The biggest single issue at this convention so far is structure. I know how it sounds. But seriously, it’s a big deal, it’s exciting, and it’s relevant.
Consider the following sentences:
- The budget it awful. We’re not spending our money right.
- We spend too much money on admin. The administration is too big.
- We’re not doing enough to help the people who need our help the most.
- We have too many committees and regulations getting in the way.
- Helping people shouldn’t be the job of Big Church. That stuff is better to do on a local level.
- There is a grassroots effort of people who want change.
Sounds familiar? Congratulations Episcopal Church, you are America.*
Pete Strimer and I went to the public hearing on the proposed restructuring resolutions tonight. While there are some 40 resolutions for the committee to consider, most of them are almost identical to the so-called Sauls’ Proposal (so-called because it originated with Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church).
The resolutions themselves look at how we determine how to restructure the church. The debate is all about who should work on this, whether they should be an existing group, a brand new one, or a combination, when will they have to report back, how quickly can the changes be made, who else should be included in the discussion, etc.Sauls is making the case that we need to take a radical look at the way we organize our church, and he has managed to get A LOT of people to agree with him. There’s some weird internal politicking that I won’t get into because it’s mostly speculative, but it’s safe to say that when people are in power, paid or not, they tend to dislike things that take away that power, even if overall their intentions are good. Set against that is a couple million people in the pews that don’t want to send any more money to the larger church both because they don’t think it’s being used correctly, and because they have local programs that could use it instead.
My biggest problem with this is that it’s all speculative. No one’s giving specifics on how to restructure the church, just talking about how much we need to do it. There’s all this rhetoric about “thinking creatively” and “making tough choices” and people using the word nimble every other sentence. We get the same thing when we look at similar battles in government. People like to talk about fixing the budget and “cutting the fat,” but most regular people don’t really know what the fat is. What if thinking creatively means firing people? What if making tough choices means eliminating the ministries we love, like women, youth, minorities, or the environment?
I agree that at our current level of budget madness, we are clearly doing something wrong and that needs to change. It’s possible that like so many are suggesting, it needs to change substantially. To be honest, I’m still not sure where I stand on this issue. On secular issues I’m an advocate for big government. I wish my tax dollars were going to more welfare and substance abuse programs. I’d rather have people tell me where I can and can’t smoke if it means they also tell others where they can and can’t dump their industrial waste.
But when I look at the church, I can see the argument for the other side in a way I never have in secular life. Tonight while discussing the issue with some friends I found myself advocating for the church equivalent of “let the private sector handle it.”
Is it possible that I like my government big and my church small? Why? My best guess is that I think governments are meant to protect people from bad things (human rights abuses, inequality, crime, greed), and religions are meant to spread good things (giving to the poor, sharing a positive message, helping in times of pain and need). And perhaps I think institutions are better at stopping the bad and individuals are better at spreading the good.
The question is: Is that really how it works? Am I a secular liberal but a religious conservative? Or is the other option right that it’s not the size that’s the problem, but the shape?
Stay tuned. There will certainly be more to come. I’ll let you know if I start advocating for a lower diocesan asking or arguing that bishops are “tithe creators.”
*I know yesterday I said that me eating a hot dog at a minor league baseball game was America, but so is this.