Monday, February 17, 2014

TREC Junction: What's Your Function? On Networks

Conjunction junction -- what's your function?
I got three favorite networks that get most my jobs done.
Hooking up words, and phrase, and clauses.

The Task for for Reimagining the Episcopal Church recently issued one of its first Study Papers, this one on Episcopal networks.  TREC noted that it will be doing this over the next few months, issuing short papers on various aspects of reimagining the church, asking for input and feedback.  As he read the TREC paper, Crusty Old Dean was reminded of these lyrics from the Schoolhouse Rock classic "Conjunction Junction," as the old man working in the railyard talks about how conjunctions connect elements in sentences like hooking up boxcars on trains, as TREC spoke of the ways various networks connect different parts of the church.

COD's initial reaction to this paper is one of puzzlement -- which may not seem like the most likely reaction -- intermingled with significant reflection, since Crusty has written about networks extensively on this blog -- combined with annoyance, as the paper seems overly fond of using dashes in sentences -- which creates a very choppy reading experience like this very sentence.  When COD turned in the first draft of the first chapter of his dissertation, written at the top of the first page in red pen were these words from his advisor:  "Disabuse yourself of your love of semicolons or this is going to be a very long process."  COD loved to write long, scholarly sentences, expounding on complex issues in the formation of Christian doctrine; often involving semicolons to combine complex sentences without using conjunctions; which most likely would have saddened the guy from Conjunction Junction.  TREC, disabuse yourself of your love of using "--" or it's going to be a very long process.

Crusty's puzzlement was not just confined to TREC's grammatical choices.  On the one hand, Crusty has no issue with the paper's central premise: that we need to rethink the ways in which networks in the church operate and function.  Hopefully we didn't need to be 18 months out from General Convention 2012 to state this point, however, and thinks TREC could have come to that conclusion much sooner.  Crusty has said something similar time and again on this blog, much of it BEFORE the 2012 General Convention, in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.

Apart from that central premise, to be blunt, COD doesn't know what the hell this paper was trying to say.  It claims to be laying out and being explicit about certain understandings and assumptions we might have concerning networks and structure in the church -- but then makes a series of assumptions that COD has trouble accepting, and misses opportunities within the very assumptions it lays out.  The paper rightly notes a tendency to distrust "the center" but then oddly confines this to "Protestant denominations."  Rather the consensus of most scholarship of American religion notes that this is something which cuts across almost all aspects of religion in America.  Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestant denominations share this tendency.  Martin Marty summed this
The man can make any bowtie work.
up by quipping that in America, everyone is a little bit Baptist.  You could even argue this tendency is not even confined to Christianity; after all, this is the place that has given birth to movements such as Unitarianism, Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, and a host of Restorationist movements for whom establishing a new center to distrust became central.

Yet while noting this distrust is of "any center" the paper as a whole seems to confine itself solely to the very centers it says are outdated.  All of the verbage here used to describe 815 -- a sense of disconnect and feel that a top-down, hierarchical, hub-and-spoke model no longer viable -- could accurately describe the way many congregations feel about their diocese, and the way COD has felt in some of the congregations where he has been a member.  Likewise, the effort to defend a "power center" is not reserved solely to churchwide structures, but could be describe any number of committees in a local congregation.  There is an opportunity here to take a key aspect of this paper on networks -- the erosion of a "center" and tendencies to distrust that "center" -- and universalize it, which is something the paper consistently fails to do.  We don't need to reimagine our churchwide structures; we need to reimagine and rethink how we do church from top to bottom.  Otherwise we could reimagine networks to connect a bunch of dying congregations while healthy ones move on to some other kind of structure.  At times, it even seems to take what seems even to Crusty gratuitous shots at the governance structures we have, noting the "sacralization of division of powers" held by some people with regard to our shared governance, which seemed a bit unnecessary.  [I know, you're thinking a) COD has a threshold for gratuitous shots? and b) is he actually defending General Convention?]

