Of plentiful harvests and vestigial polity

Provinces episcopal church

This post is for serious Episco-churchgeeks with a speciality in polity wonkery. If that’s not your thing, move right along, and we’ll be back to our usual muttering about discipleship in no time at all. But if you want to dive into the realm of Episcopal governance and structures, this will make your day…

OK, if you’re still here, you doubtless followed General Convention 2015 and its considerable energy for rethinking church structures. This blog was thick with non-stop convention geekery. The idea is that we need to streamline and rethink how our church is run and governed to meet the needs of today’s church in today’s world. Leading up to General Convention, the Task Force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church presented a set of proposals. They had some good ideas, but a few of us wanted to take things a bit further in a few cases. So I worked with my friends in the Acts 8 Movement to present our own set of proposals for rethinking and streamlining, which we hoped would allow us to focus less on institutional maintenance for its own sake and more on discipleship.

In our group’s division of labor and legislative strategy, my name was attached as the sponsor of a resolution on provinces. The original title of the resolution aptly says what we were thinking, Eliminate Provinces. On the one hand, this seemed like an easy win. Here, we thought, is a layer of polity that our church manifestly doesn’t need. If we’re keen to simplify and rethink, this is a prime example and a good place to start. On the other hand, I fully expected the province resolution to die in committee, because people love the idea of change even while they hate actual change. Much to my surprise, the resolution passed in the form of a substitute calling for a task force to study what it might be like to eliminate provinces. So I count that as a win: our church is having a conversation that we needed to have. Now it’s time to decide what to do about all this.

A few days ago, I spoke with a member of the task force who are working on this. Their task is to make a report that will, no matter what they say, please some and annoy some. It’s thankless work, so I want to begin by thanking them. They’ll make a recommendation for General Convention 2018, and then the legislative process will do…something.

What I’d like to do here is, firstly, to make the case for why I think we should jettison provinces as a layer of polity in our church. But secondly, and most important, I want to invite you, dear readers, to weigh in with comments. I’m speaking with the task force soon, and I’d love to point them to what folks have to say. So please leave comments here with your thoughts on why provinces are awesome, meh, or deplorable.

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Episcopal Church provincesThose of you who have made it this far probably already know that our church is divided into nine provinces, or clusters of dioceses. While our nine provinces certainly do some good, they also add a layer of polity that we should be able to trim way to free up resources of time and money for other work. It’s important that no one think that I or anyone else would say provinces do no good. Rather, the opportunity cost of keeping them is higher than what they accomplish; much of the good provinces now offer does not require a layer of polity.

Getting rid of provinces isn’t the be-all, end-all of structural reform, and it won’t cause a sea change in our church. But it should be an easy way to make headway on organizing ourselves for this century, continuing what is good, and trimming what is not necessary. From my perspective, being good or familiar or comfortable is not sufficient. We need to keep those things which are essential, and hold all else lightly.

First, the good. Our nine provinces offer a good vehicle for regional gatherings. I used to enjoy Province I gatherings when I lived in New England. Provinces provide an easy way to convene people across several dioceses. Provinces are also good for building regional networks. Youth ministers or commissions on ministry or even bishops can gather more easily because travel costs are lower, and they can share resources.

It should immediately be noted that all of those things could happen even without things called provinces. New England Episcopalians could get together without a thing called Province I. Youth ministers in the upper midwest could meet online or in person without being in a province.

Provinces also help us fill churchwide committees, but that’s not a good thing. There’s a rule now that if a committee has more than nine people on it, one person should be from each province (except, ironically, the task force on provinces was constituted without reference to people being from each of the nine provinces). Why do we mandate a strict quota system for geography, but not for other kinds of diversity? In other words, since we trust our presiding officers to appoint people of varied race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, etc., can we also trust them to seek geographic diversity? In our current system, we end up with some comically large committees. The nominating committee for a presiding bishop is 29 (!) people. That’s one bishop, one deacon or priest, and one lay person from each of our nine provinces, plus two youth representatives. Maybe we should instead decide on the optimal committee size and work on geographic (and other) diversity in appointments.

In some dioceses, provincial synod (that’s like a regional general convention) members are constituted from people who are elected by dioceses. In some dioceses, synod members are appointed. In others, they are grafted into synod by virtue of, for example, being elected deputy to General Convention. A few dioceses do not appear to specify how provincial synod members are appointed/elected. And then these synods elect Executive Council members. So in some cases, we have unelected and opaquely-made appointees electing members of our church’s board. This goes against the core values of transparency and participatory democracy that our church holds dear.

There is also an issue of time. Some provincial synods meet a couple of times a year, and a room full of people spend a day or two in these meetings. Who has the free time to attend these meetings, at least if you are not employed by the church? What is the result of these two-day meetings? How do those meetings proclaim the kingdom of God? How else might we spend our time? At the churchwide level, the cost of provinces is not high, perhaps in the low six figures. But if you add up all the costs of all the meetings, it becomes more significant. It would not be an unreasonable estimate that provinces consume over a million dollars each year.

I had a chance to visit Province IX (the province that encompasses Central and South America, plus some other bits) a couple of years ago when I went with some staff members of the Episcopal Church to visit the diocese of Ecuador Central. First of all, I was exceedingly impressed by the effort to provide resources from the whole church to address some local challenges. These are deep, real relationships, and I was blessed to see the fruits of these relationships as a diocese — which has a long history of various challenges — works toward health. Part of the goodness of what’s happening in Ecuador is a network of relationships with the other dioceses of Province IX (Colombia, Dominican Republic, Litoral Ecuador, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela). There is a great deal of resource sharing and mutual support among these people, and the churchwide staff are able to target resource development at a group with broadly similar contexts. Any reform of provinces would necessarily keep these networks and targeted resource development. The good work and the great momentum (as these dioceses work toward sustainability) can continue without a thing called Province IX.

So why get rid of provinces?

Setting aside the idea that the burden should be on those who advocate structural maintenance in our day, I think there are several compelling reasons to get rid of provinces.

  • We can accomplish the good things that provinces are doing without needless a layer of bureaucracy and complicated polity.
  • We can have more flexibility for networking across the current provincial boundaries. Maybe Western New York would rather meet with Northwest Pennsylvania? Or maybe small, rural dioceses from across much of the nation would find it beneficial to gather at times. To use an example near my home, perhaps the dioceses of Lexington and Southern Ohio would like to work together on common ministries of the greater Cincinnati area or the Ohio River valley. But this is discouraged by current structures.
  • We can create more flexible gathering opportunities and networks. Maybe small dioceses would benefit from working together? Or dioceses with or without major cities? And on and on.
  • We can spare ourselves from constituting nine copies of some committees, when in reality we only need one for our church (e.g. clergy discipline courts of review).
  • We can size churchwide committees appropriately and trust our presiding officers to keep an eye on geography as a criterion for diversity.
  • We can have a consistent, transparent, churchwide process of elections, especially for Executive Council.

Provinces are a horse-and-buggy solution to modern challenges. How can we have networks that are larger than dioceses but not encompassing the whole church? Transport is easier now. Online networking is easier now. We can build the networks we need without resorting to structures that are otherwise unhelpful. We can build networks from the grassroots, without being told who to connect with. We can still gather for face-to-face meetings when we want to, but with greater flexibility.

This is the explanation from the resolution I submitted to General Convention last time.

First established over a hundred years ago after decades of discussion, provinces have served their useful purpose. In today’s age of easy travel, we wish to open up collaborative possibilities beyond the constrained boundaries of provinces, to permit shared ministry across current lines, if desired. This layer of denominational structure serves little purpose today other than to ensure geographic diversity on certain committees. We believe that we can ensure continued geographic diversity without rigid lines, similar to our current practice of seeking diversity of race, age, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. Interest-based provincial networks, such as young adult gatherings, deployment officer gatherings, etc., can continue to meet under this change; there is nothing that requires a governance structure to exist in order to allow an affinity group to meet. Removing the provincial structure allows such affinity gatherings to choose the geographic groupings that make the most sense in their context. This change will free up resources currently spent on maintaining an outmoded structural model.

At the same time, we wish to acknowledge the good work of the dioceses in Province IX, and the particular circumstances of our international dioceses. This resolution calls for their continued support, and for our Presiding Officers to continue to include participation from dioceses outside of the United States in the church’s committees and commissions.

Since Title IV currently uses a Provincial Court of Review, we propose the creation of a single churchwide Court of Review. We believe that a churchwide court will be an equally satisfactory alternative to the current structure.

Eliminating provinces also allows the numbers of members on certain committees to be adjusted, since provincial representation is no longer needed. Specifically, we propose to change the following:

  • Executive Council from 38 members to 30
  • The Joint Nominating Committee for the Presiding Bishop from 29 to 20
  • Increase the Official Youth Presence from 18 to up to 24

You can see the full text of the original resolution here.

