March 24, 2014

Evaluating the TREC Study Paper on Networks

TREC logo
The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) released its first “study paper” for public comment last momth. (It has now released a second paper. See my post “Some Initial Thoughts on the TREC Study Paper on Governance and Administration.”) Here, I want to offer my own thoughts on “Study Paper on Episcopal Networks.”

Background

TREC was mandated by Resolution C095, enacted by the 2012 General Convention. Its main provision is the following:
Resolved, That this General Convention establish a Task Force under the Joint Rules of Order, whose purpose shall be to present the 78th General Convention with a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration;
The stated rationale for C095 is this:
The administrative and governance structures of The Episcopal Church have grown over the years so that they now comprise approximately 47% of the churchwide budget and sometimes hinder rather than further this Church’s engagement in God’s mission. Reform is urgently needed to facilitate this Church’s strategic engagement in mission and allow it to more fully live into its identity as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in a world that has changed dramatically over the years but that also presents extraordinary missional opportunity.
In truth, General Convention deputies were not simply alarmed at the cost of running the general church; there was a sense, among many deputies, that Episcopalians were not getting their money’s worth. In particular, the budgeting process in the past two triennia was seen to be opaque, unresponsive, and maladroit. No doubt, there were other reasons behind support for C095, some more justified than others. I suspect that some people are alarmed at our shrinking membership and are looking for any changes, wherever they might be found, that might possibly reverse the trends.

Whatever the motivation, C095 commanded nearly universal support from deputies. The church was perceived to be in trouble, and C095 was seen as a way of doing something about it.

The Study Papers

In releasing “Study Paper on Episcopal Networks” (SPEN), TREC promised that additional papers would follow “over the next few months … to stimulate conversation and seek input from the larger church.” The papers are described by TREC this way:
We call these documents Study Papers, because they study an issue or offer a new approach to a particular dimension of the structure, governance or administration of the church. As such, we hope they are constructive and thought provoking.
The task force has requested comments, corrections, relevant stories, and other varieties of feedback. The suggested feedback mechanisms are diverse to the point of raising the question as to whether the task force will even be aware of all the comments being made. (A March 18, 2014, report to the church is encouraging, however, as it reports on task force members “reviewing feedback that we have received thus far from throughout the church, including from the engagement kit, blogs, website postings, direct conversation, and a variety of other sources.”) Curiously, the task force suggests that one might “email a TREC member privately,” but addresses for TREC members have not been posted. I suppose the idea is that you might prefer to communicate with a TREC member you actually know, rather than sending a comment to the task force’s general address, reimaginetec@gmail.com.

I noticed that the study papers thus far released do not carry any indication of authorship. Knowing their provenance could be helpful. SPEN indicates that it was produced by the “sub-group on networks.” We are not told, however, who is in this sub-group or how many people are in it. Is SPEN the exclusive product of the sub-group on networks, or was it vetted or approved by a larger group?

Until very recently, the organization of TREC and the way it has chosen to divide its task has not been obvious. The agenda for its March 13–15 meeting suggests that TREC operates as four groups:
  1. Constitution and Canons team
  2. Networks sub-committee
  3. Leadership and Centers for Excellence Sub-Committee
  4. Engagement sub-committee
 (I have listed the groups exactly as they appear on the agenda. I assume the apparent inconsistency in naming is inconsequential.) I have inferred, but am by no means certain, that the four groups are disjoint. Clearly, the last group is concerned with collecting responses from the church at large, so it appears that TREC has partitioned its remit into the areas of governance, networks, and leadership.

It is not obvious that the topics of governance, networks, and leadership cover the waterfront of structural issues facing The Episcopal Church. George Clifford wrote a series of essays for Episcopal Café (here, here, and here) called “Be Bold: restructuring the TEC.” He identified a number of worrisome trends, at least some of which seem worthy of consideration by TREC. Clifford notes, for example, that our church has “a legacy of many small congregations in the wrong geographic locales” and that this circumstance represents a serious drain on church resources. He also observed that “increasing numbers of Christians prefer to attend a large rather than a small congregation.” To these concerns, I would add the observation that small dioceses may also be a drain on church resources. Also, in light of the organized (and ongoing) defections and thefts experienced by The Episcopal Church in recent years, some consideration should be given to preventing such depredations in the future. These issues seem not to have been identified as significant by TREC.

