Blue’s Clues: Provinces

Provinces episcopal church

This is the sixteenth post in Blue’s Clues, a series on the resolutions and reports of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. The index of posts is here, and my index of resolutions and likely votes is here.

Back in 2015, all the talk before General Convention was about church structures. Do we have the structures we need in order to be effective as a church? Do we have structures that get in the way of our mission? The Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC) had been organized in 2012, and church geeks everywhere were abuzz thinking about TREC recommendations.

I worked with a group of people to present some proposals for church structure reform, building on the good work of TREC. Our resolutions (most of which passed, though some were amended considerably) tried to get into the details of how to make real the vision of TREC, to have a clear, effective way of organizing ourselves as people committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ.

In our package of resolutions, I was the submitter for a resolution simply titled “Eliminate Provinces.” Resolution 2015-D011 aimed to simplify our structures by eliminating a needless layer of polity, while encouraging more freedom in collaboration. It seemed obvious to us all, and we also knew that this wouldn’t pass. I was pleasantly surprised when the resolution was substituted with a resolution that called for study of provinces. At least we’d get some real knowledge to make decisions about provinces, rather than relying on feelings!

Here’s the thing about provinces. Most readers probably know this, but our 110-ish dioceses and diocese-like units are organized into nine provinces. One of the primary functions of provinces these days is to fill committees. For example, the nominating committee for a presiding bishop has a ridiculous 29 members, because we have two youth (yay!) and a bishop, a presbyter or deacon, and a lay person from each of nine provinces. Or take executive council. That’s another giant committee because we elect 20 people at General Convention and then proceed to elect two more from each of our nine provinces. There are rules about committees, such that large committees must have representation from each province. (Note: we don’t have quotas for gender, race, age, or anything else, but we have geography quotas? Really?)

Besides that, provinces do a couple of things. First, they provide networking platforms. This creates a structure for, say, campus ministries to work together with folks outside their diocese. Second, they provide in-person gatherings in the form of Synods (legislative meetings) or other conferences.

But do we need provinces? My opinion is infamous in some circles, so you won’t be surprised to read that I think provinces are a level of polity we can and should live without. If you want to read more, please see previous blog posts, here and here. If you only want to read one, pick the first one, “Of plentiful harvests and vestigial polity.”

Could we do the things we need without provinces? Yes. Do provinces do some good? Of course. But if we can get rid of a layer of structure, let’s do it. It will actually foster more flexible approaches, and if folks want to continue to gather regionally, they certainly can do so! People who want networks can form them! We love in the jet & internet age, not the horse & buggy age, so regional polity layers are no longer needed.

To my way of thinking, in today’s church, the burden of proof is on those who advocate for administrative, governance, and other kinds of “overhead.” Our church is smaller than it’s been in quite a while, but we have trouble downsizing our structure to match our footprint. We also have trouble imagining the reality that we could form networks and host regional gatherings even without things called provinces.

At last convention, the argument over provinces seemed to break down along a couple of lines. Some people like provinces, and just don’t want to end them. Other advocates believe provinces are essential for networking. On the other side, some people believe that we can network just as well (if not better) without provinces. Other critics see provinces as another set of meetings with an incalculably high opportunity cost.

This conversation actually happened to me in the exhibit hall in 2015:

Person: Oh, I recognize your name! You’re the one who wants to kill provinces! That’s a terrible idea!

Me: Well, not precisely, but OK. What do you love about provinces?

Person: I was just elected to [provincial leadership position] in [province number]. If your resolution succeeds, I won’t have that position!

And that encapsulates the situation. People who have been on the inside love them. People who have not, generally don’t. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I ran into someone who wanted to keep provinces — except at provincial synod.

The task force on provinces reached out to me in 2017, since my name was on the resolution. They seemed a bit surprised I don’t have an emotional axe to grind about this. While I’ve advocated for getting rid of provinces, I don’t think it’s a church-changing issue either way. Why do I push it then? Because this seems to me an area where we can demonstrate our willingness to change. Are we willing to make any changes so that we can be the church we need to be for this century? Are we willing to jettison outdated structures or programs? If we can’t do the easy ones, we won’t make it to the harder ones. Eliminating provinces strikes me as an easy one.

Anyway, the committee and I chatted a bit. I think we had a good conversation, or at least they listened to what I had to say. They asked good questions. I know they were thoughtful about their work, taking seriously the mandate they were given.

In 2016, the committee did a survey to gather opinions about provinces. They rightly wanted to know what is working in provinces, and what might be lost if they were eliminated. However, the survey seemed tilted to me, geared toward rationalizing the continued existence of provinces.

The survey reminded me of a Stephen Colbert gag: “George Bush, great president or greatest president?”

Are provinces great or the greatest? If those are the choices you offer people, you’re sure to get a positive answer.

The reported results differ from what I hear, but I’m certainly willing to admit my sample could be skewed. I do wonder if the survey was primarily answered by insiders who appreciate a familiar system, rather than others who might have a different view? In other words, is there selection bias at work? Or is my sense of things totally wrong? I’m somewhat tempted to field a new survey. But of course, surveys should not govern our action in any case. What we need here is leadership. If we’re going to keep provinces, let’s make sure there is a clear purpose that justifies their cost. If we’re going to get rid of provinces, let’s make sure there are good reasons for that.

At this convention, proposals to eliminate provinces have not (yet) been submitted. I suspect they won’t be, unless someone dusts off the original language of 2015-D011. It took over 50 years for General Convention to create provinces. I shouldn’t be too surprised if it takes a while to get rid of them.

This task force clearly believes provinces must be continued, and if they lack sufficient purpose, the solution is to identify a purpose rather than eliminating provinces. I wish it were clearer that they had taken seriously the option to eliminate provinces. But as in all things, your mileage may vary. Maybe my conversation partners and I are wrong, and provinces really are all that. Or maybe not. Please give this some thought, dear reader.

Do read the report. Let’s get on to the resolutions.

A071: Provincial Vitality. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This resolution asks that the “Provincial Leadership Conference articulate characteristics that would indicate a vital, fruitful provincial system contributing to strengthening the mission of The Episcopal Church and the wider Church.” I went looking to see if the Provincial Leadership Conference is defined anywhere, and my quick search didn’t yield much. I’d suggest that, if this resolution is put forward with a recommendation for concurrence, that the committee include a definition or otherwise specify who is accountable here.

But beyond that, this gets right to the heart of where those to want to keep provinces will differ from those of us who would prefer to see them eliminated. Another way to put this would be, “We’re not quite sure what’s awesome about provinces, so please tell us regularly.” As the resolution’s explanation says, “The goal of this resolution is for each province to become the best it can be.” Well, OK, but in a healthy system, they’d already be doing that.

As I wrote above, I think nearly everyone is in agreement that provinces lack a clear and urgent purpose and focus. The question then becomes, do we go hunting for a purpose? Or do we get rid of the thing that we’re not quite sure what it does? I’d prefer to see us get rid of this layer of polity, and if at some future point, we get a new idea for how to organize ourselves, let’s do it then.

A072: Provincial Geographical Boundaries. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

If this passes, General Convention asks that “in the 2018-2021 triennium, dioceses review, consider and align with whichever province best serves their identity and needs.” OK, since we’re probably not going to get rid of provinces, no harm in asking dioceses to look around and decide if they want to switch. There’s already a mechanism for this in the canons, so this is really a reminder to dioceses that they have this option.

On a related note, our constitution provides “that no Diocese shall be included in a Province without its own consent.” Does that mean that a diocese could withdraw from the provincial system altogether? Interesting idea.

A073: Mandates to Provinces. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This is an acknowledgement of the inherent inability of some provinces to get stuff done. This resolution asks, “prior to enacting legislative actions involving provinces, governing bodies, including General Convention and Executive Council, review the action in order to determine if all provinces have the capacity to enact these actions and make adjustments in the legislation to allow for diversity in responses.”

First of all, I do not believe it is within our polity to restrict the ability of General Convention to do what it will do. It is “sovereign” so I’m not sure such a resolution as this one would be binding, or even in order. Secondly, I trust the legislative process to think things through. I may not agree with everything that happens at General Convention, but there is ample opportunity for folks to raise objections and concerns. If we are on the verge of requiring each province to establish a widget factory, there is no reason for a resolution like this one; someone can go to the mic and point out that not every province can pull this off.

