Just the Same, Only More So: TREC’s Letter to the Church, September 2014

My first reaction to TREC’s latest letter was: Lazarus? Really? Does that mean the Episcopal Church stinketh? My second reaction was, We’re not dead yet! We’re feeling much better!

My third reaction was a sigh of frustration. Way back in the halcyon days of 2012, when we passed that resolution on restructuring, and sang a hymn, and left Convention feeling uplifted and hopeful about the future of the church, in a few places you could hear a quiet little cautionary voice: Everyone’s happy now. But just wait till somebody starts making some actual proposals to change things. Then watch all the forces of keeping-things-the-same in the Episcopal Church rise up and sabotage any actual change that might occur. (Religio-leadership wonks have a fancy word for this – homeostasis: the tendency of any system to sabotage change that might threaten an unhealthy system with health.)

It’s not too surprising that the forces of sabotage have risen up this early in the restructuring process to prevent any change. What’s surprising is that resistance to any real change seems to be coming from within TREC itself.

Wait, what are you talking about, Susan? TREC did propose some changes. Yes, it did – but on the most important issue it has addressed so far – the role of the Presiding Bishop and the balance of power within our system – TREC has decided that we should remain the same as we are now, only more so.  Way more so.  

What’s funny about this is that earlier in its thinking process, TREC really did come up with some creative ideas to change the system for better health and functioning: it proposed alternatives to the almost unlimited power of the Presiding Bishop. These alternatives would create a General Secretary or CEO position responsible for administrative leadership, would appropriately allow both the PB and the CEO to exercise separate sets of spiritual gifts, and would clarify a better balance with the governance role of Executive Council. These were good and creative ideas.

But reading between the lines and with no inside information, it looks like the forces of homeostasis within TREC itself rose up, fearful of change, to sabotage these creative alternatives, and the solution they are proposing is: to keep things just the way they are. Only more so.

Gosh, maybe we really do stinketh.

I’ll talk more about the balance of power in our system in a minute. But first, let me give credit where credit is due and say what I think TREC got right.

  • Times are changing and we need a church-wide structure that is a spur and support for local innovation, not a regulatory agency. Yep.
  • The roles of staff, Executive Council, Presiding Bishop, and General Convention are sometimes overlapping and unclear. Yep.
  • We need to move toward a networked model for supporting each other in ministry. Yep.
  • We need better leadership that sets visionary priorities, develops goals and objectives related to those priorities, and creates accountability to make sure those goals and objectives are met. Yep.
  • The highest visionary priorities for our church to address, which TREC identifies toward the bottom of its letter, include evangelism, community leadership, non-traditional parish formation, and so on. Yep.

So – TREC has correctly identified many of the issues before the church.

treehouse

Having given praise where praise is due, let us now return to TREC’s incomprehensible support for keeping the most important church structures Just The Way They Are (only more so).

Did we set up TREC to re-structure the church, by the way? Or did we just want them to hammer harder at the current structure to keep it standing a bit longer, however rickety it might be?

 

 

The Role of the Presiding Bishop

Here is what TREC has proposed: have the Presiding Bishop also act as Chief Executive Officer, in charge of nominating a Chief Operating Officer, Treasurer/CFO, and Chief Legal Officer.  The PB could fire any of these people at will.

Guess what: this is almost exactly the structure we have now, except that it increases the power of the PB in some small but significant ways.  For instance, now the PB and PHoD together nominate the COO and CFO.  TREC proposes to take the PHoD mostly out of it, centralizing this power in the hands of the episcopate.  And in reducing the role of Executive Council, as TREC seems to suggest, they would also be strengthening the office of PB – the same as now, only more so.

It’s an unhealthy structure. Here’s why.

First, for the most part in the church, we love our bishops, and our Presiding Bishop, and we are glad to have them as partners in ministry.  But we can’t by any stretch regard the election of the PB as a process that represents the whole church.  She/he is elected by the House of Bishops, which is one hundred percent clergy and is not even close to representing the diversity of the church (it is overwhelmingly male, white, straight, and middle-aged or elderly, counting the retired bishops who vote, for instance).

Most important of all: barring a disciplinary offense, the PB has very little accountability to anyone.

That means that once the PB is elected by the most exclusive club in the church (the House of Bishops), the rest of the church has very little input or say in how she or he runs the office, manages the staff, follows the priorities set by General Convention, leads the governing structures of the church, or anything else. The Presiding Bishop has all the power.

That is not a healthy balance for any church. Not even Rome. And I do not believe it was the intention of the original founders of the Episcopal constitution, who set up a careful balance of lay, clergy, and episcopal power. Since that time, as a corporate bureaucracy has developed, more and more power has accrued to the office of an unaccountable Presiding Bishop.

To be clear: I’m fine with the Primate and Presiding Officer of the House of Bishops being mostly unaccountable to the rest of the church.  That’s appropriate, given our view of the episcopate.  What I’m not fine with is having that Primate also be the person who sets all the priorities and rules the staff, with no accountability to anyone for those decisions.  We have carefully set up a governance system that involves all orders of ministry.  Now TREC is proposing to undercut that system.

This restructuring process is our chance to change that unhealthy balance. And TREC has retreated in fear from any change; in fact it has capitulated to the forces that say:  choose one heroic leader to save us!  Give us a king!  With no explanation as to why it abandoned its earlier, more creative proposals.

Look, maybe we’ll keep things the same and the next PB elected will be perfect. She or he will guide the governing structures of the church in setting visionary priorities, creating goals and objectives, and holding staff and others accountable. That’s what TREC says a PB should do. And by the way, there is nothing preventing the PB from doing exactly that now. They don’t do it, but they could.

But do we really want to legislate the PB’s leadership style? And do we believe that an unaccountable PB would pay any attention, after a couple of years, to the leadership style we legislate?

We have no idea whom the House of Bishops is going to elect next summer.  He/she could be a panacea – a great leader who will take all the right actions and solve all our problems – or he/she could be a disaster. But since the probabilities are that over the next 100 years, the PBs elected will average out somewhere in the middle, I think we should create a structure that improves our odds of good leadership, empowering people to use the spiritual gifts God gives them.

And here is what I see: we should have the House of Bishops elect a PB who will be a great spokesperson for our church to the world, and a great connector to the Anglican Communion and other faith groups.  That’s enough of a job for any one person to take on, and it’s the job of a spiritual leader and a bishop. I don’t think anyone could argue with the House of Bishops electing this person, who would preside over that House and serve as Primate of our church.

We should have a second person, a CEO or General Secretary, accountable to both houses of Convention and to all the orders of ministry.  (Specifics of who selects the person and how they would be accountable to be determined – suffice it to say that all orders of ministry should be involved.)  This person’s job would be to manage the staff and help set vision, priorities, agenda, etc., according to priorities set by Convention and refined by a vision-setting process shared among PB, CEO (or whatever we call it), and the rest of Council.  It is entirely appropriate for the person who oversees staff and sets their priorities to be accountable to the governance structures of the church, which means accountable to all orders of ministry. Which the Presiding Bishop is not.

These are two different sets of gifts, and I think it is rather unusual to find both sets in one person.  That’s why we should have two different people exercising them. And by the way, that’s why many other provinces of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England, operate in exactly this way.

