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Canon to the Ordinary, Diocese of Rhode Island

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 The Rev. Canon Dr. Dena Cleaver-Bartholomew is the Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Rhode Island. She serves as Bishop Knisely’s Chief of Staff and assists him with the management, oversight, and operations of the Diocese, functioning as the chief operating officer, and in the support of clergy and congregations. Canon Dena specializes in visioning, mission development, strategy, systems and processes, congregational development, conflict resolution, raising up leaders, stewardship and financial sustainability, and equipping people to serve in the Church. She is the transition ministry officer for the Diocese, working with churches and clergy in discernment; acts as the interim director of the Center for Reconciliation, promoting anti-racism and racial reconciliation ministries; and is the case manager for Title IV clergy misconduct concerns. She seeks to be a faithful leader who listens to, discerns with, and facilitates the joyful transformation of God’s people.

Canon Dena earned a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, as well as a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She has served congregations in the Dioceses of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Michigan, Ohio, and Central New York prior to being called to Rhode Island in August 2019. Her parish ministry experience includes large, medium, and small churches that are rural, urban, and suburban. Before being ordained, Canon Dena was a legislative assistant for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where she drafted and analyzed bills and amendments, wrote committee reports, and presented information to Representatives in caucus. 

Canon Dena is married to the Rev. Dr. David Cleaver-Bartholomew, who serves as the Director of Stewardship and Donor Relations for the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ. They have two adult daughters who live in Boston. Audrey is a lawyer and is married to Matt, who works in business operations; they have a much loved cat named Donut. Lydia is the College Access and Success Coordinator for a public charter school. 

Canon Dena grew up in a military family, married another clergy person, and believes in going where one is called to serve. She was born in France, has lived in eleven states, and is open to learning about new people and places. Canon Dena loves to travel and explore with family and friends, read, walk, practice centering prayer and yoga, and follow politics. She has a special fondness for Boxers and French Bulldogs. 

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Question 1. Describe your relationship with Christ and how it shapes your ministry.

I treasure a photograph of me, my older brother Bruce, and the priest who baptized us when I was three. In the picture the priest has his hand on my shoulder and I am beaming. This image is a metaphor for me of how I experience the ongoing Presence of God, as if Jesus were beside me, and occasionally reaching out to remind me he is there, and I am in the company of people I love as we seek to follow God together. 

            My relationship with Christ is one that began before I can remember. I was the child who always wanted to go to church and who gave up Sunday School in second grade so that I could stay and listen to the sermon. When I was 11 and the priest asked in confirmation class what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said a priest. Growing up in a military family, I found home in my relationship with God, often encountered in Church, and with those who showed me the Presence of God wherever we were. Like Brother Lawrence, who developed his devotional practice while washing pots and pans, I engage in “The Practice of the Presence of God” by cultivating an openness to Jesus wherever I may be, knowing that he is always present. I learned, like St. Paul, that encounters with the Risen Christ are real and life changing, and that the appropriate response for me is to go where he calls and do as he asks. In both military and Church terms this translates into going where the mission is, which is sometimes surprising, challenging, or delightful, and always done in the hope of being faithful. I have served in a wide range of ministries as both a lay and ordained person, continually learning about Christ and his Church, and seeking ways to better partner with and equip the saints for the work of ministry. 

            The foundation of my relationship with Jesus includes practice of contemplative prayer, communal prayer, and an abiding love for the Presence of God as encountered in the Holy Eucharist. I also have received the gift of mystical experiences with the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit which have been transformative. These mystical encounters have led me to greater awe, wonder, humility, and respect for the experiences of others.  

Question 2. What is it about our profile that gets you excited, and how do you think your skills and experiences are well-suited to serve the Diocese of New Jersey as Bishop?

The clarity of your mission To form people as disciples of Jesus Christ, so they can carry out God’s mission of reconciliation in the world and the abundance of diverse ways in which you live into your mission speaks to my sense of call. To me, forming followers of Jesus requires a commitment to continual deepening of faith, lifelong learning and growth, and an equipping of God’s people for ministry. My faith is lived daily in relationship with Jesus, those who love him, and our call to share his love with others, which is the foundation of over 30 years of ordained ministry. I am a lifelong learner, as evident in my MDiv, ThM, and DMin; it is also true in learning through serving with others in six different dioceses, in small, medium, and large churches in urban, rural, and suburban settings; and in my hope to live into the wisdom of Bill Nye who said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” I bring wisdom and experience to share with you, and I hope to learn with and from you so that we can grow and serve together. 

