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.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

This is My Blood ...

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has announced that Phoenix laypersons will no longer receive wine in the Eucharist.; they will receive bread only.  The weirdly conservative Roman Catholic bishop has explained that (1) wine is not necessary, as someone who receives either the bread or the wine is considered to receive the full benefits of communion; (2) the change is required by a new translation of the Roman Catholic missal; and (3) receiving wine was an innovation after Vatican II, and he is returning to an older (presumably purer) tradition.  There has also been some whining among commentators who agreed with the bishop, about wine spilling and suchlike, but let's just agree up front that a few careless accidents are not good reasons to deny to people what Jesus has already given them.

Of the bishop's arguments, (1) is certainly correct.  I have parishioners who receive either bread or wine, but not both, for reasons of their own, and they are considered to have received the full benefits of communion.  Not a problem.

Argument (2) is not something I am qualified to comment on, but since no other Roman Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have announced plans to emulate the good bishop's stance, and he has come under strong criticism from a number of Catholics, I find it a highly suspect rationale for the change.

Argument (3) is patently absurd, since  the practice of laypersons abstaining from receiving wine was an innovation in itself, dating to the high Middle Ages.  Giving communion in both kinds (bread and wine) to the the entire assembly has been the longstanding tradition of the church, with the exception of a detour in the Middle Ages.  I suppose the bishop and others of his persuasion might look to the medieval period as the Golden Age of the church, but really, most Christians would look to a Golden Age much earlier than that, much closer to the time of Jesus, for authoritative practice.  Jesus gave both bread and wine to everyone at the table; Jesus invited everyone, saints and sinners alike, to the communion table; Jesus ate at the Last Supper even with his betrayer.  Surely ordinary Catholic laypersons are qualified to receive what Jesus poured out his life to give.

The fact is, the bishop's decision is nothing more than rampant clericalism - the idea that clergy rank higher in the church than laypeople, so clergy should get wine, but not the hoi polloi.  If you believe that being a priest is somehow a holier calling than that of the layperson who works, raises a family, and does the best he/she can to live a holy life and follow Jesus, then you reserve the expensive stuff for the priests.  But don't forget that this way lies danger: Jesus says the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  This high idea of clerical authority can even lead to the extreme kind of sin we see in the inexcusable scandal of clerical sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.  

If, on the other hand, you accept your priestly vocation with humility, you begin to realize that the church is only the place where people come to be nurtured in their faith.  Outside the church is where they live it out.  Every single day of a lay person's life is a holy day, and every day presents opportunities to live out the vocation of the baptized Christian in a remarkable, miraculous, sacred way.  We clerics need to understand our role as servants of all God's people.  As servants, we should be the last to be served, not the first.

As a priest, I pray that I may never forget who I am called to be: the servant of Christ, and the servant of all Christ's people.  Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

First Comes Marriage, Then Comes Love

Wow, I didn't see that coming.  Turns out, I'm more conservative than Pat Robertson.  America's favorite foot-in-mouth preacher says a husband confronted with a wife who has Alzheimer's disease should divorce her so he can start a new relationship.  Watch the clip here:

Apparently, the CBN interviewer doesn't see it coming either.  She gently tries to prompt Robertson with the reminder that marriage is "for better, for worse," but he's not having it.  He says, "Well, I know, if you're respecting that vow, but ... " But no, if the husband is lonely and wants companionship, it's perfectly fine to divorce.

To his credit, Robertson shows pastoral sensitivity when he acknowledges just how hard it is for a spouse when a loved one slips into the darkness of Alzheimer's.  He is right - it is hard, it is heartbreaking, and it is lonely.  More than anything, it is a grief to watch someone you love slowly fade away like that - a grief that does not come with the benefit of sympathetic outpourings, a memorial service, or the freedom to love again.  No pastoral leader could fail to recognize the hard road traveled by the spouse (and children) of an Alzheimer's patient.

But Robertson, speaking as a Christian leader on the Christian Broadcasting Network, is (or should be) speaking about Christian marriage.  And Christian marriage is not a contract, but a covenant.  What's the difference?  A contract is an agreement two people enter into for their mutual benefit, with certain agreed conditions that must remain in effect.  If those conditions don't remain in effect, the contract is null and void.  Our society in general has come to see marriage as a contract.  My side of the bargain is, as long as you make me feel good, I will continue to love you.  If you don't make me feel good any longer, then there's something wrong with you, and I'm free to declare the contract null and void.

Here's what I tell couples I am counseling before their marriage: our society sees love as one big Cinderella story.  We think that if you find the right Prince or Princess Charming, then you will always feel like you're at the ball at a quarter to midnight.  If you don't feel like that, then - oops - Prince/Princess Charming was a fake.  But here's the deal: in marriage, when the time comes that you don't feel like it's a quarter to midnight, when things get tough and life gets heartbreaking and marriage seems to be one challenge after another - that's when you get to learn what love really is.

Because love is not a feeling.  Love is a series of decisions, and a lifetime full of actions.  Love is something you decide to do every day, no matter what you feel.  (Though sometimes, we hope, you will feel like you're at the ball at quarter to midnight!)  And in doing it, in loving your neighbor as yourself, in making the good of your spouse your highest priority, you will learn to experience love at a whole new level, far beyond mere feelings.  When it gets hard is when real love starts.  And when real love starts is when we human beings get to learn the most important lesson of our life, because there is no lesson more important than love.

Which is why God gives us the gift of marriage, which for Christians is not a contract, but a covenant.  A covenant is an unconditional promise that binds two parties together for life.  When Christ gave us the new covenant, he didn't make it conditional on good behavior - he offered himself for us as a permanent and eternal Savior.  Marriage, for Christians, is an earthly symbol of what Christ has done for his church - and Christ gave his life for his church.  It didn't feel good, but it was the ultimate act of love.

That doesn't mean that Christians don't recognize divorce on any terms - there are times when human failure and sin makes it impossible for a marriage to continue, such as abuse and addiction and unrepented infidelity, or the simple unwillingness of one spouse to stay married, in which case the other spouse has no choice.  And forgiveness is always available in Christ, even if you are divorced for not-so-good reasons.  We offer a chance at new life and new love in those cases.

But that's not what we're talking about here, in Pat Robertson's advice video.  We are talking about a terminal and debilitating disease.  Would we counsel a husband to divorce his wife who is suffering from incurable cancer?  No, we would not.

I am sorry that Pat Robertson does not understand what Christian love is all about.  But for those of us who follow Christ, we need only look at Christ to understand it - Christ, who commanded us to "Love one another as I have loved you."