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Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part I

Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part I

by George Clifford

The Episcopal Church’s Chief Operating Officer, the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, has proposed a plan for substantially revising the Church’s national structure and governance. Perhaps Bishop Sauls’ recommendations are insufficiently radical.

Why should The Episcopal Church (TEC) have a national structure that unites its nine provinces and one hundred ten dioceses into a single organization? What is the purpose of this national structure?

In spite of the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Quadrilateral and broad, ecumenical acceptance of four orders of ministry (lay, deacon, priest/presbyter, and bishop), no one pattern of ecclesiastical structure has a clear, widely agreed, biblical and theological mandate. Significant differences exist in the organizational patterns of the Romans, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others. Consequently, in ecclesiastical organizations, as in secular entities, form can beneficially follow function, a point implicit in Bishop Sauls’ proposal. Once clear about the purpose (function) for our national structure, possible answers to questions about organizational structure, governance, and finances will become more apparent. TEC’s current structure is largely an inheritance from the late eighteenth century, encrusted with adaptations, and still focused on eighteenth century preoccupation with governance and missions, domestic and foreign, in territories in which the Anglican Communion had little or no presence.

A national structure constitutes, first and foremost, the visible expression of the Church’s unity. Episcopalians may often act as if they are congregationalists or even individualists. Nevertheless, Episcopalians have historically emphasized the Church’s visible unity, an emphasis that incidentally resonates well among younger adults who value relationships over organizational structure and governance. The former dean of Duke Divinity School, L. Gregory Jones, has suggested the helpful metaphor of cities for Christian organizations: “Cities have a vibrant core, permeable boundaries and strong networks. But many of today’s Christian institutions are more like corporations, tightly bounded and working alone.” Using Jones’ metaphor, TEC should transform itself from eighteenth century institution into twenty-first century city that welcomes all and builds community.

Second, a national structure provides organization and resources to accomplish ministries and missions that local congregations, dioceses, and provinces cannot accomplish alone, or at least accomplish efficiently by acting independently. For example, the endorsement and support of federal chaplains in the military, Veterans Affairs healthcare system, and federal prisons would be almost impossible apart from the national Church. Other such ministries and missions exist, but far too few to justify having the 75 departments in the Church’s national office that Bishop Sauls has counted.

In general, TEC, like many organizations, often functions most effectively (i.e., achieves its goals) and efficiently (i.e., using the fewest possible resources) by operating as locally devolved as practical while still preserving its unity. Devolution can allow greater local flexibility (no style of ministry or pattern of mission has proven universally superior), increased and more broadly diversified ownership, and reduced administrative overhead.

For example, responsibility for establishing new congregations best resides with dioceses or even local congregations. Unlike TEC’s formative decades in which TEC lacked viable dioceses (and often congregations) in large swaths of the nation, there is no longer a persuasive rationale for centralizing new church planting. The ministerial expertise, demographic data, marketing skills, and other non-financial resources required for new church plants to succeed are not denominationally specific and widely available. Some local congregations and all dioceses can plant new congregations, investing leadership, money, and people in response to population growth and shifts. Evangelism might make many Episcopalians uncomfortable, but we cannot delegate to others the clear gospel responsibility to make disciples, even when we nominally support that delegation with money and prayers. (Unlike authority, nobody can delegate responsibility.)

In the twenty-first century, knowledge is often the most important resource to share as broadly as feasible. In many large voluntary organizations, communication flows routinely bottom-up and peer-to-peer without top-down guidance or support. Interested cadres of volunteers, working without the oversight, assistance, and cost of paid staff, maintain websites, publish e-newsletters, etc. If an issue, ministry, or mission cannot attract a sufficiently large and dedicated cadre of volunteers, then relying on paid staff is a poor investment of resources usually unlikely to produce significant results.

Alternatively, some tasks, once viewed as denominational responsibilities, may permit economies of scale (i.e., the same results at a lower cost) if performed by an ecumenical agency in support of several denominations. Church insurance, clergy pensions, and healthcare insurance are all examples of important services now provided by TEC that an ecumenical consortium could probably offer at a lower cost (secular insurance companies consistently argue that a larger customer base enables the company to offer improved products at lower costs). The Church Insurance Group and its affiliates, which provide quality products, could take the lead in this endeavor, assuring the preservation of quality and a continuing focus on the needs of churches and their employees while maintaining current high levels of service. Consolidating Episcopal Relief and Development with its Evangelical Lutheran and United Methodist counterparts might also yield economies of scale, diminishing administrative costs and increasing resources available for mission.

In walking the Jesus path, doing is less important than being. Yet the opposite seems to characterize TEC today. We invest a majority of our corporate time and energy in doing. By Bishop Sauls’ count, TEC acts through one hundred forty-five national boards, commissions, committees, conventions, and councils focused on governance (elections, decision-making, and policy formulation) and programming (ministries and missions, many of them potentially more effectively and efficiently implemented by others). Celebrating our common life as one visible branch of the gathered community of God’s people receives scant attention and resources.

Having attended the last two General Conventions, my overwhelming perception is that deputies find General Convention rewarding not because of the business conducted but because of the relationships cultivated with Episcopalians from across the denomination. In other words, deputies behaviorally recognize and cherish the validity of my contention that the denomination’s primary function is incarnating the Church’s visible unity in a fragmented world.

A second perception of General Convention deputies is that they work very hard but have too little time for the majority to master the full spectrum of issues on which they vote. Instead, Convention really transacts most of its business via committees, only rarely making substantial modifications to committee recommendations. The process preserves the appearance of a broad-based representative democracy but of necessity relies heavily upon staff, deputies with long tenure, and the influence of interest groups.

A third perception of General Convention deputies is that they poorly match TEC demographics. Although most dioceses fund travel expenses for deputies, deputies must still have the time available to attend (difficult for the self-employed and people with two weeks or less of annual vacation), find somebody else to shoulder other responsibilities (e.g., childcare, especially in case of a single parent), and fulfill any diocesan obligations associated with serving as a deputy (entailing more time and perhaps some costs).

The second part of this post recommends specific proposals that TEC can implement to transform an eighteenth century institution into a twenty-first century “city” that welcomes all, strengthens our visible unity, performs the ministries and missions best done by a national office, and concurrently minimizes the effort and costs of governance.

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 and now blogs at Ethical Musings


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Maha Nadeem

George, you are a great man, I have following you since long, but do you think uniting all the dioceses into a single organization can solve the core issue of the day?


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