fruit as one of our small, southern-most congregations has partnered with FCCI in a satellite missional community with Indian and other international college students.
The from-scratch church plant is called Grace African Christian Connections, which is flourishing already in less than a year, begun by a seminarian from Tanzania that I mentored through the ordination process. They work with international students as well as the African diaspora population in St. Louis. I supported them particularly in refining and amplifying their practices of community listening, so that the offerings they created were in response to the on-the-ground needs of the population they seek to serve with. I serve in liturgies at these two church plants as well as continue to collaborate, support, and learn from their leaders.
I am also in charge of the ordination process in our diocese, which we are overhauling in stages, and exorcising white supremacy from the process is a high priority for me. Everything from the paperwork to the make-up of Commission on Ministry to the questions on the GOEs is predicated on white assumptions and white cultural norms, creating undue barriers to people who hold marginalized identities. Bishop Deon and I have been attentive to building a more diverse ordinand cohort and working with our diocesan committees in training them to hear the voice of call and vocation when it comes through different idioms and experiences than the white-dominant images of who has potential to be a deacon or priest.
Any bishop who is white has an imperative to pursue her ongoing anti-racism education and formation. I have come to recognize a rhythm in myself as I seek formation in anti-racism: I will be shepherded and led into a whole new set of understandings about racism and it feels very much like scales falling from my eyes. I spend a period of time living in and exploring this new reality, a period of months where I am getting my bearings and trying to live with a new level of integrity, and then I fall off the cliff again into a whole new set of understandings that I had been blind to before.
One of the most significant faith experiences of my life was being evangelized and shepherded by Black Lives Matter organizers in the summer of 2020. After being trained for the role of clergy in direct actions, I took part in a number of marches, protests, and vigils, and it was one of the holiest experiences of church I have ever had. It also deepened my relationships with the social justice activist clergy in the city, and that autumn I learned how to lobby in the legislature from a priest in the diocese who is a labor rights organizer. There is always more to learn, and I believe that I cannot lead others in formation if I am not attending to my own.
It is abundantly clear to me that the future of The Episcopal Church is neither exclusively nor predominantly white. In working with congregations across the church, I see the most energy in communities of color and blended communities who work intentionally toward becoming Beloved Community. I see God calling us to embrace the death of the aspects of our church rooted in colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy. Different congregations are at different stages in their journeys toward a more just church, and so context-specific formation is needed. Racism and other types of injustice should never be coddled, but few people respond to shame with genuine and lasting change. The more attention we put into building trust with one another, the greater challenge to our own complacency and complicity we are able to accept.
It’s also extremely important that people and communities of color are not fetishized and “utilized” to assuage white guilt and make the diocese “look better” instead of actually being better. People of color can be further marginalized and harmed by well-meaning anti-racism work that continues to center white people in the conversation as the assumed “we.” And until we achieve the full dream of God, white, cis-gender church leaders should be focused on well-formed allyship with constant attention to their own privilege as they prioritize listening to and collaborating with BIPOC leaders, LGBTQIA+ leaders, and others who hold marginalized identities.
Justice and reconciliation as core, lived priorities form the radically energizing work of telling the truth, practicing the Way of Love, proclaiming the dream, and repairing the breach. No witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ has integrity without full commitment to this work.