The TREC Webcast: More Questions than Answers

More questions than answers! That’s what I have after TREC’s (the Taskforce to Re-imagine the Church’s) webcast last week. Maybe that’s appropriate, because it is clear that restructuring work will continue long after this triennium is over. Some initial observations:

  • The setting, in a place of worship, and Bishop Michael Curry’s opening sermon, reminded us that church is really about following Jesus.  The structures we create to do this just help us organize ourselves to follow him more closely.  Let’s hope we all keep our focus on Jesus, no matter how much we disagree on structure.
  • The presentations were engaging, inspiring, and passionate –Michael Curry, Dwight Zscheile, and Miguelina Howell were all terrific. It was a delight to hear them speak. They show great insight into the large issues facing the Church, and I am very pleased to see evangelism prominently recognized in our church as a top priority. The webcast was much better when the conversation turned to evangelism than on any other topic.
  • The TREC members did far more speaking than listening – thanks to Scott Gunn and Crusty Old Dean for timing it at TREC 2:00:37, everyone else 17:31. I found myself frustrated because the format allowed me only to ask questions, and not express opinions. Do they really want to hear the thoughts of others, or do they simply want to share their own wisdom? Of course, we are assured that they are reading all our blogs, so maybe they are hearing some opinions.
  • Direct questions were not answered. Especially in the first part of the program, TREC showed a distressing tendency to answer specific questions with platitudes.
  • Some questions were treated dismissively. My question was: Is TREC planning to address the way we spend money and what our staff should be doing? The second half of my question (about staff) was ignored entirely. The first half, money, was labeled a “detail.” One member opined that it was important to have the data in front of you when you talk about how we spend money, because if you do, you will know that lots of our money is spent on mission. Actually, I chair Executive Council’s budget committee, have the data at my fingertips, and am deeply familiar with how we spend our money. Please don’t assume your listeners are ignorant.

Another TREC member said that the DFMS’ spending habits are insignificant in the scheme of re-imagining, because they are only 2% of the church’s total resources. Let me just say that (a) I have no idea where this statistic comes from, (b) whether it is true or not is really not important. The fact is that DFMS’ budget is over $112 million this triennium. Of that amount, $77 million comes directly from the dioceses.

Seventy-seven million dollars is not a “detail.”

Another TREC member said that our church-wide structures are not impeding local mission. I have to disagree: this is not necessarily true (nor is it necessarily false). If our church-wide structures are absorbing $77 million of our local resources, and that money is not being well spent, then indeed they are impeding local mission by redirecting local resources to other uses. Figuring out how to spend money effectively is a huge mission issue.

  • After much lofty discussion of the big issues facing the church, correctly diagnosed and inspiringly described, TREC zeroed in on a few very focused questions, such as the staff reporting structure, ignoring many others of greater importance, including the money-and-staff question I asked. Evan Garner tweeted: “I’m genuinely discouraged if members of TREC think their work is to define an organizational chart for 815 staff.” I’m with you, Evan.
  • And by the way, as a member of Executive Council, I find myself exceedingly puzzled that TREC apparently interviewed the PB, President of the House of Deputies, and 815 staff in detail, but as far as I know, did not extend the same courtesy to any members of Executive Council. Perhaps their suggestion that Council’s significance should be reduced while the PB’s is increased is traceable to this up-front decision to limit the perspectives they heard. Did they start this work already believing that Council’s experience is unimportant?

I will talk more about the balance of power later, but let me first address what I think TREC should have been doing, and what it has actually begun to make strides toward achieving.

The Mission of DFMS

I have paid a whole lot of careful attention over the last three years to how the church-wide structure of The Episcopal Church (let’s call it DFMS, short for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society) spends its money. (Yep, the data are at my fingertips!) Just so we are clear, the decision about what our staff should be doing is intimately related to the money question: over one-half of our budget is spent on staff salaries and benefits, and we spend additional money on staff office, travel, and operating expenses.

I think for any organization, decisions on how to spend money should be based on much larger, prior decisions about mission. In DFMS’ case, what can we do church-wide that local dioceses and parishes cannot do?

