Bishop Sauls’ reform proposal, I: the political context


Bishop Stacy Sauls’ presentation to the House of Bishops last week in Quito, Ecuador has stirred significant comment, not to mention anxiety, in the church. We hope to devote significant time and space to discussing his proposals in the days ahead, and would like to begin by describing the context in which it has landed.

Tensions between the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies are high, as are relationships between the Executive Council and the staff at 815. Some bishops have even discussed encouraging a candidate to run against Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies. Bishop Sauls seems, on one level to be sensitive to this. His power point presentation includes the following:

Slide 42—


A general word of caution about continuing this conversation.

The problem is a systemic one and not an individual one.

There will be reactivity to these proposals. That is the nature of systemic issues.

This is not a problem with the leadership of the House of Deputies or with anyone individually.

Let me say something about the President of the House of Deputies.

This is not a problem about Bonnie Anderson.

Bonnie Anderson is a good and faithful person who loves Jesus and loves the Church and is devoted to serving the Church.

To be perfectly honest, the level of conversation in the House is sometimes not helpful on this issue and, in fact, the people of the Church deserve a higher standard of leadership from their Bishops.

When I need to ask Bonnie about something she has said or done, or when I need to consult with her on something, what I do is pick up the phone and call her. I have never, not once, had Bonnie do anything other than have a collegial and helpful conversation with me. I suggest you do the same.

Before I say more, a moment of full disclosure: Bonnie Anderson is a client of mine. (So are several of the bishops in the house.) I was with Bonnie when the news that Bishop Sauls had called for a special convention focused on reforming our church’s governing structures first broke. She was completely blindsided, as were the other members of her Council of Advice, which was then meeting. So was the Executive Council, whose executive committee had met with Bishop Sauls just two weeks before his presentation in Quito. So was the Standing Commission on Structure, which had recently held a lengthy consultation on governance reform at the Maritime Center near Baltimore. So were the members of the Budgetary Funding Task Force, on which Bishop Sauls serves, and in which many of his proposals had been discussed—but not, to this point, accepted.

So, on the one hand, Bishop Sauls seems to be aware that the two houses must learn to trust and respect one another, on the other hand, he has preempted the work of a task force on which he himself serves, and gone to the bishops with a presentation emphasizing the savings they would realize if the House of Deputies met less often—and didn’t bother to inform any of the clergy or lay people involved in church governance that he intended to do so.

A number of church leaders expressed their concern to Episcopal News Service, but their views were not represented it its story on this matter.

In his proposal, Bishop Sauls also suggests that the Executive Council, a body on which clergy and lay people constitute a majority, should no longer exercise control of the Church’s finances. At least that is the conclusion that I draw from Slide 26:

Slide 26—Principle 2: Separate Mission Decisions from Fiduciary Decisions

Let people do what they’re best at

Executive Council best at mission

DFMS Board of Trustees is different (currently vested with Executive Council)

I am not sure precisely what Bishop Sauls intends here, or how he intends to redefine the Board of Trustees, but one would have thought that alerting Executive Council ahead of time that he was about to float a proposal stripping it of its fiduciary role would have been the courteous thing to do.

Church reform in a polity such as ours, in which authority is shared by bishops, clergy and laity, is a politically delicate matter. The bishop has made a substantial and significant proposal on an issue that is critical to our church, and it deserves serious and energetic consideration. However, he has made it in a way that has put many of the lay people and clergy who are most deeply involved in issues of governance and structural reform on their guard. That is unfortunate, because it may make it difficult for the bishop’s ideas to receive the consideration they require.

We will move on to substantive discussions of the bishop’s proposals in subsequent posts.

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19 Responses to "Bishop Sauls’ reform proposal, I: the political context"
  1. Just as I orignally thought - a power play by the bishops - no wonder they all like it. For Deputies- I would say when the Bishops cut back on their meetings - then consider changes in General Convention.

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  2. I find it increasingly difficult not to see bishops as church liabilities, not church assets.

    Bishop Sauls should have presented his proposal to Executive Council or perhaps first to the Standing Commission on Structure.

    I am getting tired of the notion that facts are not real until a bishop articulates them. When Bishop Sauls’ property report was made public, everyone suddenly realized that the church was under systematic attack. Via Media USA and Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh had been trying to tell The Episcopal Church that long before the Sauls report was written.

