Chief Operating Officer’s opening remarks to Executive Council

[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] Chief Operating Officer Bishop Stacy Sauls’ addressed the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council April 18 at the beginning of the council’s three-day meeting in Salt Lake City. This is council’s last meeting of the 2010-2012 triennium. Saul’s remarks follow in full.


Opening Remarks
Executive Council
April 18, 2012
Salt Lake City, UT

The Rt. Rev. Stacy F. Sauls
Chief Operating Officer
The Episcopal Church

When I was a new rector 22 years ago at St. Thomas Church in Savannah, I noticed a something about my vestry that led me to wonder. What I noticed was that the agenda pattern I inherited, and to which the vestry was quite committed, began (after a perfunctory prayer) with the treasurer’s report. I also noticed that the treasurer’s report took up a huge amount of time, an hour or often more. And it took a lot of energy, often because of very strongly held opinions that resulted in frequent arguments. After all, money matters. It is serious business. One of the things that meant was that we often did not get to anything else. At all. When we did, we were too worn out from the arguing about money to give it the attention it deserved. I came home after every vestry meeting frustrated and, often, angry, occasionally pledging to have my bags packed the next morning. I can’t understand why serving on a vestry, like working for the church, is often a spiritually damaging experience.

Like every fairly new priest, I decided that what they needed was religion. So I brought in the monk who had been my spiritual director in seminary to lead a retreat. Maybe, I thought, if I could just direct their attention to spiritual matters and away from money, all would be well. So my friend the monk conducted a silent retreat for my vestry. We did not do any business at all. Just praying. It was a new priest sort of mistake. The main critique was that all the time that had been in silence we could have been used to getting something done. The chair of the finance committee spent the retreat in the car listening to the radio. But at least there was no arguing about money.

Next I called Caroline Westerhoff, a very old friend and someone I think knows as much about parish dynamics as anyone in the world. I explained the situation. The first item on every agenda was the budget and we spent most of our time and just about all our energy arguing about money. “Stacy,” she said, “in my experience when vestries are overly focused on money it is because they are trying to avoid the Gospel.” And then it made sense. The spiritual issue was not needing more time praying necessarily. It was avoiding the Gospel. It is always avoiding the Gospel.

Is it not a basically human issue? Avoiding the Gospel. Good news though it may be, no one ever said it was easy news. And one of the most difficult parts of the Gospel puts vestries—and executive councils—in a very difficult bind. It is an impossible bind if we think of this particular part of the Gospel and the responsibility it places on leadership as a contradiction. It is life-giving if we think of it instead as a paradox.

The part of the Gospel I am talking about is this. Jesus said to his disciples, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Lk. 9:24-25) Here is the paradox. Vestries, councils, and boards have a fiduciary duty to use financial assets so that the institution survives, but survival is not a value of the Gospel this institution exists to serve.

I have never been a part of a governing body that did not spend a lot of its time on survival. We do. In the eight months I’ve been back as a part of the life of Executive Council, and in the six years I spent as a member of it prior to this triennium, I have noticed a lot of time spent on survival. It is not wasted time, and the topics are important, but they do relate to survival. I have noticed this time around that most of my time as the Chief Operating Officer, as well as most of the time of the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, the Secretary, and the Treasurer, all the officers of the institution, is spent in the two committees dealing with finance and governance. They have been dealing with important matters, indeed urgent matters, and they needed attention from all of those people to do their work. It is work that undeniably must be done. But it is the servant of the other work, and not the point of the other work. Finance and governance are the committees admittedly necessary to survival. What I have wondered is if the Gospel might suggest some more attention to the non-survival committees, Local Mission and Ministry, World Mission, and Advocacy and Networking. I’m just wondering. I’m just wondering if sometimes we don’t fall into the trap of avoiding the Gospel.

