General Convention Update: What’s happening with the Budget

A committee hearing is taking place with PB&F (I’m assuming Program, Budget, and Finance, but I’m not going to check). Apparently, after all the back and forth, sturm and drang, anguish across the Church, PB&F is using the Presiding Bishop’s proposed budget as its template. Earlier discussions of it on this blog are here and here. Background here.

Jim Naughton had this to say today before the hearing began. He makes several interesting suggestions:

  1. to reduce the diocesan “asking” from  19% to 15% this triennium
  2. to base the budget on the PB’s proposal
  3. to view it as “transitional” and therefore to remove some of the spending on new programs (up to $5 million) that she proposes.

If you’re interested in the Twitter play by play, follow #GC77

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Preparing candidates for ministry–the role of GOEs

One of the things that raised my eyebrows the highest when reading through early episodes of the budget fiasco, was the proposal to defund General Ordination Exams. These are the exams taken by candidates for ordination to test their competency in certain areas of theological and pastoral study. Such demonstration of competency is a canonical requirement.

I have been involved on various levels of this process. As a faculty member at an Episcopal Seminary, I sat in the faculty meeting where faculty were to vote on recommending students for candidacy, and heard them complain that bishops didn’t take their decision seriously.

I sat for GOEs myself in a year when one of the questions had an egregious typo that made answering it nonsensical. I served as “formation faculty” in a diocese where we received results and explored areas of strength and weakness with ordinands. And in that same capacity, we had to come up with some means of determining competency for candidates to the vocational diaconate.

It may be that as a church, we don’t think demonstrating competency is particularly important. In that case, we should change the canons. It may be that the process could be improved, that changes be made to reflect the realities of ministry in the twenty-first century (but I still think that a firm grounding in the traditional theological disciplines will be necessary in any changed environment: there will still be scripture, and the historical tradition, et al).

What I do know from my experience is that if a diocese takes seriously the requirement to demonstrate competency, it requires enormous amounts of energy, time, and creativity, especially when working with candidates who haven’t had a traditional theological education. Here’s what happened in my former diocese when we had several candidates for the vocational diaconate.

Those of us involved in the process sent a flurry of emails in which we talked about format, what we would require, what sorts of questions we might ask. After several weeks of work, we established the format, vetted the questions with the group, asked the candidates to submit papers. We read the papers, followed up with another flurry of emails to discuss how we thought the candidates did and how we might approach an oral conversation. Then the conversation itself. How long did all that take? I have no idea. Now that was in a relatively large diocese where there were multiple candidates. A single candidate would require almost as much time, energy, and creativity from those involved in establishing competency. How much of a small diocese’s resources would be devoted to assessing a single candidate?

I suppose someone might say, the situation I’ve disagreed shows the inadequacy of GOEs. Perhaps it does, but if the process is broken, let’s fix it. Let’s not eliminate it.

I’m one of those people, perhaps a member of a dying breed, who believes that a learned clergy is one of the things we have to offer the wider church. Yes, it requires, time, money, and other valuable resources, but in a culture where “dumbing-down” seems to be the norm, even the “dumbing down” of Christianity, it’s one more way we set ourselves apart and are counter cultural.

One of the issues in the budget debate is the question what is best done on a national level and what is best done on the diocesan or local level. It seems to me that GOEs provide an excellent test for exploring as a church how we might coordinate national and diocesan efforts. But to do that, we need a conversation that involves all of those perspectives, not simply an executive fiat from above, suddenly telling the dioceses to take over tasks for which they are not prepared and for which they may not have adequate resources. Such a conversation might develop templates, models, or roadmaps for dioceses to follow that would prevent everyone from having to design their own processes. (I wish the same thing were done with other elements of the ordination process–the whole design of the process, for example, or the development of diocesan training programs).

In the meantime, let’s not defund GOEs, let’s keep them going with an eye to revision, improvement, and perhaps complete transformation.

There’s an interesting article at the Cafe in which Raewynne J. Whiteley asks some very pertinent questions.

