If ever there was a white-knuckle time to be secretary of the Diocese of Virginia, it was the week of January 18, 2016. By Friday, I was emotionally and physically exhausted, morbidly sick of weather forecasters and heavily over-caffeinated. AND all this was because we DID NOT hold our Annual Council that week.
The Council of 2010 may have been the Snowmaggedon of our annual meetings. But at least we were able to hold PART of Council at the Marriott in Richmond before the winter storm smothered the highways. This year, we were facing a total wipeout – no Council at all! Or maybe not!
My job as secretary and chief of staff was to work with our great diocesan staff to keep our Bishops informed of the possibilities, negotiate with our host hotel (the Hyatt Regency in Reston) about how to deal with whatever it was that might happen, and stay connected with the hundreds of Council members who were eager to know whether we were a “go” or “no go.” Hovering above all that was our No. 1 concern — the safety of our Council members as the forecasts grew more and more dire. Oh, and there was also that little matter of finances: Whether the Diocese might find itself on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars for an Annual Council that never happened.
The wild and woolly week began on Saturday, January 16 – six days before Council was scheduled to convene. That’s when the first serious warnings were sounded about the Historic Storm that MIGHT be headed our way. Though I’m a student of history, like a lot of folks I’m inherently suspicious of anything lightly labeled “historic.” I hate to confess to the skepticism you might expect from a former journalist, but the thought occurred to me: How much is this forecast based on science and how much on TV ratings?
We immediately contacted our hotel liaison, Courtney Altaffer, who would serve as a vital go-between with the hotel. By Tuesday, we were weighing in with the hotel about how we might deal with this situation. But we were finding little interest in talking about the what-ifs. After all, hundreds of no-shows in the slow month of January are not a happy thoughts for the hospitality business.
The best we could get was a suggestion from the hotel that they could discount the Saturday night room rate, and throw in some hot chocolate, if we all got stuck in Reston in the middle of a blizzard. For lots of folks, that might sound like fun. For hundreds of ordained and lay leaders, the prospect of ending up AWOL from our churches on a Sunday morning was discombobulating, to say the least.
By Wednesday, it was becoming clear that any attempt to encourage people to journey to Reston that week was out of the question, no matter what the financial penalties. As to what the cost might be, it all came down to the interpretation of what “act of God” would relieve us of the responsibility to show up.
Now, who could be better interpreters of “acts of God” than our Bishops? Suffice it to say that, legally speaking, that argument not only wouldn’t hold water, it would leak like the trunk of my 1983 Corolla. Of course, it turns that having the governor “play God” – declaring a state of emergency Thursday morning – was all we needed to satisfy the legally minded. We didn’t owe the hotel a dime.
So there it is – the story of a blizzard that created more discomfort than a bad back from shoveling. It even provided an important lesson: When it comes to “acts of God,” leave it to God.
By: Ed Jones, Secretary of the Diocese