The thing about not being able to see beyond survival is that it leads to making people survivalists. And survivalists behave in some pretty strange ways, excessive ways, tipping the balance in favor of preservation. Something else I’m wondering is if we aren’t seeing some of that in our common life. I’m wondering if some of the acting out we are seeing isn’t kind of a survivalist response to attempts to divert attention from finances and governance to the Gospel. I find myself wondering if the basic survival instinct that the Gospel threatens is the survival of power structures as they are. It is interesting to me that Jesus used the exact same word to describe those who worry about where they are in the power structure and those who worry about their survival—Gentiles. I wonder if by that he meant avoider of the Gospel. Sometimes I have wondered if survivalists are too much to go up against. People will, after all (not just vestries and the rest, but people) fight like hell to survive. And then I remember where the salvation is. “Those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” And I remember that my task as a leader, all of our tasks as leaders, is to live into this particular paradox. Jesus promised that there was life in there somewhere.

Here’s where I think the life is in this particular paradox for us right now. To begin with, it is in having a conversation. That ought to be what communities like this one are good at, isn’t it? We need to have a conversation about, given the inherent paradox of trying to lead a Christian community, what are the structures that will help us and how are our resources most faithfully deployed. The conversation I long to have with you is about that. The conversation I long to have with you as the elected leadership of the Episcopal Church is not about the panic of our declining numbers but about how we strengthen what is working best out there and make what is strong stronger so that the strong can serve the less than strong. The conversation I long to have with you is not about how to get more people in the doors to help us pay the bills but about how to make more disciples of Jesus to go about changing the world into God’s dream for it.

The conversation I long to have with you is about seeking the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and not about our anxiety for tomorrow. The conversation I long to have with you is about putting everything on the table about our common life and looking at it in light of what Jesus said about survival, about how we live our lives to take up our cross and follow him, not just to Calvary but beyond Calvary to Resurrection. I want us to talk about putting everything on the table and rebuilding the Church for a new time that has no precise historical precedent. I think we should put dioceses on the table and ask how the ministry of a bishop relates to a particular people rather than to a particular geography. I think we should put episcopal ministry on the table and ask how bishops should work with each other collegially and how often they should meet together. I think we should put the exercise of primacy in our unique context on the table. I think we have to put how other clergy and laypeople participate in the councils of the church, and more importantly, are encouraged to live out their baptisms by proclaiming the good news of what God has done in Christ by word and example on the table. I think, and this is my particular concern, we have to put how we use the resource a churchwide staff to serve local mission and ministry on the table. Budgets may help us do that, or at least they may give us the occasion to do these things, but budgets themselves should never be the point of any of them. That is the conversation the staff as a whole longs to have with you.

Here’s my only point. Here’s the paradox. Survival is the enemy of life. This is what I have learned serving as a priest in three parishes, as the bishop of a diocese, and now as the Chief Operating Officer. Churches that turn inward will die. At every level, churches that turn inward will die. Those that turn outward, even at the risk of surviving, will thrive. Mission is how we do that. What serves mission will ultimately thrive. Because this is the Gospel. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” The conversation I long to have with you is about how are we, all of us, using the tasks before us to embrace, and not to avoid, the Gospel.

Comments

  1. Vince Adkins says:

    Is it not intrinsic — and of ultimate value to institutions — that they survive? I don’t think that vestries so much as avoid the gospel as they pass by it — not unlike the secularists, who do not oppose the gospel claims of institutionalized religion as much as they simply ignore institutionalized religion.

    Is this neo-Anglican group who left the institution of the Episcopal Church — as well as valuable real estate and trust funds — closer to the gospel than the Episcopal Church?

    I attend what must be a vibrant Episcopal parish, in that it has so many members, such a marvelous reputation in a large city; I was dismayed to learn that I’d have to pay to attend an inquirers’ group — and, in an institution, why not? A professional must give a lot of time (and this is in the evening), utilities must be paid, not to mention any refreshments. Jesus said follow me, and in doing so the follower incurred a high price, but not a modest admission fee.

