Servant Leaders, Servant Structures?


Deacon Susanne Watson Epting, writing in the current issue of Diakoneo, the newsletter of the North American Association for the Diaconate (NAAD) explores Servant Leaders, Servant Structures. Epting reflects on General Convention and the budget and whether institutions and structures can model servant leadership.

To test whether we value servant leadership, we might ask ourselves if we are truly ready to assess ourselves as individuals, and our church as an institution, by whether those we serve grow as persons? “Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”

For this deacon, the time has come to take stock, not only of those questions, but serious questions about our institutional structures. In the last few years, my experience on a national level, has pushed me to ask, “What in God’s name are we doing?” And, “What do we do when the church gets in the way?” At no time were those questions more pressing than while at General Convention 2009.

What are we willing to sacrifice to have more money available for servant ministry?

It would come as no surprise to those who know me that one of my first comments about General Convention is that, “General Convention is for people who have the time and money to attend.” This year was no different. I often say that, were it not for the church, I would never have seen the inside of many hotels or restaurants. Each year, in some group or other, the question is asked, “Do we need to be at this hotel? At this resort? In this facility?” And each year the answers are, “This is what people expect. They need to have access to transportation quickly. They need wireless access. They need phones.” As one whose Board of Directors does insist on a presence at General Convention, I know what the prices are. I know we could do better. I know we could be more creative. I know that there is little about General Convention that makes a statement about sacrifice, sacrificial giving or sacrificial living, other than the daily Eucharist.

Does the structure model servant leadership?

… we can still come away telling ourselves that we continued to pledge 0.7% to the Millennium Development Goals. We tell ourselves that we have pledged money to this or that new venture in justice. In fact, we did fund a new initiative for Latino/Hispanic Strategic Initiatives for $300,000 over the next triennium – the same amount as the increase in the Chief Operating Officer’s budget. We did fund a Domestic Poverty Initiative in the amount of $275,000, but eliminated Women’s Ministries and Anti-Racism Offices where truth is told about some of the poorest individuals in our society. We patted ourselves on the back for having made difficult cuts in the Church Center budget. And with that, it became harder and harder for me to see the signs of servant leadership or a servant structure.

What about integration and communication?

As a member of a task force called PEALL (Proclaiming Education for All), I was a part of a small group to pull together a history of theological education and Christian formation since 1968 in order to inform the church about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be headed. Our task force was not prescriptive, but we did ask numerous questions, some of which had to do with whether our triennial funding structure and the way in which we set priorities is effective in any area of church programming. Some of what we observed indicated that changing priorities every three years often hampers meaningful development in areas the church has previously deemed important. Likewise when funding shifts every three years, continuity and quality are invariably lost, or previous priorities are never implemented. Such was the case many times in the areas of theological education and Christian formation during the 40 years we surveyed.

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council approved nearly a quarter of a million dollars to fund this task force. By the time the work of the group had come to a close and the report had been made, all of the offices to which the task force had related had been, not just reorganized, but in some cases, reconfigured in a way that work which had been ongoing had no place for follow up. That was before General Convention. Now with the cuts made at General Convention, some of the program areas have been totally eliminated. The irony? One of the messages of that report was that countless networks had sprung up over the years because the church was not providing, on a national level, what was needed. New curricula have been developed by dioceses. New partnerships have been initiated between dioceses because support has not been available elsewhere. New pedagogies and venues for preparing for both lay and ordained ministries have been established outside seminaries and without the help of national staff or General Convention actions.

During General Convention there was much talk about “subsidiarity.” Briefly stated, that means that things which can be done better on a local level should not be done on a national level. While in many ways the aforementioned study demonstrated that things can be and often are done on a local level, the fruits of the work, the recommendations, affirmations and challenges on which the church had spent that nearly quarter-of-a-million dollars, was not integrated effectively into any of the major structures on a national level: not the Church Center; not Executive Council; not General Convention. It was not used to inform budget priorities. While some of my colleagues on the task force might see things quite differently, I have begun to wonder whether this effort was one more exercise in futility, not because we didn’t work hard, but because I wonder if our work, and precious dollars were wasted.

Read it all here.

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From the PDF:

I turn back to Greenleaf because, after reflecting on my own experience, I believe that when I came to the Episcopal Church in 1977, his definition was primarily the one that pushed the phrase into being in the church. And all the while I’d thought it was from our understanding of the gospel! So often the church takes its lead from organizational theories and methodologies it should know itself. Who better to define “servant leadership?”

Now that is startling. I would have thought the theory of servant leadership came from the Gospel, too.

I'm with Suzanne, I believe that we need to rethink many aspects of how our church operates, from top to bottom.

June Butler

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