Thursday, October 2, 2014

TREC: Thoughts Before the Meeting

I'm on my way to the churchwide meeting called by the Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). That group was charged by General Convention in 2012 with developing recommendations for restructuring the Episcopal Church so that the church can be a more effective missionary body in the coming years. You can see the reports of that work and participate in the live webcast of tonight's meeting here: I'll be live-tweeting the meeting (@evandgarner), and I'll put some of those tweets on Facebook. I'll also be updating my blog with further reflections. 

As I prepare for the meeting, I'm reviewing the reports that TREC has produced during the 2 years of its work. These are my questions and concerns and hopes as we approach tonight, and I fully expect this gathering to shape my views going forward. 

First, I want to applaud TREC's sense of their work and their understanding of our identity as the Episcopal Church. This was expressed in their first and best paper. In it, they succinctly and beautifully captured the foundational identity of our church as Christ-centered ("Episcopal  identity  is  a  communal  expression  of  living  out  the  Way  of  Jesus  in  the  power  of  the  Spirit") and the distinctive qualities of our denomination (breadth/expansiveness, incarnation, sacrament, arts/spirituality, continuity and change, prophetic witness). I read this and thought, "This is going to be good."

Since then, however, I've developed new and increasing reservations. In that first paper, TREC identifies this among it's priorities, "Structure  is  organizationally  lean  for  the  new  age  of  mission.  Budgetary,  canonical,  and  structural  simplicity  allow  for  ongoing  adaptation  and  change.  The  church’s  structure  supports  the  work  of  God’s  mission  of  reconciliation  through  evangelism  and  service." But I think they have sense confused "simplicity" for "efficiency." Evidence of this has shown up in the most recent publication from TREC (Letter to the Church: September 2014), in which they propose a significant concentration of authority in the office of the Presiding Bishop. I think this is a gross misrepresentation of the spirit that pushed this reimagination process to the top of General Convention 2012's priorities. "Lean" doesn't necessarily mean "centralized." In fact, I would suggest the opposite to be true. Decentralizing power results in more complex but also more effective structures at the lower levels of the church (diocese/parish). Let's not confuse simplicity at the top with centralization at the top. One of our charisms as Epsicopalians is our history of local governance, which should be emphasized.

The other paper that really got my attention in a good way was the third paper, which focused on governance. I read this and, again, felt a reverberation of the excitement that filled the room at GC2012, when a unanimous vote supporting this effort was voiced. Here we read of bold moves to simplify the church in good ways. Here's my top ten list of proposals in that paper (in the order taken up by the paper itself):

1. Limiting resolutions to topics like canonical or liturgical changes (the legislative process is too difficult for us to consider anything else in this way)

2. Reducing social-issue resolutions (I would go farther and eliminate them all)

3. Shortening convention (why stop at 7 days? Let's make it 5!)

4. Empower a legislative committee to eliminate duplicate resolutions (duh!)

5. Reuducing legislative committees in number and size (sorry self-important people)

6. Reduce apportionments from dioceses to a tithe and find a way to enforce it (we preach a tithe, we should model that at all levels of the church--if 10% isn't enough to do the job, the job doesn't need to be done)

7. Change the structure of Executive Council by appointing a new CEO and redefining the PB's work accordingly (how many bishops do you know who have the management skills and experience to run a multinational corporation as big as the Episcopal Church?)

8. Reducing the members of Executive Council by half (lots of money is spent getting that group together)

9. Eliminating almost all CCABs in favor of much, much smaller task forces appointed for a specific purpose and duration (as a member of a CCAB, I can say from the inside that this is very important)

10. As implied but not specifically named in this paper, totally rethink what the institution that is the Episcopal Church is for (doesn't this whole process call for a very different role that TEC will have in each of our lives?)

Again, the paper was great. Not perfect, but very, very good. And everything looked like we were headed for a bright future...until the most recent publication came out. The Letter to the Church that came out last month in anticipation of tonight's meeting tries to bring all of this together, and that's where it fell apart.

First, let me say that, unlike lots of other commentators, I liked the Lazarus image that began the letter. Some found the implication that Lazarus died again to be a disappointing analogy for the restructuring of the church. But Lazarus isn't about dying again. He is an image--a prefigurement of Jesus' resurrection, which is, in turn, a revelation of our own. This reimagining isn't the end. The church will not be "right" until Jesus returns and purifies her. All we can do is image that hope for renewal. And that's exactly what TREC is trying to do.

And, for the first part of the letter, that seems to be what TREC is doing. I like the four Cs, which were identified in the first paper: catalyst, connector, capacity builder, convener. I like their definition of the changes that need to be made: General Convention's ineffectiveness at setting resources to meet priorities, executive council's inability to respond to the will of General Convention, and the confusing and inefficient staff identities. All of that is good. 

But then things go off the rails. How will those problems be solved? It seems by letting the PB make most of the decisions. Under these proposals, s/he is still CEO of the church but has increased authority to make appointments for key positions and has no more accountability. In other words, instead of following its own ideas in the paper on restructuring, TREC wimped out. I don't know how the conversation went when the bishops, presbyters, deacons, and lay people all got together to come up with these recommendations, but I suspect that someone wearing purple flexed her/his mitre-wearing muscles and said, "Ain't gonna happen."

And so I wonder. What will happen? Yes, most of the proposals are good. Moving to contract employees instead of permanent staff is good. Simplifying the legislative process is good. Shrinking the size of the highest levels of the institution is good. But replacing that bureaucracy with centralized power is a terrible idea. It misses the point. Instead of shifting the responsibilities to fewer people at the top, the jobs themselves need to be eliminated or disseminated down to the local level. Maybe tonight's meeting will show the will of the church in such a powerful way that the traditional stakeholders give way even more fully. Or maybe we'll find ourselves dealing with all of this all over again when resources become even more limited and changes are forced rather than invited. 

All of that to say that I like how things started and hope the church has the guts to push even further ahead. 

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