Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An insider looking in from the outside

The Internet is both gift and curse:  gift because we can stay on top of what is happening in distant events, blow by blow, and curse because we are incited by necessarily incomplete reports to all manner of emotions. Certainly this has been the case in the online reporting by Episcopal News Service (ENS) of the just ended Executive Council meeting in Salt Lake City and the correspondingly swift blogosphere commentary.

For this writer, the experience has been unique. As a member of Executive Council, but one who was absent from Salt Lake City due to caring for a husband just barely three weeks out of kidney transplant surgery, I got to experience what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. Granted, I did have the advantage of following somewhat minimally the written reports, proposed resolutions and financial reports posted to the GCO Extranet Web site dedicated to Executive Council’s use. They did not, however, tell the story of the discussions that took place in plenary sessions, in committee sessions or in informal conversations at meals, breaks and evening relaxation over a libation.

So, let me share a few observations as an insider looking in from the outside.

About Communications and the Need to Know

If Council and management didn’t know before, let me point out the obvious: there are a lot of people, both those who keenly love The Episcopal Church and wish it well and those who have antipathy for The Episcopal Church and deem it broken, who want to know what is happening in the councils of the church, some to the extreme of anxiousness bordering on unhealthy obsession. So, from my point of view, I think it behooves Council and the church’s communications department to do a good and timely job of communicating what is happening, in specifics and in as much detail as seems necessary in each instance, including some comments about the reasoning behind why decisions and actions are made and taken. When I was chair of a state sports association in which competitive juices ran high, I often over-communicated, and some people didn’t read what I wrote. But for those who had the need to know, my communiqués kept unrest down to a dull roar in my two-year term.

When a meeting is a multi-day meeting, as are Council meetings, it takes time for the entire story to unfold, and it takes time for the reporting on the story to get out, parcel by parcel. It is not helpful to anyone, including to those who are critics of Council, for analysis that reads a lot more like potshots than thoughtful reflection to be engaged piecemeal. The immediate case in point is the disparagement of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s comments found in the ENS story entitled “Presiding bishop warns Executive Council about ‘suicide by governance’” posted on October 24. More information offering a fuller picture of the context of Bishop Jefferts Schori’s comments and Council members’ responses to them was reported by ENS in its October 25 story entitled “Executive Council passes reduced 2011 budget” posted after the Council meeting ended.

Between the two ENS news stories, there were many blog postings that zeroed in on the sound bites from the first news story and mused about what was meant without any circling back to the Presiding Bishop or to the context of the Council meeting’s discussions. And yes, of course, it wasn’t really possible to circle back to either – yet. The October 25th ENS story after the Council meeting was helpful in providing a more fulsome picture. I had the opportunity, being at home managing lab and doctors’ visits and six times a day meds and preparing dietary-restricted meals, to read many of those blogs. My main impression is that there sure are a lot of people who have a need to hear themselves talk and who believe that line by line scrutiny of another’s comments or actions, as reported by third parties, somehow makes the bloggers feel smarter and righter. My response is, hire a therapist.

For any of you who has attempted the daunting job of reporting on events live, or as soon afterwards as possible, you know that it is a big responsibility to choose which of the myriad of important actions and remarks to report and how best to report them accurately and without bias. My hat is off to the Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg of ENS for the stellar job that she does in this regard. The statement from Executive Council, which is typically written by a team of three writers (myself included), is meant to be more of a picture of the experience of the Council members during the meeting and is directed at our fellow members of The Episcopal Church. We try to give a flavor of what has happened, but the statement is neither report nor minutes.

About Executive Council, Deputies and Bishops and Governance

I strongly believe that speaking about specific points of disagreement about perspectives and choices is of paramount importance. In a civil, democratic church community, speech as exemplified in conversations and dialogue is what is important in order to advance mission and ministry. Dialogue must be between principals and not amidst a circle of third party kibitzers. Now, if the kibitzers engage the principals, then they become principals in the dialogue, too.

I happen to think the Presiding Bishop’s comments about the exercise of the roles of deputies versus bishops as being diocesan-based versus whole church based is inaccurate. I don’t think it’s something that can be generalized, because there are as many versions of how diocese-influenced or diocese-loyal any deputy or bishop might be as there are deputies and bishops. It’s even more complicated than that. I think it also depends on the nature of the question before the deputies and bishops as to how strongly or, if at all, their diocesan influence or loyalty weighs in. Individuals at both ends of the conservative and liberal spectrum seem to want to paint the picture as absolute, either A or B, and it’s neither. Deputies and bishops are thinking individuals who have deeply held convictions and widely different experiences, and they are complex and cannot be reduced to stereotypes.

My observations lead me to believe that the most important two qualities of church leaders in any role is profound, utter love of the Body of Christ and being equipped through both Christian and secular formation for the role undertaken. Personal politics or theological leanings are much less important. Being unprepared is, in my opinion, inexcusable. I believe that those of us who vote to elect church leaders have an equal responsibility to pray for, lift up, challenge, inform and dialogue with those leaders whether or not they were our candidates of choice.

“Suicide by governance” is a wonderful sound bite, but that’s all. It’s actually an unfortunate turn of phrase, because it invites more emotional outbursts than it does serious reflection. And seriously, The Episcopal Church really does have some issues to reflect and act upon regarding its governance structure. My sense is that everyone can agree that something needs to be done, but what we cannot agree upon – yet – is how much to deconstruct and restructure, and the when and how of it.

Structural change will always be resisted by the status quo and those most invested in the status quo, whether by virtue of benefits that they derive from the status quo or from nostalgia about traditions that have blessed them and theirs. But it will always be better to be our own agents of change and bear the lumps that will surely heap upon us as we engage change than to be the remaining and passive recipients of abandonment, apathy and neglect, or rebellion and revolution. The very human reaction I see all around me in the church is the emotion of not trusting our leaders and not wanting to be led into a season where we will be taking some lumps before it gets better. Who ever said that moving forward would always be on the primrose path with others beyond our sight taking the lumps, but not us?


Ann said...

Thanks Lelanda - but the role of reporters is "news" as in- now - these days. Plus there is much anxiety out in the church about "authority creep" by bishops - so when the PB makes a startling statement like this it confirms that fear and it is going viral. People will write stories about it.



You are right to point out authority creep by bishops as a topic of concern. What particularly galls me as a lay person is how some bishops automatically assume that their take on scripture and faith is somehow intrinsically more valid than mine.

What I have observed is what I would categorize as spiritual immaturity on the part of at least one bishop I know who doesn't trust the movement of the Holy Spirit sufficiently to release his/her control over every small iota of diocesan business and allow the Spirit-infused people to do their ministry.