Resolutely Reading: Structural reform

This is the second in a series of posts on the B, C, and D resolutions to be considered by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church this summer. It follows my series on the A resolutions of the “Blue” Book. The previous post in this series was about Anglican Covenant responses. Be sure to check out the index of all General Convention 2012 resolutions and the 7WD official position on them.

rethinkThere are a bazillion resolutions calling for proposals to rethink the structures (administration, governance, committees) of our church. Most of the resolutions are more-or-less clones of one another, being based on the so-called “Sauls Proposal.” This has been well-hashed elsewhere, but I personally give thanks that Bishop Stacy Sauls kicked off this new wave of thinking, with some urgency. We need it.

Some people were upset that Bishop Sauls proposed his ideas at a House of Bishops meeting rather than at an Executive Council meeting. Or perhaps some folks were caught off guard by these proposals and what they represent. My thinking is that we need some fresh ideas, and we should welcome them from any quarter, any time. We have “due process” when it comes to considering, ratifying, and implementing ideas, so we don’t need to worry too much about hijacking or whatever else troubles people about new ideas. At the idea generation phase, let’s cast a wide net.

That brings us to the structure resolutions. In essence, almost all of them call for a “Special Commission” to do some investigating, thinking, deliberating, discerning, and recommending. Then these ideas are to be considered by the General Convention. The details vary a bit, but that’s the gist of it.

Early on, Bishop Sauls was suggesting a special convention focused just on these proposals. In the face of stiff resistance, this suggestion seems to have been softened. It seems to me that it’s actually worth getting our leaders together for a focused conversation on structure, whatever we call it. If we limit ourselves to a regular General Convention, this stuff simply won’t get the airtime it needs. Too much is at stake. Our track record at quickly adopting and implementing complex proposals is pretty lousy.

The “new” prayer book was done well, but it took 15+ years. Our new health insurance provision was done quickly, but not especially well (as the many resolutions to rescind or delay the proposals attest). Things like lectionaries and canonical revisions have been utterly botched. So let’s find a way to devote, say, four days to a conversation with bishops and deputies focused solely on structure. We could, in fact, carve out that time at a General Convention, but it would require radical rethinking of how many resolutions we allow to come up for consideration.

But, as I so often do, I have digressed.

The structure proposals — in whatever form ends up getting passed — are mostly solid. The idea of a fresh group of people bringing fresh ideas is compelling and workable. I see no harm in also having our existing Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church have a crack at this stuff too. More ideas is better. Here’s why I don’t want to limit our thinking to the SCSC: look no further than this current “Blue” Book, where they propose tweaks to pretty much everything else under the sun except for the existing machinery of General Convention and CCABs. We do NOT need defenders of the status quo to guide our conversation in these areas. However, we should allow ourselves to hear their experience and wisdom.

In my view, we should start with a blank slate. “IF we were creating the Episcopal Church from scratch for our time, what would it look like?” Let’s pretend we have no headquarters, no committees, no legislative assembly. Nothing. What would we build? What does our mission compel us to build?

Our question cannot be, does this committee do a good job and are the people who have served on it faithful servants? No, the question must be, how can we do this work? Is there a way to do it without a committee? Do we need a staff office to make this work happen?

There should be no sacred cows. Everything, and I mean everything, should be up for grabs. Except. We are an episcopal church, so we need to continue to understand that the fundamental unit of the church is the diocese, not the congregation or a larger structure. Also, we need a model that supports ministry and leadership by lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons. Open, clear, governance is necessary.

As far as I’m concerned, everything else is up for grabs. In no particular order, these are things that should receive consideration. It’s not an exhaustive list, just some examples to prime the pump.

