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.

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