Structure in the Episcopal Church

General Convention

A friend of mine on the Episcopal Church Executive Council, for whom I have an immense amount of respect, has been consistently calling on the Episcopal Church to revision its structure by consulting not with voices from within, but with today’s leading authorities on non-profit structure and empowerment. Her point is that we tend to want to tweak an already outmoded system in the Episcopal Church rather than listening to what is working already in the 21st century.

When we talked about the national church structures in our diocesan convention this past Fall, there were voices from the diocese who were calling for the same thing. We even amended our “structure” resolution which was submitted to General Convention to include similar language.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m concerned that a top down approach won’t ultimately work. I wrote this and shared it with others involved in the conversation about structure:

I’d be very happy to try this [sort of top down, expert driven solution]. Seriously. I’ll vote for it if given a chance.

But I’m not really optimistic that it will work. Even with the best intentions and state of the art solutions, it’s going to be an imposition rather than an organic development. And I guess I’m not all that optimistic that such a thing will succeed any better than what we have now is doing.

There’s a story that the groundskeepers at Princeton were growing increasingly frustrated with the way students were walking across the lawns and ignoring the paved walkways. In desperation they asked Prof. Einstein how to solve the problem. He told them to “pave the paths the students were making through the grass”. The students had already found the best solutions to moving about on campus. The University needed to “bless” that and stop fighting it.

What would it look like for us as the Episcopal Church to be willing to give a bit more freedom to dioceses and congregations to find structures for governance that make sense in local contexts? Our context in the center of Phoenix is different than context of our congregation in Winslow AZ, and is different than the context of the native people’s communities on the reservations. Here in Arizona we’re trying to understand what is essential and what is adiaphora in our polity so that we can be part of God’s mission most effectively in those various places.

I’m starting to wonder what that would look like for the Episcopal Church.

So I’m curious, what do all of you think about such things?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Jon says

    I think you’re pretty much right, although, in so far as the church is like other non-profits, those outside experts could be quite helpful.

    Over all, I expect that outside experts would make a few helpful points for the national church’s structure, but won’t be anywhere near as helpful for dioceses and parishes, especially because the more local the structure the more important it is (probably) to have flexible thinking and acting. For example, does the rector really need to be the CEO of the parish or the chief development officer?

  2. susansnook says

    I really don’t think the answer lies with experts. We are not a corporation and should not be driven by corporate models, whether they are designed for non-profit or for-profit corporations. We are different – we are guided by the Holy Spirit and answerable to God. Our solutions need to come from prayer and discernment, not from experts.

    Susan Snook

    • Daniel Berry, NYC says

      While I agree that we aren’t driven by a profit motived, we DO want to make the best possible use of scarce resources. Input of “experts” may well be useful for that purpose. I’m afraid long experience has proven the refusal to make use of expertise, instead relying on “volunteers” or worse, “discernment” (whose discernment? delivered how?) is a tried-and-true method for throwing good money after bad.

      • susansnook says

        Daniel, I don’t have a problem with looking to experts to set up nonprofit financial systems or management systems. But we have a problem if we think that what we do is fundamentally similar to what, say, the Red Cross does. We have to operate by prayer and discernment, not by imitating what other organizations do, no matter how successful they are. We have a different mission. Looking to experts in management is not going to solve our problems with mission.

      • Daniel Berry, NYC says

        Fair enough. But management experts will be assets in terms of stewardship of available resources. It’s up to the organization to set its goals. Managers are the folks who help the organization achieve them through planning, implementation, evaluation and (if indicated) revision of goals. BTW, good managers are good at the discernment process, particularly in discerning and articulating goals. Believe me, I’m no fan of bureaucracy, but one outcome of effective management is transforming an aggregate of people into a goal-focused team.

  3. Elizabeth says

    Thank you, Nick. You and Einstein shed a lot of light. Consulting experts can be a valuable part of gathering information, but the wisdom lies within us. We need to be open to it.

    • Daniel Berry, NYC says

      A group of people can always (I think) solve their own problems with the right kind of leadership. No reason to be wedded to any particular structures — or names for the structures: they’re all groups of people, after all. Managers and consultants are just some of the kinds of names complex technological societies give to facilitators of group action. But the charisms of the human heart and mind are the same even in complicated urban settings.

  4. bob sykes says

    More Anglican silliness. You need the Pope.

    • Daniel Berry, NYC says

      yeh. we need the pope about as much as clergy-molested children do. Or nuns.

  5. Dan says

    This sounds a bit like Total Ministry. Imagine a Church filled with lay preachers, priests, deacons, and bishops, all who earn their living outside the Church and come together voluntarily to empower each other to serve God and God’s people. When all Church members (mostly laity) drive the Church it’s members seek involvement, build community and grow. Is this not the model of the Early Church? Might it not be where we are returning?

  6. In all this talk about new paradigms, I notice around me that most of the really flourishing life and ministry in the Church seems still to be happening in pretty traditional ways. No question we have some hard challenges in terms of resources, of course. And I’m first in line when it comes to advocacy for deconstructing a General Motors style management system at the national level. But the genius of Anglican life over five centuries has been the Spirit-filled dynamic of parson and parish, and I’d hate to toss out that baby with the bathwater. My friend and colleague Craig Barnes, seminary prof. and Presbyterian ministry, wrote this little piece for the Christian Century last year. I think it speaks to the heart of something we tend to lose sight of as we flounder around and try to take hold of the nearest “financially sustainable” model . . . .

    Anyway, my $.02,

    Bruce Robison
    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

    • Daniel Berry, NYC says

      Is anybody suggesting abolishing existing structures? the discussion seems to me to focus on validating a greater range of structures – or, perhaps, adapting them to the idiom of various settings.

      After all, the Lambeth Quadrilateral refers to the adaptation of the so-called Historic Episcopate to the variety of cultural milieux.

  7. I just read this for the first time, and think that part of the problem we have talking about structure is our idea of who is an “expert.” When I say that we should be talking with people who are expert in forms of horizontal networking that have been employed just about everywhere except TEC in the 21st century, I don’t mean that we should hire consultants who have written dissertations on the subject. Indeed, anyone who has recently earned a degree in “organizational management” or the like has been learning from people and books based firmly in 20th-century management culture.

    The real “experts” I think we should be consulting with are the people whose expertise in paths of horizontal networking is of the expertise of the user, not the architect. I’m talking about the gathered wisdom of the vast crowds of people who habitually use horizontal networking as a powerful and satisfying way to get done tasks that they have determined they need to do. I’m *not* talking about a top-down approach in which we bring in people who write books about organizations but have never called any particular network home.

    What I envision is learning from the paths worn by, e.g., adopters and user/developers of the Ubuntu and other Linux OSs. And I think we would be foolish not also to learn from the paths tried and worn smooth by movements such as the Obama 2012 campaign. One of these days I must write about what I saw in the inner working of that campaign. The real genius of that campaign, IMO, whatever you think of our president’s policies, is how much it made use of every volunteer’s knowledge of her/his own social networks and then gave that volunteer — whether s/he had ten minutes or 40 hours/week of time to give — the information, encouragement, and resources to make that experience productive and rewarding.

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