by George Clifford
The rather lengthy September 2014 report (available here) from the Taskforce for Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC) contains an interesting mix of proposals. Unsurprisingly, the report has evoked a great deal of response, both pro and con, including from a recent Churchwide meeting (video available here). Here’s my take.
TREC perceptively describes the need for and consequences of a new organizational paradigm in The Episcopal Church (TEC):
We live in an age of networks, yet our churchwide structure has not fully adapted to this organizational paradigm. The evolution from a bureaucratic/regulatory agency paradigm to a network will profoundly change the role, culture, decision making processes, and leadership paradigms of and within The Episcopal Church’s churchwide structures. This would not be unlike other significant evolutions that have occurred historically around our church’s governance and structures.
TREC also helpfully catalogues functions that central TEC structures and resources can provide to dioceses and congregations, i.e., they can be catalysts, connectors, capability builders, and conveners. However, not all of the TREC proposals appear likely to move TEC toward a new organizational paradigm or actualizing those functions.
Positive aspects of TREC’s proposals include:
• Clarifying managerial and supervisory relationships. Excluding a CEO (there is no option: the CEO must report to some form of board or other group), groups are an inefficient and ineffective means of managing staff in any organization. When it works effectively, a group directly supervising staff does so because personalities click and not because of it is a sound managerial structure. Under TEC’s current structure, responsibility for managing and supervising TEC staff is often unclear, nonexistent, overlapping, or resides with one or more committees, commissions, boards, etc. TREC may not have hit a homerun with respect to this issue but by tackling the problem has helpfully put it on TEC’s agenda.
• Shortening General Convention (GC) and allowing legislation to die in committee. Few deputies (based on my interviews with dozens of them at three different GCs) have sufficient knowledge of most resolutions before GC to cast votes informed by reason, tradition, and scripture. As one might expect GC deputies tend to be more knowledgeable about issues before a committee of which the deputy is a member than the average deputy is. Allowing issues to die in committee will shorten GC agendas and eliminate numerous well-intentioned if uninformed votes. The twenty-first century TEC needs to develop an energized, engaged mission focus and face the reality that few of our remaining 1.9 million members care about the niceties of legislative process and administrative trivia.
• GC evolving in the direction of a General Missionary Convocation. Implementation of this recommendation would move TEC in the right direction. Implementation needs to be enthusiastic, expeditious, and expansive.
Worrying aspects of TREC’s proposals include:
• Diminishing the size of both the Executive Council and especially that of GC. Diminishing the size of these groups will have the unintended effect of distancing both from Episcopalians in the pews. Sadly, most Episcopalians care little and know almost nothing about TEC and its structures (if in doubt, hazard a guess about the total readership of internet sites that concentrate on TEC related issues; if still in doubt, ask five people chosen at random the next time you worship with a TEC congregation). If TEC is to survive as a viable embodiment of one branch of Christ’s Church, TEC must broaden participation and deepen feelings of ownership among its members, especially younger members, a move in the opposite direction of what TREC recommends. I’m guessing that fewer than 20,000 Episcopalians participate in diocesan, provincial, and national TEC affairs, i.e., less than one percent of TEC membership. Substantially increasing the level of participation and sense of ownership from among the 1.88 million non-involved Episcopalians requires enlisting them in meaningful and rewarding opportunities for worship and service. Current legislative and administrative agendas provide few such opportunities that most of the 1.88 million find attractive. I’ve not seen any report of the number of the people who participated in TREC’s Churchwide meeting, but infer from the silence (always a dangerous way to draw a conclusion, no matter how tentative) that many fewer than 20,000 persons participated, either in person or via the internet.
• Outsourcing staff responsibilities. Poorly managed outsourcing can quickly become more costly than performing the work in-house. Outsourcing offers limited opportunities for ensuring that a contractor’s employees earn living wages, enjoy decent benefits, can make individual choices about women’s health, etc. That is, TEC may find itself in the awkward position of indirectly supporting labor practices that, from a Christian perspective, are unfair or antithetical to resolutions adopted by GC. TEC can hire staff for short periods, carefully and explicitly explaining both orally and in writing to prospective employees the position’s limited duration. Other non-profits successfully use this model. Setting high expectations that require high levels of employee commitment often attracts extremely well qualified applicants who believe they are responding to God’s call.
• Entrusting the Presiding Bishop (PB) and President of the House of Deputies (PHOD) to appoint TEC taskforces. I like and respect both the PB and PHOD. However, making the incumbents of those two positions responsible for these appointments presumes that future PBs and PHODs will always have a decent working relationship, have the time to sort through thousands (at least hundreds, hopefully) of applications, and will resist temptation to appoint only individuals that they (or a handful of trusted advisors) know personally. A nominating committee is not ideal, but like democracy as a form of government, may be preferable to all other options.
• Expanding the role of the PB as CEO responsible primarily to a smaller GC. This proposal evokes images of evangelical missionary organizations (e.g., the Billy Graham organization) in which a central figure has great latitude, is accountable to a small board, and receives funding from a broad base. A key obstacle to TEC adopting this model is that the base has no loyalty to the PB; the base’s loyalty, albeit a diminishing loyalty, is to TEC itself. In other words, the proposed change moves TEC in the wrong direction; future TEC viability depends upon increasing the loyalty to TEC of the base, the 1.88 million Episcopalians who occasionally fill our pews but who have little demonstrable commitment to the denomination. Evangelical organizations whose funding is contingent upon popular loyalty to a charismatic founder generally experience greatly diminished income when the founder dies; the organization becomes a mere shadow of its former self, if it even manages to survive.
TREC has intentionally solicited and welcomed feedback. TREC also acknowledges that their proposals are works in progress and represent initial steps rather than a completed plan of action. TEC is not a nimble organization. Indeed, one of our strengths is that we value tradition, which in many respects is the opposite of being nimble. As TREC’s letter notes, TEC is already in the process of change. TREC’s diligent efforts and commendable proposals, widening conversation about those proposals within TEC, and a pervasive invitation to the Holy Spirit to continue breathing new life into the Church, to magnify TEC’s ministry, and to enhance its unity are encouraging signs that God is not yet done with The Episcopal Church as a vehicle for ministry and mission.
George Clifford has an MBA, is an ethicist, and serves as Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and blogs at Ethical Musings.