Executive Council

I’m a member of Executive Council – I was elected at the 2012 General Convention, probably as a result of my blogging about the financial issues facing the church. I now serve on the Finances for Mission committee of Council and am the leader of the budget process that will recommend a budget to the 2015 Convention. Pray for me, and for us, for a healthy budget process!

OK, that said: I honestly can’t get too worked up about reducing the size of Council from 40 to 21. (Although did anyone on TREC actually count the number of people they were proposing? It actually adds up to 22, or 25 if you count the non-voting members. You just have to laugh when TREC can’t even competently count the heads in its own “reimagined” structure.)  Having 21, 22, 25, or 40 people exercising power as a body is helpful or not, depending on what powers are given to it.  It’s true that a board of 40 people acts more like a legislative body than, say, a vestry. If we want whole-group discussion, a smaller group might be helpful.

(I do think TREC needs to think a bit harder about how to make that body representative.  I’m not crazy about the provincial structure, but I think, for instance, their proposal would prevent anyone from ever getting elected from Province IX again.)

The fact is, however, that the real work on Council happens in committee. My own Finances for Mission committee is pretty busy, and is stretched pretty thin, with the seven members we have. Want to reduce the numbers on Council? Okay – let’s make sure we elect good ones, because they are going to be swamped.

What I am puzzled about, and what I actually can’t respond to because TREC is so maddeningly unclear (see Crusty Old Dean on this unclarity), is its statement that Council’s role should be clarified as a “governance” role, similar to a non-profit Board of Trustees. TREC’s last communiqué at least displayed a more complete understanding of what Council does:

Executive Council has two distinct functions: (a) the board of directors of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the Church’s operating nonprofit corporation, and (b) an interim legislative body when General Convention is not in session.

Is TREC proposing that we do away with (b)? Then who would do interim legislative work – the PB, by fiat? I guess that would be in keeping with TREC’s exalted view of what the PB should be.

Or, as I’m guessing is the actual case, is TREC trying to clarify that Council has no direct supervisory authority over staff? That staff should be supervised through the CEO or COO’s office? If this is what they are trying to clarify, then they should come out and say it. None of the members of Council that I currently serve with would argue with that perspective. We know we don’t and shouldn’t supervise staff.  We do find that staff members are generally helpful and responsive, supplying us with information we need to do our jobs, and we appreciate it.

Here’s the point: Executive Council serves a very important function. Yes, we are the Board of Trustees, AND we include all orders of ministry. Previous Councils have been involved in conflict with staff, or with presiding officers, I hear. That’s not the case this triennium – we have low levels of conflict among Council members, between Council and staff, and between Council and the Presiding Bishop. If clarifying that we don’t supervise staff makes someone happy and prevents future conflict, go for it.

If TREC is trying to propose more reduction in Council’s governance role than that, then they’re going to have to explain what the heck they’re talking about. And also explain why they think the role of lay and clergy people should be reduced while the powers of the PB are correspondingly increased. They haven’t, yet. And I seriously doubt that such a sharp turn in the direction of arch-episcopal power would make it through the House of Deputies, and quite possibly not the House of Bishops, either.

Church-Wide Staff

TREC has proposed that church-wide program staff be eliminated, and replaced by contractors hired for specific time-limited projects. Administrative and support staff would remain as employees.

They have proposed this without giving any reason why it would be a good idea. Would it save money? Would it increase efficiency? Would it guarantee a better mission focus? Would it help us move toward a networked model? Should we set up a list-serv? Inquiring minds want to know. TREC doesn’t bother to explain.

Let’s just start by mentioning the justice issues of moving people from employee to contractor status. I won’t re-hash them. You can read the Crusty Old Dean on that – he says it better than I could.

Let’s also mention that the majority of staff at 815 are actually administrative and support staff. According to COO Sauls, we have approximately 22 “program staff” out of approximately 130 FTE total staff.  Firing the program staff won’t save us that much money, even if we don’t immediately hire them back as contractors.  Has TREC looked at the actual data for what we spend our money on?  I have previously pointed out that no, apparently they haven’t.  If they were, they wouldn’t be majoring in the minors.

I actually think that we DO need to take a very careful look at what we spend money on, staff-wise – because we spend a LOT of money on staff.  Tens of millions of dollars every triennium, a very large percentage of our budget, and way more than what we spend on our governance structures, which TREC has fixated on.  But TREC has not explained what it is trying to achieve with the contractor concept.  The problems it has identified are not solved by the solutions it proposes – they have not laid out any logical train of thought.

What I don’t understand is how this out-of-left-field proposal meshes with the church-wide priorities TREC has correctly identified: church planting, evangelism, Christian formation, community leadership, and so on. If those are our priorities, then how will church-wide contractors hired for short-term projects in these areas help us achieve them?  Wouldn’t we want rather to support long-term, sustained work that we could supervise?

This is not an argument – it’s a real question.  What are your reasons for proposing this, TREC?

I really want to understand what TREC is thinking, but they throw out a bombshell, plunging church-wide staff into anxiety, I’m sure, and then don’t explain why it would be a good idea or how it would help us achieve our goals. Color me frustrated.

General Convention

I will just point out that TREC’s seems fairly clueless in its proposal to reduce the number of legislative committees. Let’s make sure we are clear that legislative committees are not the same as standing commissions. I’m all in favor of getting rid of most standing commissions, as TREC has proposed.  (Yay, TREC! You got that one right! We can quibble with the ones you chose, but in general this is on target.) Task forces seem like a better approach.

Legislative committees are different though, because they are in existence only during Convention. They do not decrease efficiency – they increase it. They do not create work – they respond to work that others create. Reducing the number of legislative committees would just increase the work assigned to each, taking longer for resolutions to come to the floor, reducing the efficiency of Convention overall, and severely under-utilizing the talents of all the deputies who don’t get assigned to a committee.

Actually, TREC doesn’t need to be worrying about the number of legislative committees at all. The presiding officers have already revamped the committee structure to increase its efficiency.  Mischief managed!  That’s what presiding officers are there for. Let them do their jobs.

A couple of members of TREC have indicated to me that what they actually want is to increase the power of legislative committees to dismiss resolutions and whatnot. Great – let them say so, instead of proposing a senseless solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Reducing the length of Convention? Okay, let’s try it and see if it works. We tried it already and changed our minds about it, but hey, let’s try it again. It would certainly help working lay people who want to attend. And working clergy, for that matter – it’s hard to get away for that long when you’re trying to lead a church.

Make Convention a Missionary Convocation?  I can’t respond because I don’t know what they mean by this.  Again, they haven’t bothered to explain.

Reducing the amount of minor and unnecessary legislation that we have to sift through at Convention? That would be a good step, if we can find an equitable way to do it. But TREC hasn’t explained how they plan to go about this, so I can’t respond.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

From what I’ve seen from TREC so far, I think a few of their smaller suggestions will be implemented. Their bigger suggestions will go down in flames. Deputies and bishops who don’t agree with TREC’s proposals will come up with their own, and a whole different set of restructuring resolutions will pass. But it won’t make much difference to the true issues before the church anyway.

Recall that the true issues before us involve our declining financial resources, and the declining membership and attendance that have caused them, and our need to do evangelism with new generations and new populations. TREC’s suggestions don’t address these problems at all. And it was probably always a pipe dream to sing a hymn and think that “restructuring” could actually “reawaken” the church. (Don’t get me started on “resuscitation” – Lazarus notwithstanding.) Restructuring the church is not going to get us out on the streets, serving our communities and telling the good news of Jesus. At best, restructuring might save us some money that will allow us to do more of those things in our local communities.

