Next Presiding Bishop: caretaker or visionary?

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The Rev. Susan Snook and Dean Tom Ferguson offer differing perspectives on the election of the next Presiding Bishop and the work of restructuring the church.


Snook calls for a visionary leader and a Chief Operating Officer that is accountable to General Convention and Executive Council:

I believe that it is perfectly possible for us to elect a real agent of transformation as our next leader, and that that leader will be able to inspire change that our current structures will find very difficult to imagine. We need the kind of change that even the Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC), with its mandate to consider new ways of doing things, will find it hard to convince the rest of the church to risk. That is why I hope the next Presiding Bishop will turn his/her attention from the issues that were most pressing in the current triennium (relations with the Anglican Communion and our own breakaway groups), to the issue that will be most pressing in the next (transformation for mission within the church).

I think real transformation happens with real leadership. And because I believe this, I can’t agree with the Crusty Old Dean’s suggestion that we elect a caretaker/interim PB at the next Convention. His argument is that we can’t elect a PB until we have defined the job. But I think that in order to change, we should elect a transformational leader, who shares the church’s vision and passion for change, and who has the ability to gather others around that vision….

… How is this (the current Office of COO) a healthy situation, for the General Convention and its elected interim representative, Executive Council, to have the power to fund a staff, but little power to hold the staff accountable? For the House of Deputies, one whole house of General Convention, to have no oversight over staff priorities because the staff is accountable to the Presiding Bishop and his/her appointed officers? (Please do not read this question as a criticism of the current CEO, COO, and staff, or anything they have done, but rather of the strange way these roles have evolved.)

This is why I think the Crusty Old Dean’s suggestion of having an elected COO, from any order of ministry, has real merit.

And Ferguson thinks a caretaker Presiding Bishop is what we need next:

1. Nominate candidates to be a caretaker PB, an experienced or even retired bishop who may be willing to serve for a triennium. We cannot elect a 9-year incumbent and possibly think we can make any changes to the office, so, in reality, we are locking in many aspects of our current structure through 2024 by electing a 9-year incumbent in 2015.

2. So essentially elect an interim PB in 2015 while the church considers proposals to restructure and rethink the church. Get a commitment from candidates, and have the PB-elect publicly announce, the intention to resign at the end of the 2018 General Convention. Instead of spending over $500,000 to transition to an office which might be restructured, why not actually think about changing the office? Currently we are coming up with a transition plan for the people in the office, not the office itself.

If we are able to make a first vote on Constitutional changes in 2015, and a second in 2018, then we could elect a new PB to serve under the new definitions of the office. If we are unable, we could do any number of things depending on circumstances. Ask the incumbent to stay on for three more years. We could elect someone to serve out the remainder of the term through 2024, and then elect someone under any new provisions. Sure, there would be some bumpiness and perhaps uncertainty, as in any kind of interim or transition period, but is this any worse than locking ourselves into our current system through 2024?

Both like the idea of a elected Chief Operating Office – believing it could be a lay or ordained person.

Read both blogs and add your thoughts about the upcoming election of a Presiding Bishop and re-visioning of the structure of the church.

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Eric Bonetti
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Eric Bonetti

@Ann and Susan: Come to think of it, both of you would make great PBs. Watch out, or I will nominate you from the floor!

But then, come to think of it, I wouldn't wish the job on either of you. 😉

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Jonathan Galliher
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Jonathan Galliher

I don't know that I've ever seen a genuinely transformative leader in anything as large as the Episcopal Church, and how exactly would this miracle worker succeed seeing that many people in many parishes can't even be bothered to pay attention to what happens in their diocese much less the national church?

My guess, looking at what works in the secular world, is that we need to get over the idea of parishes being so autonomous and move responsibility for providing many of the professional services parishes need to the diocesan level along with the money to pay for them. Also, find ways to more ways to get small dioceses that can't afford much staff to either merge or have shared staff somehow. Then use some of the more concentrated money to push harder on planting churches in growing areas instead of leaving dying parishes on indefinite life support. For whatever reason, most of the time bigger seems to work significantly better than smaller in America at the moment. At least as long as the management keeps its eye on the ball and isn't controlled by sentimental attachment.

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Eric Bonetti
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Eric Bonetti

Very pleased to see the robust discussion here. A couple related thoughts:

- I'm writing at greater length about this, but one of the challenges is our limited ability to imagine the future. Too much of our thinking is incremental in scope, when we need to think about the mighty winds of change that can come about via the Holy Spirit.

- Apropos Jeffrey's comments, I believe they are right on point, with one exception, which is inviting conservatives to join the AC. Given their extraordinarily bad behavior, there should be no incentive on the other end. Had they asked to negotiate in good faith, that would be one thing. But allowing them to join the AC now would be a little like inviting the arsonist who sets fire to your home to buy the place, at a fire sale price, on the grounds that reconciliation is needed. Forgiveness, yes, but reward--absolutely not. Incentivizing bad behavior inevitably leads to more of the same.

- A caretaker PB would surely be a mistake. TEC doesn't need caretaking. It needs vibrancy, vision, and imagination.

- While I have many, many concerns about our present governance structure, too often we confuse the issues caused by recent events with structural problems. In times of crisis, any organization that wishes to survive tends to concentrate power at the top, and the current PB has done an excellent job of turning back those who wished to topple our duly elected hierarchy. In cases such as this, it is not uncommon for the person who comes to the rescue to, herself, come out with more than a few dents and dings. That said, it also is normal for power to flow back towards a more decentralized model once a crisis is over. Thus, my concern is that we evaluate the role of the PB over time, versus just looking at the past few years. I also hope, as we look back on the present PB's time, we will realize that overall she has done a remarkable job of holding thing together at a time where we have faced challenges on every front.

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Jim Strader
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A defining point for this conversation should be "What purpose will the Presiding Bishop" serve in her or his term as PB? If transformation and real change are the course The Episcopal Church does truly desire and is really and truly invested in sorting out winners and losers for such a purpose then the election of a Presiding Bishop should involve stakeholders who either have or will receive the capacity to implement true change. The House of Bishops may indeed be orientated toward re-imagining the denomination and the office of the PB as it is and they may not be. I doubt whether or not a transformational type of Presiding Bishop would be able to exercise life-giving leadership if her or his electing house and the broader Episcopal Church church are not devoted to such great amounts of risk and loss. I tend to agree in ideology with Susan while I wonder if an interim who is not invested in the same way as someone elected to the office and who would be able to heat up The Episcopal Church's container into a dynamic, somewhat chaotic state might not be the sort of leader who could turn the talk around change into true acts of transformation. Such an interim should not be a placeholder but an authority figure who truly seek to unlock archaic forms of governance and organizational hindrances that are impeding mission and evangelism alike.

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Susan Snook
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Susan Snook

Chris H. - Executive Council received the staff report recommending that the Church Center stay at 815. We then formed a subcommittee that is looking at the options carefully and independently. We are taking the resolution passed at the last General Convention very seriously.

You are right that there are powerful forces that will react against any proposed change. This is why I think we need a transformational leader who understands the need for change and will work hard with all the change-resisting groups to make it happen.

Susan Snook

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