As chair of the budget committee, I was hoping that Executive Council would begin its term by having discussions about the mission of DFMS, and beginning to identify church-wide priorities. This did not happen. One of my frustrations with my church-wide work, in fact, has been a lack of high-level discussions of mission. We are groping in the dark. Yes, we have Five Marks of Mission, but they are rather vague and not necessarily good guides for church-wide mission. For instance: care for creation is one of the Five Marks, but is this a mission that is appropriately undertaken at the church-wide level?

Since Council has not been able to have discussions on mission, let me try to address the question personally. What is the mission of DFMS?

Dwight Zscheile’s presentation about the mission of the church was terrific. Derek Olsen has a great summary of what he said (as well as the rest of the webcast).  Dwight’s statements about church mission are all true for every local congregation.

But I think the more relevant question for TREC is: what is the mission, not of the local church, but of the church-wide structure?  TREC has been attempting to answer this question by describing the Four Cs: Convener, Connector, Capability Builder, Catalyst. But as Crusty Old Dean points out, these terms are rather vague and undefined. Let’s try to answer them more specifically.

What is the mission of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society?

I think it is:

To support Episcopalians in doing Christ’s work in the world, including:

  1. Fostering collaboration, building networks, and bringing people together for shared support and learning opportunities, to support the mission of local congregations and dioceses. (Connector, Convener, Capability Builder)
  1. Carrying out strategic initiatives for the benefit of the church that can be done best at the church-wide level, as decided by our representative governing structures. (Catalyst)
  1. Making decisions about matters that affect the whole church, including liturgy, ordination requirements, disciplinary proceedings for clergy, etc. (Catalyst, Convener)
  1. Serving as the church’s bridge to the outside world, including collaborating with partners in mission (the Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners), communications and marketing, and speaking in a prophetic voice on matters of public policy. (Catalyst, Connector)
  1. Administering responsibly assets entrusted to the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. (TREC’s four Cs did not address this function.)

You may disagree, or think I’ve left something out. If so, let me know!

I believe that:

  • All of our activities at a church-wide level, including staffing and budget, need to be carefully re-designed to meet these mission priorities and to exclude activities that don’t fit them.
  • The second item, carrying out strategic initiatives, needs to be carefully limited to a few major activities each triennium that will support the development of the church, based on a high-level strategic visioning process.
  • We need a ground-up redesign of our staff structure and our staff’s job descriptions to make sure they are designed to meet these mission priorities.
  • We need to begin taking very intentional steps to reduce the amount of money DFMS absorbs from local mission, moving from a bureaucratic, hierarchical model toward a much more networked and supportive model. (TREC agrees with this language, but ironically moves in the opposite direction in their recommendations for authority structures.)

I wish that TREC had addressed these issues. I hope that General Convention, a new Presiding Bishop and the next Executive Council will take a hard look at them.

Authority and Governance

TREC members were vague in the webcast about which direction they were moving on authority, though their September 2014 letter to the church proclaimed that almost all power should be vested in the Presiding Bishop. In the webcast, some members insisted that the issue was not yet decided, while some appeared very defensive and tried to support this model against significant opposition. These differences probably reflect real differences among members of TREC.

I have previously critiqued this idea of vesting all power in the PB. First, because it’s pretty much the same as what we have now, and our system is currently not particularly effective. (Hence: TREC.) Second, because it ignores our long history of balancing the powers of all orders of ministry. Third, because the Presiding Bishop has very little accountability to the rest of the church once elected. It is easy for the PB and staff (on one hand) and Council (on the other) to get isolated into silos that don’t work well together.

TREC previously considered a “General Secretary” model, where a separately appointed or elected official would manage staff. One TREC member told me that the concern with this model is that it sets up two separate power structures and visions. Another friend mentioned that some people misunderstood this model as indicating that the staff would begin reporting to the Secretary of Convention. Neither of these is what I am looking for.

I think the solution is actually rather simple.  DFMS is a very large non-profit organization with a very large budget and staff.  Treat it like one.  Appoint an Executive Director, someone experienced in finance and personnel management, to lead that staff and manage that budget. Have the Executive Director report to the board, with the Presiding Bishop as chair of the board. This structure gets everyone on the same team, pointing in the same direction with the same vision and priorities. This is the way normal non-profits operate. It is a widely understood and effective model.

