Lost in the Weeds: The TREC Structural Recommendations

If you’ve been at all conscious of church-wide Episcopal Church geekery in the last three years, you’ve heard of the Taskforce to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), and their suggestions for how to change the church. You can find their report here, and you can see my overall reactions to it here. You can also see my post describing what I think the mission of our church-wide structure is here.

Here’s the quick version: I think TREC’s prologue was inspired and inspiring. Their prescription that we need to follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly, was just right. But when they got down to their specific structural recommendations, their vision seemed to get lost in the weeds.

Although I don’t have the church-geekery awesomeness of Scott Gunn, who promises to blog about every resolution coming before Convention this year, I did promise to blog about the TREC recommendations. In this post and the next, I will address the specific proposals they made, and give my reaction to each, along with my probable vote. In my (presumably) last TREC-related post, I’ll say what I think was missing from the report, and what I wish they had done.

The first set of recommendations below is about governance and structure. Full disclosure: I am a member of Executive Council (elected at Convention 2012) and have had the benefit (or detriment) of an up-close look at how our governance functions. I am also serving on the Governance & Structure legislative committee at Convention this year.

Overall, these recommendations are interesting – but they appear to have been written by a completely different group of people than the ones who wrote the inspiring preface and recommended that we “follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly.” Caution: thick weeds and much insider church-geekery ahead.

In the list below, I am very grateful and indebted to Nurya Love Parish, who provided a summary of the TREC proposals on her blog. The boldface type below is directly quoted from her summary, and I am using these quotes with her permission. So, here are the TREC structural recommendations and my thoughts on them:

  • Move to a unicameral model of governance. (Instead of the General Convention meeting separately as Bishops and Deputies, meet as one body including bishops, clergy, and laity.)

My position: undecided, leaning against. I recognize the salutary effect on efficiency that this proposal would have. But I have concern about the loss of checks and balances – two houses that debate and vote separately are inherently slower and more deliberative about big moves than one house, and I think that’s a good thing. The fact that a unicameral house would vote by orders on important issues (giving any of the three orders a veto, the same as now) doesn’t negate the fact that all three orders would debate together on a single resolution and amend it together, shaping it into its final form together before taking a vote. I believe that this eliminates an important balance inherent in having two houses debate and vote separately.

There is concern as well about bishops sitting with deputies and influencing the deputies’ votes, or even telling them how to vote – the clergy deputies in particular may be beholden to their bishops in ways the lay deputies are not. I don’t know whether this would happen often, but it is a possibility and could be a concern. Most bishops will respect differences in opinion; a few may not. And even assuming the bishops are respectful (as most will be), would the mere mystique of the episcopacy give them undue influence? I don’t know, but this concern is enough to make me wonder whether the increased efficiency of a unicameral house is worth the possible cost of suppressing lay and clergy voices.

Note that this change would be a constitutional change and would require the approval of two successive General Conventions to enact.

  • Make General Convention smaller by sending only three clergy and three lay delegates (instead of four as at present).

My position: undecided. I don’t have strong feelings about this one. I doubt it will decrease costs significantly at the church-wide level, because we will still need a pretty big room for 660 deputies to meet in. The cost savings will come at the diocesan level; dioceses will see their Convention costs decrease by 20% (assuming they each send their deputies and first alternates). That’s money that adds up. There is a concern about decreased participation and influence among lay and clergy who would like to be involved, and a concern about possibly reducing diversity in the House of Deputies, if the minority deputies tend to finish lower in the voting. I’m not sure whether that’s true or not. And I’m not sure what we’re achieving (other than saving money) by decreasing numerical participation in our church-wide structures. Overall, I need to hear a bit more about the pros and cons before I decide.

This, again, is a constitutional change, which would require approval of two successive General Conventions to enact.

  • Create a task force on the episcopacy to study the current process and recommend a new process for discernment, formation, search and election of bishops. Ensure that episcopal transitions include discernment with bishops of adjoining dioceses (presumably to determine whether merger or collaboration is indicated).

My position: completely agree. This task force is crucial for all kinds of reasons – not least of which is the disastrous election of Heather Cook in the face of incomplete information being made available to the electing convention (and, apparently, even to the majority of the search committee). We need new best practices, updated and publicly available search information, and transparent search consultant selection processes. This task force needs to be formed and empowered to act right away – for instance, in providing updated, digitized, publicly available search resources – not just to report to the next Convention, three years from now. And this task force needs to be given significant funding to get the job done.

  • Provide only active bishops, not retired bishops, vote in the affairs of the church.