And there’s where the rubber will hit the road at the church-wide level.  Given that our church-wide structure is not ever actually going to be out there doing evangelism, the true restructuring will happen in how we decide to spend our money, and where we locate our church-wide headquarters (for lack of a better term), and what we ask the staff we place in it to do. We effectively restructure the church every time we create a budget, in far more immediate ways than TREC’s structural tinkering will do. Sure, let’s fiddle with the church-wide structure and try to get it right. But let’s work harder at putting our resources to work revitalizing this church and helping our local churches tell the good news of Jesus to a world that is starving for good news. Now that’s a mission worth supporting.

 

Sermon for 9.7.14

Scriptures for today are Here.

It’s great to see you all again! I’ve missed you this summer but I had a wonderful sabbatical! I traveled a bit with family, relaxed, read novels, wrote most of a book, and in my spare time, I went to see movies, which I don’t do very often. Sadly, if you’re not into superheroes or horror or thrillers, your movie choices are limited this year. Because of various friends who wanted to see it, I ended up seeing “The Hundred Foot Journey” three times. I also saw The Giver, based on a classic YA novel I read when my children did, when they were in middle school. The story is set in a dystopian future in which the authorities have done away with all conflict and pain: but in doing away with conflict and pain, they have also eliminated kindness, joy, compassion, and love from the world – even color. In this world, everything is in black and white, every day is the same, and every action is predictable.

Things come to a head for the young hero when he realizes that this society maintains its sameness and colorlessness at a cost: it secretly kills people it doesn’t think will be productive, including babies who are too fussy – and a baby he has come to secretly love as a younger brother is on the list to be “released to elsewhere” – so the hero rebels. He goes on an adventure that will bring the full range of human experience back into the world. It turns out that releasing love, kindness, and compassion back into the world will also mean bringing back pain and conflict – some of it unbearably sad. So the movie leaves you with a question: would you rather live in a literally colorless world, where every day is the same as the one before, all things are predictable, and authorities carefully control your thoughts and emotions and decide when it’s time for you to die because you’re no longer useful? Or would you rather live in a world where people experience the full human world: the heartbreak of suffering and the joy of heartfelt love? The movie leaves no doubt about what it thinks is the right answer: it is better to live in a world where humans experience the full range of emotions, the complete human experience, in all its joy and pain.

For us, in our world, there is no question of preference: we don’t have a choice – we do live in this world of love and suffering – but what I realized on the way home was, we don’t have a choice, but Jesus did. And it turns out that Jesus did not choose to enter, or to leave behind, a perfect, painless world. He chose this world and these people to live among and to love. And because Jesus was intimately familiar with the joys and sufferings of this world, because he knew the human predicament inside and out, because he knew the ordinary human beings who were going to fill this earth after he was gone, he left behind him a church.

The Book of Common Prayer (Catechism, p. 855) says “the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Or as Paul puts it in today’s Romans reading, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul goes on to say, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

In other words, the church’s mission of love & reconciliation – restoring all people to unity with one another and God in Christ – this mission is urgent – there is no time to lose. We have to get to work on loving each other, and teaching the world to love, now.

Well, surely if there’s a world that needs to learn how to love, it’s this one. This summer has been full of disturbing conflicts, from Israel and Gaza to Iraq and Syria to Ferguson, Missouri. It’s a world full of people who divide ourselves into “us” and “them” and create sharp lines of conflict between the two sides.

In this world of conflict, the church has a clear vocation – to love, to reconcile, to restore people to unity – yet we have our own trouble, loving. Jesus knew this would be the case: even during his lifetime, long before there was a church, Jesus knew that there would be a church, and that the church would be composed of ordinary human beings, and that those human beings would sometimes disagree.

There’s an old cartoon: a man who has been stranded on a desert island for years is finally rescued. He stands on the deck of the ship that rescued him with the ship captain, and the captain looks at the shore of the desert island and asks about all the buildings the stranded man has built during his years there. Oh, says the man, there’s my house, there’s my recreation center, and there’s my church. Okay, says the ship captain, Well, what about that building over there? Oh, says the man, that’s where I used to go to church.

Yes, sometimes people in church disagree. The church is a human institution like any other – Jesus knows people will disagree – and note, this doesn’t just happen in church, it happens in families, workplaces, friendship, anywhere there are human beings in relationship with each other. Because conflict is part of life, Jesus outlines a model for reconciliation in our gospel today.

This model is important for any of us to pay attention to, because the Christian life is a life of learning to love, to deal with conflict constructively. The fact is that most of the time, when we are in conflict with someone, there are two important viewpoints, and if we can take the best from both, we will end up with a much better solution than either of us could alone. That’s not always true – it’s not true in Iraq and Syria, where there is a clear wrong side – and it’s not true in cases of abuse or crime. But most of the time, where there are two people with two different viewpoints, each has something important to offer the other.

So Jesus outlines a process for how to deal with disagreement. The process is to first go to the person and talk to them directly. You don’t talk to everyone else around you about your disagreement – that’s just gossip. You talk instead to the person you disagree with, one on one. This is hard work because you have to express yourself with kindness and generosity, when we’d sometimes rather keep our hurts hidden – but Jesus says relationships between people are important enough to try to reconcile.

It’s also hard work to talk directly because you can’t just talk – you have to listen too. And not listen so you can figure out the next point you’re going to make to prove that they’re wrong and you’re right. Listen so you can really understand what they are trying to say, and learn from them. You do this because the goal is reconciliation: as Jesus says, if it works, you have regained that person, you have restored your relationship, you have offered forgiveness. This is a requirement of Christian community, a requirement of loving our neighbors – we respect them and we try to understand them, and we learn from them so that the solution we come up with together is better than either of us could have come up with alone.

Well, this is a hard thing to do. Years ago, before I started working in the church, when I was working in the business world, there was a woman in my office who drove me crazy. Every single day she would do something that made me angry, till I didn’t even want to go to work any more. But Lent was coming that year, so I decided to make a special Lenten discipline: to pray for her every day. Now this is hard to do, to pray for someone you don’t like and are furious at – it’s hard to come up with words that are acceptable to you AND to God, if you know what I mean. But I did it – and I am not kidding, only three days after I began praying for her, a miracle happened – we were reconciled, and not only that, we began a friendship that lasted a long time. This, to me, was a miracle, one that wouldn’t have happened if it had been up to me, with my stubbornness and belief that I was always right. It took God, and it took me being willing to approach the conflict in a Christian way, to allow this miracle to happen.

So this first step Jesus gives us makes perfect sense. But I will be honest with you: I have a problem with Jesus’ 2nd and 3rd steps. The second: take 1 or 2 other people with you; third, if they still won’t listen to you, take the whole church, last, if they still won’t listen, treat them as Gentile and tax collector. The process Jesus outlines seems to assume one side is clearly right, one wrong. And I would agree that this process works if that is the case – in cases of abuse or crime, for instance. But our side is not always clearly right. We certainly prefer to assume so, believe that we are entirely in the right.