  2. Jenny Vervynck says:

    Thank you so much, Bishop Sauls, for articulating what I haved believed to be true for so long! I commend a wonderful book to you from the Alban Institute, Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders, by Charles Olsen. We have used it for Vestry retreats in the Diocese of San Diego. At the end of the book, there is a recommended “agenda” for bodies like a Vestry. The title of the section on a new kind of “agenda” is “Worshipful Work.” You might find it interesting. I truly believe the issue is leadership … servant leadership in the best mode of Greenleaf and the work of Bishop Bennett Sims. If we live servant leadership, Lead Like Jesus (in the words of the title of Ken Blanchard’s book) we will find the hand of the gospel everywhere. Intentional, strategic, thoughtful, equipped and empowered servant leadership is hard to stop … and even more fun to participate in!

  3. Survival of the Fittest is a basic biological principle often attributed to Charles Darwin and is used by him for the first time in the fifth edition of the Origin of Species, 1869. Yet even there Darwin attributed this principle to Herbert Spencer where he writes: “The expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the survival of the fittest is more accurate…”

    By that time Spencer had already published The principles of biology in 1864, in which he referred to the “survival of the fittest” twice: 1). “This survival of the fittest, implies multiplication of the fittest.” 2). “This survival of the fittest… is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection, or the preservation of the favored… in the struggle for life’.”

    In using the word “fittest,” neither Spencer and Darwin could have possibly had in mind the commonly used meaning of that same word today, i.e. the most highly trained and physically energetic. The “fittest” referred to here are those organisms that appear most suited to their environment, (i.e. those best fit to survive)… with the idea being that organisms adapt and change with the best suited mutations becoming dominant. If this basic biological principle applies to all living organisms, then it must apply to the Church, making change essential to it’s survival. Over the years we have witnessed many such changes in the “environment” into which the Church has been called to proclaim the Gospel and yet the Church has changed very little – change which has come much too slowly and certainly not enough to remain the dominate force God intended it to be in order for it to live out the Gospel message announced by Jesus in the synagogue on that Sabbath day when he stood to ready from the scroll of the prophets Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord… has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The Church must find a way to become all that God has intended for her and therefore must either adapt or die… that’s the basic task faced by all living organisms throughout the annuals of time… mere survival as never been good enough… mere survival is not an option for any living organism either in society or in nature. The old needs to pass away and we need to make things new again. The adaptive challenge here is a simple one, the Church must adapt in order to live the life of abundance proclaimed by our Lord… and that life does not include survival, for as Bishop Sauls says, mere “survival is the enemy of life.”

  4. Angela Emerson says:

    I am excited that the conversation is being opened up in such a public way. The conversation about “restructring” is already taking place in congregations in the Diocese of Vermont from the smallest congregations to the most thriving. And the challenges are exciting to people because change means we give ourselves the gift of growing and thriving even more. Once we let go of the notion that the “Present structure” is the only way, or is sacred, or the best way, the door is open to sharpening our understanding of the new ministry goals and objectives that await us. Only then can we create a new organization that serves the newly defined objectives. Go +Stacy!

  5. Fr Bob Marsh says:

    Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., put it this way. The Church has 2 natures: Charismatic and Institutional. The Charismatic is attuned to the will of God; the Institutional organizes to carry out that will. While the Charismatic should always predominate it is more often the case that the Institutional overtakes the Charismatic and takes charge. Bishop Sauls has hit the theological nail squarely and robustly on the head. Dude! Good job!

  6. Patti Morrow says:

    A professor at Candler School of Theology said it this way, “Well, there’s a Christian way to die!” meaning that our time both personally and institutionally are finite. We are all creatures of time. To be open to the Spirit may mean that we acknowledge and bow gracefully to the evolution and succession of what comes after us. What we have had a hand birthing, but not in giving it life. I mourn for the institutional Church that chases after what it cannot possess – the future.

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