My position: agree. Retired bishops shouldn’t be voting on the affairs of the church. We can get the benefit of their wisdom by giving them seat and voice in the House of Bishops – but not a vote.

  • Lower the percentage of funds expected for the churchwide budget from participating dioceses. Make payment mandatory unless specific exception is granted.

My position: agree, but need more specifics. I have worked on Executive Council to lower the assessment percentage, and if Council’s budget proposal is followed, the assessment will be lowered from the current 19% to 15% by the end of the next triennium. I think it should be lowered still further in later years, perhaps as low as 12% if we exercise discipline on our spending, but only if it becomes mandatory for every diocese to pay the full assessment (unless they receive a waiver of some sort, probably from Council). TREC made this suggestion, but didn’t propose the canonical changes to make it actually happen; someone needs to finish the work.

  • Compensate the Presiding Deputy position (currently titled President of the House of Deputies) to make the role accessible to more candidates.

My position: agree. The position of Presiding Deputy (or President of the House of Deputies) should be open to people who are not retired or independently wealthy. It’s a full-time job – let’s treat it like one.

  • Clarify staff roles and responsibilities: Consider the Presiding Bishop the CEO of the Church, Chair of the Executive Council, and President of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, “with clear managerial responsibility for all DFMS staff.” Provide for a Church General Manager (COO), Church Treasurer (CFO), Church Secretary (General Clerk), and Church General Chancellor (Chief Legal Officer) to serve under the supervision of the Presiding Bishop. Establish mutual ministry reviews among the Presiding Bishop, Presiding Deputy, and Executive Council. PB to be elected by whole Convention, not just House of Bishops.

My position: disagree. This proposal is actually very little different from what we have now: a Presiding Bishop, elected for a nine-year term, who is basically unaccountable to anyone (barring a Title IV offense), who has full power to direct the staff with very little input from General Convention, the board of directors, or anyone else. This is an unhealthy state of affairs and tends to create silos of folks that aren’t motivated to work together.

The fact is, we don’t want our Presiding Bishop to be tied down to the details of budgets and personnel; we want her or him to be our spokesperson to the world, our ambassador to the Anglican Communion, our prophetic voice, our Chief Pastor, our visitor to all dioceses and chief consecrator of bishops, our presider in the House of Bishops, and our chief vision-caster. The Presiding Bishop should be the person who leads the Council and staff in setting strategic vision and priorities. We should have an Executive Director who is responsible for putting those vision and priorities into action at the staff level, and who reports to Council. This is not a revolutionary structure; most non-profits operate in exactly this way.

The Presiding Bishop has a huge job even without overseeing staff. She/he doesn’t have time to direct the staff operationally, and delegates that job to a Chief Operating Officer who doesn’t really have an accountability structure. I am not critiquing the current occupants of those positions; I am pointing out that our current structure discourages collaborative vision, strategy, and priority-setting among the governance structures of the church.

To those who say diocesan bishops are the CEOs of their staff, I would respond that the job of Presiding Bishop is much, much different than that of a diocesan bishop, and our church-wide staff is orders of magnitude larger than a diocesan staff. This is a job too large to put in the hands of a person who is far too busy to do it all, who is elected for a very long term, and who is unaccountable in the meantime. Let’s bring our staff and governance structures onto one team and get them working together.

By the way, I think the proposal to have the Presiding Bishop elected by both houses of Convention has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing the House of Bishops. And I’m perfectly fine with having the bishops elect the Presiding Bishop, as long as there are accountability structures in place for the Executive Director. The staff shouldn’t report to the board, but the Executive Director should. This is how non-profits generally work.

Note that TREC appears to agree with a collaborative form of leadership – in concept; it’s only in their specific recommendations that they revert to the “hero” model of leadership and suggest making our governance more hierarchical. Here is a direct quote from their report (which doesn’t have page numbers, so I can’t tell you where to find it – sorry):

Around the world, networks are overpowering hierarchies. Profound changes are flowing from collaborative, co-creative, participatory relationships; from shared knowledge; and from communal power, while bureaucracies struggle to keep up. To equip all Episcopalians for ministry and mission in their daily lives in this century and the next, we must harness that power and grasp new opportunities by transforming the Church-wide organization to make it less hierarchical and more participatory.

  • Make the Executive Council 21 members instead of 42. All nominees would be proposed by the Joint Standing Committee on Nominations (some proposed by the provinces). None would be nominated from the floor of General Convention.

My position: undecided, leaning against. It is true that Council is rather large (38 members), and has not acted as a vision-setting body in the recent past. From my experience on Council, I don’t think lack of vision-setting actually has much to do with Council’s size. I believe that Council has not actually been allowed to collaborate on vision and priorities for the church. The budget committee, for instance, wanted to begin our budget process this triennium with Council, PB, and COO all working together to set overall vision and priorities, and were not allowed agenda time to do it.

