January 12, 2015

The Missionary Society (Again)

The Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs released “Report to the Church 2015” on January 9. The press release announcing the new publication described the 200-page Adobe Flash document as “an innovative online magazine detailing the mission and ministry, accomplishments and achievements of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society during the current triennium.”

The Report

“Report” contains text, graphics, and a good deal of video, and its production was clearly a major project. Its size is daunting, particularly since it contains neither table of contents nor index. Moreover, readers may find the format inconvenient. (One cannot easily copy text from the document, for example.) A PDF version can be downloaded from the menu bar above the page images, but be warned—the PDF file is about 77 MB in length.

The characterization of “Report” as a magazine is curious, as there is no indication that it is a periodical, and it contains none of the boilerplate one expects in a magazine. There is no publication date and no indication of authorship. There is not even a title page! Perhaps the intention is to produce such a report every three years six months or so before the General Convention meets.

A bit more than half of “Report” is organized around the Five Marks of Mission. The remainder of the document is an appendix that lists activities by diocese. The casual observer might imagine that “Report” is a summary of Episcopal Church accomplishments in the current triennial, a feel-good piece in an age of cynicism, declining membership, and fiscal retrenchment. It is nothing of the sort.

“Report to the Church 2015” is actually 200-page advertisement for the church’s administrative bureaucracy, an advertisement that the Office of Public Affirs generously notes “can be downloaded at no charge.” (“815” has increasingly become the target of deputy dissatisfaction, not least because of the apparent incompetence attending the adoption of a budget at the last two General Conventions.) The response of management has been to cloak the Episcopal Church Center in the mantle of the Five Marks of Mission and to style the bureaucracy as the “Missionary Society.”

In the aforementioned press release, Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls is quoted as saying
We’re in the midst of trying to create a change in the culture of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society—toward being a service organization supporting and contributing to mission at the local level and away from being a regulatory agency.
The “regulatory agency” charge is something of a bum rap, but it captures the perception of many and is not without some justification. It is certainly true that the churchwide administration was much less helpful than it might have been when the Diocese of Pittsburgh was being undermined by its subsequently deposed bishop, Robert Duncan. Thus, I have my own dissatisfactions with 815. Nonetheless, there are churchwide functions that need to be performed, and they are frequently under-appreciated. (The Rev. Nathaniel W. Pierce’s recent essay on Episcopal Café, “What is the job description of the Church Center?” provides useful perspective.)

No doubt, the move toward a more deliberately service-oriented churchwide administration has resulted in part from a defensive concern for self-preservation. I believe the change is real, however, and should be welcomed. Its effectiveness, though, at least for the moment, is an open question.

The Missionary Society

What is upsetting about “Report”—aside from the contemplation of how much it must have cost to produce—is the use of the term “Missionary Society.” That name began cropping up about a year and a half ago. I wrote about this phenomenon in “The Missionary Society” in October 2013, an essay I strongly recommend you read before proceeding. (I will offer some essentials from that post here.) When I wrote “The Missionary Society,” it was clear that something was being re-branded, though it was not clear just what. I thought that perhaps an attempt was being made to re-brand the church itself, taking advantage of the popular buzzwords “mission,” “missional,” and “missionary.” At Pittsburgh’s annual convention that November, Anne Rudig, who had been designated as Pittsburgh’s primary contact person at the Episcopal Church Center, declared, “I work for the Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church.” (See “Observations on the Diocesan Convention (Part 2).”) It should have been clear that it was the administrative bureaucracy of The Episcopal Church—“815,” if you will—that was beginning to be referred to as the Missionary Society.

Now for some of the promised background. In its early days, The Episcopal Church was struggling to figure out how to extend into newly settled areas of the country and to pursue missionary efforts abroad. In 1821, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (DFMS) was created for the purpose. Initially, the DFMS was financed by subscription. It was eventually incorporated in the State of New York and, by canon, included all Episcopalians as members and was governed by Executive Council. Since neither the General Convention nor The Episcopal Church is incorporated, the DFMS has served as a kind of holding company that exists solely to conduct the financial affairs of the church. (Additional details of the convoluted history of the DFMS are to be had in my post “The Missionary Society,” cited above.)

