Re-imagining Diocesan Convention

by George Clifford

In previous Episcopal Café posts (part 1 and part 2), I suggested radically reimagining The Episcopal Church’s governance and structure. Among the changes I recommended were flattening the structure, eliminating mandatory financial assessments, and relying on electronic voting, virtual meetings, crowdsourcing and outsourcing.

A friend recently sent me his proposal for reducing his diocesan convention to one day from its current two-day format. He advocated that one year the diocesan convention would pass a biennial budget and fill elective positions; in alternate years, the diocesan convention would focus on program elements.

Establishing a one-day format for diocesan conventions has several key advantages:

1. It would reduce administrative and travel expenses, thereby freeing more money for mission;

2. It would greatly expand the pool of potential convention attendees to include those otherwise prevented from attending by the need to arrange for overnight child care, cover incidental expenses, or honor work commitments;

3. It would allow greater numbers of people to attend as observers if not as actual delegates.

As an interim measure, I support my friend’s proposal.

However, we should radically reimagine diocesan conventions. A diocese, through canonical changes but without organizational restructuring, could transact all of its business over the internet, using electronic communication, electronic voting, and virtual meetings. Then the annual convention could become a time when people from across the diocese gather, meet one another, celebrate shared journeys, grow spiritually, and become energized for ministry and mission in the year ahead.

One appeal of mega-churches is that their size generates energy and synergy that small congregations cannot. Another appeal of mega-churches is that they have resources to produce programs and worship services (including preaching) of a higher quality than is typically found in a small congregation. Ten percent of U.S. congregations now contain half of all churchgoers.

The Episcopal Church is a denomination of small congregations. Our congregations have an average Sunday attendance of less than 70. Furthermore, the diocese, not the parish or mission, is the basic unit in our polity. Radically reimagining diocesan convention could transform a generally staid business meeting that many clergy and most laity try to avoid into an event for the entire diocese, an annual gathering of a “mega-church.” This would both affirm our unity and our ties to the diocese with our bishop as our chief pastor.

Too many congregations view their bishop as an honored guest or even as an intimidating and alien authority figure. Conversely, bishops quickly tire of an endless cycle of parish visits in which they preach, perhaps administer confirmation, perhaps eat well, engage in much polite conversation, and conduct canonically mandated inspections. Instead, we need bishops who provide effective visionary leadership for their dioceses, inspiring and energizing their people for mission.

Concurrently, by changing the format of diocesan conventions and maintaining our generally smallish congregations we would continue to enjoy the multiple benefits of belonging to a small group.

In sum, radically reimagining diocesan convention could give us the best of belonging to both a small and large church; diocesan convention, instead of being an annual burden, might become one of the high points of the ecclesial year. Laity and clergy might even clamor for convention to meet more than once a year!

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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