A074: The Prophetic Voice of Provinces. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This resolution asks that “each province exercise its prophetic vision and voice for The Episcopal Church, in calling forth and nourishing the ministry and mission networks throughout the province.” This is another resolution that asks provinces to figure out good stuff that’s happening and tell people about it. It also, of course, asks provinces to say what is not happening that should be happening. All this is to be done whilst exercising a “prophetic” voice.

To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Prophecy, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, is “discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God, whether by reproving and admonishing the wicked, or comforting the afflicted, or revealing things hidden; especially by foretelling future events.”

This resolution would bug me less if it had a different title, and if it didn’t appropriate the word “prophetic” in this way. To be prophetic is to speak God’s truth to people who do not want to hear it. Jeremiah was a prophet. John the Baptist was a prophet. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a prophet. They weren’t speaking about things like the need for new church committees or forming networks.

Even so, once I set aside my objection over the use of the word “prophetic” here, I think we already have plenty of ways to figure out when we’re missing key networks and programs. We have churchwide staff, who are really good at their jobs. We have folks at the diocesan level who can see the local scene from a higher level. We have congregations, local communities of disciples who will be the first responders to needs. And of course, we have individual Episcopalians, any one of whom in this day and age can launch a network of people working in common cause without the need for the blessing from some church council or official.

A075: Executive Council Representatives from Provinces. Full text. Likely vote: YES, but only if amended.

This resolution would end the current practice of electing people to Executive Council from the provincial level. This is a good idea, one that others and I have been advocating for some time. However, I can’t vote for this resolution as written. I hope it will be fixed in committee.

If you want to get stuff done in church polity, you actually have to write the resolutions to make it happen. So if we want to change how we elect Executive Council, someone needs to curl up with the copy of the canons and write the resolution to amend them. Offering a Picard-like “make it so” doesn’t actually work off the bridge of the Enterprise.

So if someone, somewhere, writes the necessary language to get this done, I hope it will be incorporated into this resolution. The original resolution that kicked off this task force had the language, so if you want to take on this project, you can do some cutting & pasting, noting that the canons have been updated since 2012, so you’ll need to double-check references and so forth.

One of the questions left unanswered by this resolution is, does the size of Executive Council change? I sure hope so. A 40+ member governing board is an unwieldy size. Getting rid of the 18 provincial seats, unless more seats are added, would shrink the council to a much more manageable size.

A076: Amend Canon I.1.14(c). Full text. Likely vote: YES.

The canons currently involve the presidents of provinces in the selection of the site of General Convention, and this resolution ends that. Makes sense, and I think the Executive Council is perfectly capable of doing this work.

I quote for you the explanation of this resolution:

The Task Force on Provinces is recommending that provinces focus on the mission of the Church and remove themselves from all the canonical responsibilities that may be necessary for the organization but that don’t apply to furthering the mission of the Church. The task of approving the site of General Convention does not seem to relate to the mission of the Church.

Well, yes. And that very same argument could be applied to provinces as a whole.

A077: Amend Canon I.7.1 (a). Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This resolution changes who authorizes and receives the audits of provincial finances. “Provincial Council” is changed to “Province” and then to “Provincial Leadership.” This is a problem for two reasons.

Firstly, “Provincial Council” is a thing in the canons. If you’re going to change the name of a thing or stop using a thing, you have to go ferret out all the other places where that thing shows up in the canons and fix it. On the other hand, “Provincial Leadership” is not a thing in the canons. How will we know what this is?

The aim of the resolution is to create flexibility, which is laudable. I’m pro-flexibility. But I’m also pro-accountability, especially when it comes to things like audits. Without a definition of “Provincial Leadership,” there will be problems. The auditor gives the report to one person, say the president, and thinks the task is done. But maybe it’s good to ensure that others see the audit as well. Here we are solving a problem — the lack of clarity around Provincial Councils — the wrong way. The better way is to tighten up what a Provincial Council is, not to create a situation where we’re unclear who is receiving important reports such as audits.

