Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A few small steps in a TREC of a thousand miles

This week the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church released their final report.  This 73-page document contains TREC's "recommendations for changes in the Church's structures, governance, and administration to advance the Five Marks of Mission". 

(Note: a short five-point summary of my conclusions is available at the bottom of this post.)

The first thing to say about the report is "Thank You" to the members of TREC.  They did a significant amount of work in a fairly short period of time.  They solicited input, fostered conversations, and have put forward a number of proposals to move Church-wide organizations "away from 'doing' mission and toward enabling mission by connecting communities and individuals for mutual support, learning, and collaboration."  They have spent their time working hard to produce something that will invariably undergo the sausage-making process of church legislation and be openly critiqued by any number of Episcopalians that know how to use the internet.  They also remind us to follow Jesus together into our neighborhoods, which is a good place to start any renewal.  So to begin, gratitude is in order for their contribution to these important conversations in our church's life at this moment.

Second, TREC notes rightly that the innovation and collaboration is happening at various levels throughout the church and that their proposed "changes will not in themselves transform the Church and its health."  The goal of TREC's Church-wide governance recommendations is to enable "more transformational and visionary changes to be pursued by Church leaders at local, diocesan, and Church-wide levels."  They also note some places this collaboration is already happening in ways that are changing the church, like Episcopal Service Corps, the Acts 8 Moment, and new church plants.  TREC's goal is not to legislate innovation, which is probably impossible, but to reimagine church structures in ways that promote and foster such innovation at other levels.

Salt Lake City
Third (and finally, before getting into some of the specific proposals), TREC has given us a very important piece in the conversation we are going to have at General Convention in Salt Lake City and beyond.  However, much of what they have done is point to where the answers might lie, rather than making many definitive statements themselves.  Many probably wish that parts of TREC's proposals were more detailed (e.g., funding implications of some of the proposals might be helpful).  Other parts seem to direct groups of people to do what they are already doing if they can, which might not be so helpful.  While frustrating, TREC may not have been able to do much more in these areas for a couple of reasons.

On the one hand, TREC was being asked, like many consultants, to do what everyone knew needed to be done but which no one had so far made happen.  Much of the discussion leading up to the TREC resolution centered around the cost and ineffectiveness of aspects of General Convention.  However, when Convention 2012 could have eliminated many Standing Commissions or debated a unicameral house, everyone blinked and asked TREC to figure it out.  So we'll get to debate those issues in 2015 after a three-year delay. Meanwhile, while TREC was doing its work, a group from the House of Deputies re-wrote the House's Rule's of Order in ways that, if implemented, could conceivably save up to two legislative days (at least assuming that those two days aren't spent just waiting for legislation to get to HoD from HoB).  One wonders how many other issues could have been addressed by taking the bull by the horns in a timely manner and not passing them off to TREC (seminary debt?, sustainable dioceses?, the location of "815" which TREC doesn't address?).    

TREC Engagement Results
On the other hand, as TREC received input, much of what was received seemed as problematic to reimagining the Church as one would expect from a church in our current shape.  The top favorite memories of the Church read like a generic ad for a parish looking for a new priest: "A loving, welcoming, community that is like family and loves our liturgy."  The fact that liturgy was the most frequent answer of what to hold on to, with tradition running second and evangelism not appearing at all on the list, is also troubling.  (Certainly, inspiring liturgy can be a powerful tool of evangelism, but it won't be if we aren't intentional about using it as such.)  Perhaps we should be heartened that 2% of respondents thought that we should hold onto Jesus.

While it is easy to poke fun at what people said in their input, the most salient point I take from the answers is that most people responding value the Episcopal Church for what differentiates us from fundamentalist, evangelical or other denominational churches.  Most Episcopalians are still not thinking about what we offer that differentiates us from the increasingly unchurched and secularized world around us.  If our imaginations are stuck in our market-share of Christendom, we will continue to have a hard time reimagining a church that expands the Christian "pie"in our communities at the congregational and diocesan levels in a way necessary for any reimagining of the Episcopal Church to be truly successful.  The combination of abdicated past leadership in various church sectors and a widespread lack of imagination leaves TREC waving its arms around vaguely in some areas we really need to figure out.

One implication of TREC's hortatory proposals is that much work remains for General Convention to debate and flesh out TREC's ideas.  To give one example, lowering Diocesan assessments and implementing penalties when they are not paid are both ideas that I fully support, but what that lower number should be and how we get there are going to be Convention's decision without TREC's help.  Bishops and deputies should expect 2015 to be long, intense, and structure-focused if we hope to make future conventions (and the church as a whole) more mission-focused.  TREC's report, even if adopted unanimously on day one, would still give Convention a lot of work to do.

Now lets turn to some of the more specific proposals TREC makes.  I'll take them more or less in order, recognizing that TREC's resolutions contain a number of resolved clauses that address fairly different issues.

The first resolution is A001: Restructure for Spiritual Encounter.  To begin, I'm not sure exactly what spiritual encounter means here, or that everything included fosters spiritual encounter in a direct way, but such things will no doubt be debated at General Convention.

The first resolved clause urges seminaries to collaborate, then goes on to list a lot of outcomes expected from that collaboration.  While all of them sound good, I'm guessing that to the degree possible, seminaries are already working on many of these items with various partners, including developing competencies in ordinands beyond those defined by canon.  At the same time, where seminaries are having a hard time dealing with changing realities around them, I'm not sure some sort of reporting to Executive Council on newly developed measures of spiritual formation will be helpful.  We may need our seminaries to come back with a proposal for a future Convention on what canonical competencies we do need at this time, but that is not asked for here.

The second resolve asking Diocesan Councils and Commissions on Ministry to study ways for "clergy to make a living inside and outside of the Church" is also difficult to understand.  Some Dioceses are starting to look at this, but I don't see a resolution like this creating meaningful conversation in places that aren't.

