October 2, 2013

The Missionary Society

Warning. What follows is really “inside baseball.” On the whole, it will affect the average Episcopalian, let alone the average any one else, very little. Which is important to remember when one sees all the energy put into this.
Thus began a September 18 post by Andrew Gerns on The Lead concerning what he characterized as a “re-branding” of The Episcopal Church (or the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society—the DFMS) as “The Missionary Society.” It was not completely clear just what this “re-branding” was all about, but the Gerns report raised considerable anxiety among readers. The post attracted 19 comments with few positive words about “The Missionary Society.” Generally negative essays by Torey Lightcap and Mark Harris appeared on their respective blogs. On September 21, Jim Naughton called attention to Mark’s post and offered his own attempt at providing context for what appeared to be going on at the church’s New York headquarters.

Even before Andrew’s post, I had taken note of what seemed like an odd development in church communications. In the recent controversy over the UTO, communications from the general church—more on this term below—mostly referred to “the DFMS,” not to “The Episcopal Church.” (See, for example, the ENS story of September 6.) Because the controversy involved money, however, I didn’t make too much of the phenomenon at the time. (The DFMS handles the financial affairs of the church. Again, see below.)

I think I have figured out at least some of what is going on in the church, and I will try to explain and evaluate it.


Most people, even most Episcopalians, have never heard of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America is the subject of Canon I.3. White and Dykman covers the history of this canon, though the current volume was written before the most recent changes were made. [Annotated Constitution and Canons for the Government of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America otherwise known as The Episcopal Church is available as a scanned PDF from the Archives of the Episcopal Church. For the convenience of the reader, a searchable version of the chapter on Canon I.3 can be read here, and the current text of the canon, which differs slightly from what is shown in White and Dykman, can be read here.]

The origins of the DFMS can be traced to the General Convention of 1808 and a concern for how the church could be extended into the western territories of the expanding United States. As is stated in the current Canon I.3, a constitution for the DFMS was finally approved in the Special General Convention of 1821. The DFMS was incorporated as a New York corporation in 1846.

The DFMS did indeed allow the expansion of The Episcopal Church westward and supported foreign missions as well. In 1826, the DFMS was charged with opening missionary outposts in Liberia and Brazil, the church’s first foray into the foreign mission field. At its inception, the DFMS was financed by subscription. By 1835, the importance of missionary work had received greater recognition, and the General Convention made every baptized member of the church a member of the DFMS. Eventually, the DFMS was more fully integrated into the wider church. According to Article I of the DFMS constitution (which is set forth in Canon I.3), the DFMS “shall be considered as comprehending all persons who are members of the Church.”

The exposition of Canon I.3 in White and Dykman contains the following explanation:
The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the corporate body of the national Church, General Convention not being incorporated, and, until the formation of the Episcopal Church Foundation in 1949, the only corporate body for receipt of gifts and legacies for administration by national authority.

While all the powers and duties of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society are to be exercised by the Executive (formerly the National) Council, whose members are the directors of the society, it was necessary to retain the prefatory matter and Article I of the canon as it stood before 1919, as well as to provide for the officers of the society, as the society was an incorporated body, holding the title to the real estate of said society. The only present function of the society is to act in the nature of a holding corporation. [emphasis added]
As is pointed out above, the Executive Council is the Board of Directors of the DFMS. Its bylaws and those of the DFMS are the same. Moreover The Episcopal Church carries out its corporate (primarily financial) business as the DFMS, but this is a legal fact of virtually no significance to the members of the church. It is simply how society mandates that certain things must be done. (Episcopal Church paychecks are drawn on a DFMS account, for example.) For all practical purposes though, The Episcopal Church and its Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society are one in the same.

The Missionary Society

We are only discussing the DFMS because of an initiative announced July 25. (See “Sauls announces innovative missionary program: Connecting Episcopal Church dioceses, staff.”) This ENS report begins
Episcopal Church Chief Operating Officer Bishop Stacy Sauls has announced an innovative missionary program designed to connect dioceses and staff in a collaborative manner: The Diocesan Partnership Program.
It goes on to explain that Diocesan Partnership Representatives (who are “DFMS staff members”) will work with dioceses to make resources available for local initiatives and to build networks and partnerships. What appears to be happening here is that church staff members are being designated the points of contact for individual dioceses. This is new, but the work the representatives are to facilitate presumably has been going on for a long time. The Diocesan Partnership Program, ENS notes, was to start in September.