After failing to lay out central assumptions behind understandings of the "center", the paper then goes down a strange rabbit hole on sin, noting that we often don't think of sin when we think of how we structure and order the church; we speak of silos, dysfunction, bureaucracy, but not of how our ability to be "mired, knotted, and entangled" might be construed as sin.  COD is troubled by this because of the paper's tendency to focus solely on churchwide networks -- is somehow only the House of Bishops,
It all comes back to Erasmus' 1515 edition of the NT, people.
House of Deputies, Executive Council, and 815 capable of this kind of sin?  This is not directly stated here, to be sure, but the discussion in the paper repeatedly comes back to churchwide networks. Rather than seeing some networks in the church as "sinful", COD wishes the paper had focused on "metanoia" instead. This Greek word was traditionally translated as "repent" in Latin, but in his 1515 critical edition of the New Testament Erasmus noted that in the original Greek "metanoia" has additional nuances, liberating the concept from being subsumed into the medieval penitential cycle of confession, absolution, and penance.  Metanoia means "turning again" (literally), to reorient, to rededicate.  Could we not say at times ALL of our networks in the church have fallen short -- and this is a time for us to practice metanoia, to recommit ourselves, rather than labeling the failings of some networks as sinful?  Again echoing a theme, COD found himself approving in principle of what is laid out here but puzzled by some of the ways concepts are being applied.  Otherwise it appears this paper is only accusing some networks of being sinful, most likely the same ones it sneers at some people for "sacralizing."

The paper then moves on to speak of networks themselves, and lays out four different kinds, in the process demonstrating continued addiction to the "--":

1. Personal networks—both intimate and social 
2. Issue/lobby/political networks—most active in legislative events 
3. Project/missional networks—centered around missional acts, including networks of those who experience great need and pain. 
4. Knowledge sharing or co-learning networks 

COD has no real beef with this laying out of networks; it's as good as any, COD supposes.  Then they ask how networks that fall into #1 and #2 can inform networks in #3 and #4.  Fair enough, though COD doesn't see this in a linear fashion, but rather in a more synergistic way; there very well may be ways #4 informs #1, for instance.  What he does have a major beef with is the notion that there are "networks 1.0", those established in the second half of the 20th century, and the need for us to transition to "networks 2.0."  This breakdown, which is an essential hermeneutic to the second half of the paper, COD utterly rejects.  And he rejects it because, for instance,

1)  THERE WERE NETWORKS IN THE CHURCH BEFORE 1950!  TREC, Crusty agrees with your assessment that much of the structure of the Episcopal Church is a reflection and creation of a particular time and place.  COD has argued that in numerous places on this blog over the past three years.  However, there were networks before networks 1.0.  The story of American Christianity, when there were no such thing as diocesan or denominational structures, was that of "voluntary societies" -- affinity based, self-sustaining networks, both denominationally and cross-denominationally.  The American Bible Society, the American Board of Commissions for Domestic Missions, Women's Christian Temperance Union, abolition societies, American Bible and Prayer Book Society, Evangelical Association -- we could go on and on.  The way Christians got stuff done in the 1800s was by coming together and creating an affinity based, self-sustaining network (usually by dues subscription, but not always).  These were networks (0.0 since 1.0 and 2.0 seem to be spoken for?) and it's how Episcopalians and people of faith got s**t done, like, you know, sending out hundreds of thousands of missionaries, founding networks of schools and colleges, getting alcohol outlawed [though Crusty does not approve, nonetheless it's an example of what self-sustaining affinity based networks could do], all of it with nothing like the kind of involvement of central denominational structures as we now understand them.  This was also how marginalized persons claimed their voices:  Alexander Crummell came back from Liberia and helped form an affinity based network of Episcopalians to oppose proposals by southern dioceses to create segregated jurisdictions for African Americans.  What we know as the United Thank Offering and Episcopal Church Women were groups of lay women who formed networks to raise money for missionary work.  COD is just flabbergasted that any discussion of networks does not note how essential they were to The Episcopal Church and American Christianity prior to 1950.  COD has said on this blog the church of the future will look more like 1850 than 1950 as we look to try to understand self-sustaining, affinity based networks in the church.

