I was asked at my first EC meeting last fall in Memphis to head up a sub-committee of the Executive Council Joint Standing Committee on Governance and Administration for Mission [GAM] to respond to a letter to the Council from the Episcopal Life Board of Governors.
That letter explained that the Board of Governors was created by Executive Council in 1990 and that "the need was seen then, and we believe continues now, for independent oversight of the news operation of The Episcopal Church. We believe that such oversight helps protect and ensure the credibility, power and authority of The Episcopal Church’s media. The board also works as a conduit and sounding board for story ideas, suggestions and observations from members of The Episcopal Church. We do so being guided by the principle that the news operation of The Episcopal Church affects and belongs to the whole Church."
The letter asked Executive Council to designate a member of Council as a liaison with the Board of Governors and to fund one face-to-face meeting per year of the board.
Underlying all of this, of course, was the tension that remained in the aftermath of the decision to cease publication of Episcopal Life and the still-resonating pain of staff reductions at the Church Center, especially those that affected the communications staff; and issues about news coverage at General Convention and afterward.
Before I left Memphis I met with Anne Rudig, director of communications at the Church Center, and with Chief Operating Officer Linda Watt. Then I met in a face to face meeting with the Board of Governors and Anne Rudig in Chicago on Nov. 17 at the Episcopal Church Center, Diocese of Chicago. I was very impressed by the frankness with which everyone spoke and of the clear desire of everyone in the room to find a way forward.
As often happens when people of good will get together in the same room, several misunderstandings were cleared up and large areas of common ground were uncovered.
I wrote a draft report of that meeting and circulated it to everyone who had been in the room for their comments, corrections, and suggestions, which were then incorporated into a second draft. That was then circulated to all the same people again, and to the other two members of my sub-committee, and everyone’s final comments and suggestions were incorporated.
So it is accurate to say that the report we presented to GAM represented a consensus among this group. That report described the many areas of consensus and made several recommendations, chief among them being that the Executive Council continue the existence of this body because "the need for a vital robust news organization that does tell our story is more important than ever. It is time to extend the board’s mandate to reflect these changed circumstances – including the expanded nature of the news operation and the rapidly changing means of delivering that news including online as well as offline news gathering and dissemination."
Agreement also was reached about how the board and the staff might best work together, using regular conference calls between the Communications staff and the board "working off a co-created agenda to insure a timely exchange of information and feedback."
Two of these conference calls already have happened.
We recommended revising the mandate of the board to reflect the changed circumstances since its establishment in 1990, including changing the name to more accurately reflect the role of the group.
[In this process, several names were suggested. GAM members thought Episcopal News Service Advisory Committee best reflected the role of the group. Arguing over the name was not a ditch I was willing to die in.]
The discussion among GAM members also brought up the need to bring the group into compliance with changes in the bylaws of Executive Council and to bring clarity to the oversight and administration of the group's budget, which formerly had been part of the communications department's budget. We also wanted to respond to the board's request for clear lines of communication with the Executive Council and to make clear this group's mandate dealt with the news gathering and distribution areas of the Office of Communications, and not with its public affairs division.
We were unable to meet their request for money for a face-to-face meeting, but now that we have clarity on where their budget should be and on communication with the Council, I remain hopeful we can find some funds in 2011 and/or 2012.
After more consultation on Saturday with Sharon Tillman, president of the board, and with Anne Rudig, this resolution was crafted and passed by Council:
Resolved, That the Executive Council, meeting in Omaha, Nebraska from February 19-22, 2010, directs that the name of the Board of Governors of Episcopal Life be changed to Episcopal News Service Advisory Committee, and be it further
Resolved, that this committee of Executive Council will be comprised of members appointed for six year staggered terms from each of the nine provinces by the respective provincial governing body and up to three at-large members will be appointed by the presiding officers to enhance diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, expertise, language, sexual orientation; and be it further
Resolved, that its mandate shall be revised to read: “This advisory council shall consult and advise on news gathering, distribution and publishing efforts and ventures of the communications staff at the Church Center engaged in news gathering and dissemination with the goal of insuring that all publication[s] regardless of the means of dissemination effectively serve the needs of the church at all levels, i.e., national, diocesan, parish -- to keep the voice of the whole church in a prominent place in the operation of any news gathering entity of the Church” and be it further
Resolved, that the committee shall report annually to the Executive Council through its Joint Standing Committee on Governance and Administration for Mission, and provincial members shall maintain regular communication with their respective provinces, and be it further
Resolved, that this committee and its budget will be overseen and administered by the General Convention Office.
All the current members of the board remain in place as do their terms of office. A copy of the final resolution was emailed to Tillman as soon as it passed and she shared it with the rest of the board members. I also participated in their conference call on Tuesday to answer any questions. Members of the Communications Office were on that call.
*******Other issues that struck me included the helpful [and moving] report of the efforts of Episcopal Relief and Development in Haiti. But I also was struck by the report of the work of ER-D in the wake of the massive winter storms that have left the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation without power or water or heat for more than a month now. What's worse, the power company is telling the community that it may be six months before power is restored.
Council member Terry Starr spoke very movingly of the situation. One example he gave of the cascading effects of the ice storm is the story of several families who moved into one trailer because it had a wood-burning stove. The trailer caught fire and while everyone got out unharmed, they lost all their possessions and are once again homeless.
The Episcopal Bishop of South Dakota, John Tarrant asked for and got relief funds from Episcopal Relief and Development, and Valentine's Day was set for a special collection to help the 30,000 Sioux in an area the size of Connecticut. But Episcopalians cannot do this alone. This situation calls for state and federal efforts.
According to Episcopal News Service, Tribal Chairman Joe Brings Plenty, said they lost 3,000 power poles and the reservation water system.
News reports say that the South Dakota National Guard, the state Department of Public Safety, and the Army Corps of Engineers have supplied some emergency generators. But according to the release, food, medical supplies and additional generators are needed.The tribe's one and only grocery store lost all perishables. Dialysis patients are also being evacuated three hours away to Rapid City.
This story has been almost completely under the "compassion radar." With the except of MSNBC's Keith Olberman, who is now raising funds at MSNBC for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Storm Relief - Emergency Assistance Fund -- the national media have pretty much ignored this story.
This is a part of the larger story of the sorry state of our nation's infrastructure, but I can't help but think that if this had happened in an affluent less isolated place to a bunch of suburban families that the story would be all over the news and the power poles and lines would have been fixed long ago.
I plan to do what I can to raise awareness of this issue and I hope all of you will join me and the rest of Executive Council in this effort.