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  3. Just to be fair and balanced, however, Deputies have been whinging for years now that GC is too long and too expensive. Now you know what comes from such whinging: let's reduce your authority and have you meet less frequently.

    Lionel gets at a useful point about people not taking heed until a Bishop says it. Plenty of Rectors know this phenomenon with parishioners who do not feel like they have been pastorally visited until the Rector visits them. At the same time, I think our HoB is "listing" towards their colleagues around the world who are elevating the teaching authority of the Bishop to a central place in the life of the Church. They are welcome to make that their model elsewhere, but here,teaching authority is vested in various ways in all orders. Bishops are the protectors of what is necessary for salvation, but not vested with being the sole interpreters of scripture, for example.

    I am sure that Bishop Sauls will now find himself in some chilly meetings. But at least it is waking us up to some real issues and decision points in how TEC is and will be governed.

    Jim, I am presuming the "I" in this article is you. Perhaps the line at the end should be "written and posted by...." when the author is the active voice inthe story.

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  4. In response to Mike's comment about people whining about how long GC is: I am reminded of all the work the domestic violence advocacy community did to raise awareness of the cost to society of not addressing and reducing violence against women - only to have insurance companies get the message and raise rates for women who had been or were suspected of having been victims of domestic violence. Not quite the response we were trying to provoke.

    I appreciate Ann's comments - its always so much easier to counsel OTHER people to change, isn't it (especially when you have more power/access to decision-making). A former friend of mine who is now the senior pastor at a mega-church once said: authority in the reign of God comes with responsibility - NOT privilege.

    Still looking forward to the time when bishops actually become agents of unity.

    God's Peace, Z

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  5. This piece makes for interesting reading. I cannot help but connect the dots. After all, this is the same Stacy Sauls who

    imposed a de noveau interpretation on the national canons in order to defend a clearly erroneous interpretation of how one

    deposes a bishop.

    He is an "out of the box" thinker. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not. Working in a collegial manner (or giving due

    respect to the whole C&C of TEC) is not his strong suit. No one should be surprised.

    Nathaniel Pierce

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  6. I find it ironic that in a church where our Catechism defines the mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” that Bishop Sauls, presumably in his capacity as the Chief Operating Officer, has made a presentation on structure/restructure to the House of Bishops prior to meeting the interim governing body of the church, the Executive Council, in person for the first time. That first in-person meeting will not take place until Council meets in Salt Lake City October 21-24.

    We are a church that believes in the importance of relationship in the Body of Christ, and yet, we continue to impair our necessary working relationships by placing ideas, proposals and time pressures over and above respecting relationships with timely and collegial communications. Actions trump thoughts and words in exemplifying our beliefs.

    Perhaps approaching the House of Bishops first might be blamed on the fact that Bishop Sauls has, in fact, not yet met Council, but has a long-term collegial relationship with other bishops in the House of Bishops and seized an opportunity to share some ideas with his sister and brother bishops due to the timing of the bishops’ meeting.

    I have observed and heard from colleagues in other dioceses that there is a similar pattern in diocesan life, that is, that some bishops communicate things to the clergy cadre often in advance of communicating with their Standing Committees who share diocesan governance with them, leaving the Standing Committee members to learn these things from secondary and tertiary sources. So, from my point of view, this practice does not stand in isolation, and it smacks of disrespect for both the persons and the positions, however unintended.

    Bishop Sauls’ presentation to the bishops first may also be a reflection of the reality that diocesan bishops respond more readily to recommendations from among themselves to commit their dioceses to study a specific subject than they do to recommendations that come from either General Convention or Executive Council.

    I am experienced enough in organizational life to wonder if there was something intentionally strategic about presentation to the bishops first. Could this be an example of apologize later rather than notify first? It is also true in organizational life that she/he who speaks first and frames an issue often then has set the direction for the ensuing discussion.

    How people feel about the circumstances surrounding the work that they have to do significantly impacts how they think about the substance of that work. Having said all of the above, my hope and prayer is that we will be able to move forward together in an attitude of unity as sisters and brothers in The Episcopal Church who want to engage our missional work with charity, clarity and truly shared decision-making across all the ministers of the church – laity, priests, bishops and deacons.

