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TREC paper on the role of networks in the Episcopal Church

TREC paper on the role of networks in the Episcopal Church

The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church has published the first of a number of “subject matter” papers that will guide its work and is asking for feedback. You can download the report or read it online here.


The authors write: “We ask that the church community respond along several dimensions: provide clarity, where there may be factual mistakes; but more importantly, to provide perspectives, analysis, alternatives and action steps.” And:

Engagement Questions we like for you to consider as you read our papers:

1. People have told us that there are serious problems in the church. There are also many signs of grace. In this paper, we attempt to address some of these. Where are we on target? What are we missing?

2. What resonates with you about the paper?

3. Please, would you respond to the questions we have posed in through the

paper? You can email reimaginetec@gmail.com

4. What stories, in support, or in contrast, would you like to share?

I found the paper thoughtful and honest about the challenges facing the church and generally on the mark in its description of certain unhelpful Episcopal customs and behaviors. For instance, the authors write:

We … hold the assumption that a Church Center (dubbed by some as “815”, and by itself as Missionary Society), even if it had the answers, or the resources, or the ablest people, simply doesn’t have automatic legitimacy in these times. For example, for every $1 an average Episcopal parishioner pledges, 18 cents goes to the diocese (18%) and 3 cents to the churchwide budget (18% of 18%). The final amount, 3 cents, is relatively minuscule, yet is a contested issue. This therefore cannot be just about money or accountability.

And:

Because of our tradition of shared governance—which sometimes seems like a sacralization of division of powers—it can become hard to explore ideas or to experiment. For example, some ideas or experiments require a certain level of coordination, even centralization, but the resistance and skepticism that immediately arise appear as if one has advocated joining our Roman brethren. On the other hand, power-centers are defended tenaciously, even when what is presently required is a high level of autonomy and spontaneity.

The authors posit four types of networks:

1. Personal networks—both intimate and social

2. Issue/lobby/political networks—most active in legislative events

3. Project/missional networks—centered around missional acts, including networks of those who experience great need and pain.

4. Knowledge sharing or co-learning networks

And finally:

We note that the skepticism directed towards church-wide structures appears to be deep, and while not complete, affects a sizeable portion of TEC’s membership such that even if a majority were to agree to forms of centrally sponsored networks, the vigor and focus will inevitably be deficient—in other words, unloved and hence illegitimate.

As you might have guessed, I have a few thoughts. The first only occurred to me quite recently, and because I should have had this thought years ago, I don’t blame the authors for failing to beat me to it. The Episcopal Cafe is a network. Over the not quite seven years we have been in existence, about a dozen people have worked on the news blog (The Lead), scores have contributed essays to Daily Episcopalian, seven or eight have stoked Speaking to the Soul and dozens have contributed to the Art Blog. We provide a source of online news, commentary, reflection and art to an average of about 315,000 visitors a year, and we’ve done that for free for the last four years after receiving initial start-up money from the Diocese of Washington.

I don’t say this to blow the Cafe’s horn (although, while I am at it, toot! toot!) but to suggest that there is a kind of network that TREC paper misses and that the church could use more of: a network with a specific, recurring work product. If the church is serious about cutting its overhead, pushing authority towards the grassroots level and tapping the creativity of the people in its pews, then it is going to have to find a way to have some of what we currently think of as institutional functions performed by networks of people who are not paid staff members.

If this is a road we mean to go down, however, we are going to have to deal with the issue of authority. Currently, any strong network within the church is likely to come into conflict with the senior staff at the Episcopal Church Center. This has been my experience and the experience of people I know in several significant organizations in the Episcopal orbit. Strong networks are, by their nature, independent sources of power, collections of individuals with certain sorts of expertise who haven’t poured hundreds of hours into a project to have it shot down, co-opted or taken over by other people. This can’t help but lead to conflict from time to time when people at the Church Center are pursuing agendas and advancing priorities that are at odds with the work being done in these networks.

One of the great challenges TREC faces lies in articulating a structure in which networks (and I’d say church-wide boards) can flourish without interference and intimidation from the senior staff, while making clear the sorts of work that are best done, or can only be done, on a church-wide basis. The promotion of networks, if successful, will sharpen the question of where authority resides in the Episcopal system.

Those were my two cents. Read the paper and give us yours.

