Support the Café

Search our Site

More thoughts on TREC: What is the proper role of the Presiding Bishop?

More thoughts on TREC: What is the proper role of the Presiding Bishop?

In its recent paper on church governance and administration, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) suggests three models in which executive authority in the Episcopal Church might be configured.

The first of these—to simplify for the sake of brevity—would create a strong chief executive officer chosen by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, accountable to the Executive Council. The PB and PHoD would continue in their roles as president and vice president of the Council respectively.

Under the second proposal: “The PB, with concurrence of the President of the House of Deputies, would nominate four people to serve the following offices: COO, Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer, Secretary, and Chief Legal Officer. The Executive Council would confirm these nominations. These positions would serve at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop/CEO. Approval by Council and the PHoD would not be needed for the PB/CEO to fire the COO or other officers.”

The third proposal would allow the presiding bishop to remain a diocesan bishop. Under this proposal: “The Executive Council hires a General Secretary for the Episcopal Church, who serves as the Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church Center. The General Secretary may also serve as the Secretary of the General Convention, if elected by that body to do so.

“The General Secretary would nominate persons to serve as Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer and Chief Legal Officer. The Executive Council would confirm these nominations. These persons would serve at the pleasure of the General Secretary, in consultation with the Executive Committee of Executive Council.”

I favor the first proposal. It best honors the principle of distributed authority that is at the heart of our governance while “right-sizing” the role of the Presiding Bishop, and focusing it on the kind of work that only a presiding officer and spiritual leader can do. (The Rev. Susan Snook’s discussion of the role of the Presiding Bishop is excellent. Some negotiation might be required to coordinate roles and responsibilities between the PB’s personal staff and the staff that reported to the chief executive officer, but the job is not insurmountable, and there would be opportunity for trial and error.

Of the other two alternatives, I think the second has the least to recommend it. The Presiding Bishop is elected by one house of the convention for a lengthy term of nine years, during which it is extremely difficult to dispute his or her decisions, short of filing disciplinary charges. This offers the people of the church just about nothing in the way of accountability from an individual who exercises a level of executive freedom that would make Dick Cheney blush.

The role of the Presiding Bishop is already too large for any one person to handle. It is no surprise, then, that some of the PB’s duties are delegated to senior staff members. These individuals are elected by no one, and accountable solely to the PB. Proposal II relieves both them and the Presiding Bishop from providing accountability to the wider church. The organizations that I am familiar with that configure themselves in this way are either monarchies, or dependent on the personal fortune of the CEO.

I am skeptical of the third proposal for two reasons, the lesser of which is easier to explain. I think it gives the general secretary a little too much power. I don’t think it is wise to have the person who runs the organization on a day-to-day basis serve as the chief officer of the General Convention. Checks and balances are our friends, and this arrangement removes an important one by granting the same person in charge of the day of day operations of the church’s administration a significant role in the operation of its governing body.

But more importantly, I think proposals to have the Presiding Bishop continue to serve as a diocesan bishop are unworkable. The job is too big, and too demanding, no matter how one might try to pare it down. Additionally, the people of the church have a hunger to spend time with the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies. They are both regarded as public figures within the church, and both have the opportunity to serve as our ambassadors to the broader culture. (Our current Presiding Bishop is brilliant in this role.) The PB can’t play this role if he or she is also running a diocese. I am concerned, then, that this proposal could cost the church someone in a position to be its most effective spokesperson.

The TREC report also makes recommendations regarding reorganizing the Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards (CCABs) that help perform the work of the church, and the size and authority of the Executive Council. More about those issues in a later post.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jim Naughton

Jared, I am ambivalent about having the Presiding Bishop be a primate, but let’s put that aside. I would welcome having the Presiding Bishop elected by the entire General Convention, but if he or she is elected to a nine-year term during which the church staff is responsible only to them, then church hq, wherever it is, is unaccountable to the people of the church.

I think the gifts you articulate are important attributes of what one might call the chief spiritual officer of the church, to coin an ugly phrase. I don’t know that they have much to do with administering the church. In my experience, few people combine the gifts necessary to be both an authentic spiritual leader and the CEO of a complex organization, and we need the former in a presiding bishop more than we need the latter, because the latter can be delegated. We need to be clear, I think, that ordaining someone to another order of ministry doesn’t endow them with abilities they don’t already have.

Jared C. Cramer

Jim, I’d say that the solution to your views on unaccountable lies not in creating more bureaucracy but changing the way we elect a Presiding Bishop. Have the PB elected by the full General Convention (which, I think should at the least involve a voting by ACTUAL orders, with delegations of laity, priests, and deacons from each diocese, along with bishops, preferably in unicameral form.) Then the PB has the mandate to function as an actual primate.

Here is an excerpt of what I wrote on this question…

Our church’s historic fear of episcopal leadership (an ironic reality given that we are the Episcopal church) has confused me ever since I first walked in the doors ten years ago. Option one seems like a mess, it’s too close to the overlapping jurisdictions and turf battles that currently characterize the state of things, but it gives even more authority to a board which would, I fear, muck it up even more. Option three seems like option two, only with us not having to have the General Secretary also be our Presiding Bishop.

What do we believe is the ministry of bishops, after all? In the catechism, it says,

The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to continue Christ’s ministry.

Bishops have a particular ministry of teaching. They are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church. They are called to proclaim the gospel and to act in ways that will reconcile the world and build up the church of God. They are called to ordain.

All of those seem to be the duties we would want to have in a “CEO” or a “General Secretary”… that is, assuming that as an organization we are committed to proclaiming the Gospel, strengthening the ministry of the baptized, and carrying on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.

If we believe that bishops have these gifts, if we believe that these gifts are strengthened and enabled by a particularly grace of the Holy Spirit given at ordination… then why wouldn’t we want the Presiding Bishop to be the person who leads the organization of our church? Perhaps that would clarify that the organization actually is a church.


Jim Naughton

I agree that there are ways in which the PB could have a small staff, but I think that scenario is most likely in Scenario 1 in which someone else is administering the staff that doesn’t report directly to the PB, but is necessary to make the church run. I would not like to see a system, though, in which the PB was principally accountable to just one house of the General Convention, unless what you are talking about here is largely about disciplinary measures.

Overall, though, I just don’t see how the Executive Council can actually exercise any authority if senior staff (COO, CFO, in particular) report to the PB and not to the Executive Council.

I think the staff of the general church can be smaller, but I don’t know if it can actually function at the level you are suggesting. Although, I may be misinterpreting you on that score..

Bill Carroll

I do presume that the main line of accountability is to the exec council with regard to how budgets and other matters mandated by GC are administered. In every other aspect to the HOB. The PB needs few staff people as I conceive the office. We need someone who will articulate the mind of the Church and oversee those very few programsthat are done best at the churchwide level. The PB should focus on empowering flat networks rather than overseeing hierarchical structures. Beyond communications and admin hr/she should need very few staff.

Jim Naughton

I don’t think it is sensible to require the Presiding Bishop to do something radically wrong in order for the rest of the church to hold him or her accountable. And if the staff serves exclusively at the pleasure of the presiding bishop, then in place of the bureaucracy you don’t want, you’ve created a personal staff instead.

Also, while I am at it, you use the phrase “professional office holder.” The only professional holding an office in the system you outline is the Presiding Bishop. Everyone else is a clergy member or lay person elected by their peers to donate their time to the church.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café