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  7. In all fairness to Bishop Sauls, we've been having the "structural reform" conversation for years, if not decades. What has legislatively come of it? Zip. Nada. The budget was cut only AT the last General Convention and done so with a meat cleaver rather than a studied, intentional, systemic way. There realy wasn't time during convention to do otherwise. While the process might leave something to be desired, it is also true that some things need a kick in the pants to get them going. Now that the kick has been administered, perhaps we could judge the proposal (and other structural proposals) on their merits rather than simply shooting the current messenger or accusing anyone of a power play. Or we could simply follow along with current political discourse and whine about it.

    The House of Bishops has absolutely NO authority to act as a legislative body outside of General Convention. Period. If the House of Deputies wanted to meet twice a year in a similar non-legislative consultation, I'm quite sure that they would be allowed to do so. The fact that it would be prohibitively expensive is another issue. So, before anyone says "the bishops are proposing that the House of Deputies meets less often," realize that they are also proposing that the House of Bishops meet less often in legislative session. This does not reduce the authority of the House of Deputies--BOTH Houses would have a similar lessening of the opportunity to act legislatively, which is not necessarily a bad thing!

    So, how about a nice proposal from the Committee on Structure or elsewhere in the House of Deputies? Then we can reconcile the two proposals, get the reconciled proposal voted on at the next General Convention, and actually get something done. Oh, and also get over ourselves. We're not that important in the wider world anymore...

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  8. I don't want to seem Pollyanna-ish, but I don't think most of our bishops are interested in participating in a power grab. I think many of them are deeply concerned for the future of the church, eager to experiment with new ways to restore its vitality, and keenly aware that they lack at least some of the resources that might allow them to do so more vigorously. I think most want to shake things up in some decisive (rather than incremental) way, and Bishop Sauls' way is the one that has been put before them.

    I hope that other ways emerge in the conversation that has now begun, and that the strengths and weaknesses of these various strategies can be weighed against one another. My concern with the way the process has begun is precisely its potential to drive people into camps.

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  9. Tom, while I don't think, as I said above, that most bishops are interested in a power play, I think it is simply a factor of organizational life that power tends to flow to those bodies that meet most often. What happens when a legislature meets less frequently is that other bodies begin, out of necessity, to perform its tasks. Unless those bodies are composed of elected laity and clergy, the voices of those orders are diminished. This may not be the intent of someone who proposes such a reform, but it would, in all likelihood be the result. I want to give the benefit of the doubt both to the bishops, and those who have been made wary by this proposal.

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  10. Well said, Jim.

    Process matters.

    And if you want to talk about waste, how about all of the opportunities Bishop Sauls missed to get buy-in on his ideas via the bodies on which he serves that are tasked with examining structure.

    The complaints about process in response to Bishop Sauls' "big reveal" to the House of Bishops are not about defending territory; they're about defending our polity, in which priest, deacons, and laity as well as bishops are canonically given their roles in governance. That Bishop Sauls chose not to offer his presentation to the canonical body charged with examining the structure of the church is puzzling at best.

    I hope communication from him improves dramatically. We all know it's Not Good when the Church Center's COO doesn't communicate well with the POTHOD, Executive Council, and interim bodies of GC.

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  11. P.S. -- I don't think we're in a position yet to discuss the substance of Bishop Saul's ideas, since he hasn't actually shared them with us yet. Yes, his PowerPoint slides give us a sense of where he's headed, and the commentary provided by ECafé was very helpful. But we need to see and hear from Bishop Sauls, and so far he's not talking with you, me, or anyone else I know outside the HoB.

    Also, I see that my sign-in isn't showing my full name any more: this is Sarah Dylan Breuer posting.

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  12. I second the "well said, Jim" sentiment. Yes, I know that functionally, the more groups meet, the more power they have. I just don't know a solution to the meeting frequency question. It might be worth holding Provincial HOB and HOD gatherings, say every two years, and so spread things out a bit.

    I don't know, and I recognize that the process has in many ways been short-circuited. However, I'm not sure that the process thus far has resulted in anything but a lot of hand-wringing.