This week in Budget and Dysfunction news

So the Presiding Bishop released her own version of a budget for the 2012-2015 Triennium. The story (with link to the budget) is here. It’s received praise from Scott Gunn, Crusty Old Dean, and Susan B. Snook.

From the comments on their blog posts, and the comment threads on the Episcopal Cafe (read them here), it seems there remains deep levels of distrust toward the Presiding Bishop and the Chief Operating Officer. We’ve seen this distrust again and again in the last months, perhaps beginning with Bishop Sauls’ restructuring proposals last fall. As an outsider and observer, I’ve had a hard time understanding where it came from and what fuels it. There seem to be several sources: anticlericalism, knee-jerk resistance to episcopal authority, tension between the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, personal animosity between several of the major players, tension between staff at the Episcopal Church Center and General Convention. No doubt I’m missing some of the dynamics involved.

As an outsider, I must say that it seems all a bit petty, a waste of time and energy. Above all, it is a distraction from the very real problems that face the Church.

And then I read this from Susan Russell: http://inchatatime.blogspot.com/2012/06/elephant-in-living-room-coming-soon-to.html. She provides context, going back to General Convention 2006. I wanted to cry, scream, and bang my head against the wall. With everything confronting the church, let’s reopen old wounds, fight old battles, rehearse old resentments.

God help us all!

More on the budget

Yesterday afternoon, borrowing a tactic from politicians in Washington to release bad news late on a Friday, TEC produced a line-by-line commentary on the budget for the 2012-2015 triennium. There’s additional material here, including a foreword from the Presiding Bishop and  description of the process that led to the budget itself. The entire document is here:

commentary_on_the_draft_2013-2015_triennial_budget

That story is quite revealing about the dysfunction that led to disaster. Budgeting was put in the hands of a small group. Instead of involving staff, the budget was placed in the hands of the “Executive Council Executive Committee.” There was a survey of select individuals across the church, and from that survey, budget priorities were developed. Then, in advance of the eight-member ECEC meeting, five of the members had a conference call, unknown to the others, where further matters were discussed. I’m not going to say more. You must read Crusty Old Dean’s commentary on the commentary to understand the depths of the dysfunction.  I’ll quote him on the relationship between the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies:

Unreal.  The puerile bickering between the PB and the PHOD was bad enough when it was eye-roll worthy; who thought it would be at the core of the struggle to reshape our churchwide structures outside of any democratic process?

He also makes several proposals about what to do:

1)  Adopt something like this budget, and accept that we have dismantled our entire churchwide organization based on not much more than fight between a handful of people over the vision for our churchwide organization, and wind up with Potemkin village for a churchwide organization, where administration and governance are protected by those with a vested interest in them, run by a Politburo in defiance of democratic process.
2)  DEMAND that a TRANSITIONAL BUDGET be adopted for the 2013-2015 to fund more or less our current structures with equal across-the-board cuts.  During this transition budget, allow for a churchwide discussion and consultation.  Find ways to make it happen!  Eliminate the across the Board 3% raises for the triennium.  Postpone the $1 million in additional staff proposed. Make it work somehow.
If not, then walk out and prevent a quorum necessary to pass this.  In the end, if we stand by and do nothing to try to prevent this injustice from moving forward, we forfeit our rightful place as the DFMS and instead accept this dysfunction as normative.  As Leviticus 19 tells us, if we see injustice, “you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.”
People ask me if I’m going to convention. It’s wonderful, they say. I’m not sure Madison is far enough away from Indianapolis to escape infection from the poison that seems to have infested our church.

General Convention Update–Blogging the Blue Book

Not me, Scott Gunn. He’s writing a series of posts on the various reports and resolutions to be discussed at General Convention. They are all worth reading–thoughtful and challenging–and often addressing larger issues facing the church.

For example, he raises questions about the political resolutions proposed by various bodies here. Here’s the principle he proposes:

Let us tell the world what we are going to do about political problems, rather than telling the world what they should do about political problems.

