Episco-upgrades: Simplify our structures

This is the third post in a series. Click here for the previous post or here for the next post.

In this series, some of the posts will take up major, theological/missiological questions and others will glance at minor, technical issues. This post is in the latter category. It has to do with polity. Please try to keep your eyelids from closing now.

The Episcopal Church is, as you are probably aware, organized into 110 dioceses, give or take a little. And those dioceses are organized into nine provinces, cleverly named First Province, Second Province, etc. Now we get to my thesis: we should get rid of provinces.

If someone can tell me one truly useful thing that must be done at the provincial level, I’ll gladly change my opinion. Without consulting canons, this is my recollection of the work of provinces:

  • Various committees and groups are filled by provincial appointment or election
  • Provinces often gather for formation activities or for functional gatherings (e.g. all the deacons from a province, or all the college chaplains)
  • There are Courts of Review in the provinces for matters of clergy discipline
  • Some mysterious things of importance to bishops

Maybe I’ve missed something arcane, but I think that captures most of it. All of this is important, but all of it could be done without provinces.

So what’s my beef with provinces? Simply put, it’s a needless layer of bureaucracy and another pointless set of meetings. Each of the nine provinces has a budget. Many (or perhaps all) of the provinces have provincial staff, full- or part-time. I know a few folks on provincial payrolls, and they are fantastic people who are dedicated to their work. I have no particular desire to get them out of work, but I’ll bet there are other ways we could make use of their gifts — ways that would be more closely aligned with the God-given mission of the church.

Committees could be filled in plenty of other ways. One problem with our current system is that we like to have representation by bishops, “clergy” (as if bishops aren’t also clergy; we mean presbyters and deacons), and lay people. Oh, and we like to have all nine provinces represented. That means 27 people, and we’re not even talking about ex officio members. Now you will be quick to point out that there are plenty of groups in the Episcopal Church which do not have 27 members. OK, but there are some which do. And there are others with nine or 18 members. Get rid of that provincial model, and we could decide how large committees should be, and ensure diversity in other ways.

Here in New England, our provincial gatherings have been great. I’m a fan of getting Episcopalians together in areas larger than the diocese, but smaller than the nation. You can escape your own diocesan bubble that way, and that’s a good thing. However, there’s nothing magical about our nine geographic areas. We could still gather regionally, and just invite anyone nearby who would like to come. In our present system, the Diocese of Missouri goes one way and the Diocese of Western Missouri goes another. Maybe it would be nice to have a gathering in, say, Des Moines to which both dioceses in Missouri would come. In other words, we can still have the gatherings without that particular structure.

And, of course, the same applies to Courts of Review and various bishop-y things that happen at the provincial level. It wouldn’t be that hard to constitute these groups by other means.

Provinces aren’t that big of a deal. They don’t cost that much, and they don’t get in anyone’s way. But there’s also no compelling reason to keep them. It strikes me as a symbol of the transition through which the Episcopal Church must go now. We have to let some things go, and we have to make room for new ways of doing things. Bye-bye provinces, hello new ways.

I believe that the core of the Christian faith is unchanging. But pretty much everything else ought to be up for conversation. When it comes to matters of structure (and furniture in churches, but that’s another post), relentless questions are essential. We should ask,”Does it make sense to do it this way?” or “If we were starting from scratch today, is this how we would do it?” If the answer is no, then let’s fix it.

The mission of the church is too important, and the work to which we are called is too urgent to waste precious time and money on antiquated structures. Every provincial synod meeting is a meeting that consumes time which could have been used to build up the kingdom.

As I said above, if someone can offer a compelling reason why we need provinces, I’ll gladly change my tune. If someone can tell me how provincial synod meetings (to pick one example at random) build up the kingdom of God, I’ll make sure to attend the next one.

To close, knowing that I will have ruffled some feathers with this one, let me again say I have nothing against the people who have done good work at the provincial level as staff or elected leaders. Your work is important, and that’s exactly why it’s important to ensure that our ministry is aligned with our mission.

This is the third post in a series. Click here for the previous post or here for the next post.

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8 Responses

  1. Phil Snyder says:

    Actually, we could also do with consolidating several of our dioceses. We should establish a guideline that a diocese needs at least 5000 ASA (or some number). Any diocese that falls below 5k ASA for 3 years in a row will be split up into surrounding dioceses. In order to form a new diocese, the creating diocese(s) need to have enough ASA to have 7500 ASA in each of the old dioceses as well as the new one.