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  13. Tom, I think we are on the same page, and see the same difficulties in forging a solution.

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  14. There may or may not be a power grab going on, but if this was it it was incredibly hamfisted. You don't go through the room stepping on everyone's toes just before asking them to dance.

    Nada has come of these discussions before, as Tom said, and nada may come of it again. But for God's sake lets not spend millions of dollars on a special GC believing that THAT will solve our nadaistic structural change tendencies. Start the work at 2012, finish at 2015.

    Bishop Sauls.. you might want to check that red blinking light on your phone, I think there may be messages for you.

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  15. This smelled bad from the moment the HOB were offered an opportunity to bring to their diocese a resolution to restructure the church through a special convention which they have been asked to bring to their diocesan conventions without (1) defining mission or (2) restructuring their own house first.

    We've seen this in corporate models of business. Restructuring is suggested so that there can be more money for R&D (Research and Development - the corporate version of 'mission'). First we look at cutting the cost of the product - using less expensive materials. Then, we look at cutting the cost of production - lay-offs, outsourcing, union busting, etc. The money saved is, of course supposed to go to R&D, but as we all know, just a small percentage ever gets there. Mostly the costs are passed on to the owners, administration and stockholders.

    Two things occur to me about what is being referred to in some circles as the "Sauls' Plan". I believe Bishop Sauls is a good man. He's been at the job - what? - three weeks? Hardly enough time to think up much less hatch this plan. My suspicion is that "someone" handed this off to Bishop Sauls. "Someone" who was once at 815 but is no longer. "Someone" with an agenda about the organizational structure.

    The other thought is prompted by the idea that we take away fiduciary decisions from Executive Council. This is clearly a power-grab (or a pissing contest) between a few folk at the top of the administration.

    Finally, I think this whole thing is designed as a distraction from the hard work we're all going to need to do on the budget, the Anglican Covenant, and Marriage Equality. Let's get us fretting over "structural changes" and some vague references to "mission" and throw in the possibility of a Special Convention to get everyone distracted.

    I'm not buying it, folks. Let's stay focused on the work we have to do and get clear about our own identity as Episcopalians, determine our mission as a church and then look at ways to structure ourselves in order to be more authentically who we are and support what we say is our mission.

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  16. As I posted elsewhere, I don't have a problem with the ideas Stacy floated. They are just that, ideas. Unless some bishop or diocese/province/group of deputies has latched on to his resolution and actually put it forth, it is also just an idea.

    I've known Stacy for many years. Trust me, we have had some very candid conversations about a variety of issues. He knows full well that if I were to learn he had been less than forthcoming about this suggestion, I would give him very public hell about it.

    Stacy does think out of the box. And while he has only been on the job officially for 3 weeks, he has spent the time from being hired to now in gearing up to it.

    As a member of Executive Council, I am sure we will discuss this among other issues at our meeting next month. I've never been shy about asking the difficult questions and expecting an answer. My own background in non-profit management has served well in giving me a lens through which to view much of the work of EC and GC. If I don't get what I consider an accurate or adequate answer,I will continue to raise questions and "call folks out" if I need to do so.

    We have a wonderful tendency to always look for the worst possible motives behind changes. Maybe we need to devote some of our apparently boundless energy to studying the proposals, evaluating them based on their own merits and not the author, and deciding what else we need to know to make informed decisions. If we are not willing to devote that amount of energy and interest, why continue to waste keystrokes?


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  17. Bruce, I am all in favor of moving on to discussing the proposals. I look forward to you and other commenters weighing in on part two.

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  18. To offer to the HOB a proposal which includes major changes to the functions of the HOD and the Executive Committee without informing the leadership of the bodies is a major failure of communication. I won't attribute the failure to communicate to sinister motives, but what was Bishop Sauls thinking?

    And I'm with Elizabeth in doubting whether now is the time for a Special Convention.

    June Butler

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  19. I have been a priest in this church for 12 years now. I have heard very few people talk about the structure of the church. I've not been a deputy to General Convention and so I guess that's why I have not heard deputies whine about the length.

    I actually find it completely refreshing that the new CEO of the Church Center is suggesting that we dream again about how we can have a Church Center that helps congregations live into the mission of the Gospel in this century and not the last.


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