Reimagining, or How to Take Real Action

In my last Episco-geek post, I gave my thoughts about the governance and structure recommendations of the Taskforce to Reimagine the Church (TREC). In this one, I want to address the proposals TREC made to try to reinvigorate and renew the church. These are TREC’s laudable ways of trying to inspire the church to a new mission focus. I appreciate that TREC understood that the problems facing the church are much bigger than the structure of General Convention. In fact, as seriously as General Convention takes itself (for good reasons), you can’t legislate church revitalization. Our church will learn to “follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly” through a movement that I hope sweeps the church at all levels, beginning with the grassroots.

Realizing this, TREC tried to move beyond “restructuring” to “reimagining.” I appreciate the breadth of what they tried to do here. They thought about some of the non-structural issues facing the church, and tried to figure out what to do about them.

But immediately we run into a problem, and that is this: TREC made a bunch of recommendations for actions that General Convention does not have the authority to require. In the same way the US government can’t mandate that states, say, expand Medicaid to cover more people, but can only offer funding to encourage those that do, our church-wide structure (with limited exceptions) can’t tell dioceses, seminaries, bishops, standing committees, diocesan councils, and so on what to do. We can offer funding to encourage it, but if we just tell them what they should be doing, most of them will ignore it and do whatever they feel like doing. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at Executive Council’s report on resolutions referred to dioceses for action or consideration on p. 25 of Council’s Blue Book Report. Of 109 dioceses, an average of 11.5 of them actually took some action as requested on each resolution.)

Which brings to mind the so-called Gunn Rule, named after its proposer, my friend Scott Gunn. We can paraphrase the Gunn Rule as follows: Let’s not tell other people what to do. Let’s tell other people what WE are going to do.

In the case of laudable attempts to revitalize the church by telling other bodies within the church what they should be doing, though we have no authority to do so, I think we fall into a Gunn Rule Gray Area. We may not have authority, but we may have some influence (not much, given the low response rate noted above, but some). So I think we should be careful to be clear about which we are attempting to exercise. If we want to “urge” and “encourage,” let’s make that clear in our resolutions. (But let’s get ready to be ignored.) If, however, we want some action to happen, let’s create some structure that will give folks incentives to make it happen.

So how about let’s adopt a Corollary to the Gunn Rule, as follows:

If we have authority to make a good change, let’s make it. If we don’t have authority, let’s find a concrete way to encourage it to happen.

So – a bishop could use the first part of this Corollary to insist that his/her clergy follow the canons of the church, because a bishop has the authority to do so. (I mean, this shouldn’t be a “change,” but anyway.) Convention could use the second part of this Corollary to analyze all its actions and make sure that we’re not just throwing empty words into the ether, where they will dissipate like so much hot air.

With that in mind, let’s look at TREC’s laudable and worthy thoughts on reimagining.

Again, I am grateful to Nurya Love Parish, who provided a TREC summary on her blog. The boldface summaries below are directly quoted from her summary.

  • Episcopal seminaries are to collaborate in new ways to offer new programs to foster new leadership.

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. Good for TREC, thinking beyond the bounds of structure to the deeper problems facing the church. Seminaries, of course. are in trouble:

  • seminarians graduate with too much debt
  • many people can’t afford to move away from home for three years
  • many seminaries are in deep financial trouble
  • seminarians learn good academic skills, but don’t always learn good leadership skills.

Is mandating seminary collaboration the answer? It’s a nice idea, but General Convention doesn’t have the power to legislate it; we have indirect control over only one of our seminaries (General, in the sense that Convention elects its trustees), and no control over the others. And many seminaries are already creating innovative programs (distance learning, etc.) to address these problems. We could, however, decide to fund a series of gatherings for seminaries to collaborate with bishops, COM members, and others to determine what kind of leadership training is needed for a new era, and how to address the financial crisis in seminary education. Or we could create a School for Congregational Development to provide the leadership training that seminaries aren’t equipped to provide, since they are busy transmitting important academic information. Let’s not tell seminaries what to do, since we have no authority over them; let’s find ways to encourage the results we want.

  • Diocesan Councils, Commissions on Ministry, and Bishops are to consider ways to support bi-vocational clergy.

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. Again, this is an important suggestion that we don’t have the power to command. It is true that fewer parishes can afford full-time clergy these days, and more clergy will need other ways to support themselves. But since we can’t tell dioceses what to do, I think this resolution will go into the drawer full of well-intentioned General Convention resolutions that dioceses blithely ignore. Perhaps we should fund a task force to address this question and bring some actual proposals to the next General Convention, to the extent that they identify ways that this question can even be addressed at the church-wide level.

  • The Church Pension Fund and the Executive Council are to study our current system of clergy compensation, and the Church Pension Fund is to report to the next General Convention regarding the pension plan and how it meets the needs of today’s church.

My position: partly supportive. TREC didn’t say what it wanted Council to study regarding clergy compensation, so without more guidance, I don’t have much to say about this part of the resolution. Are they concerned that clergy are receiving too little compensation? Too much? Uneven amounts? Do they think we should have a standard pay scale across the church, like the Church of England? I hope that TREC members will explain what questions they want to see addressed, and refine this resolution.