But I think when reading the Bible, what we have to be careful of is our tendency to seize on one passage at a time and forget the rest of what the Bible says. I don’t think you can read this passage in Matthew 18 without also reading an important passage in Matthew 5: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and then remember that your brother or sister has something against you, first go be reconciled with your brother/sister, then come and offer your gift.” In other words, being able to worship with a clean heart means asking for forgiveness when you have wronged someone else.

Christian life means not just being vigilant to point out the sins of others, much as we enjoy doing this! We love to look at the speck in other people’s eyes while ignoring the log in our own, as Matthew 5 says. Christian life also means being even more vigilant of our own sins, and being ready to ask forgiveness, from God and from other people. As Christians, we both seek forgiveness and offer forgiveness. When these two attitudes of the heart are combined, people can reconcile, true Christian community can flourish, people can understand and learn from each other, people can truly learn to love even those they disagree with.

And when Jesus says, if you can’t reconcile with someone, treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector – well, let’s just remember how Jesus and the earliest church treated gentiles and tax collectors. By the time Matthew’s gospel was written, there were many, many Gentiles in the church – thank God, because most of us here are Gentiles too. The discipline that Jesus gave the church was not to expel people, but to reach out, to keep loving them, to keep inviting them in. And Matthew himself, the author of this gospel, was a tax collector. Jesus called him to leave it all behind follow him. No one is beyond the love of God.

Which highlights what Jesus was all about, in his life and in his death. It wasn’t some conflict-free, colorless world Jesus chose to love and to save. It was THIS world Jesus chose to come into, THIS world that Jesus chose to experience, THIS world of color and love and heartbreak that Jesus immersed himself in, THIS world that subjected Jesus to the ultimate suffering, and THIS world that allowed him to pour out the ultimate love, God’s love for us. And it is THIS world that Jesus still loves today, because right here, where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here in the midst of us – this blessed Christian community.

 

Jerusalem

I am in Israel with a group of Episcopal clergy plus one Episcopal layperson, led by a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Ruth Lautt.  We will be learning about issues of peace between Israelis and Palestinians while we are here, but I won’t be blogging about those things until after the trip is over, by agreement with the other trip participants.  Just a few general observations as we begin our first full day in Jerusalem.

DSC00142Jerusalem is, famously, a city on a hill.  Driving into Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv airport yesterday was impressive, as we gradually ascended from sea level up the rocky slopes to Jerusalem.  We drove through the kind of desert familiar to an Arizonan like me – a green and rocky desert – through a very modern traffic jam.  I imagined centuries of pilgrims doing the same journey, on bare feet and in chariots and in automobiles.  I heard in my mind the voices of all those pilgrims singing the songs of ascent, such as the one we read in the bus as we climbed – Psalm 122:

1 I was glad when they said to me, *
“Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
2 Now our feet are standing *
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem is built as a city *
that is at unity with itself;
4 To which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD, *
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the LORD.
5 For there are the thrones of judgment, *
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: *
“May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls *
and quietness within your towers.
8 For my brethren and companions’ sake, *
I pray for your prosperity.
9 Because of the house of the LORD our God, *
I will seek to do you good.”

I imagined Jesus and his parents ascending to Jerusalem three times a year for the great festivals, singing that same song.  I imagined Jesus and his disciples, later, ascending to Jerusalem praying for its peace, Jesus knowing the turmoil that awaited him there.  I prayed for the peace of Jerusalem and for all the people who gather there to worship and to live.

More later.  Blessings – and pray for peace in this city and this world.

Sermon for 3.30.14

This sermon was preached at St. Philip’s in the Hills, Tucson, on March 30, 2014.  The scriptures for this Sunday are here.

In the 20th century, when it became possible for surgeons to do surgery to correct cataracts, ophthalmologists began doing a lot of it. Cataract surgery is very successful for a huge percentage of people.  But surgeons began realizing that it wasn’t nearly as successful for one group of people – people who been born blind with cataracts.  Though the surgery healed their eyes, and though measurements showed that their retinas were detecting light perfectly, there was still something missing.

Annie Dillard describes it in her essay “Seeing,” from her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: 

“The vast majority of patients had no idea of space whatsoever. Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables…. Before the operation a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with his hands, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing.”

They couldn’t recognize faces of loved ones without running their fingers over them.  They didn’t know that patterns of light and dark indicated shadows and depth; they didn’t realize that a larger object, like a chair, might visually hide a smaller object, like a dog, that was sitting behind it.  They couldn’t comprehend notions of height & distance by using their sight. In order to walk up and down stairs safely, they would have to close their dangerous eyes so they wouldn’t be confused by the shadows and trip and fall.   Eventually, some of them simply gave up on using their sight, bought the darkest glasses they could find, and returned to living lives of blind persons.

It turned out that what doctors didn’t understand was that seeing is more than a matter of how well your eyes receive light; what is even more important is perceiving: how well your brain interprets the light your eyes bring in. Those first few months of a baby’s life, as her eyes struggle to focus on her mother’s face, she is learning one of the most complex tasks her brain will ever undertake: how to see. And more than how to see: how to perceive. Without that essential work of the first few months of life, the human brain begins to lose its capacity to understand what it is seeing.  Seeing, it turns out, is something that happens in our brains, not our eyes.

John, our gospel writer for today, understands this perfectly.  When he tells us the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth, he understands that this is not a miracle of healing or a demonstration of great power: it’s miracle of perception.  Yes, the man was physically healed, and yes, his brain somehow also receives the gift of being able to perceive what he sees, but John is far more interested in the deeper perception, the emotional and spiritual healing that goes along with it.

In fact, in John’s gospel, we are not told about many of Jesus’ healings at all. Instead, what John tells us about is signs: strange acts like turning water into wine, or healing a man blind from birth.  These are signs because we are not supposed to look at them, but at the greater reality that they point to.  That’s what signs do: they point to things.

In the case of today’s story, this sign is continuing to unfold a theme that John began way back in the opening to his gospel:  in Jesus, the light of God was coming into the world. The light of Jesus throws everything around him into sharp relief; the shadows stand out starkly against the glowing light of Christ, and it takes the mind of Christ to understand the meaning of the lights and shadows.

In the shadows in today’s story, we see the formerly blind man’s neighbors, whose perception is so dim that they don’t recognize him after he is healed. They have fallen into the common trap of looking at a person with a disability and identifying him as the disability alone, not a whole person, so that without the disability they can’t even be sure he is the same man.  This is one kind of blindness that the light of Christ exposes.

The man’s parents, in a part of the story we didn’t read today, are afraid to admit that their son has been healed because of their ear of the religious authorities. Their fear of speaking the truth because they might lose their personal position is another kind of common human blindness the light exposes.

The religious authorities are fearful of the kind of power that the healing of the blind man represents, and they drive him out of community of faith: a third kind of blindness, willful blindness that causes the misuse of power.  All this blindness is a failure of perception far greater than eyes that don’t see.

At the same time we hear about all these kinds of blindness, though, we also hear about the gift of perception, the light standing out against the shadows. The blind man who receives his sight receives a far greater gift than physical eyesight – he receives the gift of understanding who Jesus is.  To the skeptical authorities, the now-not-blind, but perceiving man says, If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.  And to Jesus, he says simply, Lord, I believe, and he worships him.