Then, we get to the re-branding paragraph:
The Diocesan Partnership Program is a component of a refocusing effort aimed to partner with ministries on the local level. Looking at the DFMS efforts as The Missionary Society, Bishop Sauls furthered, “We are embarking on a concerted effort in supporting the children, women, and men of The Episcopal Church in engaging God’s mission—to reconcile all of us to each other and to God in the love of Jesus Christ. It is a vision worthy of a Missionary Society for the 21st century. The effort before us is to connect the many parts of our Church and most especially to build partnerships and connections between its many parts by using the resources available to come together at the churchwide level as The Missionary Society.”
Bishop Sauls’ thinking is further elucidated in a blog post by Bishop Daniel Martins written at the fall meeting—significantly in September—of Episcopal Church bishops:
Next we heard from Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), which is the Episcopal Church’s public incarnation under New York corporation law. This is the infamous ‘815’, the “national church.” Bishop Sauls spoke of his desire to reorient the staff culture of the DFMS from a hierarchical model of a “home office” receiving financial resources up the stream and delivering program down the stream, to one of facilitation, connection, and coordination in support of ministry and program that take place at a local level. To push this cultural shift along, he has instructed DFMS staff to shed that moniker in favor of simply The Missionary Society.

My two cents: Even insiders, who know about the origin of the DFMS in 1835 and its evolution since then, have an awkward time articulating the precise relationship between the DFMS per se, and the prior and more fundamental (but unincorporated) entity known the Episcopal Church. The vast majority of Episcopalians are gratefully unaware that there is such a thing as the DFMS, and most clergy can’t think of a compelling reason to make that the topic of the next Rector’s Forum. I don’t see how this branding change makes anything clearer. It may indeed have the opposite effect by adding another layer of nomenclature complication.
This is not to say that Sauls’ thinking is made clear to the rest of us by Martins’ essay. In private correspondence, Sauls described “The Missionary Society” as the name of a program. Presumably, the Diocesan Partnership Program is part of The Missionary Society program, but I have no idea of what else The Missionary Society might encompass. Martins isn’t explicit enough about what Sauls said, but he seems to be saying that, rather than referring to “815” (i.e., 815 Second Avenue, the address of the Episcopal Church Center), staff members at church headquarters should refer to their workplace as The Missionary Society.


“The Missionary Society” almost assuredly inspired by the name of the DFMS, but, as I have pointed out, it is not at all clear to what it refers. The July announcement indeed looked like an attempt to re-brand the entire church. Martins’ description, however, makes it seem as though the staff of the general church is being given a new collective name. Will we see signs like the following or not?

The Missionary Society Welcomes You

I suspect not. Will the telephone at 815 Second Avenue be answered with “The Missionary Society”? Maybe.

We do have a nomenclature problem, however, even apart from the present discussions and speculations. “The Episcopal Church” is sometimes used to refer to local churches and institutions, along with dioceses, and the staff and volunteers that carry out the work of the General Convention. Sometimes, it simply refers to the church bureaucracy above the diocesan (or provincial) level. The term “815” carries this latter sense, though not everyone working at the highest level (sometimes called the “general church”) even works in New York City. (David Sibley discusses, among other things, the nomenclature problem here.)

In times past, Episcopalians often spoke of “the National Church” to distinguish the top-level of the Episcopal Church hierarchy from the rest of the church. Our current Presiding Bishop dislikes this usage, insisting the The Episcopal Church operates in multiple countries. She has a  point, of course, but isn’t Anglicanism about self-governing churches informed by the particular societies in which they operate? If the American church has branches in other countries, this is a result of its missionary efforts and is a temporary and anomalous situation existing only long enough for those branches to stand on their own as national or regional churches.

I tend to use “The Episcopal Church” to mean the entirety of our denomination and “the general church” to refer to the highest level of the church administration. I don’t know if Bishop Sauls was, in part, trying to solve the nomenclature problem through the use of “The Missionary Society.” If The Missionary Society is a group of people, rather than a program, it cannot be a subset of people of The Episcopal Church, since, as I noted above, the DFMS includes all Episcopalians. (Does it not include staff who are not Episcopalians?)