The third and fourth resolve are important.  They ask Executive Council to look at clergy compensation and the Pension Fund to think about how it can best serve clergy in situations that don't fit traditional models.   Finding pension (and health care) options for non-stipendiary clergy could be a huge step forward in allowing more innovative congregational models at the local level.

The firth resolve calling on DFMS to develop a network to help everybody do everything a church should do and then report to their Diocesan officials just needs to go.  The learning of the church about networks is that people who want them form them.  DFMS could offer grants or technical assistance for those who want to form networks but don't know how.  I can't imagine asking someone to be on my parish vestry if they have to report their progress on becoming skilled at "creating, nurturing, and developing spaces and moments for spiritual encounters" to the Bishop annually.   

The second resolution is A002: Reimagine Diocese, Bishops, and General Convention.  This resolution also covers a lot of ground.

The first resolved is for a unicameral model of governance, effectively combining that House of Bishops and House of Deputies at General Convention.  I think this is a good idea, and one of the best one TREC could come up with to significantly shorten General Convention.  (Just eliminating the references to the "junior house" and "senior house" could save an hour over the course of convention.)  By having one debate with no back and forth between houses, many things could be streamlined.  For significant matters, votes by orders would still be taken.  TREC included an option that "any order may choose to deliberate and/or vote separately" with no mechanism of how that might be done.  If opting out of a unicameral legislature is straightforward, having one seems more trouble than it is worth (especially if two spaces have to be prepared and maintained throughout convention, just in case).  Better to keep everyone together.  If there are concerns about Bishops influencing how their deputies vote (or vice versa!), perhaps Bishops could be seated together and not with their respective deputations.

Another portion of this resolve is to shrink deputations to six, three priests/deacons and three lay persons.  Smaller deputations are another good step, I think.  However, I find that grouping priests and deacons together is as problematic as grouping bishops and priests or deacons and laity.  Why not say each Diocese gets three priests, three lay persons and one deacon?  Deacons do not have the same vows to participate in the councils of the church, and they bring a different (and very important) perspective that should not be lost if a diocese chooses not to elect any deacons.

This resolution also would provide for the Presiding Bishop to be elected by a concurrent vote by orders of the bishops, clergy, and laity.  Again, this proposal by TREC is a positive one that should be adopted.  (More on the Presiding Officers later.)

The second resolve asks bishops to collaborate, much like they asked seminaries to collaborate earlier.  Two items here are worth noting, however.  The first is a call for mutual ministry review for bishops and Diocesan bodies, and good processes for those reviews are badly needed.  The second is a frank discussion the number and size of dioceses.  A specific mechanism asking for a task force of 8 bishops to be created to address each area with some funding given would probably be helpful here.

The third resolve creates a task force to look at the episcopacy generally, and provides a mechanism and budget for doing so.  This task seems the most likely to sputter into vague generalities at the end, but could be useful.  I'd rather see funds go into the two discussions in resolve two, however.

The fourth resolve asks dioceses in transition to meet with Bishops and Standing Committees in adjoining dioceses.  This sounds great, and I would applaud it.  I would also say, however, that the times of uncertain leadership during bishop searches (like rector searches in parishes) would seem a not particularly fruitful time for significant change and collaboration to occur, since people are mostly waiting to see what the next bishop will do.

The fifth resolve asks that diocesan assessments be lowered, but canonically mandatory.  Later (p58), canonically mandatory seems to mean that Executive Council can reduce a diocese's program funds to be received by the church if a Diocese doesn't meet its assessment.  Reducing clerical and lay deputations down to one or two members would be a stronger stick.  The biggest issue, as noted above, is that TREC hasn't recommended what that lower number should be, or provided any rationale to make that decision.  We might all agree, but it is a lot of detail work yet to be done.

The third resolution is A003: Restructure Assets in Service of God's Mission in the Future.  This resolution seems designed to address the large number of (under-utilized) buildings and the draining of endowments.

The first resolve directs every diocese to "develop a theology of sacredly inclusive use-of-space that is adaptive and generative financially and spiritually."  I have a very hard time seeing my Diocese, or many dioceses, writing up such a theology.  At the same time, we may have to be honest that in many areas with multiple aging church buildings (of many denominations), there is not a lot of need for spaces with deferred maintenance and that need new paint, floors, and lighting.  I can also say from experience that even when a congregation incarnates the kind of theology being asked for here, significant investment of time (and resources) is required from a core of volunteers willing to maintain a heavily-used building in a way that is welcoming and hospitable.  I would also hazard to guess that the greater an albatross a congregation's building is around its neck, the less capacity that congregation has to open it up effectively to the wider community.

The second and third resolves look at similar issues in different networks.  Convening the right people to look at good ideas could be helpful, but much of that work may already be done by the Church Building Fund.  Resolving that bishops, deans, chapters, rectors and vestries all do similar work in their churches sounds good, but most parish leaders are either already looking at these issues or need significantly more help than a convention resolution to do so effectively.

The fourth resolve has two parts.  Endowment use policies are good things, but they get thrown out the window when pots of money are available and finances are tight.  Recommending Standing Committees to create them is also potentially problematic, since in some cases that is the work of other Diocesan bodies and their policies may not be enforceable at the parish level.  The idea of creating Future Generation Funds needs more explanation to be evaluated.

After these resolutions, TREC recommends a whole body of Constitutional and Canonical changes.  While the details will need to be looked at by General Convention for form and substance (the changes are significant and probably ripple throughout different aspects of the constitution and canons), I think they are mostly positive steps worth implementing.  

Effectiveness of General Convention.  As I said above, I support the unicameral legislative body, as well electing the PB from the Convention, as a whole.  TREC's proposal to elect a Presiding Deputy has merit, as well, given their proposed structure.  Having two Presiding officers alternating the chair could either be a blessing or a disaster, but it should work.  The Presiding Deputy becomes Vice-Chair of Executive Council.  TREC proposed a stipend for the Presiding Deputy "in order to enable a greater number of lay and clergy persons to serve as viable candidates for this position."  I'm not entirely sure this is necessary or helpful.  I don't see this as a full-time position, and wouldn't want to have a full-time paid position that is not accountable to the CEO and who would eventually need her/his own staff support, etc.  A generous allowance to cover travel and other necessary expenses might be sufficient.  I would also think that if clergy and lay deputies vote for the PB, then bishops should also have a vote for the Presiding Deputy, in a parallel vote by orders.

Shortening Convention to five legislative days would be a blessing, especially if scheduled such that people could take one week of vacation instead of two.  Removing retired bishops from voting makes sense, as well, and whatever the gatherings of bishops are called between conventions really makes no difference to me as long as all the canonical/constitutional bases are covered (personally, I would propose a Miter of Bishops, similar to a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows, etc.).  The idea of evolving Convention into a Church-wide mission convocation is a good one.  How this might happen is a question that TREC leaves open.  Perhaps this is what the vendors in the Exhibit Hall will decide during the deputies' lengthy deliberations on structural reform in Salt Lake City that keep them from purchasing their wares. (And, in many ways, the Exhibitors are the folks best positioned to think about how to expand what they are already doing well.)

Central Executive Structures and Staff of DFMS.  The major proposal here is to retain the PB as the CEO of the Church, Chair of Executive Council and President of DFMS, with clear responsibility for all staff.  The Presiding Deputy is VP of the Church and DFMS, and Vice-President of Council.  While this is not the way I would have recommended structuring the Church's Executive Officer, I think TREC's proposal is an improvement on what we have now, especially since the Convention would elect the PB and not just the bishops.  The PB would nominate or appoint, with concurrence of the Presiding Deputy (PD?), a Church General Manager (COO), Church Treasurer (CFO), Church Secretary, and Church General Chancellor.  These staff positions could be removed by a 2/3 vote of Executive Council.  Mutual ministry reviews are called for, as well.  Here again, some further discussion of details would seem to be important.   Hopefully some HR folks at Convention or on Executive Council could flesh that out. (I can't find anything about mutual ministry reviews in the proposed canonical changes, but I might have missed it.)

Changes to the role, size and selection of Executive Council.  The most significant changes here seem to be a reduction from 42 to 21 members with much more emphasis on a Nominating Committee identifying and recruiting people with the necessary skill sets to accomplish the work.  Both of these changes seem positive.  A smaller Executive Council made up of people with gifts for the work at hand should help.  I would prefer all members to be elected at-large instead of via provincial structures, with the Nominating Committee ensuring adequate geographic representation as they look at other needed qualifications.  TREC also proposes that Executive Council would have none of its own staff, but work through DFMS staff, as a governing board.  This also makes sense. 

Reduction in Standing Commissions and their scope.  Here TREC eliminates all standing Commissions except the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (renamed Theology, Liturgy, and Music) and Constitution and Canons (renamed "Governance, Constitution, and Canons").  I agree with eliminating all standing commissions except for these two, and believe it should have been done three years ago (at least).   I wouldn't change the names and expand the portfolios, however.  I don't think SCLM should be responsible for our theology discussions on an on-going basis, and I'm pretty sure that a committee to ensure our constitution and canons work the way we need them to shouldn't be responsible for institutional-renewal issues and ecclesiastical adjustments (which sounds like something the bishop's chiropractor should be responsible for).  That work is for task forces (like TREC), with Constitution and Canons making sure the ideas get written up correctly.  TREC proposes to allow the presiding officers to appoint task-forces for up to a three-year term,with task forces dissolving at the end of the triennium.

These are the significant proposals from TREC's report, although I may be missing something in the pages of canonical and constitutional changes.

So to summarize:

1) The details on governance, including the role and election of the PB, the Presiding Deputy, the Executive Council, and General Convention, are serious proposals that TREC has done a solid job addressing.  We need to discuss these matters in detail approaching and during General Convention.  None of these are the silver bullet ideas to save the Church, but they could be very helpful.  If we adopted the basic framework of what TREC proposes, I think we would be ahead of where we are now.  

2) Many of the proposals in the A001, A002, and A003 are almost meaningless, even if they point to real needs.  At the same time, a few items, such as asking the Pension Fund to look at pensions for non-stipendiary clergy, a serious discussion among bishops about the viability of dioceses, and the  unicameral legislature are worth implementing in some form.

3) The lack of discussion around financial implications is a fairly large hole that will need to be filled in.  Suggesting lowering assessments is one significant financial unknown, but so are the costs or savings associated with other TREC suggestions.  (Susan Snook did some quick financial analysis of previous TREC proposals and did not find the savings the Church might be hoping for in the restructuring of General Convention.)  Since part of the overall goal of restructuring is freeing up more money for things like on-the-ground evangelism and church planting, this omission this late in the game is significant. 

4) General Convention, Church Geeks, and other Men and Women of Goodwill have a lot of work to do.  Starting with the ongoing work of prioritizing needs to trim the budget and continuing with discussions of governance changes and proper canonical form, smart people need to put their thinking caps on and sharpen their pencils (or, perhaps, given our paperless convention, charge their tablets).

5) The whole Church will have a lot of work to do.  As TREC has said, they can't do the real work that needs to be done.  They can only propose some structures to make that work a little easier.  We all have to do it.

If you have gotten this far, you deserve a treat.  Here it is.  Go to the Acts 8 Moment website and read about the exciting things happening with the recipients of the Church's Mission Enterprise Zone grants.  This is some of what your work at the last convention accomplished, and we are spending all this time on things like TREC and structure to support even more such initiatives in the future.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Draft Rules of Order

This week the Episcopal Church's General Convention House of Deputies Study Committee on the Rules of Order issued their preliminary draft of new Rules of Order.  You can read their report and download their draft here.  (If you are already lost or just don't care about this level of Church geekery, I'd refer you to some very good Advent posts by my friend Scott Gunn.)

The work this committee has done is exceptional, and their draft is excellent.  Everyone on the committee deserves a huge THANK YOU, as does President Gay Jennings for setting up and commissioning the Study Committee. 

The Study Committee sees their work as making significant changes in a few major areas:
  • simplifying the language to make it easier for deputies who don't run their day-to-day lives by Robert's Rules of Order to fully understand and participate in what is going on;
  • allowing Dispatch of Business a greater role in shaping when legislation comes to the floor, so that Convention can more easily prioritize its work;
  • increasing the use of the Consent Calendar so that our work flow is not gummed up by numerous votes on items with no significant opposition;
  • streamlined rules for debate.
I think these proposed rules accomplish all of their goals in ways that will move along the business of convention without hindering opportunities for debate and discussion on important matters. (I only hope President Jennings is generous next summer if I should happen to Move the previous question instead of moving to End debate and vote immediately.)

In addition, these draft rules make two other changes that I would mention.

Under II. General Rules, section B addresses Communication Devises: 
B. Communications Devices
1. The President may allow Deputies to bring cell phones, computers, and other communication devices to the House.
2. No talking on communications devices is allowed while the House is in session.
3. All communications devices will be set to the silent mode.
4. Deputies will respect those around them as they use such devices.

These rules allow electronic communication devises to be present and to be used on the floor (except in closed sessions, which is appropriate).  I would hope that between now and the final version, a change might be made from "The President may allow Deputies to bring" to simply "Deputies may bring", but the current draft is a significant step in the right direction.

These rules also allow for legislative business to take place before General Convention.  The rules state that Legislative Committees may be directed by the President to meet electronically before the times set aside for Legislative business at General Convention.  This provision is a positive one that could save time and allow Legislative committees to hit the ground running once Convention opens.

A second provision would allow committees to hold legislative hearings in the two days prior to the first legislative day of General Convention.  This option seems unhelpful, especially since notice of the hearings would not be required until seven days prior.  This timing is much too late for deputies to change travel plans or accommodations to be present at a hearing for resolution they wish to address.  All deputies that have authored resolutions or wish to address particular matters would need to be prepared to be at Convention two days prior to the first legislative day.  However, since it is possible that no hearings would occur during those days, we might be lengthening Convention's costs for our deputies and Dioceses without accomplishing very much.  Some sort of electronic hearings in advance of Convention for noncontroversial legislation might be possible, but electronic hearings are not proposed in this draft.  If Legislative Committees have organized their work in advance, they should be able to conduct all necessary hearings beginning on the first legislative day of Convention.

Once again, I offer my thanks and congratulations to Bryan Krislock who chaired this Committee, and to members Michael Barlowe, Gay Jennings, Sally Johnson, Thomas Little, Byron Rushing, and James Simons for their hard and good work.  When Robert's Rules of Order is preparing their next revision, they should probably give you all a call.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson and Policing in our Communities

The killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson has once again opened up important discussions about race, violence and the value of life in contemporary America.  The Grand Jury's decision yesterday not to indict Officer Wilson has added intensity to those discussions.

Many others have provided insights from a variety of perspectives.  Dean Mike Kinman at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis has offered particularly good words on reconciliation, prayer and healing on his blog.  My thoughts and prayers continue to go out to Mr. Brown's family, Officer Wilson and his family, as well as the community of Ferguson and our nation.

Beyond the very important big picture questions that need to be addressed, this tragedy also provides us an opportunity to look at some of more mundane decisions communities make about their police departments.  As in many things, the devil is in the details, and since joining Sharon City Council last year, I have seen many structural pressures that help create situations like the one in Ferguson that can go wrong very quickly.

I do not mean to imply that racism, discrimination or other larger evils do not need to be dealt with.  But I also want to recognize the pressures on local municipalities make it more likely that a solo officer will have to make a difficult decision that could end in the loss of his own life or the life or someone else, and we should do everything we can not to put our police officers in those situations.

The first surprise to many may be that officers are mostly working by themselves.  We expect a solo state police officer at a speed trap, but the banter between partners in the squad car on many TV cop shows might lead us to believe that most local cruisers carry two officers.  In most communities I work with, a car has a single officer, even at night.  Back-up can be called in, but when situations go unexpectedly downhill, one person has to make the response, and his or her options may be limited.

Additionally, this solo officer in the car is increasingly unlikely to be integrated into that neighborhood.  Municipalities are dropping residency requirements for police (although Sharon, PA, has not) and, generally for good reasons, police do not often live in high crime areas.  The most significant issue in this disconnect, however, is the loss of beat officers or community police in areas requiring more intensive and frequent police intervention.   

These losses are primarily due to municipal finances.  As city tax bases shrink, fewer funds are available for safety services.  These pressures are compounded by changes in federal grants and the increasing costs of benefits for current and retired municipal police.

Amazingly, a the federal government will give local police forces tanks and other equipment more appropriate to fight the Nazis than to respond to a domestic violence call.  But getting funds for community police officers from the federal government is increasingly difficult.  Grants are scarcer and hurdles higher.   In Sharon a few years ago, city officials turned down one grant because they did not believe the city could guarantee that it could cover the costs of the grant's local requirements.