Vision, to the extent the church-wide structure has it between Conventions, is determined in the inner workings of the staff. Currently, it seems to be centered on the Five Marks of Mission, which are laudable but not exactly strategic – meaning, it’s good to do all those activities, but how do they relate to goals, priorities, or the situation our church is now facing? How do we deploy our ministry activities in the service of a vision, a goal, or a set of objectives? Our church is in a transitional moment, not just in our structures, but in our ability to reach new people, grow, and even survive into the future. It seems like now, of all times, should be the time that all our governance structures focus strategically on how we should be doing God’s mission in the 21st century.

But I digress. Back to reducing the size of Council. Council actually has a lot of work to do. My Finances for Mission committee had a lot of work this triennium – we had members in charge of the budget process (me), staffing the audit, investment, and corporate social responsibility committees, and acting as liaisons to the United Thank Offering and to covenant committees for continuing dioceses. Our committee had seven members, which I believe made it the largest of Council’s five committees, and every member had a significant, time-consuming added responsibility. If we’re going to reduce the size of Council, that doesn’t mean the work will go away. We need to make sure we have people to get these things done. Should we possibly have a two-tier structure or some other “inner circle” that sets vision? I don’t know, but this question deserves more thought, taking into account the actual work that Council does, than TREC seemed to put into it – which may be because TREC didn’t interview any Council members, other than the Presiding Officers.

Regarding nominations, I am sympathetic to TREC’s desire to have the nominations committee discern the gifts needed on Council and nominate people with those gifts. My concern is that limiting nominations to “official” nominations, with no nominations from the floor, means that only “insider” candidates will ever be allowed. Not that it’s all about me, but I ran for Council at the last Convention as an “outsider” candidate intent on reforming the budget process (which I did). Do we really want to limit our candidates to long-serving, well-known candidates and exclude “outsiders” who might bring reform?

  • Eliminate all Standing Commissions except the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons. Rename these commissions to clarify the scope of their work. Add “Theology” to the scope of the Liturgy and Music Commission.

My position: mostly agree. I think it’s a good idea in general to name task forces instead of standing commissions. Some standing commissions were created in prior years to meet priorities of the time, and don’t really know what they are supposed to be doing now. The SC on Communications has actually proposed its own demise. And Standing Commissions are limited in their scope: they are really only supposed to write legislation, which I think is artificially limiting. Task forces could be created that have the power to actually take action between Conventions. Good!

One caveat: I strongly oppose adding “Theology” to the job of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. We don’t and shouldn’t do theology by committee, or by vote. Our theology is spelled out in the Nicene Creed. I’m not willing to delegate the official theology of our church to the SCLM.

That’s it for the specific structural proposals. In the next post, I’ll take on TREC’s non-structural proposals.

6 thoughts on “Lost in the Weeds: The TREC Structural Recommendations

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Susan. Our Deputation has been wrestling with the TREC report (which often seems to find itself lost in the weeds), and I appreciate your drawing up the large themes.

  2. This is step by step approach is really helpful as well as astute. Thanks, Susan. I look forward to continuing the conversation at General Convention.

    Fredrica Harris Thompsett fthompsett21@aol.com Please note NEW email

    “Don’t tell me what you believe. Tell me what you do about what you believe.” Verna Dozier

    Now available: Looking Forward, Looking Backward: Forty Years of Women’s Ordination (2014); Encouraging Conversation: Resources for Talking about Same-Sex Blessings, (2013); Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook & Fredrica Harris Thompsett (Alban,2010)

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  4. I agree on every point you made, Susan. Thank you for your thoughtfulness in these matters. I’m wondering if we should leave “Theology” to the scope of influence to the bishops, being them to whom the responsibility of passing on the faith has been given and how it has been done by the churches of the “Great Tradition” for 2000 years. Sort of like how a spending bill needs to originate from the House of Representatives, maybe we should instruct that all legislation concerning “Theology” or the interpretation of scripture or tradition should arise from the House of Bishops and “ratified” or “consented to” by the House of Deputies.

  5. Frankly, the more look at it, the more I’m convinced that disbanding SCLM and sunsetting EOW and the other trial-ish liturgies is the way to go, because they already are setting forth our theology in a subcommittee.

    I’m also with you on leaving the bi-and-a-half-cameral GC structure alone, possibly with the delegation size reduction. The inability to move quickly at GC isn’t what is causing our woes; that supposedly inability has for some years helped keep them from getting worse faster.

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