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

Episcopal-Church-picks-new-presiding-bishop-52-year-old-is-first-woman-to-lead-U-S-denomination

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.

Sermon for March 2, 2014

Scriptures for this Sunday are Here

On March 18, 1958, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the great writers on Christian spirituality in the 20th century, was walking down an ordinary street in the shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky, as crowds went about their business, when something happened: he looked around and saw something.  He wrote about it in his journal the next day:  “Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like waking from a dream.”

Years later, he wrote about the experience:  “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Walking around shining like the sun? That may be true for spiritual giants like Merton, we might say; for Jesus, the Son of God – but surely it cannot be true for us.

After all, we got up this morning, didn’t we?  We brushed our teeth, we ate breakfast, we rushed to get into the car in time, we got ourselves and our children here to church, we settled into our chairs and tried to figure out the tune to the opening hymn, we are ordinary people who every now and then get a glimpse of what God might want for us.  But surely we are not shining like the sun.  Shining like the sun is what Jesus did, on the mountaintop, in the Transfiguration story we read today.

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany.  And Epiphany is the season of light: it begins with a bright star shining in the Western sky, bringing wise men from the East to find a child in Bethlehem.  And Epiphany ends with that child full-grown, shining in transfigured glory on a mountaintop, dazzling his disciples with uncreated light.  In the meantime, during Epiphany, we see how Jesus is light to the world, and we hear him tell us that we are also the light of the world.

Today’s story provides a clear bookend with the story we hear in the first Sunday after the Epiphany, when Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism to hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Today we hear the same words, as a voice from the clouds interrupts Peter:  This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!

Dazzling light, shining clouds, Moses and Elijah, a mysterious voice!  It is transcendent glory we hear about today.  It is glory that looks backward to the baptism that began Jesus’ ministry, and it is glory that looks forward at the long Lenten journey to the cross that awaits Jesus when he comes down from the mountain.  It is glory that looks even further than the cross, as Jesus commands the disciples to tell no one about their experience until after he has been raised from the dead.  Apparently there is something about this experience that cannot be understood except in the light of Easter, glorious resurrection light.  And it looks forward beyond Easter, to the moment when the risen Jesus leads disciples out to a new mountaintop and promises to be with them always.

The Transfiguration story is the centerpiece of Matthew’s gospel.  Yet we could be forgiven for hearing this story and simply scratching our heads and asking: what could the Transfiguration possibly mean to us?

I have put a lot of thought into this question, and I have come to the conclusion that this story means everything to us.  Not because transfiguration is something that we can see happening every day.  Transfiguration is not an everyday human experience.  It’s not the same thing as transformation, for instance – transformation is an excellent word to describe human growth and change, new orientation, new understanding – these are vital things in our spiritual journey, so vital that transformation is part of our mission statement at Nativity:  transforming lives with the love of Jesus Christ.

But transfiguration is not about transformation.  What happened to Jesus on that mountaintop was not just an important spiritual growth experience – he began to shine with God’s uncreated light.  The glory that was his as Son of God was revealed in unexplainable splendor.  And anyone who tries to express in words what happened that day, to dissect it, to analyze it, to make sense out of it, to explain it away in terms of ordinary everyday human experience like transformation is doomed to failure.

Because Peter, James and John were confronted with a truth beyond human comprehension – they saw something that transcended the laws of physics.  And we cannot describe or explain what they saw.  We can only say that they experienced a miracle of vision.  A veil was lifted from their eyes and they saw something that ordinary humans normally don’t see.

And after years of thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that what they saw was the truth as it always exists.  Jesus always, from beginning to end of his life, shone with God’s uncreated light – and for one brief moment, the veil of ordinary human existence was lifted from their eyes and they saw him as he truly was, shining with God’s light.

It is the same light that shone around him in the manger in Bethlehem.  It is the same light that shone around him as he healed the sick and preached good news to the poor.  It is the same light that shone around him as he hung gasping for air, crying out with pain, on the cross, and the same light that shone around him as he rose from the dead, astonishing his friends.

And what is absolutely remarkable, amazing to me, is that somehow, some way, I believe God’s light shines around each of us in the same way.  We are baptized children of God, adopted into God’s family, sisters and brothers of Jesus the Christ, shining with his light.  Thomas Merton saw that light, ordinary human beings shining like the sun as they went about their daily business.

My ancestor, the great Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, known best for railing at people about their sin, also knew about that light shining around us; he wrote: “The rainbow that follows the rain is light reflected through a multitude of drops that are like God’s little jewels, each a little star that represents the saints of Heaven, the children of Christ receiving and reflecting the light of the sun just breaking out of the cloud that had been till now darkened. The whole rainbow, composed of innumerable, beautiful shining drops, all united in one, arranged in such excellent order . . . the different colors, one above another, in such exact order is the church of the saints, each with a particular beauty, each drop very beautiful within itself, but the whole as united together much more beautiful.”  We are the light of the rainbow, he says; we are shining with God’s light.

So what does it mean that you and I are here, ordinary people in an ordinary church on an ordinary day, shining with uncreated splendor?  Think about that, that God’s light might be shining around you right now.  Think about yourself as not only God’s beloved child, though you are.  Think about yourself not only as God’s anointed minister and messenger to your family and your community, though you are.

Think of yourself as a being shining with such glory that God has to veil all of our eyes so that we don’t all blind each other all the time.  God’s Holy Spirit like tongues of fire, leaping from you to me to you, back and forth all the time, the whole time we talk, the whole time we listen, the whole time we look at each other and experience the events of our lives, the loves and the resentments and the irritations and the laughter and the tears, God’s uncreated light shining in us and through us every moment.

And what if it is really true?  What if we are truly loved, not because we are good or kind or helpful, but because we are God’s children, because we are glorious?  Then could we forgive ourselves our quirks, our helplessness, our insecurities?  Could we let ourselves experience our anger and our pain and our sinfulness and our thoughtlessness?   Knowing the whole time that there is nothing we could do that could ever stop God from loving us, because we are like God, not despite of the fact but because we are human, because we are created in God’s image?

And what would it be like if we could see past the veil that darkens our eyes, could believe that if it were lifted and we looked around at each other, we would see that same uncreated glory shining in our neighbors too?  What if we could see each other as God sees us, bright and beautiful and shining with God’s love, God’s very being?  What if every Christian could see that radiance in every human being, even those who are despised and rejected as Jesus was?.  How would the world change?  How could we judge, hurt, deprive each other?  How could we not love and care for each other?  How could we help but love our neighbors as we love ourselves, when every person we meet shines with God’s glory?

 

Mission … Mission … Mission – Part One

missionary-societySix of my friends and colleagues in the Acts 8 Moment have been blogging about this question: What does it mean to be a 21st century missionary society?  Go read their posts!  All six of these amazing folks have great things to say, from very different perspectives, and these vital perspectives should be part of the conversation as we move into Episcopal Church restructuring, or re-imagining, as the Taskforce for Reimagining the Church (TREC) likes to put it.

All this talk of mission, and of what it takes to be a missionary society in the 21st century, is right on point with the whole restructuring movement.  Recall how this movement got started:  DFMS Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls made a presentation to the House of Bishops arguing that church-wide “governance and administration” costs were too high compared to “mission” costs. The bishops got to work at their diocesan conventions, restructuring became a clarion cry, and the 2012 General Convention unanimously (unanimously!) passed a resolution establishing TREC.

missionNote the overriding concern that began this whole restructuring movement:  the budget, and how we spend our money to support mission.  Recall also what the biggest controversy was leading up to that 2012 General Convention: ALSO the budget, and how our money is spent to support mission.  I had a big part in that conversation, and my blogging, I think, helped inspire a re-visioned budget for the current triennium that is based on the Anglican Five Marks of Mission.  (Scott Gunn and Tom Ferguson don’t have a monopoly on crowing about their ancient blog posts.)

treasure1All this is to say:  in all this talk about restructuring the church, let’s pay attention to how the proposals we make will affect the way we spend our money, because money is what started this conversation, and money is a vital part of this movement to restructure the church.  Money is not some dirty, tangential thing; money is a direct measure of our priorities.  Jesus knew this, which is why he told us over and over in many different ways that money is one of the most important spiritual issues of our lives.  Let’s be sure we are putting our treasure where want our hearts to be (heaven), because Jesus said clearly that wherever we put our treasure, our hearts will follow.

