Executive Council committee will tackle questions about boards

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 6, 2014

[Episcopal News Service – Linthicum Heights, Maryland] The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council has begun an effort to clarify the responsibility and authority that reside in the agencies and boards that report to it.

As part of that process, the council Feb. 6 heard from representatives of the General Board of Examining Chaplains, the Board for Transition Ministry and the Board of the Archives of the Episcopal Church.

Council began to address the future functioning of the United Thank Offering and its relationship with the wider church at its last meeting in October. Council members will be asked Feb. 7 to approve a memo of understanding between the UTO and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (the church’s corporate name), along with new UTO bylaws. The UTO board has approved both documents.

“There has been a confluence of events and circumstances within the last eight to nine months in the life of the church that have shown light on the problems of lack of definition, lack of clarity, lack of common understanding even of what ‘boards’ are,” Steve Hutchinson, chair of the council’s Joint Standing Committee on Governance and Administration for Mission (GAM), said in an interview.

For instance, Diocese of North California Bishop Barry Beisner, who chairs the transition ministry board, told council that the board has the canonical mandate to oversee the transition ministry office at the same time that the DFMS employs and supervises people who staff that office.

He said the current vacancy in the transition ministry officer position, “is a moment when this ongoing and urgent need for clarification of the exact nature of ‘canonical oversight’ of that dual-accountability relationship” should be addressed.

Hutchinson said his committee, which will take the lead on council’s efforts, must address the question of what autonomy really means because the boards in question are not separate legal entities from the DFMS. They all function by relying on various types of administrative support supplied by the DFMS which, he said, makes more sense than having a board that meets a few times a year be an employer.

“And, yet, it is confusing when a canon or some other provision says they have oversight over the office. What does oversight mean?” he said.

Agencies and boards are also different in Hutchinson’s mind from the church’s other committees and commissions because “they have some operational responsibility” for providing some sort of service. The committees and commissions make policy recommendations to General Convention and Executive Council. The former appear to have a “delegated authority,” which seems to have never been precisely spelled out.

Often, he said, no matter how those relationships are described in written documents, there questions about collaborative decision-making, consultation, accountability, or who ultimately holds what authority.

“It’s not clear,” he said. “It’s not written down anywhere.”

In fact the church’s Constitution and Canons do not even define the terms “agency” and “board,” Hutchinson noted.

“We’ve just been using those terms for a long time as if everybody understood what they meant but we’ve come to realize that not everybody does understand them the same way,” he said.

So, the governance and administration committee “is going to ask a lot of questions, talk to a lot of people, do some research and try to come up with an assessment of what the issues are and what the options are that would serve the interests of the church and these respective entities” about how that delegated authority works – “if there is such a thing” – and what are the responsibilities and the accountability that go with that, Hutchinson said.

Whatever the appropriate mechanism (governing document, bylaws, memos of understanding or canons), Hutchinson envisions achieving that clarity in a way that “creates an adequate degree of certainty about those expectations” but doesn’t come with “overkill or minutiae.”

GAM’s work will take place within the context of the work being done by the Task Force for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church and the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church in advance of the 2015 meeting of General Convention.

“We don’t want to do anything that is at cross purposes” with what those two groups are doing, Hutchinson said.

Also on the council’s agenda

On the second day of its three-day meeting, council also spent 90 minutes evaluating its work at the mid-point of the 2013-2015 triennium and the members heard a report on the plans for the 78th General Convention set for June 25-July 3, 2015, in Salt Lake City.

The Feb. 5-7 meeting is taking place at the Maritime Institute Conference Center.

Some council members are tweeting from the meeting using #ExCoun.

The Executive Council carries out the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention, according to Canon I.4 (1)(a). The council is composed of 38 members, 20 of whom (four bishops, four priests or deacons and 12 lay people) are elected by General Convention and 18 (one clergy and one lay) by the nine provincial synods for six-year terms – plus the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.