Regarding the pension plan, I think it does need studying, especially the pricing and the question of how to make a pension plan available to non-stipendiary or bi-vocational clergy. In addition, I think we need to study the denominational health plan, especially in light of the Affordable Care Act (which didn’t exist when the DHP was passed). But CPG should not be in charge of evaluating and reporting on itself. Council probably doesn’t have the right set of gifts, either. Let’s set up a task force with human resources, pension, and health plan experts to do this work, and give it some funding – they’ll need it, to hire professional consultants to do the job right.

  • Churchwide staff are to create a network for churches and their leaders to foster excellence in liturgy and stewardship of resources, and to report progress annually in these areas.

My position: puzzled. I’m somewhat unclear what this is about. I hope that TREC will explain this proposal a lot better, and also explain what staffing and funding resources will be necessary to support it, and what it is supposed to achieve, and how church-wide staff are qualified to lead this project. Right now we don’t have staff coordinating ministries in either liturgy or stewardship or “resources,” whatever TREC means by that. If we need to hire new staff, this resolution needs to include funding implications – and I am very hesitant to increase our staff size right now.

  • Bishops are to cultivate collaborations and discuss the number and size of our dioceses and whether change is needed, reporting to succeeding General Conventions.

My position: partly supportive. Though Convention can’t exactly tell bishops what to do, I suppose that if the House of Bishops passes this resolution, that vote constitutes agreement to do what the resolution requires. So it doesn’t technically fall under the Gunn Rule Corollary.

On the merits of the resolution itself, I agree that it would be helpful for some dioceses to explore the possibility of mergers or other kinds of cooperation. But why should the bishops alone be in charge of this? TREC has identified an issue that needs to be addressed, but I’m not sure their proposed solution is the right one. I think it might be more helpful to remove some of the canonical bars to diocesan cooperation (requirement that bishops serving two dioceses must have a home in each; requirement that dioceses have separate Commissions on Ministry; requirement that two dioceses who want to merge both have active diocesan bishops, etc.), and encourage dioceses to grow together operationally as a prelude to possible future mergers.

  • Dioceses are to reflect theologically on the use of their assets, particularly their buildings and grounds, “to develop a theology of sacredly inclusive use-of-space that is adaptive and generative financially and spiritually.”

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. It’s true that especially in the east, there are large church buildings that are not used to their potential, which could be opened for better use by the community. Envisioning new uses could bring in income for the church and also help the congregation reach out to new populations in its area. So TREC has identified a real problem and opportunity in the church. But again, General Convention doesn’t have the power to command dioceses to do this worthy project. Dioceses unfortunately often ignore such mandates. I’m sure it’s nice to use the bully pulpit of General Convention to call attention to this issue – I’d just like to find a practical way to encourage actual action. Unless we can find such a concrete way to do something, this resolution is no more than a way of urging dioceses to do what they should already be doing, in a way they can easily ignore.

  • Presiding Bishop & Deputy are to convene professionals to advise congregations who wish to re-envision their space and its possible uses.

My position: undecided. This sounds expensive – hugely expensive, if there are going to be different professional groups in every region. I’m not sure that for the funding we can provide, that such a group could make a difference. But maybe it could, in the sense that every starfish you throw back into the sea helps at least that starfish. I need to hear more.

  • Bishops, Deans, Chapters, Rectors and Vestries are to think strategically about how best to use their space in their local context to serve God’s mission.

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. I agree that every diocese and congregation should be doing this kind of strategic visioning on an ongoing basis – especially if they have large amounts of unused space. But if bishops, priests, vestries, and congregations aren’t already doing this as a critical component of discerning God’s mission, do we really think that a General Convention resolution will spur them into action? If we really want this to happen, how about funding a training program and regional conferences teaching congregations how to do this? How about figuring out the funding and staffing implications, and telling us how much it will cost? We need more concrete action to make this resolution effective.

  • Standing Committees of each diocese are to set a standard for intervening in endowment spend-downs in order to provide for ministry to future generations.

My position: Gunn Rule Corollary. All dioceses should be doing this. Convention doesn’t have the power to command it. How can we encourage concrete action? How about creating a group that investigates dioceses that have such policies, and creates a model policy for others to adopt?

  • Planners are to shift the General Convention to a shorter church-wide mission convocation convening local mission practitioners to share best practices and develop networks.

My position: probably opposed. I like the idea of providing learning and networking opportunities during Convention. Some groups do this already, and it’s good to provide some time for it. But we need to remember that deputies were elected to legislate, and that work does have importance, and General Convention is the only opportunity they have to do it. It’s already hard for lay people (and some clergy) to take time to come to Convention and legislate. If we can shorten the legislative time, good. There is lots of stuff that comes before Convention that 1,000 people really don’t need to be spending time on.  But shortening Convention in order to use the additional time for learning opportunities, when lots of folks can’t spare the time anyway, seems counterproductive. I need to hear more about this proposal and what it would entail.

That’s it for the non-structural recommendations of TREC. In general: good thinking and good analysis about some of the issues facing a declining church. But the proposals need refinement to encourage actual action on the part of entities Convention doesn’t control, in order to spur the kind of reimagining TREC is hoping for.

Next post: what was missing from the TREC report?

4 thoughts on “Reimagining, or How to Take Real Action

  1. Thank you for this analysis. It closely mirrors my own. Frankly, I was disappointed in the TREC report. You help me understand more reasons why.

  2. Pingback: Lost in the Weeds: The TREC Structural Recommendations | A Good and Joyful Thing

  3. Pingback: Preparing for General Convention: Considering TREC | KatysBlog

  4. Pingback: Pray a New Church into Being | A Good and Joyful Thing

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