2)  Crusty is just flummoxed by TREC's understanding of "change."  They assert that we can't sit back and wait for usual demographic changes to transform us.  They trot out just the kind of trendy corporate example that they say the church shouldn't be imitating in Steve Jobs, noting Jobs at first didn't know how to get past resistance from people to using keyboards on computers, but that he eventually decided that younger people would come along and use them, and thus a tide of demographic change would transform the industry.  The Episcopal Church can't rely on that, TREC says.  To which Crusty says, So what?  True, we can't wait for a tidal wave of younger people to come along and transform the church, because the church skews ridiculously old and is resistant to change.  Yet is there no other way to work with change in the church than to be transformed by demographic tidal waves?  What would it take to invite what younger Episcopalians there are in the church truly to co-create the structures that will be needed in a future church, instead of a bunch of old people pondering what structures we need to reimagine for "them"?  Read Crusty's extended thoughts on this here.

3)  The paper then concludes with reflecting on four different networks, and, in doing so, makes Crusty wonder if they know what hey're talking about when it comes to networks in the church.

--First up is the House of Bishops, House of Deputies, and Executive Council.  The paper asks how they might move beyond "prescribed roles and positions" and "be in the service of missional networking and co-learning" -- that is, sees them as a #1 and #2 in their four kinds of netowrks and asking how they could be more #3 and #4.  Sure, this would be great.  But COD thinks that the paper runs the danger of being a slave to its own categories.  Rather, COD would rather ask, how can HOB, HOD, and EC be ALL FOUR of the networks outlined above?  Because there is the potential in them to do that, potential which they certainly fall short of, but which you could argue is inherent in them; and, at their best (which admittedly isn't often), this is what they do.

Crusty is confused by the paper's obsession with email list-servs as its only "real" suggestion at change.  It asks how the Bishops and Deputies email list-servs might "serve less partisan ends."  TREC, the church is not going to be saved by email list-servs, which are so f*****g 1998, anyway.

The paper again repeats its problematic application of "center" only to certain bodies; it notes how HOB, HOD, and Council are a "center.". Crusty could make an argument that HOB, HOD, and EC are as much "networked" as they are a "center".  Council has a balance of bishops, clergy, and laity distributed geographically from across the church.  They are a center, and they are a network; the categories are simply not as uniform as laid out here.

--Next up are the seminaries.  First off, there are 10 Episcopal seminaries, not 11.  Try to keep up, TREC, Bexley and Seabury merged.  Second, COD challenges the simply asserted "seminaries compete."  Crusty is a seminary dean.  He thinks seminaries have particular charisms or ministries within the church, and draw certain networks (bishops, students, dioceses) to them.  Frankly I don't
Reset the chamber for Nashotah House.
think many students stay up late at night wondering whether to go to EDS or Nashotah.  How many seminaries actually compete for students and donors?  You could argue that seminaries are just the kind of self-sustaining networks of affinity that we should be looking at, with all the benefits and challenges that come with that (for instance, one thing we need to keep in mind is that historically many of the 19th century self sustaining networks fail and others ceased to be when their reason for existence changed).  COD's seminary has been around for 190 years, gone through four major changes and different incarnations, and doesn't receive a dime from any denominational entity.  That said, seminaries absolutely need to collaborate, and, in fact, that was one of the main topics of the most recent Council of Deans meeting.   Seminaries get that massive changes have swept across higher education and the church.  Sorry to break it to you, church, but it's true.  COD finds it comical that many in the church somehow have a frozen in carbonite understanding of seminaries from 1977.  Did you know ever single Episcopal seminary offers courses in multiple formats (weekends/weeklong intensives/online/summer sessions), not just semester-long classes?  That some have fully online degrees?  That almost all have low-residence options?  Showing their obsession with email, TREC again wonders if having a "combined email directory" would be useful.  Honestly, I don't know what this means.  An "email directory"?  Is this a list-serv?  A printout of people at seminaries with emails to get bound at Kinko's?  What are they talking about?
The focus on seminaries also leads COD to wonder if TREC isn't even aware of the depth of networks that it is supposed to be addressing.  Put simply, Episcopal seminaries aren't the only place where theological education is happening. There are diocesan schools of formation, diaconal training programs, non-Episcopal seminaries, programs of continuing education and formation, not to mention the critical need for lifelong Christian formation for all people, not just those training for ministry.  Seminaries are just one network among many for theological education and formation.

--Then comes 815.  Yes, "815" came to be in the mid-20th century, but 815, in turn, was built on "281", the original building at 281 Park Avenue where a church wide office was located.  The modern spoke-and-hub model of The Episcopal Church was actually a creature of the 1919 General Convention, which created a "National Council" (later Executive Council).  But why did it create a National Council?  To help coordinate all the different ministries that were already going on!  So, TREC, you gotta realize the structures of the Episcopal Church didn't begin in 1950, or it's going to be a long 18 months till Convention 2015.

