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.


  1. I've been following your blog via Acts8 and I appreciate your response to the final TREC report. I have a question about your response to the "Churchwide Engagement" section. When you are responding to the sense of "A loving, welcoming, community that is like family and loves our liturgy," is that coming from looking at the word map in appendix B or did you peruse a sample of the actual responses? My experience in doing both was that the TREC report summary gave a significantly different impression than the actual responses did. I am curious about whether you or anyone else reading this had a similar experience.

    The un-analyzed online responses are here http://reimaginetec.org/engagement/ and I found reading a sampling them to be more heartening than appendix B.

    1. Diana,
      I didn't look at the un-analyzed responses. I based what I wrote on what was included in the TREC report.