            You highlight your diversity and seek unity in Christ. Churches of any and all sizes can be holy and life giving. My expertise in congregational development affirms the importance of equipping the saints for the work of God while acknowledging their gifts and context. Churches express their faith in a variety of ways, each of which can be authentic to who they are and how they experience God. My experience with a range of liturgical expressions and theological perspectives leads me to value diversity as a gift. 

            The work of discipleship shapes us and the Holy Spirit empowers us so that we can engage in God’s mission of reconciliation in our personal relationships, the Church, the community, and the world. As someone who lives in hope, I rejoice at your resilience, faithfulness, and willingness to respond to the call of Jesus Christ and the needs of your neighbors. I have experience in addressing the practical needs of people in our communities, including feeding, clothing, sheltering, and responding to mental health and substance use disorders.  You do the work of social justice and actively seek to love your neighbor as yourselves. I also engage in ministries of anti-racism and racial reconciliation, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and advocate for women and girls. Your willingness to embrace depth and breadth in God’s people and their faith, along with your candor about the challenges you face, inspires me. I am eager to meet you, learn more about you, and to explore with you whether we are called to serve God and our neighbors together. 

Question 3. What new and hopeful perspectives and ideas can you bring to the conversation about church decline that support and encourage long-term solutions?

As we emerge from the height of the pandemic, the Church has the opportunity to pause and prayerfully reimagine what comes next. Fortunately, given the work of Discerning Our Common Call, you have already clarified your core values, which led to your mission statement. The next steps are ones that take courage, including: the willingness to ask what is essential rather than simply how we’ve always done it, an openness to experiment and learn, intentionally including new people and perspectives, and reaching out beyond our congregations into our communities. 

            Our basic faith commitments may be found in the Baptismal Covenant, but how we live into them will vary by person, congregation, and community context. Reimagining involves asking if what you do is an expression of our shared ministry, whether it brings life, or if it is necessary for the common good. Approach your standard operating practices with curiosity. Is this one you should keep, tweak, change, add to, experiment with or let go? Ask, pray, listen, and be open to learning. 

            I work as a trainer with the College for Congregational Development, defined as “the development of congregations of all sizes, locations, and conditions into more faithful, healthy, and effective communities of faith”, which brings clergy and lay leaders together to equip them to do this work. Asset based community development, part of my doctoral studies, came to life for my congregation as we learned about the needs of the wider community and partnered with others to build relationships and constructive responses. 

            Having inherited a $477,000 debt in a church I served, we learned about effective and engaged stewardship. Then we got creative, and invented the Resource Development Team, those willing to experiment, and expanded our understanding of resources beyond finances and skills, to include our network of relationships and our willingness to learn. We experimented, celebrated, laughed, let go, and adapted. I created the Took A Risk award and the practice of naming a Pentecost Person, who showed us the Holy Spirit. The growth of our congregational capacity for risk, trust, humor, and thankfulness was tremendous.

Question 4. Social justice is near and dear to the heart of the Diocese of New Jersey. How has social justice been a part of your ministry and how would you see your role in moving social justice forward in the Diocese of NJ? Please give examples.

Social justice is how we live out our baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. As a deacon at St. Luke’s, Atlanta I served on a multicultural, multiracial staff that courageously and compassionately responded to the needs and injustices faced by our poor, homeless, mentally or emotionally ill, LGBTQ+, Black, and Hispanic neighbors. I continue this approach in the varied congregations and communities I have served. 

            I have been an anti-racism trainer in the Diocese of Michigan, co-founded and chaired the Antiracism Team in Central New York, and serve as the Interim Director of the Center for Reconciliation (CFR) in Rhode Island. We are revitalizing the CFR as a ministry of the diocese and creating a path for diocesan wide anti-racism training. I work with the Providence Mayor’s African American Ambassador Group and its Truth Telling and Reparations subcommittee. 

            In addition to preaching and teaching justice and compassion as proclaimed in the Gospel, I have partnered with community groups to address food and housing insecurity, mental health and substance use disorder, and domestic violence. As Chair of the Commission on Ministry and Canon to the Ordinary I have sought out and encouraged discernment of lay and ordained vocations among people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and LGBTQ+ people and supported their ministries, including drafting and promoting diocesan and General Convention legislation. I have participated in rallies, marches, prayer vigils, and services held on behalf of Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, gun safety, immigration, and women’s rights.

            As Bishop, I would preach and teach the Gospel call to seek justice and respond with compassion. I hope to learn from, lift up, serve with and support lay and ordained leaders from diverse backgrounds. It is essential to partner with others already engaged in social justice, including anti-racism and reparations, Episcopal Community Services, the Hispanic and LGBTQ Commissions, and to remain open to where the Holy Spirit may be calling us. With my experience as a legislative staff person, I will work with those in state, local, and national politics to promote social justice. 

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