So rather than tell corporations to mind the environment, let’s pledge to have environmentally sustainable congregations. Let’s stop killing so many trees (ahem, General Convention legislative binder. *cough*). Rather than tell President Obama to do this or that about various Middle Eastern crises, let’s divest or invest or travel or boycott or something. Let’s stop calling for an end to the boycott of Cuba and instead set up travel programs to take people there. You get the idea.

And, for the love of God, let’s stop telling other governments what to do. What possible business do we have telling the government of North Korea what to do? How are 800 deputies and 200 bishops going to monitor the use of drones in warfare? Why should we wade into the complexities of the US tax code (remember, we are an international church!)?

And remember, one of the few budget items to be increased for the the next triennium is the Governmental Affairs office, while other programs like formation were gutted.

Frederick Schmidt also ponders the relationship between the church and the political realm in “Winning the White House and losing our souls.” Some of what he says is quite pertinent to Scott’s analysis of the place of political resolutions at General Convention:

Three, political speech and theological speech are not one in the same. Yes, theology has collective and corporate implications and, therefore, political implications. But the church is called upon to think about those issues from a fundamentally different point of view. Methodists are fond of talking about the resources of Christian theology as lying in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. That list is inadvertently read as a list of two resources unique to the church (Scripture and tradition), alongside two resources shared in common with everyone else (what goes on inside our heads and what goes on in our lives). But when Christians talk about reason, we are talking about reasoning with the church, and when we talk about experience, we are talking about the experience of the church. When we use political language as if it were theological language, or when we use theology as if were a surrogate for politics, we fail to live and think as Christians were meant to live and think.

Executive Council decides it is disappointed

I’m glad they can agree on something. Full story from Episcopal Cafe here. It includes both the politburo’s official communique and a memo to the committee responsible for creating the budget.

The meeting took place in a week when we learned more about the disaffection of millennials from religion. Among the key results:

While only 11% of Millennials were religiously unaffiliated in childhood, one-quarter (25%) currently identify as unaffiliated, a 14-point increase. Catholics and white mainline Protestants saw the largest net losses due to Millennials’ movement away from their childhood religious affiliation.

  • Today, college-age Millennials are more likely than the general population to be religiously unaffiliated. They are less likely than the general population to identify as white evangelical Protestant or white mainline Protestant.
  • Millennials also hold less traditional or orthodox religious beliefs. Fewer than one-quarter (23%) believe that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word. About 1-in-4 (26%) believe Bible is the word of God, but that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. Roughly 4-in-10 (37%) say that the Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God.

We know too well by now about the dramatic decline in mainline Protestantism, and the overall decline in institutional affiliation and respect for institutions. An organization like the Episcopal Church has to work very hard to rebuild that trust. When a debacle like this week’s budget debate occurs, we do nothing to regain that trust. Indeed, it undermines our message and has a significant impact on our message. When, as others have pointed out, this disfunction occurs over a long term (apparently the budget debate was even worse leading up to GC 2009), there may be permanent damage to the institution.

Grief? No, Hope! The Executive Council, the Budget, and the future of the Episcopal Church

Executive Council is meeting in Salt Lake City. Here’s the ENS report on today’s session. This meeting is taking place against the backdrop of the outrage over the proposed budget–both as proposed and as we are learning about it. As usual, Crusty Old Dean responds eloquently and passionately to today’s developments in that controversy.

The remarks by the leading pooh-bah’s of the EC are available from ENS as well. Bonnie Anderson reprises much of what she said at the CEEP conference I attended in March. I wasn’t impressed then. Her efforts to distinguish institutions from movements and argue that the latter is the future of the church seems to fly in the face of a long history in which every “movement” eventually institutionalizes itself. Just ask Max Weber.

