Who’s in charge?

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Among the pressing questions that confronted members of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church​ was a seemingly simple one: who makes decisions for the church when General Convention is not in session? Is it the Executive Council, the presiding bishop, or does it depend on the subject matter and the people involved?

“Under the current canons the Presiding Bishop, Presiding Bishop’s staff, and Executive Council overlap tremendously in their roles and duties to General Convention,” says Julia Ayala Harris, a member of TREC from the Diocese of Oklahoma.

There is, on the one hand, Canon I.4 (1) (a):

“There shall be an Executive Council of the General Convention … whose duty it shall be to carry out the program and policies adopted by the General Convention. The Executive Council shall have charge of the coordination, development, and implementation of the ministry and mission of the Church.

And subsection (e):

The Council … between sessions of the General Convention may initiate and develop such new work as it may deem necessary.

There is, on the other hand, Canon I.2.5: “the Presiding Bishop may appoint, to positions created by the Executive Council of General Convention, officers, responsible to the Presiding Bishop, who may delegate such authority as shall seem appropriate.”

And Canon I.4.3 (i) which says: “officers, agents and employees of the Council … shall perform such duties as the Council, upon the recommendation and under the authority and direction of the Chair and President, may from time to time designate.

The two canons that seem to bestow authority over the church-wide staff upon the presiding bishop assumed their current forms after amendments in the 1990s, and the resulting confusion has never been resolved.

TREC’s proposal

Members of TREC say they wanted to clarify issues of authority within church governance while providing mechanism through which the presiding bishop and his or her staff are accountable to the wider church.

“The TREC proposal [embodied in resolution A004] cleans up canonical language that makes it hard to know what the organization chart and lines of reporting are,” says Tom Little, a member of the Diocese of Vermont, who served on TREC and was also chair of the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church.

“For example, the canons now say that aside from the Presiding Bishop’s personal staff, whatever that means, the rest of the Church Center employees are ‘employees of Executive Council.’   The proposal tries to make it clearer that all of the employees are employees of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), and that they all one way or another are accountable to the Presiding Bishop as Chief Executive Officer. The exception is the staff of the General Convention Executive Officer.”

In addition to spelling out the responsibilities of the presiding bishop, the Very Rev. Craig Loya, a member of TREC who is dean of Trinity Cathedral in Omaha, says the task force sought to “balance this clarified authority with some additional measures of accountability.

In the unicameral house that TREC proposes, the presiding bishop would be elected by the entire General Convention. In the church’s current system, the House of Bishops elects and the House of Deputies confirm. Additionally, senior positions on the church-wide staff would be “nominated jointly by the presiding officers and appointed by the Executive Council,” Loya says. “Further, the Executive Council would have the authority to terminate a senior staff member by a two-thirds majority vote.”

The task force also proposes that the presiding bishop and council participate in mutual ministry reviews “on a recurring basis,” Little says. “TREC believes that this will have clear and important benefits for council and the presiding bishop, and the church.”

Loya says the task force “spent a lot of time talking about the right way to balance authority and accountability in the central executive structures of the church. In the end, we elected not to propose granting Executive Council the authority to discharge a presiding bishop for much the same reason we grant tenure to parish rectors and diocesan bishops: prophetic Christian leadership often involves making unpopular decisions or saying unpopular things. The possibility of being fired by vote of a board can often inhibit that part of a leader’s work.”

The Rev. Miguelina Howell, a member of TREC who is vicar of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut says TREC’s proposals offer the church an excellent opportunity to clarify confusion about its governance, and move forward with new focus. “Our proposals present a structure that foster clarity, accountability and collaboration, which in itself nurtures efficiency,” she says.  “By clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the presiding officers as well as the council, the system will have more space to invest its energy in furthering God’s mission into the world, which I believe would impact the church at all levels.”

A smaller council

Critics of TREC’s proposals note that in addition to striking from the canons language that gives Executive Council “charge of the coordination, development, and implementation of the ministry and mission of the Church,” the task force also proposed reducing the size of the council from 40 members to 21.