Of course, it is difficult not to agree with Bishop of Springfield Daniel Martins, who wrote, in response to a presentation to Episcopal bishops by the task force, “They [TREC] are only 24 people, the scope of their task is impossible to comprehend, and their work is seriously underfunded.” What Bishop Martins did not say is that the members of the task force are unpaid volunteers. We owe them our gratitude for taking on such a daunting task, though the usefulness of their efforts ultimately will rest on what they are able to produce.

Consistent with the apparent organization of TREC, a recent Episcopal News Service story  mentioned only one additional paper that we should expect to see from TREC prior to its final report, namely, one on leadership development. Revised versions of the two papers issued so far (and perhaps a revision of the future leadership paper) are also scheduled to appear.

With that background, I now want to take a close look at SPEN.

Study Paper on Episcopal Networks

I found SPEN worrisome. To begin with, networks, however construed, hardly seems like the first topic to be addressed if one is interested in reimagining The Episcopal Church. Perhaps the network group was simply quick out of the starting gate. In any case, SPEN is vague and often incoherent. TREC’s second effort has been a bit more encouraging, but even it is long on recommendations and short on analysis.

I was surprised that SPEN contains no footnotes to the literature on organizational structure or organizational behavior. In fact, I have seen no evidence of the task force’s having consulted experts in the areas about which they have written. No doubt, the volunteer nature of TREC and an inadequate budget, which I suspect will largely be expended on travel support, are responsible for its relying largely on its own resources. Doing so, however, necessarily limits what TREC can be expected to accomplish.

SPEN begins with this abstract:
In the Network Study Paper, we observe that TEC has several kinds of networks operating in it (4 types, across network v.1.0 and v.2.0). Some are adapted for the challenges ahead of us, some of these networks are not. TEC has operated under a corporate network for the last 50 years and that model appears to be dying. New life is struggling to come about, and we sketch some possibilities.
Actually, the above paragraph appears in the PDF version of the paper—see link above—but is omitted from the HTML version. It is odd in many respects. What, for example, are “network v.1.0 and v.2.0”? I have heard our church described as having a “corporate” structure, though I have never heard of The Episcopal Church (or any American corporation, for that matter) as “operating under a corporate network.” (Corporations have corporate networks, but that’s something else entirely.) And I don’t know what to make of the anthropomorphism of “[N]ew life … struggling to come about.”

The abstract prepares us to learn about various Episcopal Church networks and how some are equipped for a twenty-first century church and some are not. Alas, such an expectation goes unrealized.

Introduction

The careful reader might reasonably expect the authors of SPEN to (1) provide a rigorous definition of what they understand by the term “network” and (2) justify the importance of the topic to the task assigned to them. It might also be expected that the nature of relevant networks would be investigated in some detail. SPEN does none of this.

The closest the paper comes to defining the term “network” is in this phrase:
that intermix of human connections, bolstered by technology, and focused on some purposeful outcomes
This text is set off by dashes, and it is unclear whether it is intended to refer to networks generally or to “networks for ministry,” the words that precede the “definition.” As a working definition—if indeed that is what this phrase is intended to be—is a hopeless muddle. It seems both too broad and too narrow. By this definition, a football team is a network, but a group of clergy getting together every week for coffee and conversation may not be. (The technology isn’t apparent, and neither are the purposeful outcomes in this latter example.) A good definition serves the purpose of allowing one to determine, without too much ambiguity, what is in the class being defined and what is not. What SPEN has offered does not qualify as a good definition. I suspect that it was not even meant to be, the reader being expected to use his own intuitive sense of what a network is. This lapse is not a small one.