Also, the effort to change “Provincial Council” to “Province” is well intentioned but problematic. Let’s translate this. Imagine someone says, “Give a report to the Standing Committee.” You know what to do. Now imagine someone says, “Give a report to the diocese.” Well, how? At an annual meeting? In email newsletter? A letter to staff? There is no entity called a “province” which can receive reports and make decisions. The “province” is the geographic area. Or perhaps it’s the sum total of everyone who is an Episcopalian in the area. But it is not a thing that can hear reports or make decisions. That’s why we need to say Provincial Council or Provincial Synod, because these are (or should be) duly constituted bodies with clear membership requirements.

A078: Amend Canon I.9.2-13. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

Here are proposed amendments to the bulk of canons that govern how provinces work. The changes are similar to what I wrote about above, making language changes to strike Synods and Council and replace them with the more amorphous “Provinces.” Terms such as “Provincial Leadership” are used, and these are not defined.

This is a well-intentioned effort to bring flexibility to provincial governance, but the unintended consequences introduce confusion and obscure accountability.

For example, there’s a requirement in the amended canons that “Each Province shall keep minutes, journals or other records of its meetings” to be transmitted to the archives. Currently it’s just Synod who is required to do that. If this canon were implemented, exactly which meetings in the province are covered? Every network and committee meeting? The intention here is clearly that the province’s legislative body fall under this requirement, and the canons should say that — as they already do.

A079: Amend Canon I.11.3 (c). Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This also changes Synod to just Province. For reasons I’ve already stated, I think this is a bad idea.

A080: A Season Of Provincial DiscernmentFull text. Likely vote: NO.

This is another in the series of “let’s figure out what provinces can really do well and get them to do it” resolutions. It asks for the Episcopal Church to

commit to a season of discernment focused on identifying and strengthening the work of the provinces in the whole system of The Episcopal Church; including but not limited to: visioning for the kinds of collective aspirations for dioceses within a province as well as between provinces and articulating how these aspirations and efforts support the mission of The Episcopal Church and the wider Church; building the capacity for resource sharing between dioceses within a province as well as across the provinces; articulating the funding issues associated with the collaborative communications and networking and finding ways to support these funding issues (including the use of compensated staff).

The explanation notes, “it has become clearer that possibilities for collaboration and communication through the provincial system are being missed.” I really do wonder, did it occur to others that perhaps the problem is not that provinces are being under-utilized, but that provinces offer a polity solution to 19th century challenges that we no longer face?

Our church culture has a terrible time ending ministries and programs. We seem to struggle with celebrating that good work has happened, acknowledging our gratitude for years of fruitful ministry, then saying that the thing in question is no longer needed. You see this with parish events, committees at all levels, churchwide programs, and, I think, provinces. Those who believe a thing must be ended are not ungrateful for the thing. It simply means that we are making room for new things. As one wise friend says, “When you say ‘yes’ to one thing, you are saying ‘no’ to another. And when you say ‘no’ to something, you are making room for a ‘yes’.”

In the first parish I served, we got a new photocopier while I was there. We decided to get a unit that could fold and staple. There was some concern about the Friday Folders. Each week, an intrepid group of volunteers had been coming to assemble the Sunday service leaflet. Would this new machine put them out of a job, something they enjoyed doing? Were we sacrificing fellowship for technology? Maybe we should not get that feature, it was said. Well, guess what. We got the machine. And we found new ways to invite the Friday folks to do work. We got name tags around the same time, and our crew had time to re-sort out name tags each week. By ending a “folding ministry,” even one that people enjoyed, we freed up time for new ministries directly connect to evangelism and hospitality. There was never a shortage of things to do; we had to end one set of tasks to make room for new ones.

I wonder what we are defending with our insistence on keeping provinces? And I wonder what new ministries might emerge if we were willing to let them go?

In line with the explanation of A076, I wonder if provinces are essential to the mission of the church. Do provinces help us in our mission? Or do they keep us from living our mission in vital new ways? I wouldn’t suggest that we ask ourselves WPWJP (what polity would Jesus prefer?). But I do think we should be asking ourselves whether or not provinces are an important part of our work of making disciples of all nations in this time and in this place.

My hope is that, at this convention, we will at least do some streamlining. And then I hope, in due course, we will have the courage to adapt our church to the needs of our present time.

