September 21, 2013

(Inter)National House

This is not about the W.C. Fields film of that name, but the recent struggles in the Episcopal Church over possible name change for the staff at The Episcopal Church Center to become "The Missionary Society."

 There is nothing new about struggle or tension between the three (or four) entities that serve The Episcopal Church: the General Convention (GC), the Executive (formerly the "National") Council (EC), and the "staff" whether at 281 Park Avenue South ("Church Missions House") or 815 Second Ave ("The Episcopal Church Center", aka ECC). I served in the press and communications office at "815" beginning in the days of John Maury Allin. He always described it as a "service center" there to serve the needs of the church in supporting "SWEEP" — Stewardship, Worship, Education, Evangelism, and Pastoral Care; and of course national and international mission, for which a handy acronym wasn't, well, handy. There was also a finance department to keep those wheels greased, and a communication office (where I served) to support all of the rest in producing resources, print and video. The staff structure was ordered along those lines, and each week the PB would meet with the department heads of each of the "units." The notion seems a bit quaint now, but it seemed to have worked relatively well.

In addition to, and contrasting with this relative clarity, there was significant question as to "whose" staff the staff were: were they the staff of the "National/Executive" Council, or of the PB? This was and is a lively tension; exacerbated by the fact that the General Convention also had offices in the building, but were not "staff" to either the PB or the Council. On that wing of the triangle, there was always some tension between GC and EC as to who was doing what and when.

The Browning years brought a massive combined simplification and complexification to the staff structure, with both consolidation and more levels of hierarchy — including "senior" executives in a whole new — and very well remunerated — level separating the PB from the people actually in charge of the various areas of work. In spite of the evident problems to which this led, it remains more or less the same, with clusters instead of units, and changes in terminology.

Add to the existing tensions between the three structures, the now emerging tensions with DFMS (short for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America) -- previously a more or less silent partner (due to the overreach of the 19th century urge to make everyone a missionary without asking them first -- a noble gesture but prone to fail as many a noble gesture does). In latter days DFMS primarily served as the skeleton and support for fiscal operations, with very little involvement in the actual program or mission.

The real question that rarely gets asked -- and I do believe the aptly acronym’d "revisioning" task force, TREC, is asking it -- is why a church that functions mostly at the local or regional level needs such a complex entanglement of (inter)national structures? I leave it to others to do the math, but if one looks at the Gross Episcopal Product (for example the total receipts for all parishes in 2008 was over $2 billion... and that doesn't count foundations and auxiliary bodies) and compares it with the relatively small budgets of the GC and EC and ECC (as it was) one begins to wonder if all the turmoil at the (inter)national level is really worth it, and that a radical revisioning as a network isn't the best idea.

As to ECC being known as "815" -- "branding" isn't going to change it. Trying to "create" the next meme isn't going to work. Things catch on because they are catchy, and "The Missionary Society" -- as important (and misunderstood) as mission is -- ain’t. I can recall when someone in the staff there even made a tee-shirt for the Episcopal Church Center (ECC), "815" -- emblazoned with the text of Ecc. 8:15. Look it up, it's quite amusing...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

No comments: