Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Modest Proposal, Part 4: Provinces and Dioceses

A Modest Proposal for Restructuring, Part 4: Provinces and Dioceses

Thanks for bearing with Crusty Old Dean while he self-published his three-part reflections on the state of the ecumenical movement. This was not intended just to be filler, but rather to show that some of the dynamics about change and restructuring in our denominations are part of common issues and problems facing all kinds of institutions and organizations. This is why, in part, this change cycle is going to be so difficult and transformative: what is happening in the churches is part of what is happening in broader society and even globally.

In this week’s installment, COD turns focus to suggesting some ways to restructure Provinces and Dioceses to be more responsive to what the missional needs and purposes of the churches and the world will be. (Note: this is a failsafe plan should the Episcopal Church go it alone the next 50-75 years; COD still thinks we need some kind of Church of North India model to bring most Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists/Disciples in a federated but not merged kind of structure.)

But on to Provinces and Dioceses!


Ah, the provinces. The forgotten middle children of the Episcopal Church – yet they speak to the need for some kind of middle governing structure to facilitate the work of the church. Several other denominations have some middle kind of organizational and oversight structure. The areas United Methodist bishops cover are almost comically enormous, some with over 400 congregations. This is possible because of the role district superintendents play as an intermediate role of oversight – one could argue in Episcopal language that Methodist Episcopal Areas are kind of like provinces, with a single bishop providing oversight, broken up into smaller dioceses headed by district superintendents. It may be surprising there was a sort of similar vision for the provinces when proposed: that dioceses be grouped into provinces, each forming its own grouping within the church, each with its own presiding bishop (recall this was at a time when the Presiding Bishop was not an elected position, there was nothing like the denominational structure we have now, and the PB was simply the senior bishop in years of consecration). This didn’t go anywhere, but eventually Provinces were set up, though without any definition of purpose or role, and with no funding. They were essentially left to do whatever the particular province felt like doing, so long as it did not impinge on anything specifically delegated to the General Convention or to dioceses or parishes by national or diocesan canons. With such a stirring mandate, it should not be surprising that Provinces have struggled to find their way. Some are more functional than others. Some struggle with geographic challenges that either inhibit full participation or overlook possible areas of common ministry (one might think Minnesota and Wisconsin would be in the same province given common overlaps in geography and culture, yet they are in different ones; some geographic challenges include Taiwan as part of Province 8; the churches in Europe and Haiti in Province II, and so on).

One thing that COD believes impairs our ability to do mission is the amount of time, money, personnel hours, and energy that is spent duplicating the same efforts again and again on the diocesan level. If we are not willing to centralize more efforts through the Church Center staff and CCABs, then perhaps the Provinces might be a place more immediate and closer to the diocesan level where we could realize efficiencies for the sake of mission. To whit,

Postulancy and Candidacy at the Provincial Level: Why do we need so many diocesan Commissions on Ministry? Do we not have the same canons for ordination across the church? How many hours are used, how many different people are paid staff coordinating, how much money is spent in travel and transportation, for dioceses with 50 congregations interviewing a handful of candidates? All other aspects of the ordination process and pastoral and disciplinary oversight for postulants and candidates would remain with diocesan bishops and Standing Committees, but have a single Provincial Commission on Ministry that interviews postulants and candidates and sends recommendations to diocesans/Standing Committees.

Christian Education and Formation at Provincial Level: How many dioceses struggle to have someone provide resources, training, and program in youth ministry? Centralize Christian Education and Formation at the Provincial level, pool all those programs scraping to get by to create one with adequate resources. Do we really need several different dioceses in the same area all struggling to support several different camps that are falling apart and not making money?

Local Ordination Training Programs at Provincial Level: The same song, third verse. Many dioceses are now experimenting with programs of local training and formation for persons who do not go to attend seminary, as well as for candidates for the diaconate. COD feels it is a tremendous waste of money and energy to have 109 diocesan seminaries. We already enough seminaries as well as Episcopal/Anglican training programs, thank you.

[Disclaimer: COD is a dean of an Episcopal seminary, believes seminaries need to be more responsive, flexible, and adaptive to needs for formation and training and would cross a thousand seas to work with a diocesan local training program. We have a competency based system of theological education in the Canons. You don’t need an MDiv, only to demonstrate competency in the areas outlined in the canons. Diocesan training programs can work; they just don’t have to struggle to do so on their own.]

We have tremendous flexibility in the canons for ordination as outlined. We got rid of allowing states to set their own tariffs and print their own currency. Let’s live into the flexibility in our canons, scrap all diocesan canons for ordination, and follow only the national canons.

Sidebar: Yes, COD knows there are significant challenges in terms of communication and distance across provinces. Crusty Old Dean’s wife is from Idaho, and he also has family in Eastern Oregon. COD is not some East Coast dude wearing an Ascot who thinks you can’t get a good martini west of Chicago. COD understands the challenges faced by geographic distance. Realigning the provinces will present some geographic challenges – individual dioceses like Montana are so huge they present these challenges, let alone provinces. This should not be the only reason not to pool functions at the Provincial Level because

--Provincial programs could itinerate. Programs could be held in different parts of the province in different years. For instance rent a different church camp on a four-year rotating basis. Might you lose some people whose diocese is further away from the camp in any given year? Probably. But would there be more benefit in having a properly resourced camp, even if it’s an extra two hours’ drive away once every few years? Or driving an extra couple of hours versus not having a camp at all?

--Embrace hybrid online learning models. Provincial formation programs could have content delivered online through a standardized curriculum, combined with local affinity groups/discussion/classes led by local facilitators. Thus people training programs in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Santa Fe could all be taking the same online class, having the same online lectures, but meet regularly with a local facilitator/instructor in their region for discussion and additional instruction. For those who may still blanche at any mention of online learning, get over it. It’s here and complaining about won’t solve anything, join in help design the best use of hybrid online learning. There would be some classes you wouldn’t do online (say, pastoral care or field education) but history, theology, Scripture, and other areas of competency could be done this way.

FYI, COD proposed something very similar to the paragraph above for a diocesan training program. In the year 2000. They didn’t take COD’s advice, but that’s OK, COD really doesn’t expect people to listen to him.

We talk again and again about having mission and ministry done at the level closest to where it happens: fair enough. But many of the networks we have are not equipped in terms of training or resources to pick up that slack and do it well. COD believes using the Provinces to centralize mission and program is a compromise: it eliminates the needless reduplication of having 109 different diocesan programs, but also keeps this important work at a level closer to dioceses. Speaking of which,


Dioceses must be reduced in number. There are simply too many dioceses that are barely viable and struggle to survive and which cannot afford bishops.

Step One: Reorganize the dioceses. Instead of having dioceses with barely 20 congregations and average Sunday attendance of 1,500 and others with over 150 congregations and over 30,000 average Sunday attendance, bring greater standardization to size of dioceses. Something like dioceses should be within 15,000-30,000 in membership and between 50-100 congregations. This will combine smaller dioceses and split larger dioceses, and reduce the burden on smaller dioceses by pooling resources.

Step Two: As part of this, come up with a solution for a fair sharing of assets: some dioceses are blessed with better endowment and financial resources than others. How can we presume to preach to the world about economic justice when some of our dioceses are part of an ecclesial 1%?

Again, this would present some logistical challenges. Places like Idaho, Utah, and Nevada might well become a single diocese. COD has two responses to this,

--yeah, and that’s how things used to be. Missionary bishops often had enormous jurisdictions (just to name two: the entire nation of the Philippines; Idaho, Utah, and Montana) in a time where the internet was the telegraph and train and stagecoach were forms of interstate travel. We did it before.

--in areas with large geography, allow for the development of intermediary areas of oversight. In the hypothetical scenario of Idaho (current diocese; excluding panhandle), Utah, and Nevada being a single diocese, there would be internal missionary districts of a mutually agreeable size and geography. Each of these would have an Archdeacon/Moderator/Dean/President, whatever – COD personally would prefer reviving the Chorepiscopus or bring back the Commissary.

More standardization in the size and shape of dioceses, along with a just sharing of finances, would bring greater equality to the church, realize efficiencies by not having reduplication of staff and program, and thus allow for more energy and resources for mission and ministry. COD realizes, of course, some dioceses may refuse to have any part in this plan, either out of selfishness or arrogance or denial or their own misguided exceptionalism. Fair enough. They may be permitted to opt out, however they will have their General Convention deputations reduced by half.

Almost there. We still have theological education and parishes in upcoming postings, and then Crusty Old Dean will have to find something else to vent about.

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