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No one is suggesting that we should eliminate provinces because they are bad. In fact, they have done plenty of good. I happen to believe that they are vestigial — left over solutions to 19th century problems of convening our church more often. By eliminating these vestigial structures, we can streamline — while accomplishing the good work of provinces — and free up time and resources for discipleship and evangelism. Put another way, the field is ripe for harvest. Do we need provinces to send laborers out into the harvest? Are provinces consuming time and energy that delay us from the urgent work of the Jesus Movement?

What say you, dear reader? Should provinces stay or go?

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35 Responses

  1. lizziewriter says:

    Wot? Yay provinces! I’ll type more later from a better device.

  2. Some issues at GC2015 prevented me from mentioning this to the committee debating this resolution, but simply put, GCOYP cannot be increased without a funding increase. And it’s been clear that PB&F aren’t that interested in the idea of increasing funding to youth ministries. Or at least the last two iterations weren’t.

    – A former member of GCOYP

    • Scott Gunn says:

      I think the funding for a larger youth presence could come from a reduction in provincial support. Or if not there, from elsewhere. It is, as you note, a matter of priorities.

  3. Kathryn Nishibayashi says:

    I feel pretty “meh” about provinces but that’s probably because I come from the only one of the US provinces that has an ocean in it! Gathering for provincial activities is just not that practical. For example, our provincial synod the last two triennia has been the night before GC starts since that’s the easiest way to get a critical mass of us in one place. And at least for my diocese, we’ve chosen our synod delegates from our deputies.
    So I guess if we keep provinces, maybe break province 8 into smaller pieces though that might be sad for Alaska/Hawaii/Taiwan. California has done a gathering of the California Dioceses about a year before each of the last few GCs which has served some of the functions that a provincial gathering might. But it doesn’t include the entire province.

    Here endeth my longer than expected response! (#proudchurchgeek)

  4. Laura Thewalt says:

    Before the interwebs, they probably made great sense. I don’t know what purpose they serve now.

    That said, some of The Best laughs and friendships of my life came at Prov V higher ed ministry spring conferences. (Late 80s/early 90s.)

  5. Linda Watt says:

    They are an anachronism that probably made sense in the past. Today we have many better ways to interconnect, as you well elaborated.

  6. Vicki Zust says:

    If we keep Provinces we need to reconfigure them. Western New York is in Province II. Our closest partnership and shared ministries are with Northwestern Pennsylvania, who are in Province III and Buffalo has more in common with Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh then New York City and Newark

  7. John Miller says:

    Structures like provinces which are without a leader, the ability to raise funds, and a clear purpose are just baggage. (Deaneries in many dioceses have the same lack of leadership, resources, and purpose)

    That having been said, campus ministry does use the province structure heavily. Like you say it is completely possible to have a “western States” Campus ministry coordinator who would call a yearly “Western States campus ministry gathering”, but the question in my mind is would it actually happen?

    You speak of ad hoc regional networks, but my experence so far is that they are even less effective than formal structures without resources and leadership. They are informal structures without leadership, boundaries, resources and mandates. I would like to hear about how to form these regional networks without the formal structural level and see some actual working examples.

  8. Sandi Carter says:

    I just don’t see that they serve any real purpose. Out west our province is so large that it serves no regional purpose. In these days of instant communication, there should be less need for gatherings and for those interests that truly are regional, i.e., something in common due to geographical location, there can always be gatherings. Let’s let them go.

  9. tandaina says:

    I’m one of those mythical “cradle” Episcopalians so I’ve been at it for 40 years. I have never seen a purpose to provinces. Mostly it seemed to require diocese to send folks to a meeting that did… well no one was ever sure.

  10. Mike Grigsby-Lane says:

    I fail to see what the church in Portland has in common with the church in Tucson.

    • SmokeFan says:

      ^^ This. I’d say my parish in Wyoming has more in common with our brothers and sisters in Utah and Idaho than with Minnesota or Iowa, so…

  11. Apcw says:

    It seems, um, provincial to keep things like this.

    A good example is where we live on the border. It is a lot better than it used to be but you would think there was a force field in the Ohio river.

  12. Back in the 90s, I was a diocesan youth coordinator, later diocesan Christian ed chair, and involved in campus ministry. Our Province V gatherings were great for networking and learning opportunities. Perhaps that’s not needed so much now, however it’s still much easier to get teens and college students to an event a few hours drive away than to have to fund a bunch of airline tickets. That said, the only time I’ve thought of my current province in nine years was when I had to go to a pre-General Convention meeting. Most of the time I actually have trouble remembering which Province I’m in now. Is it VII?