Out of this gift of perception, many changes come into his life, good and bad: he is no longer a beggar; his dysfunctional and fearful family renounces him; he is driven out of his community of faith; he begins to follow Jesus; he receives a new family and a new community of faith.  Jesus, the light of the world, has transformed this man’s entire life; Jesus has thrown the shadows and darknesses of dysfunction that surround him into sharp relief; and Jesus has called him into a whole new way of living.

The question Jesus poses for us today is, how are our powers of perception? Can we see, hear, perceive the truth? Can we detect the working of God in our world?  Do we have our eyes open to see the world in the light of Christ, do we have our ears tuned to the music of God’s kingdom, do we have our hearts open to the gifts of God?

Of course most of us can see, hear, perceive the physical world.  But what happens if we can’t imagine a reality that runs under the surface of all things?  What happens if we believe that the mundane everyday world is all that exists or can exist?  Maybe we can’t see a deeper reality even if it’s there.

Some reporters at Washington Post decided to test people’s perception in 2007.  They set up a hidden camera in L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington DC. A young man in jeans, a Washington Nationals baseball cap and a T-shirt walked into the station, set down a violin case, took out a violin, put a few dollars and coins in the case to seed the pot, and began to play.  For the next 43 minutes, he played as 1,097 people passed by.  Each person had a choice: rush on by, stop to listen, put a little money in the case?

He played classical pieces, and he played the best-known religious song n world–Ave Maria.  As the Post said, the violin sang, it sobbed, it shivered.  What the commuters didn’t know was that the young man was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius.  Three days before he had sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall, with tickets costing $100 and up.

What happened in the subway? In that 43 minutes, seven people stopped to listen for a while; a few put in money; only one person actually recognized him. Many people interviewed later didn’t even remember there was a musician.  Many of those had iPods in their ears, their music already pre-programmed. Interestingly, every single child who walked by stopped, pulled his parent toward the violinist, wanting to listen, and every single parent hurried their child away.

The Post’s question was this: “His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”  The answer, apparently, was no – we expect to hear beauty in a symphony hall. In a subway station, we can’t imagine deeper reality, we can’t perceive it – so we just don’t hear it.

It turns out that the light that shone through Jesus’ ministry was so unimaginable, so imperceivable to most people, they ended up putting him to death: Most people missed it altogether.

We worship Jesus, we grieve over his suffering and rejoice in his resurrection.  Yet do we truly believe he is alive and still calling us to transformation? Do we perceive God’s truth?  Could God be in action all around us and we might even miss perceiving it altogether? Could the Holy Spirit be weaving beautiful music all around us, the most beautiful music we’ve ever heard, the music of the Kingdom – and we can’t hear it because we can’t imagine it?

Maybe we can only imagine Jesus at work in church, not the other 167 hours a week of our lives.  Maybe we don’t see the shadows and dysfunctions we are confronted with, maybe we don’t hear Christ’s command to be healed.

Healed of our addictions, to substances and money and power.  Healed of our blindness to the suffering of others.  Healed of our failure to be transformed.

Maybe we’re the blind and the deaf who need to be healed, maybe we’re the lame who need to be taught how to walk, maybe we’re the dead who need to learn to live.

This is the Lenten challenge we receive from Jesus each year.  Are we able to open our lives to the light of Christ, can we allow that light to throw our own shadows into the open, can we let ourselves be transformed?

If we could only imagine the transformations that God wants us to experience; if we could only recognize God’s work in the world all around us ; if we could open our eyes and ears and see signs of Christ working here and now – all of life might be infused with the sweetness of his presence, and our eyes opened to recognize the light of Christ’s presence in our world.

An Elevator Pitch

cab055The Acts 8 Moment, of which I am a founding member, has invited Episcopalians to give an elevator pitch – a quick answer to the question, “Why are you an Episcopalian?”  That is, a quick enough answer that when a stranger on an elevator sees your Episcopal shield pin and asks what it is, you can give your answer in the time it takes you to get from one floor or another.  So here goes.

The Episcopal Church is where I met Jesus.  I grew up Episcopalian, and from the time I was a child, the stories of Jesus became a part of my memory and my imagination.  As a child, I “played” those stories; as a teenager, I explored them, questioned them, and challenged them in the company of a terrific group of fellow youth group members, campers, and co-counselors.

As an adult, I left the church for quite a while, but it was here to welcome me home when I was ready.  And my encounters with Jesus continued.  I met him at my children’s baptisms when there was no doubt he was standing at the font with us, and I met him and at the altar rail one particularly memorable Easter.  I met him in a community of friends who became my family when I moved to a strange city where I knew no one.  I met him in thoughtful and engaging sermons, and in study groups that took him seriously.  I met him in careful and inspiring liturgies, and in theologically rich music.

I met him in more difficult ways, too.  I met him when I was going through hard times, yet he was there to give me strength.  I met him when I explored troubling and challenging Bible passages with a company of folks who were not afraid to ask tough questions.  I met him in people who made me think in new ways about social issues.  I met him in people who were not much like me at all, and who broadened my perspective on the world.  I met him in people who called me into ministry and refused to let me fail.  I met him in prayer and worship and song.

I met Jesus because he is truly present in this church.  That’s why I am an Episcopalian.

Mission … Mission … Mission – Part Three

This post is a continuation of parts one and two, discussing TREC’s Study Paper on Governance and Administration

In the first post, Theophilus, I discussed TREC’s (the Taskforce for Re-imagining the Church’s) suggested reforms in general, and pointed out that their financial recommendation to cut the diocesan asking to the biblical tithe (10%) could cost DFMS as much as $27 million in revenue.  In the second post, I talked about their suggested reforms to General Convention and estimated that they might save around $400,000 in all.  In this post, I will discuss the rest of their suggestions and count up where we are, money-wise.

The Office of Presiding Bishop

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What are the absolutely vital tasks that we need a Presiding Bishop to do?  What are the other tasks that have fallen to the Presiding Bishop over the years that could be accomplished in other ways?  What are the most appropriate ways to do these other things?

The Presiding Bishop, as I have argued before, fills three roles in our church:

  • Presiding Officer of the House of Bishops.  This was the original office.  As presiding officer, the PB has big responsibilities in governance, including General Convention, Executive Council, and so forth, and also properly handles responsibilities such as pastoral development of bishops and bishop disciplinary matters.  This role includes a lot of travel within TEC.
  • Primate.  The PB is the spokesperson for the church to the world, including representing us in the councils of the Anglican Communion and ecumenical affairs, advocating for justice issues, speaking for the church in times of national crisis, etc.  This role includes a great deal of U.S. and international travel.  This function was not contemplated in the original job description of the PB, but we need this kind of public leader.  If we didn’t have one, we would invent one.
  • CEO and Head of Staff.  The original office of PB certainly never contemplated that the PB would have a staff, other than perhaps an administrative assistant.  But the church-wide staff has grown to the point that it would be impossible for a PB to do her other two roles and keep track of the staff as well.  Therefore, staff oversight is mostly delegated to a Chief Operating Officer who functions, effectively, as the CEO, and is accountable only to the PB.

The first role is the original office, and it is a vital one.  The second role was added much later, as it became more and more necessary to have a bishop who would act as the church’s face to the world.  I think it is vital for the PB to fill these two roles, and frankly, filling these two roles is all any one human being can do.