TREC is also apparently aware 815 exists, but does know much about it; they "seek to find out 815's perspective and experience in working with change" and "how it views its role in networking."  First off, Crusty doesn't even like the notion of "815" -- because it's not a building, it's people.  Most of "815" isn't even in "815" anymore.  It's people who spend much of their time on the road like Crusty did when he worked there, working to build connections with networks in the church.  And "815" has gone through enormous change.  Granted, Crusty has been very critical about how that change has been implemented (just peruse's COD's take on the budgeting process in 2012), but it's not as if "815" itself has been a static entity for the past 60 years.  For God's sake, TREC, it's been 18 months since General Convention, and a year since TREC was organized and open for business.  Maybe you could send a Martian rover to 815 to learn about them in their native habitat.

And again, TREC applies skepticism and distrust only to 815.  All of the charges COD has heard bishops level at 815 he has heard many clergy and lay leaders in dioceses level at their bishops and diocesan structures, and COD has heard laity in congregations grumble in the exact same way about their rectors and small cabal of lay leaders running the congregation. 

--Then come provinces.  They note provinces function differently and wonder why this is. TREC, all you gotta do is ask.  There are very good reasons for why provinces function differently, and it mainly comes down to geography.  Seriously, just ask.  There's lots of people who could speak to this, some of whom COD thinks are on TREC.

After discussing these four networks, TREC concludes by noting that a major portion of their work will be "to identify functioning 2.0 networks and tell their stories."  Crusty once again feels the need to point out the deficiency of the "1.0" and "2.0" models.  There were networks before the "1.0" paradigm that began in 1950.  And even after 1950, networks emerged -- maybe networks "1.5"? Take, for instance, work in global mission.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the Episcopal Church reduced funding for overseas mission work and sponsored missionaries.  This was, in part, due to budget cuts because of reduced revenues, but also because of a pulling back as a reaction against the colonialism and imperialism endemic to much of the previous iterations of global mission.  Guess what?  New networks like Anglican Frontier Missions and the Episcopal Partnership for Global Mission and Global Episcopal Missionary Network emerged to pick up the slack -- yes, networks stepped in and began to do mission work even in the 1980s and 1990s, even when we supposedly had a centralized, hub-and-spoke paradigm.

Like their experience with "815" -- TREC has been unable to be in contact with them for a year? -- COD is absolutely floored that TREC produced a paper on networks and has done, apparently, almost nothing in looking at emerging networks in the church.  This may be the single biggest drawback to this entire position paper.  Why even publish one if you clearly demonstrate you don't seem to know how networks are operating in the church and what new networks are out there?  As it stands, halfway through the triennium, in its first study paper, TREC spends as nearly as much time on the House of Bishops and Deputies email list-serv as it does on the emerging networks in the church.

Overall, as COD says, he agrees with the central premise of the paper:  that new and reinvigorated networks will be an essential component of The Episcopal Church going forward, and that much of our current structure is a creature of a particular phase of the church's life.  But COD is just astounded that this is TREC's first word on the matter after nearly a year of work, making Crusty wonder if TREC is not in danger of being ensnared in some of the very categories it claims to need transcending.

[Note: the original version of this post misstated the amount of time TREC has been working.  Though approved at GC 2012, TREC was only officially organized for business in February 2013, so has been working for a year, not 18 months.  Crusty apologizes.  Perhaps it only seems like we've been talking about restructuring forever.]


  1. Crusty used the word, "Synergy..."

  2. synergistic, actually. All part of my plan to move towards The Convergence.

    1. Only if you fully visualize the new paradigm.

  3. I know a whole bunch of young Episcopalians who have some bright ideas for TREC. I honestly am floored that the word "List-serv" was included. No one, who works quickly, uses them for major work. /facepalm

  4. Thank you for this essay, which I only just discovered. I, too, was distressed by the TREC network paper and think it does not bode well for the work of TREC. I encourage those interested in the work of TREC to read my essay, “Evaluating the TREC Study Paper on Networks.” I’m afraid I have been less kind than has COD.