[Episcopal News Service - Salt Lake City, Utah] The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council began its last meeting of the 2010-2012 triennium contemplating its leadership role — and emotional investment — in the church’s journey to its future.
The council has spent much of the last three years exploring how the Episcopal Church must change in response to the challenges facing all mainline churches, including declining memberships and thus declining finances, demographic shifts and cultural changes in the place and authority accorded to religious communities in society. When General Convention convenes in July in Indianapolis, deputies and bishops will grapple with a variety of calls (some of the proposals can be seen here) for changes in the church’s structure that their proposers say will help the church meet those challenges.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson and Bishop Stacy Sauls, Episcopal Church chief operating officer, all addressed the impact and implications of those challenges during their opening remarks April 18.
Jefferts Schori reminded council members that they began the current triennium “just past a major budget cut [made by the previous meeting of Convention] that forced a public and painful reduction in church center staff.”
She said that the cut was prompted by the economic crisis that “only hurried a reality that has been emerging for some time,” adding that the Episcopal Church, like other denominations, “is declining in numbers, financial strength, and societal influence.”
Such decline causes grief, she said, “as former ways of living, governing, and privilege disappear.” Grief “can elicit anger, denial, and attempts to go back to some remembered golden age,” but none of those responses heals the grief nor does “tinkering with details.”
Tension within the council during the last three years is what the presiding bishop called “a symptom of collective grief,” for which she hoped the members will find healing during the meeting that they can carry to the wider church. “Your willingness to endure these difficulties has been sacrificial, both as a faithful act of holiness, and as a sacramental act on behalf of others,” she told the council.
Jefferts Schori said the Spirit is calling the council and the church to “let go of what is dead and embrace the new life that’s emerging.”
“We’re looking toward a church that is more varied and less rigidly controlled, more networked and less directed,” the presiding bishop suggested. “This new church is going to be more organic, more profoundly a body with uniquely gifted parts, each one honored and blessed for the service of God’s mission.”
Jefferts Schori said no one, including her, “knows exactly what this church is going to look like — and that scares some folks to death.”
“We do know that perfect love casts out fear, and when we can remember how deeply and completely love dwells within us, the fear does begin to recede,” she said.
Anderson told the council that her prayer is that “in the end, the process of restructuring the Episcopal Church will allow us to listen more closely to people who do not carry important titles or sit in the councils of the church, but who know a great deal — perhaps more than we do — about how to create the next kind of church that God is calling into being.”
The House of Deputies president added that she wants the church to approach change in a way “that will keep us from the unintended consequences that come from reactive decision-making. I want us to keep the decision-making in the hands of all the baptized and not an elite few.”
The church needs a conceptual framework for meeting the adaptive challenges it faces and accomplishing the technical fixes it needs, she said, explaining that adaptive challenges, such as declining membership and thus declining revenue, must not be addressed hastily. Anderson suggested that the church approach General Convention with a focus on what it can accomplish as a legislative body to implement technical fixes that “will give us room to think, to talk, to come up with ways to transform the ‘organization’ of the church into a ‘movement’ that embraces the faith, wisdom and voices of all the baptized.”
The 77th meeting of convention could consider such fixes as changing the way dioceses may merge, reducing the number of standing committees to use limited-term working groups and reconsidering how the church’s endowment funds are used now and in the future, she said.
However, she warned that approaching restructuring as a way to be efficient “run[s] a grave risk of diminishing the voices of laypeople and clergy” and if restructuring is about simply saving money then “mission priorities take a back seat to number crunching.”
And, Anderson said, “if we approach restructuring believing in the false choice between governance and mission, we risk losing our central identity as a people whose democratic decision-making has led us time and time again to take prophetic action on issues of justice and peace and build strong mission relationships with one another and across the Anglican Communion.”
Sauls described for council what he said is the paradox faced by all vestries, councils, and boards: They “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.”
He noted that Jesus told his disciples that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will save 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,” Sauls said.
“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,” he said.
That conversation would also put “everything on the table about our common life” and look at it in light of what Jesus said about survival and what the church believes about resurrection, Sauls said.