TREC seems very concerned that staff members feel like they have multiple bosses. I find this puzzling, because no Council members I know believe that they supervise staff: it’s quite clear that staff report only to the Chief Operating Officer, who reports only to the PB. If there is some misunderstanding or problem here, it could already have been handled by the PB and COO. They could simply explain the staff reporting structure to both Council and staff, and create a process by which requests for staff time are channeled through the COO’s (or Executive Director’s) office. Mischief managed (as Fred and George Weasley would say). We didn’t need TREC working for three years to fix this problem.

Where the Real Reform Will Come

I give TREC members a lot of credit for hard work and great insights about the direction the church needs to be moving in mission and ministry. Their list of issues the church needs to be addressing in coming years (church planting, seminarian debt, leadership development, etc.) is right on target. If nothing else, TREC’s “bully pulpit” will highlight these important challenges we need to face.

I don’t think that TREC’s legislative proposals will fare as well. I think the big decisions ahead of us, which we will address via our regular governance structures, will really determine the future of the church:

  • Who will be our next Presiding Bishop, and what will her/his vision be?
  • Will that PB be able to lead Council and staff in a way that gets us all working on the same team and focusing on the vital challenges before the church?
  • What are we going to do with our money? Will we lower the diocesan asking to 15%, or to some other number? Will we restructure our staff to meet new mission challenges? All “restructuring” since I’ve been paying attention to church-wide affairs has happened through unhealthy budget processes responding too late to financial crises. Will we manage to do it this time in a better, more mission-focused way?
  • What are we going to do about the building at 815 2nd Avenue, New York, a symbol of bureaucratic hierarchy? Will we hold onto this real estate, or adopt a new model of church-wide support center?

These issues are not in TREC’s hands – they are in the hands of the House of Bishops, Executive Council, and General Convention. I’m eager to see how they have worked out a year from now. Whether TREC is the agent of change or not, change is coming to the church. And that’s a good (and joyful) thing.

18 thoughts on “The TREC Webcast: More Questions than Answers

  1. Perhaps this is unrealistic, but I personally would like to see a robust, active communication and publicity office creating and making ads, logos, testimonials, and other resources available for parish and diocesan use as well as spearheading a national marketing campaign. I have been amazed, even stunned, that Frank Logue appears to be able to do more in this area in his spare time than our entire communication office does. I’ve also been frustrated that Episcopal Church Center appears more concerned about preserving the brand (shield) than getting the word out. I gave up trying to use the shield on merchandise because I was legally barred from doing so and didn’t have time to navigate the process required for permission.

    I also agree about treating DFMS as a standard nonprofit organization with an Executive Director.

    • Tom, thanks for the comment. I don’t see why that’s unrealistic – that kind of marketing, creating content that parishes and dioceses can use, is exactly what I think the Communications office should be doing. I haven’t tried to use the shield on merchandise – that’s outrageous that they won’t let you. They should be urging everyone to put that shield everywhere. Of course – I think the shield is not the greatest emblem for a church. After all, what does a shield do? It keeps people away. All too sadly appropriate in this case.

  2. Thanks for this essay. I agree that TREC proposals will likely not fare well at the 2015 General Convention. In fact, at this point, I hope that is the case. Despite TREC’s being composed of well-meaning people, I believe it has gone horribly wrong.

  3. This thinking is another reason I follow your blog, Susan+. You’re clear, incisive, and insightful.

    I wonder what you would say to someone who reflected that, after all, the church is not a typical non-profit. Perhaps we have not thought carefully enough about whether the basic organizational model at the congregational level works well at all other levels. The isomorphism is something like this: Rector-Vestry-Congregants [e.g., assembled in Annual Meeting, and more regularly for worship, etc.]; Bishop-Council-Clergy & Laity [e.g., assembled in Diocesan Convention, and more regularly for workshops, symposia, etc.]; PB-Council-Bishops & Deputies [e.g., assembled in General Convention, not typically assembled otherwise]. (Of course, this rendering leaves out the role of the PHoD, and so things are in fact more complex.) But do you think the non-profit model you propose would work at the congregational level? Is the Rector more an executive director or more a chair of the board/vestry? Or the diocesan level? Why should we adopt a non-profit organization model at the church-wide level if not the other levels?