The SPEN authors clearly believe that networks (or suitably enhanced networks) are the solution to a church problem. It is not clear what that problem is. The closest we get to a statement of the problem is this: “how the Episcopal Church (TEC) may best position itself for the future in order to participate faithfully in God’s mission of reconciliation, renewal and restoration.” That is too general to be useful. We get some hint of what problem (or problems) that networks might be solving later on, but the exposition in SPEN is hardly compelling.

Assumptions: Central/Local Tensions

The first major section of SPEN is “Assumptions: Central/Local Tensions.” Acknowledging assumptions is a useful preliminary step in such a paper, but this section, too, is disappointing.

The section begins
We believe that in the cultural West, in which TEC operates for the most part, Christian institutional forms have diminished in both impact and visibility. A consequence of this diminishment is that the corporate model of doing work/ministry is no longer sustainable: the classic central (up)/local (down) relationship is changing, or has changed. The center for example, is no longer the source of strategy and programming, nor the networking hub. It simply does not have the resources or the knowledge to do so in a church community that is diverse, spanning geographies and theological perspectives, and experiencing all manner of challenges and opportunities.
Most would agree without much argument that mainline Protestant churches have lost members and influence in recent years. I’m not sure what “Christian institutional forms” actually refers to, however, or just what the impact and visibility of Christian institutional forms might be. Certainly, evangelical Christians have gained influence and visibility as mainstream Protestants have lost it. It does not follow logically that “the corporate model of doing work/ministry” is no longer viable. Why is this so? What is “the corporate model”? If the implication is that all Christian denominations have a similar “corporate” structure, SPEN is simply wrong. If the authors only mean to refer to mainline Protestant churches, the assertion is only somewhat less wrong. In any case, there is a good deal of hand waving and not much thoughtful exposition going on here. “The center” presumably refers to the Episcopal Church Center (ECC). It is true that it is not the center of strategy, programming, or communication within the church. Was it ever? It certainly has not been for as long as I have been an Episcopalian.

The next paragraph asserts, without citing any evidence, that Americans in general, and Episcopalians in particular, have lost faith in central authorities. The clear implication is that, in large measure, we need to do away with ECC, even if it is or can perform legitimate functions. This seems a defeatist approach. Trends are simply trends; they may be bad or they may be good. Sometimes bad trends need to be resisted.

I must offer an aside here. In the next paragraph, ECC is identified by the parenthetical “dubbed by some as ‘815’, and by itself as Missionary Society.” Bishop Stacey Sauls seems to have invented this “Missionary Society” name to re-brand the central office of The Episcopal Church, which SPEN asserts has lost credibility. Well, Congress has lost credibility, but no one is suggesting we rename it. Moreover, Missionary Society makes no sense as a moniker for ECC, as it suggests exactly the kind of privileged role that SPEN argues is not viable. Moreover, the (legally) corporate church is formally the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society—“Missionary Society” apparently comes from this name—and all Episcopalians are its members, not simply church office-holders and hired hands at 815 Second Avenue. (See my previous rants about this foolishness here and here.)

SPEN goes on to ask if the church needs “a central-anything,” and suggests an affirmative answer “if only because people abhor a vacuum.” What kind of argument is this? Is this really the best logic we can get from 24 people chosen from across the entire church? Did anyone read this paper seriously before it was thrown over the transom?

As the paper asserts, there is a tension between the local and the central (actually, non-local) in The Episcopal Church and, really, in any large organization. This tension is complicated, however, which SPEN does not acknowledge. Many would like to see ECC do less. As one who has lived through a diocesan schism, however, my regret is that the general church was unable or unwilling to do more. Pittsburgh Episcopalians were aware of the coming schism years before it occurred; only when it was imminent did we receive substantial help. That help was too little and too late to head off the painful split.