I do not think it is vital for the PB to fill the third role.  In fact, I think it is inappropriate – in the sense that if the PB is CEO and head of staff, it means the staff is accountable only to one person who was elected by only one house of General Convention and who really doesn’t have time to oversee them because of his/her other two vital roles.  Unless General Convention is willing to bring a PB up on charges (which I hope will not happen in my lifetime), Convention is required to fund offices that it has no ability to hold accountable.

In addition, PBs are not (or should not be) elected for their administrative abilities.  They are (or should be) elected because they are inspiring leaders and speakers, and we want them to be our spokespersons to the world.  Let’s turn them loose to do what they were elected to do, and let capable administrators run the Church Center (wherever it is located), with appropriate oversight from the church’s elected representatives.

The PB does, of course, need staff in her own office to help her fulfill her duties.  That would include governance, communication, and disciplinary duties, as well as Anglican Communion liaisons and ecumenical officers, in my opinion.  It makes sense for those functions to be handled through the Primate’s office, since she is our spokesperson to the world.

But I believe that the bulk of the DFMS staff should report to a different person who is accountable to both houses of Convention.  Staff who report to different officers can still all be paid by DFMS and be subject to DFMS human resources, employment, and travel policies.

Therefore, as far I am concerned, Alternative II in the TREC paper moves in completely the wrong direction, centralizing even more duties in the hands of the PB than she already has, and making the job even more impossible than it already is.  Alternative III is better, but seems to envision the PB taking on too small a church-wide role, possibly keeping her diocesan see (what this accomplishes is unclear).  Therefore, I think Alternative I is the best choice: keeping a healthy view of the PB’s leadership, while allowing for Council oversight (not micro-management) of the head of staff (“CEO” is a poor name for this position).  Alternative I also seems to be the one that TREC has thought hardest about, judging from the verbiage devoted to the three alternatives.

images-1The Money Scorecard

Alternatives I and II don’t save us any money, but they don’t cost us any money either.  We already pay both a PB and a Chief Operating Officer.  Alternative III will cost us money, because the poor diocese that is saddled with a PB as its diocesan bishop will need a subsidy to call a suffragan bishop.  Let’s say Alternative III costs us $500,000 per triennium. 

Executive Council

What is the Executive Council?  What do they need to do that no one else can do, how many people does it take to do those things, and where do they fit within the power structures of the church?

ens_022713_TS_CouncilOtherBizWell, full disclosure – I serve on Executive Council (that’s me in the photo, in the green jacket just over Silvestre Romero’s left shoulder).  I was elected by Convention in 2012, and my term goes until 2018 – argghh, that seems like a long time!

Executive Council, as TREC points out, has two roles.  (1) It is the designated body to carry out Convention’s policies while Convention is not in session.  And (2) it is the legal Board of Directors of DFMS / The Episcopal Church.  These are two, not-always-congruent roles.

Executive Council IS a large group – it is hard for a group of 40 people to act as a board of directors.  However, most of Council’s work happens in committee (just as is the case with General Convention).  Could a group of 21 accomplish the work of Council?  Probably, if all 21 are good, active representatives, and not blowhards or inactives.  Is it worth a try?  Sure, if we think it will really accomplish something.  The money spent by Council in meetings is not that much in the context of an overall budget in excess of $111 million (Council meetings cost less than $750,000 for the triennium, less than 1% of our budget, and this presumably includes the cost of having a significant staff contingent at each meeting), but if the church wants to reduce the size of Council, I won’t protest as long as there are other provisions to accomplish Council’s work (and note that Council’s work may increase under the proposals).

I think it would make sense for the remaining CCABs, and for task forces established by Convention, to report to Council, and for Council to have authority to establish other task forces as necessary, as TREC proposes.  Note that I have already recommended that we do away with the provincial structure, so I think TREC should re-think how Council is elected.

The good thing about Council is that it is, in fact, a representative group.  We are elected by the Church to be leaders.  Those Council elections are important, especially if, as I believe should happen, these representative leaders are given more responsibility to oversee (not micro-manage) the work of the head of staff.  I do believe that Council, as an elected, representative group, is the best-situated group to do this oversight work on behalf of the whole Church.

Future Council members:  come prepared to lead.  Come with an agenda for action.  Don’t accept the role of routine rubber-stamper or passive accepter of the status quo.  The church needs more than that from us.  It needs us to be leaders, catalysts for change, and innovators.

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The Money Scorecard

The budget for Council meetings is approximately $750,000 per triennium.  Let’s say we can save $300,000 under this proposal – a generous estimate. 

Staff

What is the staff for?  What things do we need to pay people to do?  What things can DFMS do that no one else can do?  And by the way, what kind of functions should a church-wide headquarters building support? 

It is hard for me to believe that TREC issued a report on “Governance and Administration” and barely touched the question of what the staff should be doing.  The report’s main discussion of staff was about who should supervise them.

Yet TEC’s 2013-15 triennial budget shows 12% spent on Governance, including only $2 million on General Convention, which takes up the bulk of the TREC report, and 78% on everything else, including 30% on Administration.  This 78% of our expenditures wasn’t worth discussing?  Governance has to bear the full weight of our restructuring efforts?   Folks, we’re not going to get down to a 10% tithe  without addressing Administration, staff roles and responsibilities, and what kind of headquarters building we need.

So what do we need a church-wide staff to accomplish?  Do we want program staff?  Do we want all program functions to devolve to voluntary networks instead?  What do we think is unnecessary?

Note that TREC’s proposals listed above have barely affected the cost of our church-wide structure at all, maybe saving $1 million at most (less than one percent of our DFMS budget).  If we’re going to get the church-wide assessment down to the biblical tithe (which I think is a terrific number! but remember, that is as much as a $27 million reduction!), the staff plus other projects NOT EVEN MENTIONED IN THE TREC REPORT are going to bear the brunt of the reduction.

If they don’t want to talk about it, I will.

I think we can divide our budget into:

(1) things DFMS can do that need to be done and no one else can do;

(2) things DFMS can do that are nice to have done and no one else can do; and

(3) things DFMS can do that are nice to have done but other people can do.

If we are going to cut the budget by $22 to $27 million, we are going to have to decide something like the following:  The church-wide budget needs to support (1), should support (2) to the extent we have the funds, and should not support (3), perhaps not cutting these amounts immediately, but working to reduce them over time.

(1) Things DFMS Can Do That Need to be Done and No One Else Can Do

  • Functions of governance – PB office, PHoD office, General Convention, CCABs, Secretary of Convention, Title IV work, etc. (Discussed in part two.; current budget around $13 million)
  • Ecumenical, interfaith, and Anglican Communion work.  (Current budget $8 million)
  • Federal Ministries.  (Current budget $1.6 million)
  • Communications, including marketing strategy for The Episcopal Church (no postcards, please).  (Current budget $9.1 million)
  • Finance, human resources, legal, and information technology.  (Current budget $19 million, not counting debt service or facilities maintenance.)
  • Maintenance of some sort of headquarters location.  It, ahem, doesn’t have to be in Manhattan.  (Current budget includes $8 million of debt service and $7 million of facilities maintenance, offset by $5 million of rental income, total $10 million.)

episcopal-church-centerThese are necessary functions and we need to accomplish them at the church-wide level – not to say that there isn’t room for cutting budget funding in these areas.  Maybe we could bring the litigation to an end, someday?  Do we really need such a costly administrative staff?  Maybe we could get rid of those debts and get a cheaper headquarters location?  The 2012 General Convention voted to move the Church Center away from its current location in Manhattan, an action I supported.  Of course, that action has run into resistance from the Church Center itself.  Executive Council continues to work on this issue, and we are making some progress, but the real issue won’t be solved until we know what kind of staff we need and are able to fund.