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8 Responses

  1. B. Thompson says:

    I wonder if the part about dioceses choosing which province to affiliate with would bring the “10th province” idea back into play. This was suggested many years ago, but never got off the ground. I have heard it suggested, and I believe it to be true, that the ACNA would never have been formed if a non-geographical 10th province had been allowed.

    In general, however, I agree with you in thinking that provinces are rather uninteresting and unhelpful and would hardly be missed after a few years of not having them.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what I think about a non-geographic province. And I’m not sure it would have solved much, as there has been a divergence of views within even the most conservative (and liberal, to be sure) dioceses. Worth pondering fresh thinking though.

  2. John Miller says:

    The simple rule of church polity: any structure whose funding comes from above will be useless, any structure whose funding comes from below will be active.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Who gives the provinces their money? If the money comes directly from dioceses, the good work some folks are doing in the provincial structure will probably keep going. On the other hand, if the money is coming from the national budget, how will the funding get from the national budget to those who are currently doing good work with money from provincial budgets?

  4. Sharon Alexander says:

    Do you have any thoughts about Province IX, where the provincial structure is both robust and vital for resource sharing, etc?

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Absolutely! In the original 2015-D011 resolution, which called for the elimination of provinces, we asked that the Province IX dioceses continue to receive financial and staff support, as well as robust network and resource sharing assistance. I mention that in both the linked blog posts, but didn’t mention it here. I should have. Thank you for raising up the issue.

  5. Thom Peters says:

    Disclosure: I am a member of the Task Force on Provinces. These are my views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the entire Task Force.

    The overarching principles the Task Force wound up trying to apply were very much in keeping with the sentiment of your resolution. Let’s get provinces out of making decisions of polity (the bureaucracy you seem to want to simplify) and wherever we can, support provinces to the extent that they help further the mission of God.

    In some provinces, the current model seems to work well. My observation is that these tend to be provinces that already have a fairly robust regional identity and a denser population of Episcopalians (the Southeast and New England). Other provinces have adapted to their geography and cooperate in ways that are different, but cannot be described as a “synod” because of the practical arguments against it and the expense of gathering in that way. Hence even when we require a “synod” today, these provinces have found other ways to satisfy their needs and carry out the mission of God in their province. So the Task Force recognized the reality of the situation and adopted the broader description of “Provincial Leadership” which varies by province and will have to be defined by the Province, not by some TEC bureaucracy dictating a one-size fits all prescription.

    I understand your concern for accountability, but since provinces will receive no funding from General Convention after 2018, this should be less of a concern. Provinces will only spend what their own member dioceses choose to give. The accountability will be from the bottom up, rather than the top down (as one of your other commenters seems to prefer) If in its wisdom, the General Convention does decide to grant some funding to the Provinces, then it can simply require an accounting from the Provincial Leadership as defined by the individual provinces.

    Was the survey skewed? Most of those surveyed had some interaction with the provincial structure as it currently exists. So it is an accurate reflection of the sentiments of those who work with it. Those in provinces which are thriving are more positive about it. Those in provinces which are struggling for any number of reasons expressed their frustrations with the system’s unrealistic expectations given their particular situations. Our resolutions seek to ameliorate the frustrations of having to do polity work and respond to mandates from General Convention. They seek to encourage them to explore different ways of being the church in their regions without bureaucratic hindrances.

    I’m sure if you did a survey of folks who don’t work in provinces and/or aren’t familiar with the work of the provinces, they would more likely be in favor of eliminating provinces. But that would be a decision made out of a lack of understanding. These resolutions seem to recognize the inadequacies of the system and seek to address them in hopes of maintaining ways that work and exploring new ways that might also work in different places. I encourage you to reconsider your vote.

    I’d also like to say I have a great deal of respect for all the work you’ve put into going over the resolutions of the upcoming General Convention. My head is filled mostly with just this one aspect. I love this opportunity you provide in Seven Whole Days to consider any other aspect, and the ways you’ve promoted respectful dialog.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Thank you for your work on the task force, and thanks for leaving a comment. While you and I may not agree on whether we keep provinces long-term, I do think your task force’s resolutions offer improvement to the current setup. Please do leave a comment any time! See you in Austin, I hope.

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