So does TREC have this goal in mind, of putting our treasure where we know our hearts should be?  They do seem to be operating on the unstated assumption that one purpose of this restructuring is to save money, or use it more wisely.  Hence the proposal to reduce the number of voting deputies, to save money (well, and be more “nimble” – Bingo!  There’s one of our special words!  I am feeling nostalgic for the 2012 General Convention!).

But other than that, their only mention of the issue that started this whole process is this, on page 3:

In the reform of the budget process, reduce the general assessment to dioceses to something closer to the biblical tithe, and develop a sensible means of holding dioceses accountable for paying their assessments.

For the record, I think both of these things are great ideas.  The problem is that (as far as I can tell) TREC hasn’t taken the least tiny look at how we actually spend our money, and whether such a reduction would be possible, and they certainly haven’t begun to propose reforms that would bring our spending down to that level.

TREC thinks the biblical tithe, or 10%, is a nice round number.  That sounds like a nice round number to me, too, and as the chair of the Executive Council budget process, I will work with you to try to make it happen if I possibly can.

But let’s be clear – a reduction from 19% to 10% is a huge reduction in TEC’s revenues.  Based on my quick-and-dirty estimate of the revenue lost if this reduction had happened in 2013, this reduction might cost us $27 million over the triennium.  (Even if we could convince every diocese paying less than 10% to up the ante to a full 10%, we would still have to cut $22 million from the budget.)  You can’t propose reform of that magnitude without telling us how you plan to accomplish it.  Otherwise we could end up, not with TREC doing a careful three-year process to create a coherent restructuring, but instead with PB&F doing the actual, effective restructuring on the second-to-last day of Convention, as happened in 2009.

Note: in these three blog posts, I will do my best to count up the financial effect of the reforms proposed so far – not because money is the only important aspect of these reforms (it’s not), but because it’s something I can do that as far as I can tell, no one else (including TREC) has done.  Hint: they’re not anywhere close to saving us $27 million yet.

Cool Modified Structures (11)That’s not to say that this restructuring movement is entirely about money.  There are lots of inefficiencies, oddly constructed power structures, and unclear mandates in the way our systems have evolved, and this is a great time to correct those things.  TREC has some good ideas for how to do this.  And, as TREC correctly points out, The Episcopal Church needs to concentrate on mission, and restructuring “will not save the church or do the work of reaching out to the world in new ways with the transforming good news of the gospel.”  Underlying all the anxiety about money is the fact that the Church has less money now than it used to have because our numbers of active disciples are shrinking.  I hope that as this restructuring movement continues, we can find a way to empower mission and evangelism in the church.

The TREC Report on Governance and Administration

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the latest TREC Study Paper on Governance and Administration.  I am glad to see that TREC is finally getting to specifics, and some of their proposals have real merit.

The problem is that they seem to be lost in the weeds.  Why are we restructuring the church?  What are we hoping to achieve?  What do we want our church-wide structure to accomplish?  What should DFMS (the Episco-geek term for the church-wide corporate structure, including the staff) be doing?  What do we want the staff to concentrate on?  What are the major functions of the church-wide governing and staff structures?

In TREC’s “Identity and Vision Draft,” they talked about these questions at the 30,000-foot level, concluding that the church-wide structure should be a Catalyst, Connector, Capability Builder, and Convener.  Now they swoop right down to the 1-foot level, speaking about numbers of deputies per deputation, who reports to whom, and what to do with the CCABs (never mind if you don’t know what these are).  These are important questions, but we skipped some steps.

Unless we know what important things MUST be done at the church-wide level, we will never achieve clarity on our restructuring or on how we use our resources and our staff.  Some definition work needs to happen:

  • Why do we have a General Convention?  What things do we need it to do that no other structure can appropriately do?  Are there other things that could happen in conjunction with Convention to empower mission in the church?  What needs to happen between Conventions to keep the work of the church going?
  • 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 things?
  • 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?
  • 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?  (Recall that the 2013-15 budget includes $11 million of expenditures related to the Church Center building alone.)

Once we have defined these roles, we can figure out how we need to be structured, what things we need to get rid of, what things we need to keep or expand, and how much everything will cost.

In the next post, I will talk about the role of General Convention.