    • Scott Gunn says:

      I do think in-person networking is incredibly valuable. I also think that can be done without provinces.

      According to the map, you’re in Province VII. Make sure you update your parish website accordingly.

  13. Elizabeth Felicetti says:

    Provinces should go.

  14. Vicki L Smith says:

    I have a hard time remembering what province I’m in and I’m clergy. I agree that the provincial structure is no longer helpful.The networking and sharing of resources provinces sometimes offer can be accomplished effectively apart from this formal structure.

  15. Elise Johnstone says:

    So, I raise a comment (which I don’t often do)– I have been, for most of my life, a Province IV person. It was at the Province IV college retreat that I discovered that Wiccans exist (and that occasionally they also felt called to be Episcopal clergy), so I would say that this experience broadened my worldview considerably (not for the better or worse, but definitely made me look at things a little differently). Your points are valid; we don’t have to have provinces to have shared efforts and relationships. I think there are some great things about Province IV (the one with which I have the most knowledge/experience), but the points that you and others raise about geography, etc. are good ones. All that being said, I see that our Presiding Bishop is the one voice on the task force from the Province (from what others tell me) that is the most functional and does the most work together. It does seem like it would be helpful to have some kind of appellate court equivalent for disciplinary matters, and funding is helpful in making Province IV events occur… so while it’s not conclusive and my thought wanders some, it’s my 2 cents.

  16. Sharon Alexander says:

    Canon I.9.8 (last sentence) now provides that Deputies to Synod are to be elected (ie, not appointed) but the manner of election is left to the Dioceses (GC 2015 amendment)

  17. Carolyn Giles says:

    In case LESLIE hasn’t commented yet, why is Missouri divided? I don’t think any other state is. (Oops, Louisiana is–again, perplexing.)

  18. jimboston says:

    I think the idea is good, though I would like some planning to encourage the kind of networking that has often been sponsored by provinces, and more.

  19. C. Wingate says:

    The biggest thing provinces do for me is that they make the statistical reports easier to read by breaking up the long lists of dioceses. But I pay no attention to the provincial numbers because historically they haven’t been very interesting.

    • John Miller says:

      But are those reports really meaningful when Prov VIII covers 1/3 of the globe (admittedly a lot of it under water but still) and Prov I would almost fit geographically within the my Diocese of Northern California?

      • Oh, I don’t pay attention to the numbers recorded for the provinces! It’s literally only that they introduce visual breaks in the lists, which makes it a bit easier to read. I only look that the diocese, domestic, and (on occasion) whole church numbers.

  20. Nicholas Beasley says:

    I spend a fair amount of time convincing my parish leaders that our diocese matters; they are unaware of the work of the province. I am sure that the synod gatherings at Kanuga are enjoyable and beneficial, perhaps especially to clergy networking. But I can’t see how a small denomination like ours, that has most of its authority centered in the diocese, needs these now.

  21. Penny Bridges says:

    I’ve long thought that, while parishes and dioceses, and to a certain extent the church as a whole, are effective units for polity, the in-between levels of province and region/deanery/convocation struggle to find a purpose. I can see a usefulness to the New England dioceses banding together occasionally, but with six dioceses in California, why not just have a CA grouping (which we are attempting to do on a political level). Coming together by state allows us to have more of a voice in the secular realm, as the grouping mirrors political structures. I have yet to see a good argument for provinces.

  22. Thought about this more overnight, still can’t come up with any redeeming feature of provinces that other non-structural, non-geographic networks cannot provide.

    Same with deaneries.

  23. Rachel Taber-Hamilton says:

    When GC 2015 presented reimagining church structure, the provincial system was the first example that came to mind for me. I would like to see the provincial system (which has certain attributes of a psuedo-hierarchical system within overall church structure) replaced by strengthening and expanding social, group and ministerial networks – even to the point of funding staff positions to manage communication websites and topically specific newsletters. For example, at the most recent national gathering of Indigenous Peoples representatives in TEC in February, I asked for the opportunity for the gathering to break into groups by province – something we have never done. In our Province VIII group, we were all surprised by who and how many composed that group. However, only three members out of 30 even knew there was a provincial Cluster convenor for Native Ministries, who was present and one of the three in the know. The group determined that going forward, our Cluster convenor would work on expanding the previously used email list for the provincial cluster, establish social media platforms for communication and information sharing, and refocus available funding to promote opportunities for topical gatherings around needs in Native communities resonant with social justice priorities in TEC. So, while there is value in supporting regionally identified issues or gatherings as in Cluster ministries, the layer of provincial oversight is not necessary for that work. The issue for me is fiscal management of funding and the mechanisms needed to access and distribute available funds, which is currently managed by the Provincial Executive body, including a treasurer.