  • We have a very minimal churchwide staff, maybe less than 50 people.
  • We fund our churchwide ministries with a compulsory assessment from dioceses for canonically mandated activities, along with a voluntary ask for program ministries. I’m thinking the canonical assessment would be 5% or less and the ask would be around 10-12%, tops.
  • We encourage peer-based, ad hoc networks, with very little centralized control or leadership.
  • Our presiding officers are part-time or non-stipendiary positions, with an Executive Director to manage staff.
  • General Convention becomes a lot smaller (diocesan bishops only; 4 or 6 deputies per diocese, based on size) and meets annually for 3-4 days. That way, deputies and bishops get to know one another.
  • We have a churchwide partay every few years that looks like a ministry fair more than anything else. It’s huge.
  • We have almost no committees, relying instead on ad hoc networks and task forces.
  • We find ways to ensure that our leadership groups are diverse in age as well as other categories.
  • We award grants for innovation and success, and then share what we learn with the whole church.
  • We rely on existing organizations and their expertise, rather than reinventing the wheel for ourselves.
  • We get rid of provinces (and deaneries) which seems like pointless layers of structure.
  • Not that it’s necessarily related to churchwide structures, but we look at apostolic models of episcopal ministry, where bishops are not CEOs, but rather local pastors.
  • Above all, we make sure that when we gather, we are focused on discipleship and mission, realizing that everything else exists to promote those priorities.

That’s enough. You get the idea. My point is really that I hope we will do more than reduce our CCABs from 75 to 73 or tweak legislative committees at General Convention. We need big picture, bold ideas.

One more time: I’m not wedded to any of the ideas I’ve floated here, and I’m pretty sure most of them are not good ideas. But they represent the scale of revision I hope we’ll consider. If you want more specific proposals, check out these posts from Tom Ferguson, Kirk Smith, Susan Snook, and even 7WD from the archive.

OK, finally. Now let’s think about the resolutions.

We don’t know how these will come out of committee. A bazillion go in, but probably only one or two will come out. What’s important to me is that the following conditions are true:

  1. The group leading the conversation must be a new task force constituted just for this purpose.
  2. The process should somehow involve the whole church, not just a couple of dozen folks.
  3. Bold recommendations, ready for action, must come to the next General Convention.
  4. I think we need to leave open the possibility of some kind of in-person gathering before the next General Convention for prayer and conversation, if not legislation.
  5. We need to look at every possible thing, without anxiety or the desire to protect bits of turf.

As regards the last point, we don’t need, for instance, a “Presiding Bishops” or a “President of the House of Deputies.” There, I said it. We need to involve lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons in our leadership and governance, but that can be done lots of different ways. Let’s put the rest up for a rethink. All of it. And maybe we look at lots of stuff and decide to leave it in place, but let’s at least do the work of asking all the questions.

Here are the resolutions. The cloned one is first, and the others are at the bottom of this post.

The following resolutions are basically clones of the Sauls resolution and would be fine if passed, though the bit about the special convention needs to be rewritten.
C001: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C005: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C006: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C008: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C011: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C012: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C014: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C016: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C017: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C019: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C021: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C023: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C024: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C028: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C030: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C035: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C036: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C037: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C039: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C041: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C043: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C044: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C045: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C046: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C048: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C051: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C052: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C054: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C058: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C080: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C081: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C084: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C085: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C087: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C089: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C093: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C094: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C095: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C096: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

C097: Structural Reform. Likely vote: YES.

Here are the others (currently, there will probably be more).

C007: Special Commission on Ministerial Structures and Strategy. Likely vote: NO.
Doesn’t really make sense. Requests “dialogue” toward setting up a special commission, does not tell it what to do, and then says “General Convention” is supposed to present a plan “to the Church”. We need action, not just talk. We need a plan for General Convention to consider, not to present. The other resolutions are much better.

C020: Reorganization of The Episcopal Church. Likely vote: NO.
Asks the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church to come back to the next General Convention with a proposal. We need new folks to get new ideas, in my view. I’d like to see the SCSC involved, but not leading this.

D010: Ensure Provincial Representation on Restructure Commission. Likely vote: NO.
This one asks that the structure special commission, should it be created, have a provincial president or vice president as well as the provincial coordinator from each province. The author must assume the special commission is going to be huge, because this alone would add 18 people. This resolution, in my opinion, is well intentioned but unhelpful. First, I don’t think much of provincial structures as I’ve said many times. Let’s ensure diversity, but we don’t need to have this particular category. Second, I think the whole commission should be 15-20 people, not a bazillion. So, no thanks. Let’s let the PB and PHoD fill this — and determine its size — as they see fit.