Anyway, in the final paragraph of this section, the authors get a bit smug and gratuitously dismissive. The paper refers to “our tradition of shared governance—which sometimes seems like a sacralization of division of powers.” What is the implication here? Are we to turn over control of the church to the clergy, thereby letting the inmates run the asylum? Our participatory governance is an appropriate way for Americans to adapt the historic episcopate “in the methods of its administration to the … needs” of our nation. Perhaps some changes are needed, but shared governance must remain.

In summary, the message of the Assumptions section seems to be that Episcopalians are hostile to central authority. If so, we need to investigate why that might be so and consider what could be done about it. Apparently, too many see the general church as meddling in local affairs and too few see it as the servant of the local church. Perhaps we need to change attitudes, not restructure the church to pander to what are, in many cases, ignorant prejudices

Uncertainty and the Future: Sin and Metanoia

Two things become clear in this next section. First—this point is expressed only obliquely—networks are seen as an alternative to more hierarchical structures. They are possibly less formal, yet more effective. Second, there are far too many members of the clergy on the task force. Nearly 60% of its members are ordained, and I would hazard a guess that, as a group, they know a good deal more about theology than about organizational development or organizational theory. And how is a task force that is mostly populated by clergy representative of the church at large?

This rather over-long section asserts that our efforts at structural change must take sin into account. We are invited to change our hearts and minds, to experience metanoia.

The reality is that people in organizations exhibit a variety of behaviors for a variety of reasons. Actions viewed as undesirable or destructive may arise from misunderstanding, valid disagreement as to goals and strategies, differing assessment of particular situations, as well as from fear, personal ambition, resentment, and the like. In other words, in whatever organization they operate, people behave like humans. To label “bad” behavior sinful is manipulative, mean-spirited, and unhelpful name-calling. To introduce a word like metanoia into a conversation about organizational restructuring is clerical pedantry.

That this entire section is largely irrelevant to whatever point this paper is trying to make is indicated by the fact that “sin” occurs nowhere in SPEN other than in this section. Rather than condemning sin and calling for repentance and a change of heart, it would have been more helpful had the authors identified particular attitudes and behaviors they view as dysfunction in the past and in our possible futures. My own sense is that our church is less threatened by personal ambition and insensitivity than it is by a pervading ethic of Anglican niceness, an unwillingness to rock the boat because someone somewhere—possibly even someone not in our church and on another continent—may not like what we do or say. Saying what we really think is more useful (and healthy) than branding as a sinner anyone who thinks differently.

Legislation and Bonds of Affection

In this section, it is clear that networks are somehow seen as TREC’s great white hope for saving The Episcopal Church, a notion that SPEN has thus far failed to establish (and, overall in this paper, fails to establish). The section begins with this assertion:
TREC’s output is expected to be a set of legislation for the General Convention to consider, including perhaps legislation for how to go about building (central doing), or encouraging (central helping local) networks.
I should point out that Resolution C095 did not ask the task force to produce “a set of legislation for the General Convention to consider.” It asked instead, as I quoted at the beginning of this essay, for “a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration.”

Anyway, SPEN proceeds to dismiss legislation as a mechanism for establishing effective networks. At this point, however, SPEN becomes increasing incoherent and poorly written. The second paragraph begins with
But this, is not legislation or a thing. This, at least when it comes to networks, is always a person.
It took me a while to figure out what is being said here, in part, because the comma after “this” makes no sense. I looked in vain for an antecedent for “this.” I finally realized that “this” did not need an antecedent but should have been enclosed in quotation marks or italicized. It refers to the final sentence of the preceding paragraph, which was intended to disparage legislation:
Everything becomes, “do you support this or oppose this?”
In any case, what does it even mean to say, as the authors do next, that “[t]his, at least when it comes to networks, is always a person”? This writing is gobbledygook.

The section goes on to say that Episcopal networks must be based on love, on “bonds of affection.” This notion is fundamentally wrong. SPEN rightly observes that recent history may make readers skeptical of talk of “bonds of affection.” (Damn right!) As in the Anglican Communion globally, bonds of affection may, in some abstract sense, hold us together, but only common objectives lead to effective common action. (This is another instance of clerical nonsense getting in the way of useful analysis.)