At the same time, municipalities have a harder and harder time funding police positions due to out of control health care and pension benefits.  Cities face similar burdens of all employers when health plans increase costs from 15-38% from one year to the next.  With medium-term union contracts and binding arbitration, many municipalities have no recourse when health care costs increase in a given year except raise taxes or cut positions.  Another large issue is  mandated pension benefits, especially for past city employees.  In Pennsylvania, all pensions to municipal employees must be defined benefit plans.  Not only is that expensive, but when the stock market dips, additional funds are required of the city to keep their existing pension obligations current.  In Sharon this year, the pension obligation was more than $300,000 over last year's.  In Reading, PA, pension obligations have meant a decrease in their police force from 200 officers to 160 officers.  (For more information on Pennsylvania's municipal pensions and what you can do, go to fixthenumbers.com.)

Fewer officers working alone with less time to spend getting to know people in high-crime neighborhoods makes it more likely that good officers end up in crisis situations.  This climate also means that some of the suggestions made after Ferguson are more difficult to implement.  Recruiting minority officers is not as easy as a TV talking head makes it sound.  The most likely way to recruit minority officers over the long-term is to have police officers present as positive role models where minority youth congregate, while affording the officers time to build relationships.  Such opportunities are slim when police only have time to drive up in their cruiser to respond to a call.  Police jobs also look less attractive to everyone when wages are low, risk is high, and new hires are the first to be laid off when health costs increase.   

Added to these pressures are the increasingly dangerous questions officers must ask about anyone they are stopping.  Not only are guns prevalent, but bullets designed to go through "bullet-proof" vests are also increasingly common.  Questionable activity requiring police response is frequently carried out by individuals under the influence, and different drugs lead people to act in radically different irrational ways.

So in addition to many suggestions offered elsewhere, here are a few things we can do to make a difference:

First, know your community.  Walk and drive around neighborhoods that you don't frequent.  Stop in and meet local shop owners and those running area social service agencies.  Build relationships with people in town, including people who you wouldn't meet in other places.

Second, find out about your local government.  Go to a city council or school board meeting.  Ask questions.  Talk to the police chief or the fire chief about what struggles the community is facing and what struggles their department is facing.  Then do what makes sense based on what you find out.

Third, pray.  Pray, and ask your church to pray, for our public safety officers, for all the needs of our communities, and for racial reconciliation in the U.S.  On his blog today, the Rev. Steve Pankey had this photo with the prayer for the First Sunday of Advent.  It might be a good place to start.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Million Dollar Question

So here is the Acts 8 Million Dollar Question:

If you had a million dollars to help ‘proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church,’ where would it go and why?

This question would seem straightforward enough.  Just this week I have attended two different dinners for good causes, and St. John's, Sharon, PA, is in the midst of a capital campaign (which you can find out more about here).  Lots of resurrection is being proclaimed in various places, and a million dollars wouldn't hurt.

Honestly, though, I haven't seen the proclamation of resurrection ever stifled for lack of coin.  In my own experience, and in the experience of those I respect, money is rarely the problem.  What we usually lack comes down to one of three things: deep prayer, good ideas, and committed leadership.  When people are coming together for serious time in prayer and generating worthwhile ideas that competent people are willing to make happen, then God always seems to come up with the financing. 

In the Episcopal Church, we have unbelievable amounts of money at almost every level.  Where prayers, ideas and leadership are present, resurrection is evident in innumerable ministries.  Where the investment report is longer than the evangelism report, the church has problems.  So I wouldn't support a struggling church or ministry that would happily take the money instead of being forced to deepen their prayer life, generate new ideas and raise up new leadership to continue.

Making angels from money doesn't really work.
I'd spend the million trying to support the development of prayer, ideas, and leadership in the most effective way I can imagine.  My proposal would be the following:
  • Buy and rehab a number of adjoining properties in an inner-city block (in some areas this would still cost the entire million or more, but in Sharon it could be done for a couple hundred thousand).  Use one of the buildings for a worship space and another for a large kitchen and dining room.
  • Develop a rule of life including common worship throughout the day, at least one joint meal time, and service to the surrounding community.
  • Invite diverse people from a variety of denominations, social-economic groups, ages, and family situations to come together as part of the community.
  • Use some of the money for health care and other essential expenses for those who come and don't immediately find outside employment or who spend their time caring for the community unpaid ways.
Richmond Hill Chapel
If this sounds like some sort of monastery, that's because it is.  Throughout church history, the monasteries have been places where prayer has occurred, ideas have developed, and leaders have been formed.  More recently, places like Richmond Hill have adapted the historical model for effective ministry today.  Much of the resurrection proclaimed in darker periods of the church's life have come through the words and deeds of monastic or similar movements.   

Of course, if prayerful, creative, committed people decide to come together in some sort of Christian community, the money will follow.  But if I have to put my million someplace to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church, that's where it's going.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

Do We Need More Participation in Churchwide Governance?

George Clifford has put up insightful reflections on the TREC report and meeting at Episcopal Cafe.  I agree with many of his points.  However, I want to address the following statement he makes about participation in diocesan, provincial and national structures: 

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.

This statement represents one way of thinking about our church structures beyond the local congregation that is prevalent in our church-wide conversation, but I think is unhelpful.  We do not need more participation in larger church structures.  We may need better representation by gifted people from across the widest spectrum of the church, but we don't need more of them participating, especially in legislative and administrative enterprises.

Our focus should be on finding the most effective way to provide the services a denominational (or diocesan) structure needs to provide for thriving congregations and mission enterprises (including social justice and evangelism efforts).  We want to free up as much of the time of our best leaders as possible to focus on their congregations and mission.  Every hour spent at a diocesan or church-wide meeting is an hour not spent on the front-line work of the church.  Certainly there is a value on being personally part of something beyond the local congregation, but for most people that should be gained through mission projects, retreats, or diocesan celebrations, and other events that people could easily invite their un-churched neighbors to be a part of (and we have too few of those). 