A note about the composition of the special commission

On the subject, I’d like to suggest a radical break from custom (and canons, in some cases, though not this one) on this commission. I’d like to see the PHoD be able to nominate bishops and the PB be able to nominate lay people and deacons/priests. Here’s why. Let’s say, hypothetically, the PB and PHoD come at this with different perspectives. In the current practice, the PB appoints bishops and the PHoD appoints lay people and deacons/priests. This can lead to situations where it looks like the episcopate is at odds with the rest of the church, when in fact, the points of view are reflective of the one who appointed them. So if we allow some cross-fertilization, we’ll end up with new kinds of configurations. Bishops might end up here who might not otherwise get appointed, etc. Canons require our current practice on CCABs, but this is a special commission, so I think it could be done differently. Oh, and I hope we’ll get a good mix of veterans to the current system and completely fresh thinkers.

I think we need to get age diversity. There are generational shifts at work in our thinking about the church, and we want to make sure we don’t tilt too much to one side or the other. So imagine of this commission is about 20 people. 3 each from the teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. Wouldn’t that be nifty?

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3 Responses

  1. Jared Cramer says:

    In general, I agree with most of this. However, I think you are falling prey to the currently popular idea that decentralization and cutting staff at the Church Center is somehow intrinsically better. Most significantly, you seem to link the work the staff of the church center, and perhaps our Presiding Bishop, do with “centralized control or leadership.”

    I do think that the centralized leadership invested by the canons in our Presiding Bishop is a good thing. I think that we have already cut (rather mindlessly and certainly not with an eye to mission) in the church center. I don’t think it’s made our ministry better. I know that my own work representing the Episcopal Church at the national level in ecumenical conversations has become remarkably more difficult.

    Parts of what you say sound like the EC budget’s “subsidiarity principle” in which work is dumped on dioceses. Sometimes work can be done better at the national level. Sometimes national coordination of mission and ministry is a good thing.

    I don’t support any further cuts to the church center staff until we’ve had a serious look at structural reform and a serious consideration of the church center staff needed to support the mission and ministry of Christ in this church that such reform would entail.

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Jared, thanks for this. I agree with you — that we need a plan before we make more devastating cuts. That’s why I support the PB’s budget, for example, because it keeps things running while we sort out where we’re headed.

    My principle is that we don’t need churchwide staff to do certain things. My employer, Forward Movement, is one way to have churchwide offerings without recourse to our budget. There are networks and other ways to do this as well.

    I don’t think the staff need to get much smaller, but I do think there’s still a bit of 1950s-style “we create programs that you consume” mentality going on. Maybe I’m wrong.

    My list of criteria is an endgame, once we are clear. In other words, let’s come up with a whole new plan before we gut our current one.

    I’m perfectly prepared to be educated about the value of a large staff. But taking the long view of Christian history, our current way of doing things is an anomaly. Maybe it’s necessary because of our context, but I’m not quite convinced.

    As for centralized control, I think some things need to be centrally controlled, and others don’t. I’m not inherently opposed to centralization.

    In other words, I’m in favor of a smart structure. I’m not ready to join the Tea Party of the Episcopal Church. :-)

  3. Walker Adams says:

    Thank you for talking about age diversity. I feel like the only comment I ever hear about age is “The young people are the future of our church.” This drives me crazy since being confirmed and over 16 I have the same “Communicant in Good Standing” status as the 70 year old lady in the pew in front of me.

    The other comment I hear is “We need more young people.” If we want more young people, let’s not have a system set up that puts membership to leadership 100% based on experience. I’m sorry that someone in their teens or twenties won’t have 20 years of experience in going to general conventions. Maybe we need to see past that and accept their inexperience in order to gain their new and innovative ideas.