Note that the “Administration” line in our church-wide budget is over 30% of our spending for the triennium – a cool $34 million.  TREC hasn’t even glanced at these expenditures.

(2) Things DFMS Can Do That are Nice and No One Else Can Do

  • Most of our program offices, from Christian Formation to Ethnic Ministries, fall into this category.  Most ministry in these areas happens at the local level, but church-wide coordination and support for learning and networking is certainly valuable.  For instance, with proper funding, some great work could be done by the Office for Hispanic/Latino Ministries in developing lay and ordained leadership training for church planting nationwide.  (Current budgets: Formation & Vocation $3 million; Congregational Development $4 million; Ethnic Ministries $4 million)
  • Sending of missionaries into other parts of the world.  (Current budget $3.6 million.)
  • Social justice advocacy, including the Office of Government Relations.  (Current budget:  $3.3 million)

I support all of these efforts, but we need to look carefully at how much we can actually afford in each area.  Especially if we’re going to reduce our diocesan asking to the biblical tithe, as TREC recommends.  TREC: which of these functions would you like to get rid of?  Reducing our asking from 19% to 10%, a $27 million reduction, is going to require some painful inroads into this category, I am afraid.

(3) Things DFMS Can Do That Are Nice and Other People Can Do

  • Marks of Mission Grants – I really like these grants, especially Mission Enterprise Zones, which I think could be truly transformative across the church.  But the fact is, these grants take money given by the dioceses and give the money back to the dioceses.  They are redistribution schemes – from committed and/or wealthy dioceses to dioceses with good ideas.  Do we want to continue sustaining redistribution schemes?  If so, we are not going to be able to get our asking down to 10%.  Marks of Mission grants totaled $5.5 million in the current triennium.  When I say “other people can do” these things, I mean, maybe we will have to decide to leave this money in the dioceses we got it from, to support mission in those dioceses.
  • Grants for Province IX dioceses, non-self-sustaining dioceses within the US and Europe, and Anglican Communion partners – we spend huge amounts on these ($10 million within TEC, $2.7 million on grants and covenants within the Anglican Communion).  I don’t think we can just drop these folks cold turkey.  Can we work these partners toward sustainability over time?  This project is already underway in Province IX.
  • Grants for other supported entities, such as Historically Black Episcopal Colleges (current budget $1.8 million).
  • CCABs:  most work of the CCABs can be accomplished by informal networks and elected representatives.  (Current budget $730,000)
  • Support for provinces – I think we can eliminate the provincial structure.  (Current budget $300,000; most savings will come at the diocesan level.)
  • General Board of Examining Chaplains – if we need this function, it can support itself by increased user fees.

And so on – this category requires careful analysis.  Are we willing to pull back on all these commitments?

You may disagree with my classifications, and whether we should be funding categories 1, 2, or 3 as the highest priority.  Terrific – let’s have the discussion.  TREC hasn’t had it, as far as I can tell.

The point is: we need to decide what we want our church-wide staff and budget to accomplish.  Until we have decided this, simply suggesting new asking percentages like the biblical tithe is not going to fix anything.  TREC: please tell us what you think our church-wide structures should be doing.  Your almost-exclusive focus on governance (which, by the way, doesn’t really end up saving much money at the church-wide level) allows the majority of our expenditures to escape notice altogether.  What about the other category in your paper’s title – Administration?

Back to the main question: what do we want to actually accomplish at the church-wide level?  Until we have answered this question, we are just wandering through the weeds, speculating on how many deputies we should have per diocese, a fairly minor question in the overall financial picture.

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The Money Scorecard

TREC Proposals: no effect.  No attention paid to this category whatsoever.

Conclusion

TREC makes an utterly unrealistic recommendation to reduce the asking to the biblical tithe.  Oh, it can be done, but not based on the reforms they are suggesting, which might save $1 million at best.  Unless TREC does some real work to find another $26 million of cuts, it would fall to the heroic efforts of PB&F to find those cuts at the last minute, should such a proposal pass the next General Convention.  Which would make PB&F the ACTUAL Taskforce to Restructure the Church, the same as it was in 2009, no matter what it is called.  If TREC doesn’t do this work, then I think it is irresponsible of them to suggest such a reduction and leave the burden to someone else.

Let me reiterate:  I am completely in support of reducing our diocesan asking.  I think it is far too high, and I think we need to look carefully at what we are asking our church-wide structures to do so that we can make significant reductions in the asking.  But reducing the budget by $27 million would end up being, effectively, the true restructuring of our church.  Is that what we want – restructuring by budget cuts on the second to last day of Convention?  Or do we want TREC to take a realistic, comprehensive, and responsible look at what they are suggesting that we do?

In the end, it’s all about mission: what should The Episcopal Church be doing?  How should we be reaching out to new folks with the life-transforming love of Christ?  How should we be changing the world?  How much of this work can the church-wide structure empower and support?  And what should we NOT be doing?

Mission … Mission … Mission – Part Two

This post is a continuation of Part One, discussing TREC’s Study Paper on Governance and Administration.

In my previous post, I talked about TREC’s (the Taskforce for Reimagining the Church’s) recommended reforms on Governance and Administration in general.  I pointed out that the financial effect of their suggestion to reduce the diocesan asking to the biblical tithe (10%), while a great idea, could cost DFMS as much as $27 million in revenue, and said that we will need to take some serious looks at how we spend our money if we are going to take such a cut.  In this series, I will assess the recommendations in general and try to estimate the costs (or cost savings) involved.  In this post, I will take about their recommendations for General Convention.

General Convention

Why do we have a General Convention?  What things do we need it to do that no other structure can appropriately do? What needs to happen between Conventions to keep the work of the church going? 

We have a General Convention because we believe in shared episcopal, clergy, and lay leadership.  We believe in electing representatives to do the governance work of the church.  The founders of The Episcopal Church probably never dreamed that the church would grow to 110 dioceses, or 880 deputies – it is certainly an overwhelmingly large gathering.

But interestingly, if you take a look at the way TEC actually spends our money, General Convention is not that expensive in the overall scheme of things.  the 2013-15 triennium shows a cost of $2.1 million for Convention itself.  And guess what, we receive $1.2 million of revenue from General Convention, meaning the net cost of Convention at the church-wide level is just a little under $900,000 – less than one percent of our $111 million budget.  The rest of the $13 million “Governance” cost (12% of our overall budget of $111 million) relates to governance functions of the PB’s office, the President of the House of Deputies office (the PHoD herself is unpaid, but she does have staff and office expenses), the General Convention Secretary’s office, the Archives, Executive Council, CCABs, etc.  In this whole restructuring movement, an exclusive focus on General Convention in order to save money is misguided:  we spend 31% of our budget on Administration, for instance.  (Click here for the full 2013-15 budget passed by the last Convention.)  Why does Administration get a free pass on restructuring?  Maybe TREC is planning to look at it sometime – but their report is supposed to be about “Governance and Administration,” and I don’t see them talking about Administration at all.  I will talk about it, in Part Three.