    If we are to be focused on mission, do you have thoughts about the concern some might have about a “civilizing mission” model of the mission of the church? According to such a model, the principal objective it to bring others to the light, or to the truth, which is to say, to our way of thinking and doing things. That might be thought to be the core of a “missionary outpost model” in contrast to a “diocesan franchise model.” Of course there is great diversity in how we understand the light and the truth in TEC. If, on the other hand, the principal objective is to be construed more as service than as conversion, do we simply have to assume that the community funding the service will keep on keeping on, or that somehow new people with funds they will commit will be attracted to a service mission without conversion? (I would welcome suggestions on how to think about this problem — and sources you would recommend.)

    Thank you.

    • Hi Don, it’s good to hear from my old seatmate at the last Convention. You pose two very interesting questions. Regarding the question you pose about whether a diocese or parish is analogous to DFMS, I believe the answer is no. In fact, I had originally included some comments about that in my draft, but deleted them because it was getting too long. Here’s the difference: in a parish and even in a diocese (as you point out), the participants in board, staff, rector/bishop get together in person on a regular basis. There is ample opportunity for the board to know what is going on, to review the financials and performance of the rector/bishop, and to give multiple forms of input, including giving (or withholding) personal contributions and attending (or not attending) worship. And for both a parish and diocese, in most cases the staff is small enough to know and be known personally. On a church-wide basis, however, the PB, COO, and staff exist in one location while the board is dispersed and uninvolved except for rare, short meetings. That means at best the board is at the mercy of the staff for almost all of the information it needs to do its very real and very important job of oversight. When the staff, COO, and PB exist in one unaccountable silo while the board is more or less powerless to oversee that silo, important oversight work happens with great difficulty. I can attest to this with clear examples, but not in this venue.

      • Thank you, Susan+. I’m not sure these are the relevant differences. I wonder whether more to the point is the ecclesiological thesis that in TEC the normal and fundamental unit is the diocese with a bishop. The cleric-as-CEO model stops there, to put it crudely. Above that level of organizational structure, we are a union or federation of dioceses coordinating and cooperating in our work. I think that is what your cleric-as-Board Chair and/or General Secretary model requires. I may be misunderstanding. From the point of view of the Anglican Communion, of course, our model of the province as a union or federation of dioceses is somewhat peculiar. So we have a PB who within the larger Communion is our primate, but we do not have an Archbishop.

      • Okay, that’s a reasonable argument, and I’ll go with it. As I just commented to Bishop Whalon, TEC’s lack of an archbishop with arch-episcopal powers is by design. Yes, it’s a peculiar design with respect to some other provinces in the Anglican Communion, and surely by comparison with Rome, but it is who we are, it is a product of our history, and it’s a concept I would not like to see changed. I suppose it is natural for those in leadership positions always to wish for more power, and in times of great stress it is natural for some of us to want to grant that wish – like the people of Israel begging God for a king. Unfortunately, the history of Israel’s kingship shows that every king is fallible and some are downright disasters. We need to avoid granting monarchical powers, and accept our responsibility to govern this church responsibly, together.

    • Regarding your second question, I think the clear fallacy in the two models you describe is in your description of evangelism (though you don’t use the word, that seems to be what you are describing in your first model). Evangelism is not the same as “civilizing” people, though some practitioners of evangelism have seen the two as going hand-in-hand. Evangelism, as you know, is simply telling the good news of Christ. We can only tell the truth as we see it and know it. Life is full of people telling their own truth. It is absurd to be so timid about “our way of thinking and doing things” that we can’t be honest about the truth we believe. I happen to believe it is the most important truth there is, and that’s why Jesus commanded us to tell it. Conversion occurs when someone decides to re-orient him/herself toward the good news he/she hears. I believe in fact that evangelism is at the core of God’s mission in the church. Service is a product of evangelism: committed disciples serve others. Even for those who believe that the only important product of evangelism is service, being and making committed disciples is how we inspire ourselves and others to serve. I happen to believe that evangelism produces other goods in addition to inspiring people to service, so I see the mission of the church as much broader than service alone. We are not a social service agency – if we were, it would be a sin to pay music directors and send priests to seminary. The mission of the church, as the BCP says, is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Many activities contribute to that mission, but without evangelism, they all eventually will fall apart, because there will be no people left to do them. Committed disciples accomplish God’s mission in the church.