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Lionel Deimel

I appreciate the inclusion of concrete examples in this essay, which is something the TREC paper sorely lacks. I have just written my own evaluation of the network paper. In a comment, I also link to other commentary about it that I could find. (That includes the essay above.) My essay is “Evaluating the TREC Study Paper on Networks.” Spoiler: I was not impressed.

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Jonathan Galliher

My feeling from reading it is that the church seems to be thoroughly committed to outdated business fads, particularly the claim that the future is going to be thoroughly decentralized in this context, although the recent hype around church moocs is another example.

I also don't like the idea of planning to rely on skilled professionals, especially church musicians although there are others, volunteering enough of their time and talents to meet the church's needs. It's far to close to insulting those professionals by saying that, while we love what they have to offer, we think their offering isn't worth squat. Yes, I know many churches are in financial hardship so that they can't afford to pay professional rates, but to me that just points to the need to find a new (or new to us) way of paying for church. Probably through greater centralization, since that's proven rather effective in secular business. On the bright side, greater centralization would also be helpful for raising standards in how liturgy is celebrated whatever style is preferred. I think the secular world calls it enforcing brand standards.

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Paul Lebens-Englund

This may be an unhelpful subtext to consider, but in the conversation re: properly re-structuring for more effective networking, I can't help but sympathize with the urge toward more 'franchise/product control' from 'the center' -- I don't agree with it, but I sympathize with it. It's quite possible that the desire for more centralized 'control,' despite the obvious cultural trends away from it, is simply a form of scar tissue from recent battles within TEC. 'Trust' and 'Freedom' are mutually reinforcing -- one cannot truly exist without the other. The absence of real 'freedom' suggests an absence of 'trust.' And the absence of 'trust' will inevitably lead to the curtailment of 'freedom' (e.g. the drive to re-assert centralized authority). Because we may well still be in a state of shock, embarrassment, vengeance, etc. re: our recent conflicts in TEC, I would have to assume that our 'trust' level is low and, therefore, our capacity to more properly structure ourselves for increased 'freedom' is, therefore, low, as well -- we'll be surprised to find ourselves continually functioning contrary to our stated desires.

Now, as a behavioralist, I applaud TREC's focus on concrete outcomes -- in fact, that was the real brilliance of pinning them down to bring enacting legislation to SLC -- but I can't help but wonder if some of our interim work, in anticipation and preparation for the drafting of legislation, ought not take more honestly into account the emotional toll the last decade has taken on our collective confidence, mutual affection, trust, and courage. We've done some great work together and, in some instances, I've never been more proud of our capacity to share in God's redemptive work -- but it's come at a significant price -- and we may be wise to take a more thorough accounting of it, lest we continue to function at cross-purposes at the various levels of our common life.

For the theoretical wonks out there, here's a fascinating article comparing various trust development theories -- the grid on p.14 is particularly illuminating: http://jom.sagepub.com/content/32/6/991.full.pdf. Enjoy!

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Eric Bonetti

For me, the issue with 815 is less about there being a headquarters, and more about the creaky way it does business.

By definition, an episcopacy involves centralization. And our hierarchy has done an admirable job of defending against those who, in the name of faith, would try to topple TEC and seize our assets. But the gargantuan costs of running HQ, the limited value in our shared common lives, and the notion that the only way to do business is from a antediluvian, creaky pile in Manhattan are appalling.

Equally troubling is the report from DFMS execs about 815. Instead of stalling at all costs, consider -- just consider -- that maybe the spirit is calling you to change.

Eric Bonetti

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Nancy Davidge

Jim - here's the comment about networks that I posted on the TREC site last night:

What comes to mind when thinking about 2.0 networks are Episcopal organizations and agencies, such as the Episcopal Church Foundation, TENS, Episcopal Communicators, Forma… There are others. Most, maybe all, of these exist next to and independent of DFMS, working in partnership with and across all levels of our church: parish, diocesan, agency and organization, denominational.

Each has areas of expertise – which are valued by the faith communities they serve. In my experience, these groups informally cooperate and collaborate – often making referrals to each other. The challenge, as I see it, is that often the services these organizations and agencies offer aren’t widely known across the church. I applaud TREC for working towards a better understanding of existing networks and the opportunities they represent for the future of our church.

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