Sunday, June 24, 2012

Balancing act

I am a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church. I was elected at General Convention in 2006 for a six-year term. For what it’s worth, I got the most votes of any member elected by the House of Deputies at that convention. I mention it only because apparently a lot of deputies across the Church thought I am competent to do the job.

Here is what the General Convention Office says about this body:

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church is an elected body representing the whole Church . . . The Executive Council has the duty to carry out programs and policies adopted by General Convention. It is the job of Executive Council to oversee the ministry and mission of the Church. The Executive Council is comprised of twenty members elected by General Convention (four bishops, four priests or deacons and twelve laypersons) and eighteen members elected by provincial synods.

So Executive Council is a representative body elected by our peers in the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops or by our provinces. We are entrusted to carry out the work given to us to do, part of which is to prepare a budget to be sent to the Program, Budget and Finance Committee of General Convention. General Convention is July 5-12 in Indianapolis.

Several recent events, including the recent Commentary on the budget by the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer [COO] of The Episcopal Church, and the budget recently proposed by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop [PB] and primate of The Episcopal Church, have raised quite public questions about the Council’s competency. As a member of that body, I confess to being shocked by these developments – not because of the criticism (that comes with the territory), but because of concerns these developments raise about the direction of The Episcopal Church.

First I want to describe how meetings of the Executive Council work.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is a full member of Executive Council and the chair of the Council. She, COO Sauls and Kurt Barnes, the treasurer, literally sit at tables with Council members and participate fully in all meetings. Each meeting begins with opening addresses by the PB, the president of the House of Deputies, and the COO.

Several other staff members usually are present as well.  All staff members present (the Council does not determine which staff members are present, although we can request certain staffers be present) are invited to attend all meetings of the committees of Executive Council with the obvious exception of executive sessions. COO Sauls and Kurt Barnes are present in executive sessions of committees as well as of Council as a whole, as is the PB, of course.

Staff members are consulted on any number of topics in the course of a meeting as they are viewed as welcome resources.  Council members interact with staff constantly during the several-day-long meetings – we eat meals together and often socialize during breaks. Council members also mine the wisdom of our group, consulting with one another both during and between meetings via email and by conference call.

COO Sauls puzzled many Council members when, soon after being named COO, he released the “Sauls proposal” for restructuring to the House of Bishops without even notifying the Council of its existence. At the time it seemed, well, a bit odd that Council members should learn of such a significant proposal from the chief operating officer via news reports, but, you know, he IS a bishop and so maybe it just seemed natural to him to do it that way.  Slack was cut.

In hindsight, it appears it may have been a shot across the bow.

At the beginning of this triennium and many times since then, the presiding bishop urged the Council to think boldly and in new ways, to try to do things differently, to think outside the box. So when it came to working on the budget, Executive Council tried to do things differently, to think outside the box.

Normally budgets are developed for the three years of the triennium.  For this cycle at the request of Executive Council, the Treasurer’s Office developed a financial model that allowed a projection of income and expenses for ten years. That projection predicted that unless changes were made in our income, expenses, or both, in the 2013-2015 triennium we could have a deficit of $20 million growing to $92 million by 2022.

We are too big a group to work on the details of the budget, so we chose the Executive Council’s Executive Committee to work closely with Kurt Barnes, the treasurer, and COO Sauls to develop a proposal. The PB is a member of the Executive Committee and chairs its meetings. The treasurer and COO attend each meeting of the Executive Committee.

Council agreed we wanted mission to drive the budget, not the reverse. Some months prior to the January 2012 meeting at which we had to finalize the budget, the Executive Committee sought to involve people outside the Council and the staff in the process of setting priorities for the budget. This was done via a poll of the whole church.

As COO Sauls points out in his Commentary, the survey, while not perfect, sought input “from a defined group of church leaders—Deputies to the 77th General Convention, members of Executive Council, Bishops, members of committees, commissions, agencies and boards of the Episcopal Church (CCABs), members of diocesan standing committees, members of diocesan governing bodies, and Provincial Synod Deputies—a target group of at least 2,800 people, although the exact number is unknown because of variations in the size of diocesan conventions and standing committees. “

You can see the survey and its results in an appendix to COO Sauls’ Commentary. 

The results of that poll drove the setting of priorities in the budget, along with the desire expressed often by the PB and COO Sauls that we drive spending down to the level at which a particular ministry is best done. This was congruent with the Council’s desire to have mission drive the budget, not the reverse.

At the January 2012 meeting a goal of the Executive Committee that the whole Council affirmed was using the Five Marks of Mission as a basis for the budget. The Council asked to set aside the rest of the agenda to work solely on the budget but the PB was reluctant to do so. She suggested the Executive Committee meet and report back to the whole Council, which they did.

Council members also were clear that this budget needed to reflect that the Church – like the rest of the world -- is in a time of transition, which means we have to find creative ways to “be church” in the future. There was much discussion of a world that is becoming much more horizontal in communication and in the ways people interact. How does a hierarchical church adapt to that world and how could the budget help that process?

It was only after Council had discussed mission priorities at some length that specific numbers began being attached to specific items.

I left that meeting feeling that we had indeed produced a budget driven by mission.

After Executive Council voted on the budget, the treasurer posted a budget on the Council’s Extranet that replaced specific numbers on which Executive Council had voted with blank lines, followed by the notation that allocations in this area would be decided in conjunction with staff. It was only after vigorous complaints from numerous Council members that numbers were restored. But then the numbers turned out to be wrong.

When the budget was reported out, it was not the budget we had approved. Indeed, many of us were as dismayed by that budget as were others in the Church. How did this happen? It is a question to which I, and others who have asked, have never gotten a satisfactory answer.

At our April meeting, Council members asked rather strenuously what had happened, but the presiding bishop cautioned us sternly not to seek to assign blame. She asked whether we were sure we weren’t just reluctant to “give up” the budget to PB&F. She told us the canons prevented us from doing anything else to the budget once we had sent it to PB&F. When some members insisted on writing a memo to try to set forth the priorities the Council had intended, she was visibly unenthusiastic about it, but again urged us not to assign blame.

The minutes from that meeting say, “The Chair reminded Council that it had wanted a different budget process, which it had had. She said that was a success. She asked rhetorically, “Was it perfect?” No, she said, but it was a sign and symbol of change. She noted that complaint was part of the cost of leadership.”

In other words, suck it up and move on.

I left that meeting deeply troubled, not by the criticism the Council was getting – I’ve been a writer for newspapers and television much too long to get my feelings hurt by criticism. What troubled me was that leaders I admire and trusted seemed to me to be acting in confusing ways – saying things that were contradicted by their actions.  Again and again they urged Council to see that ministry is carried out as “close to the ground” as possible and by those people who can do it best, which is usually lay people in congregations across the church. Yet what they keep doing is to try to operate from a top-down model.

I began to pray for clarity and guidance.

In mid-May the online Episcopal CafĂ© published a memo from COO Sauls to the staff of the Church Center. 

It said, in part, "For the truth is that we as the DFMS staff will either shape the future or have it shaped for us. And if it is shaped for us, it will then be imposed on us. We have before us the opportunity to shape our own future or stand passively by and let others do that for us. I just don't think passivity is a very healthy spiritual position to be in. And, as you have heard me say, working for the Church ought not to be a spiritually damaging experience. Whether it is or not is largely up to us."

I am not the only person who was startled by this statement. I believe that it is the bishops and deputies elected to General Convention who make the decisions that shape the future of the church and that Executive Council is the body charged by Convention oversee the working out of those decisions during the triennium between Conventions.

Then on June 1st came the Sauls Commentary on the budget. Once again, the Council learned about it from news reports.

I confess this document hit me particularly hard, because in that document COO Sauls chose to use the official communication channels of the church in what appeared to me and others as an attempt to publicly shame by name certain members of Council. He pointedly scolded them for doing something all Council members do – meet in small groups to discuss issues. COO Sauls accused these Council members of using a conference call to set up a voting bloc and to shut out other committee members.

It hit me hard because this was a favorite ploy of the former bishop of Fort Worth, who used his office and the official diocesan communication channels to publicly shame people who disagreed with him. It worked well for him too, effectively silencing most of those who disagreed with the direction in which he was taking the diocese.  It also introduced a toxic atmosphere of distrust and fear that my diocese still is working to recover from.

To have this same toxicity injected to the Council/Church Center leadership relationship was beyond disturbing. I also was troubled by COO Sauls’ repeated assertion that staff had been shut out of the Council’s budget deliberations. That does not jibe at all with my own experience and observations.

The trust level between Council and the Church Center leadership that had been painstakingly worked on by so many had been dealt a severe blow. COO Sauls is now a staff member, and in any organization, it would be peculiar, to say the least, for a staff member to be allowed to publicly vilify members of what amounts to the board of directors. To have the presiding bishop give her imprimatur to this document by writing a foreword to it added to the impact.

I was so shocked and disheartened by COO Sauls’ action that I contacted some of my sister and brother Council members, seeking their wisdom in how to respond. And while they also were shocked that the COO chose to take such public action, they weren’t sure a public response would be helpful. The fear was that it would distract from the work facing General Convention. It was suggested that members contact COO Sauls privately to discuss our concerns.
I continued to pray for guidance on how to respond.  None of us wanted to make a bad situation worse. After all, we love The Episcopal Church. Why else would we be doing all this work?
I drafted a letter to COO Sauls, and planned to copy the PB. But before I could mail those letters, the PB presented her own budget.

And yet once again, like the rest of the Executive Council, I found out about it from news stories the morning of its release.

It wasn’t exactly “same song, second verse.” It was worse.

In it she enlarged on the criticism of the Executive Council, dismissing Council’s efforts to think outside the box with this statement: “The budgeting process that developed through Executive Council represented new behavior, which should be applauded for its courage.  In spite of those faithful efforts a coherent strategy did not emerge.”