The Presiding Bishop also offered remarks in which she focused on the grief we feel as a result of our loss of place in the establishment and numerical decline:

We are living in post-establishment times, and as a church, we are beginning to recognize that reality. It has brought an enormous amount of grief. The struggles over inclusion are a symptom, but only part of the response to losing a position and way of being that to many people has seemed intrinsic to being an Episcopalian. The post-establishment reality brings grief in abundance as former ways of living, governing, and privilege disappear. Like all kinds of grief, it can elicit anger, denial, and attempts to go back to some remembered golden age. None of those responses heals the grief. Nor can we fix the grief by tinkering with details. Only by living through the grief and loss, and beginning to embrace the possibilities and opportunities for new life will we ultimately find healing. We are a people who believe in resurrection, and we live in a season when acting out of that belief is absolutely essential.

I’m just not sure who she’s talking about: members of the Executive Council, staff at headquarters, bishops and deputies? Certainly not me. I have no grief for a past when the Episcopal Church was the de facto civil religion of the USA. I have no grief for a national denominational structure heavy on bureaucracy (and probably sinecures) with preference for insiders, WASPs, and those to the manor born.

I suppose because I grew up in another tradition, and drank deeply from the theology and spirituality of Anabaptism, I think a church rid of its associations with establishment and dominant culture is finally free to do what God has called the church to be. We are in a moment of extraordinary freedom, possibility and hope.

I came to the Episcopal Church because I encountered Jesus Christ in the bread and wine, in the proclamation of the word, in the liturgy, and in fellowship. I have no commitment to the Episcopal shield, or flag, the blue book, or the red book. I have no emotional attachment to General Convention, to 815 (wherever or whatever that might be). I am a priest of the church because I was called by God, and in spite of efforts by some to dismiss it, in the end the church, in a particular bishop and Commission on Ministry, heard and affirmed that call. I am a priest of the church because I believe that through my ministry in the church I can share the good news of Jesus Christ and offer new life, hope and faith in the Risen Lord in a broken and hurting world.

To do those things, I do not need a national bureaucracy or General Convention. In fact, both of those detract from my ministry because it means that money raised in my local congregation is used to support administration, bureaucracy, and a process that produces a budget with unimaginable errors.It means that energy that might be extended on thinking about reaching people with the good news in an increasingly secular society is deflected toward blog posts like this one.

To share the good news of Jesus Christ, I do need help and support: from the ministry of the laity in my parish, from my local and diocesan clergy colleagues, from my bishop–my pastor–and above all from those networks everyone is talking about, but few seem to be facilitating–networks of people in similar contexts, struggling with similar issues and imagining creative possibilities for the future.

Of the three presentations, I only found Bishop Sauls helpful in pointing a way forward. I’m ready to join that conversation he is hoping will take place, but don’t invite me to a funeral for the Episcopal Church of the twentieth century.

Bishop Stacy Sauls’ opening remarks to today’s meeting of the Executive Council:

The conversation I long to have with you is about putting everything on the table about our common life and looking at it in light of what Jesus said about survival, about how we live our lives to take up our cross and follow him, not just to Calvary but beyond Calvary to Resurrection. I want us to talk about putting everything on the table and rebuilding the Church for a new time that has no precise historical precedent. I think we should put dioceses on the table and ask how the ministry of a bishop relates to a particular people rather than to a particular geography. I think we should put episcopal ministry on the table and ask how bishops should work with each other collegially and how often they should meet together. I think we should put the exercise of primacy in our unique context on the table. I think we have to put how other clergy and laypeople participate in the councils of the church, and more importantly, are encouraged to live out their baptisms by proclaiming the good news of what God has done in Christ by word and example on the table. I think, and this is my particular concern, we have to put how we use the resource a churchwide staff to serve local mission and ministry on the table. Budgets may help us do that, or at least they may give us the occasion to do these things, but budgets themselves should never be the point of any of them. That is the conversation the staff as a whole longs to have with you.

Churches that turn inward will die. At every level, churches that turn inward will die. Those that turn outward, even at the risk of surviving, will thrive. Mission is how we do that. What serves mission will ultimately thrive. Because this is the Gospel. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” The conversation I long to have with you is about how are we, all of us, using the tasks before us to embrace, and not to avoid, the Gospel.