We need good, gifted people doing the important hard work of church governance and administration, and, as Bishop Rowe reminds us, we need both managers and leaders.  However, we don't need more of them then the minimum number necessary to get various voices heard, good ideas brought forth, wise decisions made, and the day-to-day implementation overseen.  Everyone else has other needed work to accomplish before the church can live into its calling.       

Parable of the Corn Fields

Last Sunday's Parable of the Vineyard (or Parable of the Wicked Tenants) got me thinking about how American Christianity is doing as stewards of God's vineyard.  So I adapted Jesus' parable to our current situation. (You can read the entire sermon this parable was part of here.)

A corn farmer had a farm that he leased out to tenants.  He put his Son in charge of tenant relations.  The tenants liked the Son, and they really liked the farmer’s land.  For years they produced bumper crops, and they shipped all the appropriate documentation, notarized and in triplicate, off to the farmer’s Son via Federal Express.  But their harvests were so large, they realized they didn’t have to plant all the fields to have as much produce as they needed.  So they planted less and less.  Eventually, the farm didn’t produce as much, but the tenants were happy, and they figured they could always plant more for the farmer if he needed it.  Harvests got smaller, but the tenants still took the same share.  Then one day the farmer’s Son came back for an inspection and found most of his fields overgrown with weeds while the tenants were in the barn gorging themselves on the seed corn.

What do you think will happen to these tenants?

Monday, September 15, 2014

God Provides -- Doggie-Doo Edition

Earlier this week while sitting in the stands at a soccer game, our little schnoodle Heidi decided to gnaw on her leash. This afternoon, the weakened leash finally broke. So at 8:30pm, I went to K-mart and bought a new leash so that Heidi and I could go out for our evening walk together.

About a half-mile from home, Heidi stopped to do her business.  At that moment, I realized I hadn't attached the little clean-up bag carrier to the new leash. I searched my pockets for something I could use to pick up after her. (I couldn't leave such a gift on the funeral home lawn.) All I had was a movie stub, so, grateful that my small dog had small bowels, I gingerly grasped the product of a healthy canine digestive system in paper-covered fingers. 

The Missing Leash Attachment
After a few steps, I thought, "It really is a pretty good day if the worst thing that happens is carrying some recycled dog chow for a half-mile." Then I thought, "I just need to find a discarded dollar store bag stuck in the grass -- I'm sure God could provide one for me." About two steps later, on the lawn of St. Joseph's Church, a previously owned McDonald's cup was just waiting to be filled with the still warm treasure I carried so carefully. 

God's Provision
Moral of the story: if we offer up to God the crap we're carrying, he'll give us whatever we need.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Response to TREC's Open Letter and Its Responses

After significant time and labor, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church recently published an open letter.  Laying out TREC's current thinking and some inkling of what it plans to accomplish between now and convention, the letter covers a lot of ground and has engendered no small amount of discussion to date.  Without going at length into points already brought up by others, below are some of my musings about the letter itself, as well as the reactions to it so far.

1. Thank You, TREC.  This letter shows a lot of thoughtful discussion and a lot of hard work.  It also shows that you have been listening to feedback.  A number of points, such as the General Missionary Convocation, were mentioned in blog posts by a number of people early on in the process.  While not yet fleshed out, the inclusion of this idea shows an engagement in what you've been hearing.

2. The Lazarus Metaphor.  OK, maybe not what I would have chosen, but it seems clear enough.   The church is in pretty bad shape, (or we wouldn't have commissioned TREC at all), and Jesus wants the Episcopal Church to come out of our dark, badly-lit, 100-year old with leaky roofs and deferred maintenance tombs and take off whatever bindings stink of death so we can go about the business of living.  TREC says, "We believe Jesus is calling our church to new life and vitality, but the church is held back by its bindings—old ways of working that no longer serve us well."  We've put the obligatory scriptural passage at the top of a page of what should be practical proposals so we can show we are properly spiritual and churched.  Now let's move on.  Yet a lot of blog ink seems hung-up here.  Just because we are trained to push scriptural passages in all manner of directions and fight over our interpretations, maybe we can give TREC the benefit of the doubt on this one.  They could have chosen 2 Kings 2:23-24 to demonstrate that in the midst of change we dare not disrespect the _____ (PB, PHoD, General Convention, Executive Council, Founding Intent of Bishop William White, ABC, COD, or insert other favorite church leader here).

3. The Language of Organizational Management.  I've read a couple of places that people would rather not use business language in TREC's endeavor.  However, since they are trying to manage a rather complex organization, this language seems appropriate to me.  I don't agree with everything they say, but saying it in the right idioms seems more helpful than translating back and forth to a more familiar church dialect that isn't as clear.  I would say more specifics using the best secular language would probably be helpful.  Where TREC's letter is unclear, the business language is not the main problem.

4. Clear Effective Leadership.  One of the sentences in the report that has gotten little attention, but I think hits the heart of many of our problems is: "At the churchwide level, we must select and fully empower clear and effective leadership to define agendas, set direction, develop expertise around complex issues and their implications, make tough choices, and pursue bold and disruptive ideas where appropriate."  I would agree with TREC that clear and effective leadership is essential for us to move forward.  I think TREC's analysis of the issues facing us and the significant changes we will need to make is fairly accurate.  At this point, however, neither our church culture nor our structures are conducive to this kind of leadership.  TREC is trying to propose ways to assist the structures in developing that leadership, but the church also has to be willing to allow our culture to change, and to follow leadership that may be put forward.  (I'll look a little later at who that leadership could be.)