General_Convention_PhotoWell and good: back to Convention.  TREC has proposed to reduce the number of clergy and lay deputies per diocese from eight to six, and to limit voting in the House of Bishops to active bishops.  These are good proposals.  There might be some side effects: some folks argue that such a reduction would reduce age and race diversity in the House of Deputies, but I am not convinced.  It is clear, however, that it would make our voting system less conservative.  Right now, controversial issues are subject to a “vote by orders” in the HOD, which means that to pass, we need to have a majority of clergy and lay deputations voting 75% or more in favor.  The reduction from four to three deputies per order in each diocese would mean controversial issues would only need to pass by 67%.  Are we okay with that?

The proposal to reduce the number of deputies would save money at the diocesan level: if each diocese sends all of its voting representatives plus one alternate in each order, the average diocese would send nine people to Convention (including the bishop) rather than eleven, an 18% cost savings.  My own diocese, Arizona, appears to budget $45,000 per triennium for General Convention, so maybe it will save $8,100 over the course of three years, or $2,700 a year.  Not huge, but maybe it will pay a few expenses.

At the church-wide level, we don’t save much on this part of the proposal.  The cost to DFMS might be somewhat reduced because a smaller meeting space might be found, though I doubt it would save 18% of the meeting cost, since 660 deputies still need a pretty big room, and we still need an exhibit hall, a room for the bishops, etc.  Reducing the total time of Convention would save some money, but not if the extra time is used for a “Mission Convocation” instead.  And our total cost might actually increase for the Mission Convocation: we would need meeting space for the convocation, speaker fees for the great folks who will be teaching us stuff, etc.  I’d say that at the church-wide level, this proposal is a wash – we won’t save any money on this, all things considered.  We might actually spend more.

Note:  I think having a Mission Convocation is a great idea.  I am not sure whether it would be successful – for one thing, will laypeople who are attending Convention on their hard-earned vacation time come for two weeks when the main work they were elected to do happens in one?  However, if that many members of the church are getting together to do something, by all means let’s make it a learning and enriching experience.  My hope would be that such a gathering would be different from a regular conference, though.  If it’s just a programmed gathering with a few keynotes and lots of workshops led by approved luminaries, it doesn’t sound that interesting.  How about a lot of keynotes and then open-source gathering time for any group to bring people together that wants to reserve a space/time slot?  It would be up to the group to gather a crowd interested in participating.  That’s what we did in 2012 for the Acts 8 Moment, and that gathering was a wonderful respite in the midst of an otherwise exhausting Convention.

Back to reducing the cost of Convention:  while we’re at it, can we look at other ways of reducing Convention’s size?  What about looking hard at small dioceses that are not financially viable, have tiny populations, yet have the same representation in Convention as high-population giants like Los Angeles, Texas, and New York?  Could we start working hard on combining unviable dioceses, taking a step toward more-proportional representation?  If not, maybe we should truly take a look at proportional representation, allowing small dioceses to be represented in proportion to their population.

provincesAnd can we take a look at our provincial structure?  Is there a reason we still need to organize by geography in the digital age?  Our dioceses are expected to pay assessments to provinces, which work with varying degrees of effectiveness.  Why not do away with this whole level of organization and trust that in the digital age, we can communicate with others who are across the country, just as well as we can with those who are two hours’ drive away?  (Or, in the case of my own gigantic Province VIII, as much as 8 hours’ airplane flight away.)  For those provincial network groups that are still valuable, such as the Province VIII young adult gatherings, there is nothing to prevent them still meeting if they want to, even if this whole level of governance doesn’t exist.  I don’t understand why TREC is not asking these questions.  Maybe it plans to, and just hasn’t gotten there yet.

Regarding General Convention:  TREC has correctly identified the most important things that only Convention can do:

  • constitutional and canonical changes
  • changes to liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer
  • adoption of a budget
  • elections canonically required to be held at GC (maybe we could reduce their number!)
  • governance and structural reform

Their proposal to establish a screening process to permit only the most important resolutions on social justice issues has caused some alarm.  But if we are honest, we have to admit that often, in cases that are not high-profile issues, many deputies are voting on issues they have may not have much knowledge about, trusting the relevant committee to have made appropriate judgments, and voting “yes” on what they recommend.  Even on high-profile issues such as Israeli-Palestinian peace, the legislative committee in 2012 did significant work to sift through competing priorities and controversial and complex issues that the rest of us were not privy to, especially if we were serving on other committees.  We had to trust the committee to make responsible judgments.

That means the church’s social justice portfolio is already effectively in the hands of a small group of people.  Here’s one idea: elect this group of people at Convention and empower them to make judgments on social justice issues while Convention is not in session, only involving all of Convention on the most high-profile issues.  The fact is that many social justice priorities arise in the interim between Conventions anyway, and Executive Council ends up creating positions for the whole church (at the recommendation of the relevant Council committee, an even smaller group).  We don’t wait three years between updating our thoughts on these matters.

church-planting-logoMy major concern with the proposal to limit legislation is with mission matters.  How about this: at the last Convention, we approved the concept of Mission Enterprise Zones to give grants for new church communities.  PB&F (Program, Budget, and Finance) responded by giving $2 million to this priority.  In 2009, we approved the Strategic Plan for Latino/Hispanic Ministries, and it was partially funded in response to overwhelming support on the House floor and in PB&F hearings.  What happens if we’re not allowed to bring such creative resolutions to the floor?  Should PB&F be in charge of dreaming up cool mission priorities all by its lonesome?

I might agree with TREC’s proposal if it is broadly stated enough to allow such creative mission priorities to come to the floor and get the opportunity for funding.  Perhaps these initiatives fall under the category of “adoption of a triennial budget.”

TREC’s other proposals about streamlining the work of legislative committees make sense, though I don’t see what reducing the number of legislative committees will accomplish.  It’s not like the legislative committees fill up their spare hours by dreaming up more resolutions to waste Convention’s time with.  They respond to the resolutions that others submit.  Reducing the number of committees just increases the workload of each committee, taking more time to bring legislation to the floor and potentially lengthening Convention, while increasing the number of deputies that don’t have a committee to work with and therefore aren’t fully utilized.

Allowing legislative committees to meet in advance is a good idea, and will promote efficiency.  There will be some additional costs for electronic meetings and so forth – not significant, but they will be there.  This is not a cost-saving measure per se, but it might save time on-site.

Reducing the number of CCABs is a perfectly fine idea.  From my work on Council, I am aware that some of the CCABs don’t really even know what they are supposed to be doing.  There’s no use having groups just because we’re supposed to have them.  Appointing task forces to do real, identified work is a good idea.  The work of thinking up resolutions to submit to Convention, which CCABs are supposed to be doing now – that’s what deputies and bishops are elected for, right?  Get to work, deputies and bishops – band together, dream up good ideas, and file those resolutions.  We don’t need to appoint groups to have meetings, spend money, and do it for us.

images-1The Money Scorecard
So far, if you’re keeping score on the money issue:  the proposal to eliminate most CCABs is the ONLY proposal that will save us much money (let’s say, $400,000 over the triennium, a generous estimate of the savings).  The other proposals to change Convention will save the dioceses some money, but may even increase costs at the church-wide level. 

Next Post:  I will continue discussing the work of the Presiding Bishop, Executive Council, and the Staff.