    Phil Snyder

  2. Lee Crawford says:

    “Fire Province”

    Was this a Freudian slip or a desire to wake us up in the first paragraph?!

  3. Scott Gunn says:

    Lee, yes. Freudian slip, and a good one at that. I have fixed it.

    Phil, yes, I suppose dioceses could be the subject of a post. You are right about consolidation, though some of them couldn’t be combined due to sheer geographic size. Besides consolidating some based on size, we might rethink what they are for. Does it really make sense to send 20% of parish income to a diocese? Maybe not.

  4. Ren Aguila says:

    Phil and Scott:

    I think the question with respect to dioceses is a tricky one: how do you balance, for instance, the needs of travel, adequate episcopal oversight (in person), and finances?

    I don’t have an answer to the question, but when you posted in the past your suggestion that bishops should perhaps oversee no more than five or seven parishes…I thought about John Zizoulas and perhaps the answer really starts from theology.

  5. R. F. Solon, Jr. says:

    Amen, Scott, re provinces. In my diocese, districts can go bye-bye as well.

  6. Mary Keenan says:

    I live in a diocese that needs to be split up! We are huge and the bishop acts more like a CEO. He has so much on his plate with foundations and other institutions you wonder how he has time to be “bishop.” And it all feeds into a sense that bishops are, in fact, CEOs. So people start to expect them to run the diocese like a business and have a big salary and hang out with powerful people.

    As for the provinces, I would not cry to see them go. However, I would want to REQUIRE that bishops and priests and deacons (and laity) meet with thier peers in other dioceses. And maybe not other just of their own choosing. Out here in BIG IMPORTANT DIOCESE OF TEXAS, we could too easily get isolated and think our way is the only and best way to do things. Wait, we may already be there!

  7. Bob Chapman says:

    Fr. Scott, you may have the right idea. The previous reason for provinces was a middle management communication function. If dioceses are kept more-or-less as they are now, the presiding bishop could easily keep all 110 diocesan bishops on speed dial. Using some variant of SQL (mySQL, MS SQL) on a web server, reports could be uploaded from the diocesan level quite easily. Video conferencing is a proven technology.

    That is, if all dioceses are kept as they are now.

    If we were to assume a more 3rd or 4th century point of view (seems to be popular in some circles), I think many (most) of our diocese are way too large. The the Diocese of Olympia, the average parish sees our Bishop Diocesan once every three years.

    There are those who may hold their bishop diocesan in contempt, but it is not because of familiarity.

    (For the record, I most definitely do not hold my bishop in contempt. Far from it.)

    What if the present deaneries/regions within most dioceses became a diocese, with the bishop being rector of a (the) cardinal parish within the region? Then our bishop could be among us more, worshiping with us more, and working with us more. It would be less a “big thing” when the bishop was there and more of a “let’s get down to work thing.”

    (Probably a few rectors would stop acting like little bishops, too. After all, the person called to be the bishop would be there frequently. Again, no comment should be implied for my current rector.)

    For common assets of current dioceses, such as summer camps, the new dioceses might create new non-profit corporations for management (like the University of the South). Or, better yet, these common assets could become assets of the province!

    With communication tools available today, I wonder if many of the necessary functions at the diocesan level would best be handled at the provincial level. I would go so far as to include things like the Commission on Ministry, Standing Committee, and the like. The new (mini-)dioceses could possibly get by on an administrative assistant or two, instead.

    Here is one example of turning things more local. A aspirant for Holy Orders would be presented (or offered up) by the local bishop to the provincial COM and Standing Committee. (General meetings can be by teleconference, remember.) After doing the appropriate checks into background, education, psychological fitness, and the like, the recommendations on the aspirant would go back to the local bishop, who would make the final decision about postulancy.

    Having a broader review of aspirants is probably a good thing. There are going to be more priests and deacons whose ministry is not going to require a 3-year seminary education, but local preparation for a specific ministry. It is already becoming difficult to remember an ordination is for the church at large, rather than a diocese or particular parish (or mission).

    So, to summarize (if you are still awake), we need to eliminate provinces because communications do not require them or move most/many diocesean functions to the provinces in order to create smaller dioceses so our bishops may be leaders among us.

    In my humble opinion.

  8. Bob Chapman says:

    The call to eliminate provinces from a rector in the state of Rhode Island has some interesting parallel applications.

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