When we are honest, we realize that as a church, we don't like clear and effective leadership.  The Episcopal Church was formed out of a variety of compromises between clergy/lay leadership and New England/Mid-Atlantic/Southern state demographics and concerns layered on top of all the previous English via media compromises.  Except in cases of almost criminal misconduct, our bishops have little accountability to anyone, our rectors relish their independence from meddling Diocesan authorities, the wealthy laity of the past often had their church clergy almost on staff similar to their accountant or their attorney, and today's laity have often been formed in other traditions and want to follow God in whatever ways they think appropriate.  For the most part, as long as Sunday morning worship approximates a prayer book service, the rest is pretty much up for grabs.  This set-up is not a bad things, and can actually be our strength in many circumstances.

At the Episcopal Church-wide level, however, this attitude gives us our current administrative mess.  Historically, some group has gotten together because they feel strongly about some good thing and propose something.  No one at General Convention is really opposed, so they vote "Yes".  Pretty soon we have a new CCAB, which eventually gets a budget and work that must be done by some staff person, who is now accountable to some mishmash of the COO and the CCAB, but who is really passionate about the job they were hired to do and works mostly out of their own sense of call.  Over time, we have various large segments of the church that feel strongly about particular issues and have gotten them into the agenda without an overarching sense of how it fits the broader mission or relates to anything else.

If we are really honest about clear, effective leadership, part of what we will be doing is offering to give up the ability to use General Convention and the Episcopal Church to implement our own agendas, and that means that sometimes what is very important to us will not receive priority or funding.

Obviously, the direction for clear, effective leadership must be discerned through open, democratic processes that receive and are responsive to church-wide input.  Somehow General Convention has to be able to offer overall goals and directions, and Executive Council needs to structure its work to refine and better operationalize what General Convention proposes.  (If we assume incompetence in our next structure, nothing will work.)  But at the end of the day, if our leaders have the ability to implement bold and disruptive ideas to pursue the goals we give them, many of us will probably have hesitations, questions, concerns, and be, well, disrupted.  Many of us may see parts of what is most important to us accomplished by informal networks we support, but no longer by the church administrative structures or any CCAB that is in the church-wide budget.

I am concerned about our ability to live into such leadership. The anxiety of many TREC letter responses to having a strong leader who may not be their first choice is telling, as is the fact that such leadership is already possible, if more difficult, under our current structure (e.g. General Convention could have dismantled most CCAB's in 2012, but didn't).  TREC's vision is of a church that sets a direction and picks a leader to navigate our future, but we need to be willing to follow.

5. The Presiding Bishop is not that leader.  Like many others I do not agree that the Presiding Bishop is the person who should be the leader the church chooses.  Susan Snook's blog on the TREC letter lays out a good case for this (and for issues surrounding Executive Council, staffing and General Convention).  I am much more in favor of the third option TREC proposed in an earlier communique, with a scaled-back role for the PB and a Secretary General/Executive Director in charge of church staff and management.

I do have to say that I think what TREC is proposing with clearer lines of accountability would be an improvement over our current set-up (although the election process for the PB would have to be opened up to clergy and laity to go this route).  There are two significant problems with making the PB the CEO, as I see it, however.

First, I think we are limiting our pool of applicants for a very difficult job if we only consider bishops to be CEO.  Add to that the fact that many bishops are in dioceses with a handful of staff, and we have probably narrowed our search at any given time to less than a half-dozen people who might have the gifts and are at a place in their ministry to take a church-wide role. 

Second, the pastoral role for bishops and the sacramental role within the church are important functions that may not equate to the gifts needed to manage the church administration.  We may not want the our Presiding Bishop to be the kind of person who thinks getting an MBA is great fun, but our CEO probably needs one.
We can't expect the right pastoral and the right administrative leadership always to go hand-in-hand.

On a similar note, to the degree that the PB is equated with Church President, the President of the House of Deputies seems to be church Vice-President in TREC's letter.  This move is also a mistake.  PHoD presides over a fairly complicated legislative body, and those skills are also not necessarily the same as the ones needed in other areas of church governance.  The Vice-President of Executive Council should probably be someone who could be the President someday, not someone who will never able to be the President.  Make the best person (of any order) the Church's CEO, and let the legislative officers do their already very important and significant jobs.

6. Staff.  Like Crusty, I don't want my church to turn into Wall*Mart.  Nor do I want to have people on staff with no pension or benefits, or to squeeze every ounce of work from them for as little pay as humanly possible.  At the same time, we may want to be clearer about the fact that in this time of uncertainty, what we hire people to do may be changing dramatically and in short order.  It may be fairer to our employees to say that we are hiring someone for a year and then we will re-evaluate the position, rather then to give people an open-ended sense of their employment and then go in another direction while they are still unpacking.  The ability to change staff as needed is probably important, but we need to do that in just, equitable ways.

This brings two important points to mind, however.  First, if, as Susan Snook says, 108 out of 130 FTE's are support and administrative staff, do we require too much administration?  I'm not sure, but it seems like there are a lot of forms required by the church for all sorts of things that maybe aren't so important anymore (since, for instance, most weddings are recorded at the courthouse these days and not only in the parish register).  I'm sure many things are good, but is everything absolutely necessary at this point?  Just a thought.

Second, why is it so difficult to move between jobs within the church.  If someone is "hired" by the Episcopal Church for nine months or for a specific project part-time from their diocese or local church, why would they have to change status and become contractors?  Is there any way to be a little bit more like General Electric and smoothly transfer people from one division to another, rather than feeling like we all work for various mom and pop grocery stores that don't talk to each other?  I know this also is a change, but if we are committed to using differing gifts, thinking about us all as working for one church instead of thousands of congregations, dioceses, etc., might be helpful.  I'm not sure how to do this, but this might be something TREC or someone else could put forward at General Convention.

