Friday, September 30, 2011

Episco-Policy Wonk

I normally avoid blog posts on arcane church-centric subjects, preferring to concentrate on things that actually matter to the average Christian.  But today, with apologies to non-Episco-wonks, I am going to post on Episco-wonkishness, because as a clergy deputy to General Convention 2012, I am compelled to consider with great seriousness Bishop Stacy Sauls' proposal about restructuring the church.

Bishop Sauls makes the following points:

  • The annual budget of DFMS* is $35 million, an unsustainable level in today's economy.   
  • The budget is comprised of "Mission" - 53.2%; "Administration" - 26.3%; "Other Governance" - 13.0%; and "General Convention" - 7.6%.  
  • Bishop Sauls therefore determines that Overhead, which he defines as everything not labeled "Mission" above, comprises 46.8% of the DFMS budget, which he deems too high.
  • In an effort to cut overhead, Bishop Sauls proposes two things:
  • A Special Convention to discuss the structure of the church, and
  • Strong consideration of cutting the costs of General Convention, by such strategies as meeting less often, reducing the number of deputies, etc. - to be discussed at the Special Convention.
Bishop Sauls has caused great consternation by making this proposal by a bishop to bishops, requesting that the bishops push it through their diocesan conventions, circumventing some of the customary consultation with lay and clergy decision-makers, and also preempting work that has already been done by other bodies.  Okay, consternation noted - I am going to ignore this political maneuvering and concentrate on the proposal itself.  

And here's what troubles me about the proposal: dividing the budget into "Mission" and "Overhead" begs the question: what is the "Mission" of DFMS?  Bishop Sauls seems to assume that the vast welter of staff persons at 815* (and the very expensive real estate that houses them) who are in charge of program areas ranging from ethnic ministries to public policy lobbying to stewardship development should all be put in the category of Mission.  But, valuable as these ministries are, my question is, are they actually central to the "Mission" of DFMS?  Because if you stick them into mission and then try to reduce everything else, labeled "Overhead," to 30% of the total budget, you have automatically exempted the things you labeled "Mission" from any consideration of budget cuts.  And you have required so-called "Overhead" items to bear the entire burden of budget-cutting.  So the classification of mission vs. overhead is vital to this discussion.  

In this light, asking what is the "Mission" of DFMS, and noting that the mission of the organization called DFMS is not necessarily the same as the mission of the whole church, I think it is helpful to consider this post to the HoBD list serve by Joan Gundersen:

Posted by Joan Gundersen, lay deputy of Pittsburgh, to HoBD list-serve:
Most of all we should be going back to the standard set by Bishop White --
do at the general church level those things which cannot be done as well at
the local level.  Thus the FIRST question we need to ask is "What DO we need
a general church to do?"  I would suggest that my list of what a general
church SHOULD DO is pass regulations for the whole church (and coordinate
our worship); be the official keeper of the records of the whole church
(archives, recorder of ordinations, statistics on the church, addresses);
provide standards for the training, education and deployment of clergy (i.e.
mission); and provide coordination.  The general church needs to be a
central place where we can be directed to expertise within the church, where
groups can be sure that they will get correct contact information so they
can network, where good resource material is produced, etc.  

In other words, if you look at it this way, the "Mission" of DFMS (as distinct from the mission of the whole church) is precisely governance.  The "Program" ministries at 815 are secondary.  

This does not mean that we should not look at ways to cut "governance" expenses.  General Convention is too large, in my opinion, and would benefit from cutting deputies from 8 to 6 in each diocese.  It is crazy for us to hold off on committee business until we arrive at General Convention, requiring a long convention because all business must be done on site.  We would benefit from beginning committee hearings long before GC, conducted electronically.  The number of CCABs and other standing committees we have is absurd.  We have too many small, non-sustainable dioceses.  We can cut lots of expenses, especially, I imagine, in the "Other Governance" category.  But why should the brunt of cost-cutting fall upon the one area that the national church structure can do and no one else can?  

Unwieldy as General Convention is, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is absolutely central to who we are as Episcopalians.  We are distinct from, say, the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed from most Anglican churches, precisely because we include laypeople and clergy people, not just bishops, at the highest level of governance.  Let's not cut costs to the point where we decimate the effectiveness of lay and clergy participation.  Such a move would tip the balance of power back toward bishops, away from the wise checks and balances adopted by our church's founders in 1789.  I say this will full respect for the position of bishop and its centrality to our Episcopal polity.

Understand also that I am deeply passionate about the "mission" of the church, defined in terms of evangelism, worship, service, formation and fellowship - the basic purposes of any church.  But I think it is worth considering where these purposes are best accomplished - in the throes of a national church bureaucracy, or at the local level?  In fact, Bishop Sauls acknowledges that these purposes are best accomplished at the local level in his commentary to Slide 34.  So maybe, given that "mission" is best accomplished locally, DFMS should start this analysis with asking what "Program" functions should be shifted away from national staff positions, toward providing limited funding for national volunteer networks of stakeholders?  I am deeply involved as a board member of one such network, The Episcopal Network for Stewardship.  TENS accomplishes great things on a limited budget (including a small amount of funding from DFMS), with its own fundraising and a national network of folks who are passionate about stewardship.  Perhaps this model is the shape of things to come in TEC.  

Having said all this, I am not necessarily opposed to a Special Convention to discuss having less frequent Conventions - though I note that this idea is absurd on the face of it (more conventions to talk about fewer conventions?).  I note that the President of the House of Deputies* is now on record as opposing a Special Convention, and I think we should give her opinion due weight.  Our own deputation will probably propose a resolution to our diocesan convention, as Bishop Sauls requested, with some changes to take into account the work already done by the Standing Commission on Structure.  I am OK with going along with the proposed resolution at our diocesan convention, because I think it is worth considering at General Convention.  I just don't promise to vote for the idea at GC.  I don't think the proposal proceeds from the right set of assumptions.

*Definitions:  TEC = our "national" church structure - though it is not a national but an international church; therefore it is called TEC, The Episcopal Church.  The strictly churchwide portion of this body (that is, not the local dioceses or congregations) is also known as DFMS, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, its legal name.  TEC is ruled by General Convention, a bicameral legislature composed of the House of Bishops (all bishops) and the House of Deputies (4 clergy and 4 lay deputies elected by each diocese); General Convention meets every 3 years.  (The bishops meet four times a year, though not in their official legislative capacity except at General Convention.)  In the interim between GC meetings, governance is conducted by the Executive Council, an elected body of lay, clergy and bishop members.  The Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori (elected by the House of Bishops and approved by the House of Deputies) serves as chief executive officer of a large administrative and program staff headquartered in Manhattan and referred to in Episco-code as "815," but also comprising a number of branch locations throughout the U.S.  The President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, a layperson, is elected by the House of Deputies.  

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