Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Will the Real Subsidiarity Principle Please Stand Up?

In yesterday's post, Deck Chairs, I pointed out that the real problem in our church is the need to refocus on mission, ministry, and evangelism.  Those are things that happen mainly on the local level.  Yet we need to think carefully about how the churchwide structure can empower the whole church for mission.  My next three posts will talk about these questions:
  • How can a Church Center staff be best used to empower mission, ministry, and evangelism in today's world?
  • What should the Church Center NOT be spending money on?
  • How can we awaken the whole church for mission, ministry, and evangelism?

Today's post is about the first question.  What can the churchwide structure do to empower the whole church for mission, ministry and evangelism?  

Let’s start with the presenting problem:  the proposed budget for 2013-2015.

In the ongoing budget discussion, two major principles have been advanced to reduce The Episcopal Church’s over-inflated and unsustainable budget. 

  • Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Church Center’s Chief Operating Officer, advanced the first argument in his presentation to the House of Bishops, when he argued that “overhead” was too high, and proposed that we slash overhead by realigning the governance structures of the church.  This would require a constitutional convention to change the format of General Convention and the many canonically required CCABs and other bodies.
  • Since that time, the discussion has advanced to another argument: subsidiarity (it’s all the rage these days).  Many people have talked about this idea, and the Standing Commission on Structure proposes to enshrine it in our polity in proposed resolution A090, which asks us to embrace subsidiarity as a fundamental principle of our polity.  “Subsidiarity” can be understood to mean that ministry is most effectively done at the local level, and “higher” levels in the hierarchy should only do the things that are most appropriate for them, generally the things that “lower” levels cannot do. 

Subsidiarity is a hallmark of Anglicanism.  We believe, in general, that ministry should be locally adapted and locally managed.  Yet we are gathered into larger structures for a number of reasons, and among them is this: because together, we can do some things better than we can do alone.  A churchwide structure truly can empower local ministry by gathering people together in large groups to teach and learn, by pooling resources to provide shared resources for all, and by providing networks of experts that can speak, consult, and inspire at the local level. 

So I don’t think that the subsidiarity principle gives us carte blanche to go cutting all program expenses from the churchwide budget.  I think that it requires us to think carefully about what a churchwide structure can do effectively, and use our funds strategically to make those things happen. 

Let me give you an example of what a churchwide structure can do from the perspective of one network I have been involved in for the last 6 years: The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS).  (I have just finished my term as a TENS board member.)  TENS is an independent churchwide network of people who are expert in and passionate about stewardship, providing stewardship conferences, a resource-rich stewardship website, and stewardship speakers at diocesan and regional conferences and seminaries.

The TEC Program Officer for Stewardship serves as a member of the TENS board, and has been able to help TENS network across the church.  She has also been able to use her program budget to help fund some particular initiatives of TENS, such as the development of TENS’ new website (www.tens.org), which provides hands-on, easily accessed tools for stewardship, to help parishes do a better job with stewardship, without requiring local ministers to reinvent the wheel. 

Now personally, I would like to see a whole churchwide office full of people who create, support and empower networks that do local ministry, without requiring local ministers to reinvent the wheel.  I would like to see people getting passionate about evangelism, Christian Formation, church planting, stewardship, Latino ministries, and on and on, because of the network-building that Church Center people do. 

I would like to see this happen through the work of Network Builders who empower ministry, rather than Program Officers who are experts in ministry.  As The Rev. Dr. Dwight Zcheile says in his article “General Convention in Context” (quoted in the Blue Book report of the Standing Committee on Mission and Evangelism): 

We now live in an age of participatory networks rather than centralized bureaucracies. How can General Convention be reimagined to support learning, innovation, networking, and renewal among peers in mission at the grass roots? One of the hallmarks of Anglicanism is its adaptability as the context changes. Today is a moment calling for major adaptation if the church is to live into its name as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

I would add that this networking concept applies not just to General Convention, but also to the whole concept of a denominational “headquarters.”

Specifically, I propose that we create an Office of Networking to find ways to creatively network people for mission in the church.  Instead of Program Officers in charge of specific areas of expertise at the Church Center, we would have Networkers.  The Networkers would work with groups like TENS and Forma that are already active, helping to empower their work.  And in areas where we don’t have active networks, or have nascent networks, like evangelism or congregational development, the Office of Networking would help to gather people to create the networks we need. 

Rather than doing direct ministry, the Office of Networking would give grants to creative ministry networks or projects that empower ministry in specified areas, so it would need a budget for ministry grants.  

Fewer program officers would likely be required on churchwide staff under this configuration, because the networking concept allows for the development of local leaders, communicating and sharing resources across networks.  Grants from the Networking office would empower this leadership and sharing.  Networking would help ensure that the transition to a leaner churchwide structure doesn’t reduce ministry resources available – in fact, it might even increase them, because networks involve many more people who are passionate about and expert in a ministry area than a lone Program Officer. 

An Episcopal Ministry Network website could showcase all the different ministry opportunities and resources available churchwide, including items such as:
  • Stewardship resources from TENS and the Episcopal Church Foundation;
  • Christian Formation resources from Forma and from unofficial Episcopal-affiliated groups like Leader Resources, Church Publishing, Forward Movement, etc.;
  • Resources for empowering ethnic ministries;
  • Training and leadership resources for church planting;
  • Leadership and congregational development resources;
  • And so on. 

And remember what I said in yesterday’s post?  The REAL problem isn’t the budget.  The REAL problem is our need to refocus on mission, ministry, and evangelism, to reach new generations and populations.  Additional attention to networking at a churchwide level will allow us to address the REAL problem by giving local ministries the resources they need to refocus on mission, ministry, and evangelism.  And that’s a win-win all around.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post:  About That Elephant.


  1. One thing I love about your posts, Susan, is that you have a real understanding of the strategic and organizational issues behind the budget. I get that we are, by definition, an organization of volunteers, and that's a good and joyful thing, but the thin understanding around change management issues can be trying. And there's no reason we can't empower folks to be better stewards--stewardship is both mission and a driver of mission.

  2. I am excited that people are starting to talk subsidiarity, a hobby horse of mine for a long time. The theory is not without its unanswered questions, but here goes for the current discussion. Respecting subsidiarity means that the diocese exists to serve the needs of its congregations that hey cannot meet for themselves, and the General Convention and its officers and staffs exist to meet the needs of the dioceses they cannot meet for themselves.
    Of course, subsidiarity is always a two--way street...

  3. Saint A, I agree - this is a stewardship question in all senses of the world. We should be asking not only, how can we be better stewards of the resources people give to the church, but how can the church be better stewards of the treasure of the gospel that Jesus has given to us? We need to exercise the first kind of stewardship in order to empower the second.

    Pierre (+Pierre?), I agree with the concept of subsidiarity, and it makes perfect sense that each level in the organization should do those things that are appropriate for that level. I don't think that subsidiarity should be used as an excuse NOT to do appropriate things, but I fear the pendulum is swinging too far in that direction. The old model is the corporate HQ that provides experts to do ministry FOR the local folks. The new model, I firmly believe, is one of empowering networks of people who do ministry together. The churchwide structure can be leveraged to bring those networks together and to help them operate effectively.