A treatise on TREC

Updated: to get a sense of tonight’s open meeting, try Twitter at #TREClive and #reimaginetec

I offer a few thought in advance of the churchwide meeting of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church which begins at 7:30 EDT at Washington National Cathedral. (Webcast here)

Okay, more than a few, but if you start now, you will still have time for a snack before it starts. Before I begin I should say that my communications firm works or has recently worked for a number of people who are either involved in TREC’s process, or who may be affected by its work. Those include two members of the task force, the President of the House of Deputies and either directly or through membership groups, with numerous bishops and dioceses.

Now then:

I have made at least some of my living for most of my life as a writer, and one thing I have learned in that time is that deadlines sometimes force me to submit a draft of a lengthy article on a complex subject to my editors before it’s actually “done.” I might think it’s done, but qualified people who read it with fresh eyes persuade me otherwise, and I give it another go—or two, and the piece invariably improves.

I’ve noticed over the years in revising lengthy pieces that they follow a similar pattern. They start well but become less thematically coherent as they go on. The synthesis is incomplete. I have a strong sense of what I want to say, but I haven’t quite said it yet. I’ve noticed a similar dynamic at play as a newspaper editor and, many years ago, a teaching assistant.

All of which makes me glad that the open letter from the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church, published last month, is not that body’s final word. We will hear from them again, and when we do, I hope that they, like writers who have received strong feedback on their work, will have revised their presentation another time or two and fully realized its potential.

The members of TREC—those who helped launch it and those who have participated in its processes—deserve to be congratulated, because during this process a consensus has begun to emerge about the type of church the Episcopal Church must become. Just about any conversation about our future emphasizes the importance of a church with leaner, more efficient systems of governance and administration, a church that spends more energy and more money inspiring; cultivating and supporting ministry at the grassroots level and a church that helps faithful and passionate people share information, insights and resources so they can be more effective ministers of the gospel in their communities. (I’d like to add “a church that continues to challenge injustice in the world, using the best methods available to do so,” but I am not sure that we have consensus on that point.)

Articulating this vision, as TREC has done in recent months in its various reports, is no small accomplishment. Before surveying the distance left to be travelled, it’s worth celebrating how far we have come.

A number of bloggers including Susan Snook, Tom Ferguson, Adam Trambley and Jesse Zink have offered cogent analysis of TREC’s most recent letter to the church. I recommend them to you. I don’t agree with everything they have to say, but they have made an important contribution to the reception of the report.

Critical Distance

You may remember that individuals who were interested in serving on TREC were asked whether they had sufficient “critical distance” from the inner workings of the church to diagnose its problems effectively. It is possible that this distance helped the Task Force to arrive at a fairly accurate diagnosis of the problems with our church’s structures. But if critical distance is an advantage in looking at a problem with fresh eyes—seeing a forest rather than trees and other clichés of that nature—it is not necessarily a useful attribute in those who are providing solutions. While there are four bishops and four members of the House of Deputies on the Task Force, it isn’t clear that the authors of TREC’s most recent letter to the church have a firm handle on how various church structures—most notably General Convention and Executive Council—actually work. Other bloggers have pointed out some of the seeming misconceptions about the way in which the convention operates. It is also worth noting that many of the outcomes that TREC seeks—such as limiting the number of resolutions that come before the convention—do not require anything as grand as resolutions affecting the constitution and canons of the church, but can be achieved by simple changes to the rules of order.

The Task Force’s grasp of what takes place at Executive Council also seems shaky. I say “seems” because this is by far the most nebulous section of TREC’s letter. The Task Force wants the role of Executive Council “clarified as a ‘governance’ role, similar to a non-profit Board of Trustees.” I am not sure what that means, and it isn’t because I don’t know how boards of trustees work. TREC wants to reduce the size of Executive Council to “improve its effectiveness.” It may be a good idea to reduce the size of Executive Council, but I have no idea whether that would improve its effectiveness because I am unclear on what TREC wants it to do. I do know that it could not perform the role it currently attempts to perform without enough members to serve on several core committees.

TREC wants all council members elected at large, rather than having some elected at large and others at the provincial level. I don’t know what the Task Force is trying to achieve with this proposal, and there are cogent arguments both in favor and against it, so, like the other recommendations regarding Executive Council, it is difficult to appraise.

Attempting to read between the lines of this opaque section, I get a vague sense that TREC views Executive Council as an unwieldy body that encumbers the senior staff and exercises an inappropriate level of oversight. (I’ll stand corrected if I am wrong.) This is the certainly the view of the Presiding Bishop and her staff, and there may be something to it. I know that when I served on a diocesan staff I resisted having an editorial board for the diocesan newspaper because I thought the professionally trained journalists involved in the enterprise should have freedom to do their work in the ways that they thought best. The churchwide staff needs to be protected from micromanagement by a board whose members may not have the expertise to evaluate the merits of the staff’s strategy or execution. (I am not alleging that this is happening, just speaking in terms of structure.)

On the other hand, one could argue that in some ways Executive Council exercises too little power, not too much. When Bishop Stacy Sauls, the chief operating officer at Church Center, set the campaign to restructure the church in motion, he unveiled his sweeping plan not to Executive Council, but to the House of Bishops whose members then brought legislation urging that the plan be adopted to their diocesan conventions. Rather than leading the efforts to reorganize the church, the council was blindsided and immediately under political pressure to adopt Bishop Sauls’s plan. It is hard to imagine a top executive in the secular world treating his or her board in this fashion.

The Council had difficulties getting timely and accurate information form the church center leadership while trying to put together the church’s 2012-15 budget, resulting in a debacle that undermined the authority of the Council in the eyes of the wider church. (Council member Katie Sherrod wrote about this problem in June, 2012.)

