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Re-imagining Diocesan Convention

Re-imagining Diocesan Convention

by George Clifford

In previous Episcopal Café posts (part 1 and part 2), I suggested radically reimagining The Episcopal Church’s governance and structure. Among the changes I recommended were flattening the structure, eliminating mandatory financial assessments, and relying on electronic voting, virtual meetings, crowdsourcing and outsourcing.

A friend recently sent me his proposal for reducing his diocesan convention to one day from its current two-day format. He advocated that one year the diocesan convention would pass a biennial budget and fill elective positions; in alternate years, the diocesan convention would focus on program elements.

Establishing a one-day format for diocesan conventions has several key advantages:

1. It would reduce administrative and travel expenses, thereby freeing more money for mission;

2. It would greatly expand the pool of potential convention attendees to include those otherwise prevented from attending by the need to arrange for overnight child care, cover incidental expenses, or honor work commitments;

3. It would allow greater numbers of people to attend as observers if not as actual delegates.

As an interim measure, I support my friend’s proposal.

However, we should radically reimagine diocesan conventions. A diocese, through canonical changes but without organizational restructuring, could transact all of its business over the internet, using electronic communication, electronic voting, and virtual meetings. Then the annual convention could become a time when people from across the diocese gather, meet one another, celebrate shared journeys, grow spiritually, and become energized for ministry and mission in the year ahead.

One appeal of mega-churches is that their size generates energy and synergy that small congregations cannot. Another appeal of mega-churches is that they have resources to produce programs and worship services (including preaching) of a higher quality than is typically found in a small congregation. Ten percent of U.S. congregations now contain half of all churchgoers.

The Episcopal Church is a denomination of small congregations. Our congregations have an average Sunday attendance of less than 70. Furthermore, the diocese, not the parish or mission, is the basic unit in our polity. Radically reimagining diocesan convention could transform a generally staid business meeting that many clergy and most laity try to avoid into an event for the entire diocese, an annual gathering of a “mega-church.” This would both affirm our unity and our ties to the diocese with our bishop as our chief pastor.

Too many congregations view their bishop as an honored guest or even as an intimidating and alien authority figure. Conversely, bishops quickly tire of an endless cycle of parish visits in which they preach, perhaps administer confirmation, perhaps eat well, engage in much polite conversation, and conduct canonically mandated inspections. Instead, we need bishops who provide effective visionary leadership for their dioceses, inspiring and energizing their people for mission.

Concurrently, by changing the format of diocesan conventions and maintaining our generally smallish congregations we would continue to enjoy the multiple benefits of belonging to a small group.

In sum, radically reimagining diocesan convention could give us the best of belonging to both a small and large church; diocesan convention, instead of being an annual burden, might become one of the high points of the ecclesial year. Laity and clergy might even clamor for convention to meet more than once a year!

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Eric Bonetti

Agree with the point about virtual meetings. We pride ourselves on being green, yet we are stuck in a endless flashback to Mad Men when it comes to using technology, especially in governance.

Use of video conferencing could open the ongoing conversation to the homebound, those without transportation, and others for whom time, geography and resources are an issue.

In the meantime, prime rib and three martinis, anyone?

Marshall Scott

I have to agree with Jim. For the past several years our diocesan conventions (and the one that convenes tomorrow!) have been two day affairs -or, really, a day and a half. Eight hours on the first day has been focused on topical education for the gathered diocesan leadership. For example, this years’ sessions include one on advocacy and one on how human trafficking is alive and well in our region. There is a banquet gathered in the evening. The half-day of business the next day is business. All reports are filed by title, with the (interesting) exceptions of youth and campus ministry (and that may be different this year).

My complaint has been, though (and made publically), that there are aspects of ministries we would do well to be informed about that get buried. Between reports filed by title, and little apparent interest in resolutions, we don’t actually talk about issues anymore. Indeed, the “hook” for this year’s session on advocacy begins with, “Did you know that the Episcopal Church has made statements about issues?” It’s certainly progress to note that General Convention and the Executive Council have spoken; but it is also appropriate for Diocesan Convention to speak. We have done so in the past; but with fewer reports and less time even when there is a resolution we speak to it less and less – which is to say that we speak to each other less and less.

That isn’t to say that we couldn’t make use of electronic means. Could we do the business session of Diocesan Convention as a big, interactive “webinar?” Actually, we could. Indeed, if we did perhaps we could meet more often about some things.

George, your comments on the benefits of gathering (using info from megachurches as sources of evidence) raises some interesting thoughts of “metrapolitical” possibilities of diocesan convention, as opposed to diocesan offices or “resource parishes.” One way or another, those are examples that might indeed suggest not only that we need to continue to meet, but need to have more time, structured differently.

Marshall Scott

Jim Naughton

I am in favor of doing more than resolutions and budgets at diocesan conventions. More, but not less.

A representative form of government–in which the laity exercise authority–is central to our ecclesiology. It is an extremely attractive facet of our common life, as any former Roman Catholic will tell you. I don’t want to see it streamlined out of existence.


This year we re-imagined our annual convention here in Episcopal Church in Minnesota.

We had a two day convention- the first evening focused on business and the second day specifically focused on missional engagement and equipping attendees to “Engage All God’s Children” in their local neighborhoods.

Framed by the 5 Marks of Mission, workshops focusing on the issues affecting youth across MN were offered by community partners ranging from the Children’s Defense Fund to YouthLink (an organization working with homeless youth). The day also included a Community Engagement Fair with about 40 organizations and potential partners from around MN joining in to provide partnership and volunteer opportunities.

One participant captured the spirit present: “I am so proud to be Episcopalian today,” she said, “because finally the church is talking about what matters to me.”

To learn more about our shift to a more missional convention, check out our convention summary or feel free to email me.

You can also see pictures here:


We held several conventions at our church and conference center. That worked well. Now, we have a two day meeting at a hotel, which really does cater to us. I remember the three day meetings we used to have at the hotel… we had a lot more leisure for networking with each other in the three day format. I think networking takes TIME and wish we were back on the three day format.

Les Singleton

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