She continued, “This approach begins with mission, and insists that mission shape the budget rather than the other way around.”

No argument there. Indeed, that was the approach the Council took as well.

There was more: “The perspective of the churchwide staff has been exceedingly helpful in this process, for they are deeply connected to mission at the local level, and have the unique ability to see across boundaries between communities.”

That statement astonished me. I am pretty sure that the bishops, priests, deacons and lay people who make up the Executive Council also are deeply connected to mission at the local level. We don’t live on Mars. We live and move and have our being in congregations and dioceses all across The Episcopal Church, and all of us are deeply involved in various ministries at the parish, diocesan, national, and, for many, on the international level.

Over the years we have built relationships across all kinds of boundaries. How ironic, I thought, that the one boundary we apparently cannot overcome is the one between Council and Church Center leadership. How ironic, too, that the PB and COO who had publicly criticized a small group of volunteers for discussing a budget proposal amongst themselves, who claimed Council had shut staff out of its budget deliberations, had now produced a budget about which no member of Executive Council was consulted.

I asked myself, what, as a member of a body chaired by the same PB who has thoroughly undermined that body’s work very publicly, do I do now as I seek to carry out the responsibilities entrusted to me when I was elected by my peers in the House of Deputies?

Once again, I turned to prayer. I also contacted sister and brother Council members again for advice. Again, no one wanted to make things worse. After all, we all admire the presiding bishop as much as the rest of the church. She is a Holy Rock Star. We are a group largely unknown to much of the church.

Again, it was decided that each person would decide the best way to proceed.

I am a writer. Writing is the way I think things through. So I decided to write this.

The PB’s budget, as a fellow Council member pointed out, benefits from information the Executive Council did not have. I am grateful to this member for sharing his observations with me.

In the PB’s budget the estimate of revenue from dioceses was increased by $3 million for the triennium. But no dioceses have had conventions recently in which they voted to increase their giving. So that is puzzling. Puzzling too that this fact was conveyed to the church only in so far as it was a line item in the Presiding Bishop’s budget.

Additionally, the debt service on the loan on the Church Center building was recalculated. The treasurer now says we need to pay $800,000 less than the Executive Council was told. It seems he had made previous calculations based on outdated information regarding the principal remaining on the loan.

And where the Executive Council budget included cost of living adjustments (COLA) for DFMS staff at 3% per year as requested by the PB, the COO and the treasurer, the PB’s budget lowers it to 2% per year. Total staff costs in the PB’s budget are $600,000 lower than the Executive Council budget.

Also, COO Sauls had requested that Executive Council allocate more than $1 million for his initiatives, which included $550,000 for an Episcopal Church Coop to make use of economies of scale, and $500,000 for a church-wide consultation on restructuring. Executive Council complied. The PB’s budget trims both initiatives, the Coop to $326,000 and the consultation to $100,000.

These moves create $5 million more for the PB’s budget, which certainly helps make it more attractive than the Executive Council’s budget.

No wonder people are taken with it. But its very existence raises challenging questions that go far beyond any concerns one member of the Executive Council might have.

What does this do to trust levels when the leader of a group very publicly undermines the work of that group before the whole Church?

 Why didn’t the presiding bishop and the COO speak up more forcefully in the Council meetings if they thought Council was going off track? Both the presiding bishop and COO Sauls are very persuasive speakers.

Where did the nearly $3 million in new diocesan giving come from?

Is it so obvious that church planting is best handled by a fund controlled by the Church Center that we should feel comfortable committing $2 million to a church planting proposal made for the first time just 10 days before General Convention?

Has the PB been mulling all of these ideas for an extended period of time and simply not sharing them with Executive Council, or have they all been hatched in the period since we met two months ago?

If there is significant new revenue available, and we seek to nourish grassroots experimentation in our church, why not revisit the question of returning some of this money to dioceses by lowering the percentage of their budgets they are expected to contribute to the general church budget, rather than creating new programs that will require a continuous stream of funding?

Is this restructuring by budget?

The presiding bishop is not elected by General Convention, but by one house as their presider. Do we want our budgets coming from the PB’s office or from a more widely representative body?

And the big question for me as a former Roman Catholic AND a survivor of the Diocese of Fort Worth schism as we consider restructuring, is whether the people of The Episcopal Church want more power flowing to the presiding bishop’s office and away from elected bodies? Do we want to shorten General Convention, make the House of Deputies smaller and thereby consolidate more power into the hands of bishops?

It will be a fundamental change in our democratic polity, which to my mind is among the best gifts The Episcopal Church has to offer. Our polity empowers our own people to take responsibility to prayerfully be part of the discernment of the governance of their church instead of ceding that responsibility to one leader or a small group of leaders.

I’ve experienced what happens when the balance among the ministries of bishops, priests, deacons and the laity gets out of whack. Things get toxic very quickly. And when one-sided unchecked power moves in, trust dies and soon love moves out.

I do not want to live through that again.