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A “missional polity.” How does that work?

A “missional polity.” How does that work?

A More True Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society: Toward a Missional Polity for The Episcopal Church,” an essay by the Rev. Dwight Zscheile published in the Journal of Religious Leadership in 2006 has been receiving renewed attention as the church turns its attention to restructuring its governance and administration. Why not read it and tell us what you think.

I was struck by this section:

Rethinking Diocesan Conventions and General Convention

Other than those who relish church politics, most Episcopalians approach diocesan conventions and General Convention with apprehension, for coalition politics, parliamentary maneuvering, and divisiveness typically characterize these gatherings. Within the structure of these gatherings, Bible study and theological reflection are typically subordinate to the central content—the legislative process.

This approach to church assemblies reflects not only the downside of democratic rule, but also Christendom assumptions that the primary reason for the church’s representatives to assemble on regional and national levels is legislative governance. Governance must take place; policy must be made; yet the spirit with which it is undertaken should reflect a larger missionary purpose.

To begin with, we might re-conceptualize such conventions as convocations of missionaries who gather first and foremost to cast vision, share best practices and build one another up in ministry. In such a model, prayer, Bible study and theological reflection would take center stage as the main event, with legislation relegated to the sidelines. This would begin to reshape the way in which the Holy Spirit is attended to in the councils of the church by placing discernment at the heart of things. Stories might be shared of mission experiences that would spark the imagination of those present. Collaborative networking for mission partnerships would be a key feature of such events.

Nothing Professor Zscheile says here makes any sense to me, but as a number of people whom I respect have recommended this paper to me, I am open to the possibility that I am missing something. What do others think about the paper, and about this passage in particular?


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John D. Andrews

“Bible study and other spiritual activities, however well intended, seem like a distraction from the business at hand. At the end of the day one has to make decisions.”

The above attitude is exactly what is wrong with the institutional church. It is even a problem in my own parish. The church is not a business or government, yet we run it like it is. When we do talk about the Holy Spirit it is usually just lip service. If we are to be the body of Christ on earth, expanding God’s kingdom on earth, we must discern what the Holy Spirit is doing and join in with what the Spirit is doing. That requires Bible study, other study, reflection and prayer. Yes, decisions have to be made, but in light of our discerning God’s will.

Bill Dilworth

Rick, I *think* that you came from the same tradition that my family back in Texas did (broadly speaking). One of its features that I’ve always been a little jealous of is the Sunday school class structure that prevailed, in which most members, it seemed, belonged to a specific class and supported it; the classes were about as important as the church service that they all gathered for afterwards. An awful lot of spiritual growth and fellowship took place right in those very meetings.

I’ve never been a part of an Episcopal parish (or, to be fair, an RC or EO parish, for that matter) that had real Sunday school for adults, as opposed to the Rector’s Forum or Adult Ed. type of program at which all the adults who want to gather together in one venue, and which seems much more passive than my parents” Sunday school classes. If your “other tradition” also shared the sort of Sunday school classes I’m talking about, I wonder if it made it easier for the sort of annual gatherings you describe to take place?

Laurel Cornell

The Society of Friends (Quakers) has exactly that sort of annual gathering — a week of workshops and talk. And EVERYONE shows up! (Search Friends General Conference, 2012 FGC Gathering). It happens the same week as General Convention. Of course, the Society of Friends is much smaller, and legislative decisions are made at the Yearly Meeting (regional) level, not at a national one. When I joined the Episcopal Church I was dismayed to find that the national and regional gatherings are devoted to legislation and politics, not spiritual growth and fellowship.

Rick Laribee

I was in ordained ministry for more than decade before discovering the Episcopal Church. My move into TEC was not impulsive, but exceedingly slow, deliberate, intentional, and costly, and was motivated for liturgical, theological, and spiritual reasons.

However, there is one thing I miss from the past: the annual gatherings that practiced the very approach urged by Professor Zscheile’s. Institutional governance was necessary — but played a tiny, minor role. The focus was on mission, best practices, inspiration, formation and education, and building community. It was more practical, less expensive, less frustrating, and engaged far more people, both ordained and lay. It’s the ONE way in which I felt the other tradition was and continues to be vastly superior to our own. Professor Zscheile’s proposal is not dreamy speculation. Rather, it is practiced, long-practiced, and widely practiced by numerous other groups. It just plain works.


My own diocese has for the past several years opted for educational opportunities as the primary purpose (at least if we measure by time allocated) of diocesan convention, now spoken of as the “Diocesan Gathering and Convention.” The stated purpose has been to have a more educated diocese, and all in the diocese are invited to the Gathering, while a smaller number of us will be taking some time for Convention.

On the one hand, the ideas of gathering more people and of opportunities for a more educated diocese in all orders appeal to me. At the same time, in my experience we have had two consequences. The first is that we’ve had fewer resolutions and less debate on the resolutions we’ve had. That may or may not be a big loss, although I have enjoyed the occasional examples of expressive rhetoric that we’ve heard. But, I wonder whether in resolving less we are speaking less beyond ourselves.

The second is that all reports (with the valuable exception of Youth Ministry) have been filed by title. As a result, many of the ongoing ministries support by the diocese and/or networks of congregations get almost no public attention. Yes, of course we could read the reports. However, as our TV viewing seems to become “siloed,” so our interests in diocesan convention become “siloed.” Who reads all the reports? And so things like Jubilee ministries, health care ministries, etc, are referenced and passed over. The leaders do not hear the stories to take back to their congregations, and we become progressively less aware of many of the locally valuable ministries going on among us.

I don’t think it’s an “either/or” situation. However, as others have noted there are also costs associated with the changes that seem to promise much.

Marshall Scott

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