A Framework to Think about Networks

This section serves up muddled thinking in the guise of rigorous scholarship. The paper identifies four types of networks (personal, issue/lobby/political, project/missional, and knowledge sharing or co-learning). No theory is cited for these hypothesized network types, and the authors give neither useful definitions nor examples. The rather cumbersome names attached to these network types is evidence of the fuzzy thinking behind this section. More abstraction and exposition is needed here. Is this list of four network types intended to be exhaustive? Are they mutually exclusive? Who knows? The discussion is devoid of intellectual rigor.

We are told that the four networks are cross-cut by degrees of depth, breadth, and diversity, by which it is apparently meant that networks have properties (among others) indicating degrees of depth, breadth, and diversity (or heterogeneity). One might have wished for a description based on mathematics, rather than carpentry.

Anyway, the reader next is confronted by this perplexing chart:



Simple/Local/Same/organized
Complex/global/diverse/emergent
1.            Personal and Social
Race/Gender/Class


Cosmopolitan, mixed identity
2.            Political
Parish
Diocese
TEC
Anglican
3.             
Missional
City
County
Country
Global
4.            Knowledge and Learning
Episcopalian focused
(organized by Diocese or 815)
Ecumenical (part
organized)
Interfaith (more
spontaneity)
Eclectic (emergent, self-organized)

The reader is left to infer what this table represents. The vertical axis is clear enough; it represents the hypothesized network types. The horizontal axis is less clear. That the body of the chart contains four columns is misleading. There is not, for example, a type of political network having the right-facing arrow property. In this oddly constructed display, one seemingly moves from examples of abstractly simple networks at the left to examples of abstractly complicated networks on the right. The table is especially confusing, as the entries within the body do not all seem to be of the same class. What, for example, is a “Race/Gender/Class”? Is “City” a missional network? (Can it be said that a city is “focused on some purposeful outcomes”? If so, in what sense?) What is “Anglican”? Is it the Anglican Communion? Is it meant to include every church with “Anglican” in its name? (Is the Anglican Church in North America included in this cell?)

Returning to the horizontal axis, it appears that networks are being characterized by properties of complexity, locality, heterogeneity, and some ill-defined organizational principle. What happened to the three-way classification suggested in the proceeding paragraph (depth, breadth, and heterogeneity)? Who knows? Because the variability represented on the horizontal axis refers to a constellation of at least four components, the apparent simplicity of the chart is quite misleading. The two-dimensional table is a simplified representation of a classification that is at least five-dimensional.

SPEN proceeds to argue, incoherently, I contend, that certain networks are somehow better than others. We need to imagine “how #1 and #2 are harnessed to serve #3 and #4.” This sounds like dialogue from a bad science fiction movie. What does it even mean? Next, we are told about “network version 1.0” and “network 2.0.” (Nomenclature isn’t even parallel here.) We are told that network version 1.0—a class of network types or subtypes—is shown in blue on the chart. The chart contains cells in two colors of blue, however, as well as white cells. What do the light blue cells and the white cells represent? Why are some cells empty? The reader isn’t told. (Presumably, this is a holy mystery.)

This section continues, but further analysis of transparent nonsense is a waste of time.

Our Understanding of Change

There isn’t much substance in this section. There are some useful insights, though they are not clearly connected to the rest of the paper. SPEN notes that
  1. We cannot simply ignore current Episcopalians, who have a high median age, and rebuild our church for a younger generation. (As an elderly Episcopalian, albeit a technically savvy one, this acknowledgement was reassuring.)
  2. Is is increasingly difficult to find younger church members willing to assume responsibility for functions currently being performed by older Episcopalians.