Two points need to be understood. First, had the General Convention (or perhaps The Episcopal Church) been incorporated, we would have no need of the DFMS today. Second, it was recognized long before the present day that all Episcopalians share in the project of gospel mission and were therefore incorporated into the DFMS by canon.

Let me now return to “Report” On page 5, under the heading “WHAT IS the MISSIONARY SOCIETY?,” we find the following:
The Missionary Society is the people—the Presiding Bishop and staff members—who serve The Episcopal Church by working to support, equip, and empower all Episcopalians engaged in mission and ministry at a local level, wherever that may be, around the world.

The Missionary Society explains both the content of our work and the values that drive it. The Missionary Society communicates that the Church exists for the purpose of mission, and that the staff exists to support and serve Episcopalians engaged in mission locally and around the world.
The terms “Missionary Society,” “Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society,” and “Episcopal Church” all occur with some frequency in “Report,” and one suspects that any conflation of these terms is not totally unintentional. In particular, Bishops Sauls and Jefferts Schori seem intent on subtly taking advantage of the existence of the DFMS to re-brand 815 as the Missionary Society. (Workers at the Episcopal Church Center are paid from a DFMS account, of course, so it is not much of a stretch to say, as Anne Rudig did, that they work for the Missionary Society.)

This change in nomenclature evolved by degrees (or was rolled out by degrees, rather like the boiling of the mythical frog in the slowly warmed saucepan). The Missionary Society was first described as a program or strategy. For example, in September 2013, the page on the Episcopal Church Web site labeled “The Missionary Society” contained this paragraph (see capture in the Internet Archive here):
The Missionary Society is a strategy [emphasis added] 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.
That same paragraph—see page here—now reads
The Missionary Society refers to the staff serving The Episcopal Church worldwide. It works to achieve 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.
There are several thing wrong with the above description of the Missionary Society. First, if the term is meant simply to be a cooler name for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, it rather misses the mark. The Executive Council, which acts as the board for the DFMS is not church staff, but seems excluded from the definition of the Missionary Society. Moreover, if a simple renaming is taking place, it is simply wrong. Ordinary Episcopalians are members of the DFMS but are not mention on The Missionary Society page of the church Web site. Staff members who are not Episcopalians—surely there are some—are clearly not members of the Missionary Society if the society is equated with the DFMS.

A more serious issue is the fact that the church administration is pursuing an advertising campaign intended to create goodwill for itself and, I suspect, keep the Episcopal Church Center in New York City, where many think its operation is too expensive and too insular. The new message from 815 is “We’re the Missionary Society, and we’re here to help.” I am willing to grant that there is indeed a new commitment to supporting those of us in the hinterlands, but calling churchwide staff the Missionary Society detracts from the from the missionary intentions and competencies of provinces, diocese, and parishes. In fact, some would argue that one of the problems with 815 is that it is too much its own society; calling it the Missionary Society isn’t very helpful here. In the effort to reimagine The Episcopal Church, many Episcopalians are looking for more decentralization. The notion of the Missionary Society, however, seems to concentrate wisdom and competence regarding mission in New York City.

On page 73 of “Report,” one finds a sentence that exhibits what is profoundly wrong with the message being sent: “We’re eager to hear your ideas and to count you as a partner of the
Missionary Society.” In other words, the Missionary Society is on top of things, and we’d like to have you come along.

It is time to find another name for the Episcopal Church Center—why not “Episcopal Church Center,” by the way?—other than the defective “Missionary Society.”

Finally, I must mention that the Task Force on Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC), in its final report, proposes to amend the canon defining the DFMS. As best as I can tell, TREC has not bought into the Missionary Society thing, but its proposed revision to Canon I.3 contains at least two surprises. First, it renames the DFMS, eliminating “of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” I can get only so excited about this, though the change hardly seems necessary. More significantly, however, the proposal (Resolution A009) eliminates the provision that all members of the church are members of the DFMS. In fact, Resolution A009 indicates who the officers of the DFMS are, but fails to say who the non-officers are. This seems a mindless oversight, but it plays into the program to glorify the churchwide staff. Like much of the final TREC report, Resolution A009 would benefit from more discussion and clear thinking.

1 comment:

  1. Note that I added the paragraph beginning “On page 73” after the above essay was originally posted.


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