7. General Convention.  I think the move to a Missionary Convocation with governance people doing their thing on the side is a good idea.  Some of the other items, like the length of convention
and legislative committees may need to be rethought, especially if the leadership structure requires different emphases for convention, like a more informed electorate voting for Executive Council members.  Legislative committees will still need to get the work done, but debates/forums/candidates nights may be even more important activities.
Again, thank you, TREC, for your work, and for all the bloggers, comment-posters and others who are adding to this fruitful conversation.  For other perspectives on these questions, please click on the Acts8 BLOGFORCE logo below.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why Anglicanism? A Practical Christianity

This week's Acts 8 Blogforce question is Why Anglicanism?  Specifically, what is important and special about the branch of Christianity we consider our own?  To me, the beauty of Anglicanism is the practical teachings and tools that help us develop a deeper relationship with God and a loving community with one another.

The roots of this practical, community-building Christianity go deep.  The early combination of Celtic and Roman Christianity helped shape Anglicanism's future direction.  From the Irish came a solid foundation of monasticism as the center of Christian life.  Monastery-based faith wasn't just a ritual system, but a all-encompassing way to live in community for God.  At the same time, some of the excesses of Celtic monasticism, like extreme penitential practices, were tempered by a more rational Roman Christianity.  As Benedictines cross the English Channel, they bring what Benedict called his "simple rule for beginners" to the monastic traditions on the north shore.  The strong Benedictine monasticism that takes root (and is later refreshed by Archbishops like Anselm and Lanfranc) ensured that a focus on living successfully in community is a central component of British Christianity.

The Venerable Bede's history is another example of this practical spiritual bent, even while he tells a story saturated in miracles.  Medieval English spiritual works give us concrete ways to deepen our relationship with God and with our neighbors.  The showings and spiritual direction of Dame Julian, and particularly the Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous 14th Century English author, provide practical spiritual guidance.

The Elizabethan Settlement can be viewed as an intentional decision to create a practical church.  Eschewing (at least some) theological disputes, the Church of England almost adopts a mission to worship God in a way that helpfully brings together the people of England.  A more cynical slant might consider the church's mission as forming good subjects for the crown, but such mixed motives still require a church life that helps people live together in community.  The creation of The Book of Common Prayer is a concrete mechanism for bringing forth a church that allows everyone to pray together.  The prayer book takes the early monastic traditions and invites the entire church into the rhythms of its communal liturgy, envisioning a church that grows together practically in common worship.

As Hooker and other early Anglican apologists lay out their rationale for this new Protestant English Catholic project, they develop the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason.  In opposition to more radical Anabaptists, Anglicans defend the traditions of the church that work. Every tradition need not be kept, but the ones that have a proven track record of helping people love God and their neighbor should be.  Then, of course, reason tells us that seeing what works in our current context also plays a role in decisions about our church structure and liturgical life.  These ideas are in opposition to Christian traditions that either over-emphasize tradition, whether it is still valuable or not, or that look primarily to dogmatic theological concepts whether a community can realistically be built around them or not.

The Caroline Divines continue this practical emphasis.  George Herbert, rose-colored glasses not withstanding, writes about how to pastor for the good of the small country town.  Later, the Oxford Movement uses high church practices as mechanisms for building inner-city religious community.

Our Anglican Churches today continue their five-century emphasis on bringing people together to form communities that effectively love God and neighbor.  We sustain a rich liturgical life that can bring people from a variety of circumstances for common prayer.  The ancient chants of the church are shared on Facebook and Rite I burial services are Skyped to relatives in far away places as scripture, tradition and reason inform the choices that build up the Body of Christ.  We incorporate spiritual directors, healing prayer teams, labyrinths, daily offices, small groups, and a wide variety other spiritual practices, outreach ministries, and fellowship opportunities not according to a theological master plan, but based on what helps the people in our pews learn to love God and each other better.  Of the smorgasbord of religious activities, what gains traction in our congregations is generally the practices that work, and many of those practices are not new to the Anglican Tradition.

Anglicanism is a rich tradition, with much to offer.  I'm a part of it because I have found no place else as effective at helping people grow together into a community that loves God and one another.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Episcopal Church Haiku

In Keeping with the Acts 8 Moment's Church Haiku challenge, here are a few:

One thing is needed
for ECW and free lunches:

Playing with Haiku,
but please poets pen fresh hymns.
Where is Isaac Watts?

Episcopal Church:
scripture, tradition, reason.
We're expecting you.

Our Purpose Statement as Haiku
Here at Saint John's we
worship God, care for people,
And grow as Christians.

On the RCL's summer Old Testament selections:
"What is this?" she asks
"Jacob's two wives in two weeks."
Go preach the collect.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Father Adam's Guidelines for Using Smartphones in Church

Father Adam's Guidelines for Using Smartphones in Church

Smartphones (and tablets and other electronic devices) are permitted in church and you are free to use them. 

2.      The goal of using Smartphones is to allow you or others to be more involved in the service, not to distract you.  (Letting people know where you are, sharing a photo, taking notes, or live tweeting the sermon is great.  Looking at grumpy cat photos, not so much.)

3.      Turn off the sound and don’t distract other people with whatever technology you may be using, including your voicebox – which is perhaps the oldest social medium. 

4.      Better to post something on social media during the announcements, hymns, or times when there is more noise or movement.  Better to put down the device and focus during the Gospel and the Eucharistic Prayer.  

5.      God loves you and is glad you are in church.  Do what you need to do, but try to maintain a spirit of worship and act like a mature adult, even if you aren’t chronologically an adult yet. 

6.      Regardless of these guidelines, do whatever your parents tell you to do (even if your parents are now in their sixties or seventies).  The Ten Commandments trump Father Adam’s Guidelines.