  24. Count me as a “meh” vote. I have a marvelous memory of a Province V youth gathering– but something like that could as easily happen as a regional event without the province structure.

    If someone were to ask me today “what does the province do?” I would be hard pressed to name a substantive purpose that could not accomplished in other ways– better, less expensively, or both.

  25. Mary M. MacGregor says:

    I concur with every point you have made Scott. I have been a resident of Province 7 most of my life and have participated in a number of provincial gatherings in different capacities. I have also been invited to speak at other provincial meetings. I have come to the conclusion that their only benefit is networking. Period. My experience in Province 7 has been that it has struggled for the last 35 years trying to figure out its purpose. It is time to do away with this antiquated geographical division. Provinces have had little to no governance empowerment which is often the only reason to cling to antiquated organizational structures. Let’s take full advantage of modern communication and networking practices which are already springing up through grass roots efforts and entrepreneurial gatherings. I hate for our denomination to be wasting resources and time that can be spent in more fruitful ways of living into God’s mission for it.

  26. lizziewriter says:

    I guess I’m in the minority, but I’ve never worried about that before. I think Provinces allow us to retain a regional character or flavor that might otherwise be lost in the mix. And sure, “It should immediately be noted that all of those things could happen even without things called provinces. New England Episcopalians could get together without a thing called Province I. Youth ministers in the upper midwest could meet online or in person without being in a province.” — But when have any of us seen that to happen, not specifically regarding provinces, but in general? We live in community and in relationships.

    Maybe I’m just speaking out of comfort with an apparently benign status quo. I think, though, that without Provinces, we will end up with some areas that may dry up from lack of support, and others that will form cliquish in-groups. jmo. I’m not a wonk, after all.

  27. Daniel Stroud says:

    Having been engaged significantly at the diocesan levels and having followed very closely things that happen at the national level, I have to say, I don’t quite thin much would be lost these days if we jettisoned the provincial model. The good things being done by various provinces (relational ministry, owning and running Sewanee and Kanuga, etc) can continue on regardless of whether or not the provinces continue. In spite of the fact that I’m far nerdier than most about church polity, and care more about the institutional church more than the vast majority of people I know, I’m not sure I could give an adequate answer as to what the purpose of provinces is these days. I understand in theory what they are and why we have them, but I just don’t really see the point anymore.

    As you’ve said, those resources are better used elsewhere, and hopefully they can be in the future. If however, having provinces is of such vital importance to some people, perhaps we could at least dramatically reduce the number of provinces we have. The church of England is dramatically larger than us by numbers, if not by area, and they suffice with two provinces. Is there a real reason we should have nearly five times as many provinces as they do?

  28. Paige Blair-Hubert says:

    I loved our Province I gatherings when I lived in New England…That being said … the time for provinces is past. Please please please, Gen Con 2018 deputies… please let them go this time. Neither Nostalgia nor “Yay I just got elected to fill an office in my province” are good reasons to keep this aspect of our polity… in 2015 Scott and colleagues drafted a canonically air tight resolution that eliminated them… (perhaps you clicked through and read it just now…) pass it this next time so we can begin to move forward and reallocate our resources in more fruitful ways.

  29. Jonathan Galliher says:

    I think you’re badly underestimating the power of having mostly sane official defaults for regional groupings, especially when they have money attached.

    From the outside it looks like the biggest trouble with provinces is how little thought is spent on them, with the result that they’re rather pointless and ineffectual in many cases. Your hypothetical alternate regional groupings seem to have the same problem, however. I mean, are the existing provinces really what’s preventing people from getting together with folks with shared interests and concerns? Lack of funding might be a major problem, but eliminating provinces doesn’t seem likely to cause the funding to move to structures that haven’t been built yet.

    That said, I could completely get behind eliminating provinces as a criteria for committee membership and shrinking very large committees. I could even get behind letting the dioceses involved decide what province they want to be part of if that will help strengthen the regional connections.

  30. Bryan Garcia says:

    I’m in Province VIII and have literally no idea what goes on at the province level. Last time I looked, I couldn’t even find a website. I say ditch ’em.

    Deaneries seem to be about as equally useless, though I realize that probably varies based on diocese.

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