      • Thank you for this reply as well, Susan+. On this one, I’m seeking help thinking through what I take to be a difficulty with our postmodern predicament. So please don’t take me to be playing rough, but here’s what I need help with: If the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, doesn’t that require bringing all people to unity in Christ? And doesn’t that require converting everyone to a Christian theological worldview and away from Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, First Nations/American Indian, Buddhist, Hindu, etc., worldviews? Still not wanting to play rough but desiring to confront the issue head on…is it really adequate to construe evangelism as telling the truth as we see it in the great marketplace of worldviews and devotional practices, letting everyone else alone to do the same? If we pursue inter-religious dialogue for the sake of learning, not converting, for enhancing Christian insight rather than for bringing non-Christians to our way, can we really say that mission is our focus if “mission” means evangelism first and foremost? (Cards on the table: I cannot personally abide the standard liberal relativism, but I’m not sure an evangelical understanding is ultimately satisfying either.)

      • Ah, you have pointed to my basic problem with the BCP’s definition of the mission of the church (to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ). I do believe that God will eventually effect that reconciliation, and then the church will cease to exist because the reign of God will be established in its fullness on earth. In the meantime, seeing that universal reconciliation as the church’s job – our job – puts in our hands a task that we cannot achieve. It is something only God can do, in God’s good time. I suppose that being given an impossible task as one’s basic mission could be seen as motivating, because there is always more to strive for. But I think such a mission just ends up sounding like pretty language that is basically ignored, while we argue about what our REAL mission is, or simply proceed in our various directions under different understandings of mission. I do believe that evangelism is at the heart of mission, for the reasons I stated above. But each person who hears the good news must respond as she or he is inspired to do by the Holy Spirit. If the person refuses to hear, or if the Holy Spirit is supporting other spiritual paths for a time, for God’s good reasons, we certainly cannot and should not force the issue. Respecting the dignity of every human being does mean being willing to learn from each person, including those following different religious traditions. It also means being willing to state clearly the truth as Christ has given it to us.

  4. As a deputy to General Convention 2012 I came away from the decision to establish TREC with great hopes, most of which have been dashed. They are busy re-arranging the deck chairs.

    Since I will not be a deputy to GC in 2015 my interest becomes “more distant”. Frankly, I am only interested in furthering the mission of the church at the congregational level and, simply, no longer care much what happens at the national level, to the staff or any the rest of it.

    Susan’s suggestion for how to organize the governance of the national organization makes enormous good sense and addresses a number of “issues” very directly. No, the Episcopal Church is not like some other non-profit organization. But managing it would benefit greatly from the experience and wisdom existing successful non-profit organizations have learned and demonstrated.

    If I were a deputy to GC 2015 I would be “mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” when looking at what TREC has failed to achieve in 3 years.

    815 ceases to elicit my interest and soon will no longer receive my financial support. Failure is its own reward.

  5. Many thanks for another thought-provoking post, Susan. You are absolutely right that money is no detail.

    I had criticized TREC for not proposing “adaptive” solutions, but merely “technical” ones. During the recent bishops’ meeting, I quieried them about this. Sean Rowe replied that TREC is actually proposing only technical changes that can allow the church more easily to recognize and make adaptive changes. This mollified me.

    But then what are the adaptive changes we need to make?

    I am gratified you ask here what are the needs that only the DFMS can meet, those needs the dioceses cannot meet for themselves. This is the drum I have been beating for years myself, and it is hard to get answers. One correspondent raised one that you omitted, namely communications. For example, the whole question of branding needs to be re-opened, as discussed above. But clearly the creation and maintenance of networks should be another remit of that office,as well.

