April 6, 2016

Thoughts about Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Investigation Update

As Episcopalians who follow church news closely are well aware—see ENS story here—Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, shortly after he was officially installed in his current position and while recovering from a head injury, put three members of the church top management team on administrative leave, pending investigation of undisclosed charges.

Two days ago, a press release detailed the actions taken as a result of that investigation. Mr. Sam McDonald, Deputy Chief Operating Officer and Director of Mission, and Mr. Alex Baumgarten, Director of Public Engagement and Mission Communications, “were found to have violated established workplace policies and to have failed to live up to the Church’s standards of personal conduct in their relationships with employees, which contributed to a workplace environment often inconsistent with the values and expectations of The Episcopal Church.” They have been fired.

Curry explained that Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer of the DFMS, “did not violate workplace policy, was unaware of the policy violations of the two staff members reporting to him, and operated within the scope of his office.” He is, however, being removed as Chief Operating Officer.

The aforementioned press release said nothing more about the nature of the policy violations, the period during which they were committed, or the circumstances that allowed them to occur. Although Bishop Curry has explained actions being taken in response to those violations, there is no suggestion that additional information or an explanation for the lack of information will be forthcoming.

I have been surprised that the reaction to the limited disclosure provided by the church has largely been taken at face value on social media. People have expressed relief that the problems, whatever they may have been, have been appropriately handled. In general, people have shown little inclination to demand additional information.

My reaction has been different. Dissatisfaction with the professional staff of the Episcopal Church Center is widespread, and conflicts between that staff and the church’s Executive Council are endemic. That financial improprieties have occurred in church administration in the not-so-distant past does not inspire great confidence. Nor do various past personnel decisions. Recent attempts to polish the reputation of the staff at 815 Second Avenue have seemed more superficial than substantial.

I believe that greater transparency is needed here. Episcopalians, who are paying for church administration, deserve more than a “don’t trouble your little heads about this; daddy is taking care of it.” I appreciate that, as a personnel matter, there may be substantial restrictions on what can be said publicly. On the other hand, people might feel differently about, say, stealing paper clips, than they would about staff members being pressured for sex. Since complaints were apparently made by multiple staff members, who are now being offered counseling, one is inclined to suspect that the offenses were closer to the latter than the former.

We don’t need to know all the gory details of what happened, but at least a hint of the nature of the problem would be helpful. Why did this happen? Is it likely to happen again? Are there structural changes that might need to be made and that might require action by the General Convention? What role did Executive Council play in this affair? Did Council members know anything? If not, why not?

This, of course, raises questions also about Bishop Jefferts Shori and Bishop Sauls. Given that Bishop Sauls is being removed from his position suggests that he should have known what was going on. Should the former Presiding Bishop have known? I don’t know. One suspects that Sauls was either not paying attention or was willfully ignorant of ongoing problems.

I do not want to initiate a witch hunt, but I cannot help feeling that there are systemic problems that may need to be addressed through dramatic changes. Bishop Sauls’ rebranding the church administrative mechanism as the “Missionary Society,” as though it was somehow distinct from and above The Episcopal Church, may have resulted in disconnects on both sides of the relationship. Did the denizens of 815 forget they were serving The Episcopal Church and our Lord Jesus Christ? In any case, what, exactly, does the church expect its professional staff to do? The answer isn’t clear.

Finally, there will be personnel changes coming to the Episcopal Church Center, and there may be organizational changes as well. Without knowing what problem we are solving, how can Episcopalians have confidence in the purported “solution”?

Update, 4/13/2016. Religion News Service has published a story quoting experts arguing for and against further disclosure.

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