 

Our areas of research in the next 2-3 months

This section ought to say something like the following:
We will forget we ever wrote this paper and will begin doing some serious, scholarly thinking. In preparation, we will interview leaders of other Christian churches facing challenges analogous to our own, and we will consult with academic experts whose lives are devoted to the study of organizations.
Instead, the plan is to move forward with TREC’s incoherent network model and to
  1. examine bodies established under the 1.0 paradigm, and ask: how can they be improved for better networking?
  2. identify functioning 2.0 networks and ask them to tell their stories.
From the foregoing sections of the paper, it is not clear to me—and, I suspect, not clear to most readers—how version 2.0 networks differ from version 1.0 networks or, for that matter, why the former are intrinsically “better” the the latter. (Are there, by the way, version 1.5 networks? Is this even a meaningful question in the TREC model? Is the “.0” just an attempt to make the text seem more “scientific”?) It is not, therefore, obvious that the identified activities are going to be useful other than to keep the network group busy.

I want to make a few isolated observations about the proposed activities outlined in this section, rather than analyze the section as a whole.

The authors want to know the degree to which bodies (House of Bishops, House of Deputies, and Executive Council) “go beyond their prescribed roles and positions, to act spontaneously in the service of missional networking (#3) and co-learning (#4).” With respect to Executive Council in particular, are the authors suggesting that it would be a good thing if members acted beyond their authority? Are they endorsing the abuse of power? I surely hope not.

The paper acknowledges that Episcopal seminaries are in trouble. It is not intuitively obvious, however, that networking of some sort will be the mechanism that saves our seminaries.

TREC plans to consider the role of ECC with regard to networking. The paper makes some assertions about the history of the general church, and it would have been helpful had SPEN discussed that history. Again, the paper exhibits a degree of resignation regarding the need to change for the sake of change, which may be counterproductive:
We note that the skepticism directed towards church-wide structures appears to be deep, and while not complete, affects a sizeable portion of TEC’s membership such that even if a majority were to agree to forms of centrally sponsored networks, the vigor and focus will inevitably be deficient—in other words, unloved and hence illegitimate.
What happened to metanoia?

Some Final Thoughts

It is telling, I think, that this first TREC paper has received significantly less commentary in the Anglican blogosphere and elsewhere. The paper is simply incoherent and poorly written. It should never have been allowed to see the light of day. Further, SPEN makes no effective recommendations to evaluate. Basically, it says that we should move from version 1.0 networks to version 2.0 networks, but it neither makes clear what that means nor provides a viable mechanism to make such transitions.

TREC has a November 2014 deadline for offering its recommendations to the 2015 General Convention. If its work is to be at all useful to the church, the quality of that work will have to improve substantially over what is evident in SPEN. Even the latest paper on governance and administration is long on recommendations but painfully short on any rationale for implementing them. Moreover, one looks in vain for any evidence of the task force’s musings on networks in “Study Paper on Governance and Administration.” Apparently, TREC needs a heavy does of version 2.0 networking itself, as one hand does not seem to know what the other hand is doing.

Barring some miraculous improvement in the performance of TREC, it is obvious that either the recommendations of the task force will be deemed useless to the 2015 General Convention or that ill-conceived recommendations will be enacted as a kind of hail-Mary play by a frightened General Convention. Neither outcome will serve our church. We should expect that reasonable reform requiring General Convention sanction cannot be undertaken before 2018.

2 comments:

  1. As I noted above, there has been little comment on the Web concerning the TREC network paper. Here are a few commentaries readers might like to sample:

    The Lead offers a view of the role of networks in The Episcopal Church. This essay is not particularly critical of SPEN, though it asserts that the paper’s taxonomy of networks is incomplete. The essay, unlike SPEN, discusses actual networks.

    Episcopal Health Ministries has published a response to SPEN. It focuses on its own work, but the concrete nature of the discussion highlights what SPEN lacks. (TREC, it seems, has mistaken fuzzy-thinking vagueness for abstraction.)

    Crusty Old Dean has written a very critical analysis of SPEN. (My essay shares a number of points with this one.) The main point of the essay, I think, is that TREC has failed to do its homework.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Black Giraffe also wrote a post about SPEN. It a lot more down-to-earth than what TREC produced.

    ReplyDelete

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