    The other need is clergy deployment, and setting some basic standards for the formation of deacons, priests and bishops.

    Having had a peculiar perspective from which to observe the past two Presiding Bishops and the DFMS staff, it seems odd to me that people can say that the PB has too much power. Certain PBs may have assumed they did, and acted on that assumption, but the usual lament is that the PB does not have the power to deal with this or that. It seems to me that there needs to be a re-evaluation of the relationship among PB, PHOD and Executive Council concerning not only staff but the mission given to each component of the DFMS and the part each of the three play in visioning and implementation. If the PB is not very accountable (and how would increased accountability be implemented?), the PHOD is not at all. Making that a salaried position would go some way toward accountability, and even more importantly, be right and just compensation for work that a volunteer should not expected to provide for love of the Church alone.

    Finally, the HoB Ecclesiology Committee that released a Primer on governance last year has been working on a report consisting of not only the Primer but a series of theological essays that seek to suggest some conceptual tools for the work ahead. We hope to have it in final draft for the March meeting of the House and out to the whole church shortly thereafter.

    All good blessings,

    Pierre Whalon

    • Hi Bishop Pierre, thanks for the comment. I agree that an overall high-level review of what adaptive changes need to be made, and what the role of the church-wide structure should be in those changes, is essential. Maybe we are on the road to start thinking those things through.

      Interesting that you are hearing the perspective that the PB doesn’t have enough power. I could see how that perspective is the one that is heard in the House of Bishops. I come from a different perspective from my position on Council. My point is that no one on TREC bothered to hear that perspective. I truly believe that a balanced view needs to consider all perspectives, including those of our elected leaders (lay, clergy, and bishops) on Council. It is vitally important that the board be empowered to exercise fiduciary responsibility.

      I did actually list communications in my priority #4, and I agree with you that our church-wide structure should have this function.

      Thanks again for the comment,

  6. Susan,
    I heard that the PB doesn’t have much power even before becoming a bishop. Certainly, there have been recent complaints in the HoB about too much power, specifically relating to Title IV. Mark Lawrence & Co. used that as an excuse to exempt themselves from the canon law.

    But for instance, the PB is required by canon to visit every diocese, yet must have the diocesan’s permssion to do so. I remember Frank Griswold explaining to the other primates why he did not have the power to void Gene Robinson’s election. It is all relative, after all.

    That is why I think a full analysis of the relative powers of that office, PHOD and Council is essential. You are right that Council hasn’t been consulted, for instance. And those relations need to be re-balanced in light of what the DFMS itself needs to be and do for the rest of the church.

    Keep up your great ministry to the rest of us.

    Pierre Whalon

    • Thanks, Bishop. I would simply add that the PB’s lack of arch-episcopal power, such as that enjoyed by other primates, is by design. We in TEC have consistently said that we don’t want an archbishop. I for one appreciate our more balanced view of the PB’s power.

      • I agree that we do not want or need an archbishop. I do think that we have not done any thinking in a long time about the PB’s office, other than piling on titles and duties, “chief pastor” and “primate.” Furthermore, it must be reconsidered alongside the office of President of the House of Deputies, as well as president of the DFMS, and chair of Executive Council. I am looking for such an analysis.

  7. Susan, Sorry to weigh in on this so late, but I do not know how we can re-imagine church (TEC) without taking a serious look at the language we speak in our liturgy, specifically the theology that those words imply. If we examine the theology behind our language, we worship a God of power and might (The King, The Judge, The Ruler and the firer of thunderbolts…). We are also placed in the role of supplicants, begging for forgiveness, and some would say victims of a capricious God. I would think that we are far beyond that. Where is the loving God (agape)?
    The ONLY reason that I tolerate this language is that I fully recognize that what we are participating in is the CHRISTIAN MYTH. These are the stories that we tell and because they represent myth (not falsehood), they do not need to be literally true. The problem, however, is that most do not understand/appreciate this viewpoint and appropriate it literally. When are we going to be honest with our parishioners and speak the truth about what it is that we saying and simply invite people into the story without apologizing. When we gather, we tell stories and have a meal (Eucharist). What’s wrong with that?

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