At a meeting of Executive Council in October, two months before the release of TREC’s final report, Steve Hutchinson, chair of the council’s Joint Standing Committee on Governance and Administration for Mission TREC’s study papers to that point did not, “ reflect a really comprehensive understanding of what Executive Council does and how we operate, the scope and breadth and depth of our responsibility.”

Council members say that shrinking the size of the body almost 50 percent would make it extremely difficult to maintain the five committees through which the council currently conducts its work. Those are the Joint Standing Committees on Advocacy and Networking, Finances for Mission, Governance and Administration for Mission, Local Ministry and Mission, and World Mission.

“Concerns have been raised about how a smaller council would have enough members to fill its committees and complete all of the committee work required during a triennium,” Little says. “These are valid concerns, and council would have to find new ways to handle that workload, and likely choose not to continue to do certain things as it has done them.”

Critics of the proposal, however, say that reducing the scope of the council’s work will inevitably mean that work will be taken up when necessary by the presiding bishop and the church-wide staff, or by the House of Bishops at its twice-yearly meeting.

The executive director alternative

A small group of deputies, who have a website at have submitted a package of resolutions to the convention, one of which proposes an alternate solution in which the presiding bishop would be a chief spiritual officer, but the organization would be run by an executive director accountable to the executive council.

Resolution D010 would remove the presiding bishop from supervision of the staff and make the executive director responsible for the day-to-day operations of the DFMS.

“The main problem I have observed in my work at the churchwide level is that there is nothing in our current structure that requires or encourages our leaders to act together as a concerted team, focused on a common mission,” says the Rev. Susan Snook, a member of Executive Council and deputy from the Diocese of Arizona. “I believe that the TREC proposals would only exacerbate the tendency for our leaders to become mired in silos and conflict. I believe that we need to create a structure that brings all of the church-wide leaders together on one team and encourages them to work together.”

Snook said the proposal for an executive director frees the presiding bishop to “act as visionary leader, spokesman to the world, and chair of the board, while an executive director supervises staff and reports to the board of directors.

“This is the way almost all nonprofits operate,” she adds. “As the chair of the board, the presiding bishop would still have significant supervisory authority over the executive director, and would be in charge of leading the council through a strategic visioning process, but would also be freed up from daily supervisory responsibilities in order to fulfill the many other visionary leadership roles we want our presiding bishop to fulfill.”

Critics of D010 contend that presiding bishops need the authority to shape the churchwide staff as they see fit, in order to successfully purse their vision for the church.

The Rev. Adam Trambley, a clergy deputy from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, who helped write the resolutions, disagrees. “Anyone involved in a large non-profit understands that board leadership is as essential as the leadership of the executive director, but they are not the same leadership roles or tasks,” he says. “Having an executive director overseeing staff allows our church to gain the benefit of the presiding bishops leadership as board chair.”

Trambley said being chair of executive council would give the presiding bishop time for the other responsibilities that come with a difficult job. These include making appointments to churchwide governing bodies, serving as pastor to the House of Bishops and traveling to Episcopal dioceses and to visit partners in the Anglican Communion.

“We want a presiding bishop with the time to pray, study, ready, so that our leader can also speak and write about the matters affecting our church and our world,” Trambley says. “ Our presiding bishop needs the time to lay out a vision that can inspire us, and which the Executive Council and General Convention can figure out how to live into. An executive director can handle the staff supervision role to allow the presiding bishop to be the leader we need. However, if the presiding bishop is bogged down with staffing issues, no one else is able to provide the vision and leadership.”

Members of TREC don’t argue that their proposals are perfect, Loya says. “The General Convention may very well decide that TREC’s proposals achieve the right balance between authority and accountability, or it may decide to find that balance in a different form. My best hope is not that all of TREC’s proposals be adopted, but much more importantly, that they help to frame a conversation for the church about what changes in our governance structures might best support practicing the way of Jesus in our particular historical moment and cultural contexts.”