The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Folts
Rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Essex, CT
Dear People of the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota,
It is an honor and a joy to stand before God and you and to continue in this faithful work of discerning whom the Holy Spirit may be calling to serve as your next bishop! This spiritual expedition has been a sacred, insightful journey and it has brought me unexpectedly into a place of very intentional prayer. The idea that God might be potentially calling me into the episcopate, during an era when much of a bishop’s work seems to be more consumed with matters of administration than with the nurturing and strengthening of pastoral relationships with clergy, laity, and congregations, was not easily conceivable. As a parish priest who loves God and the members of his parish, the notion of swapping the deeply relational for the deeply administrative is not a trade that I would ever lightly consider. Yet through time spent invested in prayer and the reading of our Scriptures; and through the excellent counsel from my family, spiritual director, bishops, and trusted clergy and laity friends; and most importantly of all, through my hearing and reflecting upon how God’s story is being lived out and told in South Dakota, I have discovered anew that the Holy Spirit continues to be full of surprises.
The stories shared with me about how God is working through and with the people of South Dakota were not “sugar-coated” to disguise the challenges that you are facing and continue to encounter. At the same time, going all the way back to the stories told through Bishop Hare’s letters, there is, to this day, no lack of witness to God’s hope, to God’s faith, and to God’s love that is being expressed for South Dakotans as you follow Jesus. Your stories remind me of some of my most in-depth experiences with the Holy Spirit during my ministry in Connecticut, Texas, Mozambique, and Haiti combined. Through these stories, and through my personal encounters with the people of South Dakota, I have come to know your diocese as being tremendously rich in the gifts of spiritual vitality, community, and hospitality. Furthermore, your view of what the ministry of a bishop looks like, and how the ministry of a bishop is pastorally practiced, is the same model and view that I grew up with, share with you, and value tremendously. As a result, all of these profound connections have caused me to reflect upon whether God has been using these past experiences to form and shape me for a final chapter of “episcopal” ministry with you.
By way of personal and professional background, I am fifty-one years old and a life-long Episcopalian, raised in a clergy family in the dioceses of West Texas and Northwest Texas. A great blessing and source of incredible support in my life is my marriage to the Rev. Kimberly Folts, and the relationships that we have with our three children: Cameron and Garrett, who are both in college, and Chloe, who is a rising senior in high school. The first eight years of my ordained ministry were spent serving God as a Vicar in small rural and suburban mission congregations in central Texas, followed by a call as Rector in a medium-sized congregation in a city in south Texas. For the past 15 years, I have been honored to serve as Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, Connecticut. Here, my time has been spent in the deep pastoral and sacramental care of my parishioners, raising up several young curates in their first years of ministry, and participating in the life of this historic colonial town. My parish, a community of wonderful faith, is one that fully participated with me as I earned my doctoral degree in teaching and participating in missional church work. Our shared experience has helped our parish live on the cutting edge of the current focus of our diocese—namely, joining together as we live and move into our neighborhoods, and paying keen attention to what Jesus is up to and joining in however we can. This “focus on God’s mission” is at the heart of our vocation as a church and, in Connecticut, I have enjoyed sharing this experience with many of our nearby Episcopal congregations.
Should I be invited by the Holy Spirit and by you to continue to write and tell God’s story in South Dakota, there are five fundamental elements that I would initially ask us to explore with God and with one another. These elements are communication, relationship, formation, transformation, and advocacy. I would, for instance, want to explore with you the ways that we Episcopalians are communicating with one another—congregations with other congregations, congregations with the bishop, the clergy with the bishop, etc. How might we strengthen the methods of communication that currently exist? How aware are we of opportunities for ministry and collaboration that are within easy reach? Second, how are the relationships between our churches and the communities in which they are planted? Are we aware of and are we seeking, through prayer and discernment, what God is up to on our reservations and in our neighborhoods? Third, how are we forming people in the Christian faith? The ministry of Thunderhead Episcopal Center, the ministry of deacons and catechists, and the formation process of our future clergy are all of highly significant value. Yet what other avenues might the Holy Spirit be inviting us to explore as we seek to raise servants of God and leaders of the Church? Fourth, how do we use our gifts to exercise faithfulness in God’s transformation of our communities, our state, and the wider Church? How is the Holy Spirit inviting us to be transformed to share our gifts of faith, life, hospitality, and our specific relationships with God amongst those who may find themselves coming to South Dakota to “give” and risk the possibility of receiving and being transformed themselves? And finally, I would want to explore with you the question of advocacy—namely, our collective invitation to the broader Church to come and experience God as God is known in South Dakota. I firmly believe that we have the real potential of offering people an experience of God’s mission in our midst that will deepen people’s relationships with God’s Spirit, their commitments and expressions of faith, and expand our financial resources. Through the recruitment of those seeking to make a spiritual pilgrimage to South Dakota; through the offering of a variety of ministry experiences to seminarians; and through the invitation to clergy who are exploring God’s call to ministry amongst a strongly relational, faithful people, we will be telling God's story in South Dakota anew. And I have every reason to expect that those who hear God’s story being told in South Dakota will be just as moved, inspired, transformed and motivated as I was when it was first shared with me many months ago.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this—and thank you especially for inviting me to share in this Spirit-filled discernment process. If you were to have told me a year ago that, come February 2019, I would be sitting around a table in Rapid City, learning how to sing hymns in the Dakota language, while winds of almost 40-degrees below zero whipped through the Black Hills, my response would have been that it could only be God at work. And God, my friends, is always at work. I may not immediately know what that work is or where that work is leading me—but God is still, surprisingly, lovingly, at work in my life. And I can imagine the same is true for each of you. Whenever we respond to that invitation of God with faith, that’s where God’s mission becomes our shared reality; and it is God’s Spirit, God’s holy wind, that will move us ever forward to do the work that God has given us to do.