“Mission” and “Missionary”

Episcopalians have spoken much about “mission” in recent years, but that term has seldom been carefully defined. I think that nearly everyone sees mission as getting beyond worship and fellowship and interacting with the wider society. Some see the work outside the church doors in terms of telling the Good News to non-Christians. Some see it primarily as working to mitigate human suffering and improve society. The word “missionary” however, usually suggests the former, and it often carries overtones of overbearing zeal or colonial arrogance. I do not personally want to think of my church as “The Missionary Society.” It is not likely to be a helpful moniker, however one chooses to define “mission.”

I think we have seen a tendency to conflate “mission” and “missionary.” This is not helpful. The Navy SEALs who hunted down Osama bin Laden were on a mission (were carrying out mission), but hardly anyone would call them missionaries.

Nevertheless, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori seems to be on the same page as Bishop Sauls. An introduction on the Episcopal Church Web site to the Five Marks of Mission is titled “The Missionary Society” and begins with a quotation from the Presiding Bishop. The text that follows is unattributed, however:
The Church, especially the Episcopal Church, is a missionary society for the welfare of the world. That is true for Episcopalians corporately (our official corporate name is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society), but more importantly, it is true spiritually.

The Missionary Society is a strategy for achieving our common purpose, building partnerships throughout the Church to engage God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

The Missionary Society seeks partnerships for mission—dioceses, congregations, and networks. It brings resources from the churchwide level—funding, expertise, and human—to leverage for mission with local partners. We are all about mission. And partnerships allow us to do more mission together.
I think that many of us would be comfortable saying that our church “is a missionary society for the welfare of the world.” We would be less comfortable thinking of our church as “The Missionary Society.” When I first encountered this text, my mind immediately rebelled against a society being described as a strategy. If, of course, “The Missionary Society” is the name of a program, the second paragraph above makes perfect sense.

Final Thoughts

To the degree that the Diocesan Partnership Program or The Missionary Society, qua program, is about improving the diocesan/general church interface, it sounds like a good thing. Certainly, my experience has been that it can be difficult to get to the right person at the Episcopal Church Center when calling on the telephone. If someone in a diocese could call a specific person and that person would take responsibility for satisfying the local person’s need—it might take some time, of course—that would be a very good thing. I don’t ever need to hear the terms “Diocesan Partnership Program” or “The Missionary Society.” Moreover, I don’t want to. As Andrew Gerns suggested, this is inside baseball.

That said, I would like Bishop Sauls (or Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori or someone in a position to say) to explain precisely what The Missionary Society is and how the term is to be used. I think this program—if that’s what it is—is benign, but I know that others fear that it is somehow part of a power struggle between the General Convention and the Executive Council, on one hand, and the senior staff of the general church, on the other. (See Jim Naughton’s post, cited earlier, on this topic.) I don’t see that, but what do I know?

I do know from my vantage point in the Diocese of Pittsburgh that the general church has often been viewed with suspicion from those in this and some other diocese. Perhaps Sauls’ initiative will make a positive difference. Please, however, give us a better explanation for what is going on in our church.


  1. It took me a while to find the origin of the Desmond Tutu quote that is used in the recent video that repeatedly states "we are all missionaries or we are nothing," but I found it:
    "We are all missionaries, or we are nothing. By that I mean that if we claim that we belong to the Apostolic way, which means that we are sent, then all the time whether we like it or not we are witnessing either positively or negatively to our faith. When we do well, then the glory returns to the church, and when we are doing badly, that too reflects on the church. So, without being too bombastic about it, we are always missionaries or we are nothing." -- Desmond Tutu, Forward to "The Scripture of Their Lives: Stories of Mission Companions Today", edited by Jane Butterfield (2006)

  2. Thanks for tracking down that quotation. For readers who have no idea what Tom is writing about, go here.

  3. I love the blog.It's contented and well written in a strategic manner. For getting church mortgage on low-interest rate from a reliable church,a complete church lenders directory has no comparison.

  4. I really love this kinda school,organization and society.Churches run off these. So a church loans on low-interest rate can help building more churches and with the support a society can develop more.

  5. Thanks a lot for your efforts to have had these things together on this blog site. Mary and i also very much appreciated your input through your articles with certain things. I recognize that you have many demands in your schedule hence the fact that you actually took the maximum amount of time as you did to guide people really like us via this article is actually highly valued. PSD to HTML


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.