Rethink the PHoD’s Job

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The 79th General Convention will be my second as a deputy. My first foray into the inner workings of our denomination’s national structure was prompted by the calls to reimagine the church. I believed, and still believe, that the Episcopal Church is going to have to make some difficult and imaginative decisions if we are not only to survive as a body, but thrive.

While some steps at reform were taken, overall I felt disappointment at the way the effort was received by the deputies in Salt Lake City.  Something that began with so much energy, but lacked clear direction, ended with a whimper when the convention decided not to recommission the Task Force, or call together a new one to continue the work of reimagining. There were bright spots—the efforts to fund church plants, parish revitalization, and evangelism stand out in my mind. But a particularly negative aspect of the process seemed to be an unwillingness to take a long hard look at the assumptions that underlie our structures and organization. At best, it seems as though we’ve stumbled into the configuration we now have. At worst, some aspects of our structure seem top heavy and dated.

There are tell-tale signs of we are willing to look:

  • The fact that General Convention voted in 2012 to move our headquarters away from 815 Second Avenue in New York City—a resolution that originally called for selling the facility, then renting the entirety of it, but was simply pared down to a call to move. Something that hasn’t happened.
  • The tensions that sometimes broke out into the open between Bonnie Anderson when she was President of the House of Deputies and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori over who appropriately represented the Episcopal Church.

These issues and others are indicative of an institution in crisis. Not a terminal crisis, but a crisis nonetheless, related to identity, purpose, and confidence. The necessity of clarifying who we are, our mission, and the structures that will most effectively support that mission will not go away.

One unresolved issue—not unrelated to the tensions mentioned above—has been the proper role and expectations for the President of the House of Deputies. From my perspective, the best description of the intended role of the president is as Derek Olsen has described it: “The President is the Episcopal Church’s senior warden, charged with ensuring that voices from the pews resound in the halls of power. Constitutionally, the president is both a partner and a foil designed to assist and temper the presiding bishop’s vision, ideally representing the corporate voice of the people” (“Checks and Balances,” The Living Church, May 21, 2012. https://livingchurch.org/2012/05/21/checks-balances/). Of course, just because the president of the House of Deputies might be conceived of as analogous to a senior warden, does not mean that  the president, like so many vestry members, has to be unpaid staff!

The president does a great deal of work, including work during the triennium, to ensure that we are prepared for General Convention, that the governance of the Episcopal Church continues in good order, and as a representative of the Episcopal Church. Therefore, the fact that we as a church have been engaged in a conversation about whether or not the president of the House of Deputies should be paid is unsurprising. There were originally resolutions that addressed  that need in some way. B014 is the one that passed that emerged from the legislative Committee on Church Leadership yesterday on a unanimous vote. It would pay the president “director’s and officer’s fees” to be set by Executive Council.

I am not opposed to this resolution in theory. A laborer deserves their wages (1 Tim. 5:18), and given the amount of work required by the position currently, some form of appropriate remuneration seems just.

And yet. I remain skeptical of the necessity of the amount of work we currently ask the president of the House of Deputies to take on. I am likewise—and I know this may be in conflict with the democratic impulse that lies so close to our hearts as Episcopalians—skeptical of the need for the president of the House of Deputies to act in concert so often with the Presiding Bishop. I simply feel that the church should engage in more practical support for our congregations and dioceses, that our resources should be directed that way, and I’m unconvinced that we need more than one official spokesperson, no matter how winsome.

Should General Convention decided that we’re headed the right direction structurally, and with all we ask of the President, then the position should be compensated. But I think we should take the time to think more deeply about what we really need to fulfill our mission.

“The Rev. Jody Howard is a deputy from the Diocese of Tennessee, and is rector of St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church, in Hendersonville, Tennessee.”

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