The Rev. Dr. Mark Story
Rector, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Edmond, OK
Dear Friends in Christ,
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. I am humbled and honored to share this journey with you. Although I was born in Texas, South Dakota is my home. My heart lives here. I grew up in Sioux Falls. The Church of the Good Shepherd was my family’s parish. I was graduated from Washington High School and Augustana College. Susan and I were married in 1980 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Clark. Pastor Albert was gracious enough to invite Father Robert Wright and Bishop Walter Jones to assist. Susan is a teacher and a librarian. We have three children. Matthew is 30. He and his wife Paige live in New York City where he works as an architect, and she teaches first grade. My daughter, Morgan, 23, is preparing for her professional life as a funeral director. My younger daughter, Katherine, 22, lives in Washington, D.C. and works with a non-profit law firm which represents undocumented detainees as they present their petitions for legal status.
I was graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, in 1983. That same year, I was ordained as a deacon at Good Shepherd by Bishop Conrad Gesner. He was amazing. The following morning, Fr. Tim Vann allowed me to baptize a child. It was the best way to begin my ordained ministry. I hold those memories deep in my heart. My service as a priest began as a curate at St. Luke’s in Kalamazoo, MI. At St. Luke’s, Fr. Jim Holt taught me that you are never called away from someplace, but to someplace. In 1986, Susan and I moved to Traverse City, MI, where I served as the Rector at Grace Church. In 1992, we moved to Irving, TX, where I served as Rector and Headmaster of The Church of the Redeemer and Redeemer Montessori School. That service ended in 2002 when I accepted the call to serve as Rector of St. Mary’s in Edmond, OK. In 2005, I received my DMin from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in 2005. The emphasis of that study was on family systems theory and how it can illuminate the biblical narrative. Over these years, I have served the church in various capacities. At a national level, I currently serve as a member of the General Board of Examining Chaplains. The Board’s responsibility is to produce and administer an annual written examination of persons who have been prepared for ordination. I have served in three dioceses. In Western Michigan I was twice elected as a deputy to the General Convention, and I taught theology in their Diaconal Formation Program and later became a co-developer of a revised formation process. I also served on their Constitution and Canons and Liturgy Committees. In Dallas, I shared ministry on the Diocesan Council and Commission on Ministries. In Oklahoma, I was a member of the Finance Committee and was the principal author of the Diocese’s response to the Proposed Anglican Covenant. Over the years, the congregations I have led have raised up five persons for ordination. More importantly, however, I encourage lay ministry initiatives. I do not see myself as a gatekeeper on ministry. Instead, I see myself as a person who has been empowered by the church to embolden and provide support for laypersons to serve their Lord in the power of the Spirit.
Our lives are shaped by change. Sometimes that change brings joy and at other times it brings grief. That thought brings to mind the text from Ecclesiastes. In South Dakota, with an economy largely driven by agriculture, we know this to be true. Life is seasonal. Several things have changed in my life. My high school moved; my college became a university, and my seminary closed. My family has changed by virtue of death and birth. However, love endures. The Diocese of South Dakota has experienced similar changes. Depopulation in rural communities, the growing tendency toward secularism, chronic extreme poverty and other social trends such as the growing interest in recreation challenge the way we do “church”. We are now competing for time that was once just given to us. Some people despair because winter is coming. I think it is time to plant winter wheat. We are living in a time where we need to be imaginative. We can no longer expect people to respond to the way we have always done ministry. That is like asking a fish to jump into our boat. We need to learn how to fish for people again. We must learn to discern where the Spirit is working and then move into those places. I don’t know a lot of detail, but Trinity Church in Watertown is a likely example of what I’m talking about. Wherever we are, we must answer the question, “How do we sing the Lord’s song?” If you call me to serve you, I need you to teach me. I have component parts of a vision, but it is incomplete without you. We will proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ by making the way of the cross to be the way of our life, and we will walk in apostolic power as witnesses to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We have been using the Baptismal Covenant since 1979 and our Presiding Bishop has cast vision for the church drawn from the water of our baptism. He borrowed it from Jesus. Bishop Curry’s call to love is a call to live more powerfully into the reality that we are all wonderfully made. He talks about the Jesus Movement and he has articulated that journey to be a process that incorporates Turning, Learning, Praying, Worshipping, Blessing, Going, and Resting. While our nation is struggling with racial division and political dissension, I imagine the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota, being recognized as a model of reconciliation, a place where people are valued and a place where compromise is seen as a means of embracing complex and comprehensive truth. The diocese may be numerically and financially challenged, but we can still grow in the quality of our love for one another and in service to those both in and outside of our diocese. Ministry is always reciprocal and spiritual health is learning how to receive and how to give. Living in the power of the Spirit is awakening to the God given desire to do more today than we did yesterday. I love South Dakota. It has always been my home. If God calls me to return, my aspiration is to be a servant among servants, to love, support and provide for the clergy who serve throughout this wonderful diocese. I have the heart of a pastor and would welcome the opportunity to continually proclaim, with you, the hope that is within us.