Tension between Executive Council, the office of the Presiding Bishop and the Presiding Bishop’s staff isn’t unique to this council and this Presiding Bishop. To TREC’s credit, it realizes that this particular problem must be solved if the church is going to function more efficiently and harmoniously. But I fear that its current proposal offers a solution to this problem that undermines rather than advances its overall vision.


If I understand their recent letter correctly, TREC is proposing to curtail the role of Executive Council in carrying out the legislation of General Convention, and limiting the council’s ability to hold the Presiding Bishop and the PB’s staff accountable to the convention. In an earlier letter, it also proposed limiting the sorts of subjects on which General Convention could pass legislation. TREC also endorses our current status quo, under which the Presiding Bishop’s staff is accountable to the Presiding Bishop alone.

One can object to this proposal on purely political and organizational grounds. TREC is recommending that we give more power to an office that is already among the least accountable in the church. The Presiding Bishop is elected to an extremely long term at the end of which he or she almost always retires. If the Presiding Bishop does not commit canonical or criminal offenses, he or she cannot be removed from office. If the Presiding Bishop doesn’t object, the staff can do things like use churchwide communications tools to distribute private emails from people with whom the staff is in conflict—this was done during the controversy over the United Thank Offering—without fear of reprisal.

In addition, the Presiding Bishop is elected by one house of a two-house legislature, and that house is remarkable for its lack of diversity, composed in great measure of straight, white men over the age of 50. While it is true that the House of Deputies must confirm the PB’s election, if it were to reject the person whom the bishops had elected, it would throw the church into crisis. Both custom and consequence make it extremely unlikely that the deputies would reject the bishops’ choice.


If TREC is unmoved by arguments about accountability, or believes that efficiency is a greater value in our current situation, I hope that it will consider the way in which concentrating so much power in one office, while diminishing the authority of those elected more democratically, will undermine the task force’s s own vision of the church. Realizing that vision requires energetic, far-flung networks of volunteers and people working to build up the body of Christ for minimal compensation. I don’t believe that such networks can flourish in a system that locates so much power in a single office. They require a most diverse ecosystem of authority, one with multiple power centers and multiple sources of funding.

We are competing for the time of busy people who have many urgent causes to which they can donate their time and money. They aren’t going to invest it with us if they have no control over the outcome of their efforts, or if doing so leads them into knock-down drag-out fights with people who have more power within the church that they do. In recent years, the church has faced decisions on a number of areas including how to raise money for particular projects; how to organize efforts against poverty; how to handle issues of deployment and transition ministries and how to collect and publicize information about emerging practices in evangelism and congregational development. In each instance it decided against trusting this work to informal grassroots networks organized outside the control of the churchwide staff. These may have been good decisions or they may have been bad ones, but they don’t suggest a predisposition to cultivate networks.

The question of how to cultivate the networks TREC describes also bears on how to constitute the churchwide staff. This is a topic on which I hope TREC will give us greater clarity in the future. But networks depend significantly on relationships, and if the church relies too heavily on contractors, who may serve only short-term stints, then these relationships will be slow to develop. The church might be better served by a stable cadre of trainers and facilitators with expertise in subject areas central to our common lives. Some of the people on the churchwide staff already function extremely well in this capacity.

The challenge we face as Episcopalians is that General Convention is our highest (earthly) authority, but it meets only once every three years. The question we have never successfully resolved is who acts when it is not in session. That is a difficult question, and I don’t have an easy answer. The argument for a General Secretary hired by Executive Council has much to recommend it. But I also wonder if a three-person committee of Executive Council, composed of the Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies and a chief operating officer hired by the council might not allow us to build accountability and efficiency into our existing system while still distributing authority more broadly than TREC proposes. This might help take the edge off the fears of those who oppose the General Secretary concept because that individual would be an employee of the council, rather than someone elected by one of the houses of convention. (The Presiding Bishop is currently the president of the Executive Council and the President of the House of Deputies is vice president. In this arrangement, that wouldn’t change.)


Finally, I hope members of TREC will weight carefully that fact that recommendations once made still have to be passed. They would do the church a disservice if they submitted recommendations that were clearly going to pit one house of the convention or one order of ministry against another. And they will diminish the possibility that reforms will succeed if they propose sweeping changes that will require widespread cooperation and substantial good will from people throughout the church, but that garner only small majorities at the convention.

For that reason, I hope they will consider how a lay person with an interest in church governance might view their recommendations to date. I support reforms such as limiting the amount of legislation (but not by restricting the subjects on which convention can legislate), and replacing almost all CCABs with a smaller number of task forces that have specific, time-limited charges. I am open to being persuaded to reduce the size of Executive Council (though I’d need more information on what it is supposed to accomplish) and General Convention (by one deputy from each diocese in each order). Nonetheless, I implore them to consider the overall message that they are sending by recommending:

a) reducing the size and significance of bodies in which clergy and lay people can participate in the governance of the church

b) strengthening an office over which clergy and lay people have no influence and whose occupant is not accountable to them

c) shortening the time in which clergy and lay people’s elected representatives can discuss matters put before the church

d) limiting the scope of legislation to curtail consideration of social and economic issues that are of importance to lay people in their daily lives, and about which lay people have significant expertise

e) focusing the agenda of the convention on issues that are of concern primarily to clergy and church professionals (see TREC’s first paper on governance for the list)

f) diminishing the time that lay people participate in governance at the convention in favor of a convocation at which lay people can be taught things that church leaders want them to know.

If TREC’s reforms are going to be successful, the task force will need to do a better job demonstrating the sacrifices and adjustments required from all orders of ministry, and it will need to articulate more clearly what it sees as the role of lay people in churchwide governance.

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