A unique vantage point on the structure debate

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Tom Little
Tom Little

As chair of the Standing Committee on Structure and a member of the Task for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), Deputy Tom Little of Vermont, a lawyer and former state legislator, has had a unique vantage point on the debate about reshaping the church’s governance that may well dominate this General Convention. He told Jim Naughton of House of Deputies News about his experience.

What have you learned about the way people think about the structure of the church from your service on two church-wide bodies that have presented differing sets of recommendations on how we should govern ourselves?

I suspect that the vast majority of Episcopalians don’t regularly think about the “structures of the church.” They do think, and worry, about the future of the church, meaning their congregation, mostly, and to some extent their diocese, and their congregation’s attendance, revenues and expenses, and its ministry and mission. These thoughts and worries sometimes lead to frustrations about the governing processes of the church as they impact the financial realities of running a parish or mission, but I doubt that most take the time to study the whys and wherefores of church-wide structures, polity and politics. My experience in the church, as a chancellor, vestry member, General Convention deputy starting in 1997, and a member of various CCABs [committees, commissions, agencies and boards], including TREC and Structure, supports this.

Another way to approach the question would be to observe that most people only think about church structures and governance when something seems to be going wrong, or is at risk of going wrong, and then look for a flaw, an inefficiency, a redundancy, etc., to help better understand the situation, explain the problem and solve it.

Did you encounter distinctive schools of thought regarding the restructuring of church governance?

Of those who do study these things carefully and over time, including longtime General Convention deputies and bishops, members of Executive Council and some CCAB members, and probably some academics in our seminaries, I have found two general types.

One type are incrementalists who think our structure and governance are generally sound, but could be improved by becoming more efficient or effective. Many of these cite the polity of the church as support for their stance, and will tell you that the current structures and governance processes appropriately reflect or embody our polity, with their dispersed decision-making and authority among all of the orders of ministry—including prominent roles for lay persons.

The other type are those who have concluded that our governance and administration are ripe, or overripe, for a thorough house cleaning—and that only with a shakeup of structures and governance processes can our ship be set on its true course.

The Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church (SCSC) conversations tended more to the first type. This may stem from its canonical mandate, which seems to contemplate an ongoing, incremental review.

Indeed, this nature of SCSC may explain why the 2012 General Convention legislative committee on structure chose not to assign the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church the responsibility for leading the structure conversation in the ensuing triennium—and instead established a task force with its own, distinct and broader “reinvention” mandate. This was underscored by the unanimous voice votes both houses gave to the resolution creating TREC. It was no surprise, then, that the TREC conversations tended to follow the TREC mandate, and were passionately searching for new and innovative solutions to what ails the church.

How did the conversations on TREC differ from the conversations on the standing commission? How were they similar?

What the two conversations were shared (and there was communication and collaboration between them, and not only because I was a member of both and served as the liaison between them) was a deep love for the church and the mission it serves. Also shared was a lack of consensus on many issues. As many have pointed out, despite the unanimity in 2012 that something bold needs to be done to improve or reform the church’s governance, structures and administration, achieving consensus on specific reforms and changes has been frustratingly elusive.

I would also comment that the SCSC conversations took place in the conventional CCAB format of two in-person meetings and a series of around a dozen videoconferences. Detailed minutes of each meeting were posted to the General Convention website, yet the commission did not hold any church-wide events or push out its minutes and materials via any social media (except for a modest Facebook presence). TREC, in contrast, consciously, regularly and vigorously used social media to spread word of its meetings and the materials it developed. TREC also held a churchwide web event in September 2014 at the National Cathedral, which was widely attended. Unfortunately, the churchwide, in-person event called for in Resolution C095 was not funded by the 2012 General Convention budget, and did not happen. So I think the two conversations had different contexts within the greater bodies and members of the church, and we all can learn from some of the communication outreach efforts of TREC.

Should the church be paying more attention to this issue? Why? How would it do so?

The church should not lose sight of TREC’s conclusion that while structural and technical changes, by themselves, will not be sufficient for re-imagining the church in the midst of a changing world, they are essential to progress. Chosen wisely and implemented well, these changes will give us more time, energy and financial resources for innovation and adaptation, and more efficient decision-making.