More thoughts on TREC: What is the proper role of the Presiding Bishop?

In its recent paper on church governance and administration, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) suggests three models in which executive authority in the Episcopal Church might be configured.

The first of these—to simplify for the sake of brevity—would create a strong chief executive officer chosen by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, accountable to the Executive Council. The PB and PHoD would continue in their roles as president and vice president of the Council respectively.

Under the second proposal: “The PB, with concurrence of the President of the House of Deputies, would nominate four people to serve the following offices: COO, Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer, Secretary, and Chief Legal Officer. The Executive Council would confirm these nominations. These positions would serve at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop/CEO. Approval by Council and the PHoD would not be needed for the PB/CEO to fire the COO or other officers.”

The third proposal would allow the presiding bishop to remain a diocesan bishop. Under this proposal: “The Executive Council hires a General Secretary for the Episcopal Church, who serves as the Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church Center. The General Secretary may also serve as the Secretary of the General Convention, if elected by that body to do so.

“The General Secretary would nominate persons to serve as Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer and Chief Legal Officer. The Executive Council would confirm these nominations. These persons would serve at the pleasure of the General Secretary, in consultation with the Executive Committee of Executive Council.”

I favor the first proposal. It best honors the principle of distributed authority that is at the heart of our governance while “right-sizing” the role of the Presiding Bishop, and focusing it on the kind of work that only a presiding officer and spiritual leader can do. (The Rev. Susan Snook’s discussion of the role of the Presiding Bishop is excellent. Some negotiation might be required to coordinate roles and responsibilities between the PB’s personal staff and the staff that reported to the chief executive officer, but the job is not insurmountable, and there would be opportunity for trial and error.

Of the other two alternatives, I think the second has the least to recommend it. The Presiding Bishop is elected by one house of the convention for a lengthy term of nine years, during which it is extremely difficult to dispute his or her decisions, short of filing disciplinary charges. This offers the people of the church just about nothing in the way of accountability from an individual who exercises a level of executive freedom that would make Dick Cheney blush.

The role of the Presiding Bishop is already too large for any one person to handle. It is no surprise, then, that some of the PB’s duties are delegated to senior staff members. These individuals are elected by no one, and accountable solely to the PB. Proposal II relieves both them and the Presiding Bishop from providing accountability to the wider church. The organizations that I am familiar with that configure themselves in this way are either monarchies, or dependent on the personal fortune of the CEO.

I am skeptical of the third proposal for two reasons, the lesser of which is easier to explain. I think it gives the general secretary a little too much power. I don’t think it is wise to have the person who runs the organization on a day-to-day basis serve as the chief officer of the General Convention. Checks and balances are our friends, and this arrangement removes an important one by granting the same person in charge of the day of day operations of the church’s administration a significant role in the operation of its governing body.

But more importantly, I think proposals to have the Presiding Bishop continue to serve as a diocesan bishop are unworkable. The job is too big, and too demanding, no matter how one might try to pare it down. Additionally, the people of the church have a hunger to spend time with the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies. They are both regarded as public figures within the church, and both have the opportunity to serve as our ambassadors to the broader culture. (Our current Presiding Bishop is brilliant in this role.) The PB can’t play this role if he or she is also running a diocese. I am concerned, then, that this proposal could cost the church someone in a position to be its most effective spokesperson.

The TREC report also makes recommendations regarding reorganizing the Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards (CCABs) that help perform the work of the church, and the size and authority of the Executive Council. More about those issues in a later post.

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