Saying that putting everything on the table would help rebuild the church “for a new time that has no precise historical precedent,” Sauls suggested that the conversation include dioceses and “how the ministry of a bishop relates to a particular people rather than to a particular geography,” and “how bishops should work with each other collegially and how often they should meet together.” The agenda could also include the role of the presiding bishop as primate of the church, “how other clergy and laypeople participate in the councils of the church [and how they] are encouraged to live out their baptisms by proclaiming the good news of what God has done in Christ by word and example” and “how we use the resource of a church-wide staff to serve local mission and ministry.”
A number of council members responded to the three’s opening remarks. Saying that “it’s not a question of whether we’re going to change, it’s a question of how,” Dylan Breuer of the Diocese of Massachusetts warned her colleagues about “false dichotomies.”
“The choices that are before us … are not binary choices,” she said. “They require creativity, they require 360 degree thinking. We could go in any number of ways.” She added that setting up either-or thinking “sometimes can imply that those who disagree with us are less spiritually sound.”
Katie Sherrod of the Diocese of Fort Worth praised the idea that people outside of the traditional governance structures of the church would be called by council to “come be the leaders of this church.”
She told Jefferts Schori, Anderson and Sauls that “all three of you have called us into a wonderful new way of thinking, but we have to make that compact among ourselves that we will assume good intentions on the part everyone and we will not bad-mouth someone even in private because that taints our thinking.”
Some of the tensions the council has faced surfaced during an evaluation of the 2012-2015 draft budget process council completed at its January meeting.
Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth questioned why council could not correct the “mistakes and errors” in the version of the draft budget council forwarded to the church’s Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance (PB&F) in January. He asked whether council could send that group a revised version.
Jefferts Schori and the Rev. Canon Gregory Straub, executive officer and secretary of the General Convention, said canons prevent the council from revising the budget
The Rev. Winnie Varghese of the Diocese of New York said she would, for the second time in a row, speak against the budget at convention because twice now “the final document does not reflect what the body asked for or decided [and] I find that an incredibly difficult position to be in.”
The Rev. Gay Jennings of the Diocese of Ohio said that “we did send a budget that had mistakes in it, so to me it’s a matter of the integrity of Executive Council” because the budget sent to PB&F “was not what some of us believed was adopted.”
Jefferts Schori said that PB&F “is fully aware of what the issues are and I think there’s a piece of this that is our ability to let it go.” She later agreed with Bruce Garner of the Diocese of Atlanta that a “memo of information” from council to PB&F “would be entirely appropriate.”
PB&F Chair Diane Pollard (Diocese of New York) and Vice Chair Steve Lane, bishop of Maine, recently posted a letter on various websites, including here, noting “some internal inconsistencies and at least one error in the draft proposed budget.” They said that the budget cannot be changed until General Convention.
Jefferts Schori concluded the evaluation discussion by saying this part of the budget process was not perfect but it was “a sign and a symbol of the transition we’re engaged in” and she suggested that the “push-back and anger is a reflection of what’s going on in the larger system,” especially because some people did not get what they wanted or they cannot see whether or not what they wanted is in the budget document.
“We’re in a significant transition and you are receiving some of the cost of leadership and it’s OK,” she said. “God will work something out of this that’s new and different.”
Council members then spent 90 minutes participating in an anti-racism exercise. Several members later told ENS that the exercise’s presentations and subsequent discussions helped move the group towards the healing that Jefferts Schori called for earlier in the morning.
Executive Council is meeting for three days in Salt Lake City. Members spent the remainder of April 18 meeting in committees and will continue to do so the morning of April 19. The members will reconvene in plenary session that afternoon. Council will spend the entire day April 20 in plenary considering reports and resolutions.
The Executive Council carries out the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention, according to Canon I.4 (1)(a). The council is composed of 38 members, 20 of whom (four bishops, four priests or deacons and 12 lay people) are elected by General Convention and 18 (one clergy and one lay) by provincial synods for six-year terms, plus the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies.
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.