Executive Council wraps meeting where divided COO vote intensified ongoing dismantling racism discussion

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 12, 2023

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris, sitting at the center on the left side of the table, join a meeting of Executive Council’s Finance Committee to discuss plans for funding a new Episcopal Coalition for Racial Equity and Justice. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – San Francisco, California] A divided vote on one of The Episcopal Church’s executive leadership positions was a first-day flashpoint at the recently concluded Executive Council meeting here, intensifying an internal debate over how to dismantle systemic racism in the church. Some members argued that Executive Council itself and its processes may exemplify the problem.

“This issue brought to the forefront the issues of racism and white privilege, and if the council doesn’t address that, then that will set the tone for our relationships going forward,” Joe McDaniel, a lay member from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, told Episcopal News Service between sessions on Feb. 10.

Most of the internal debate over hiring a successor for former Chief Executive Officer Geoffrey Smith, who retired at the end of 2022, happened in closed sessions, and the council’s electronic vote in favor of Jane Cisluycis did not identify how individual members voted. Over the Feb. 9-12 meeting, however, some members expressed in committee meetings and in interviews with ENS that this experience underscores the need to do more to dismantle racism, both within the governing body and across the church.

McDaniel, who is Black, was convener of the Deputies of Color group at the 80th General Convention in 2022 and is known around the church for leading anti-racism trainings as a lay leader from Pensacola, Florida. When ENS asked him about the COO search process, he described it as a textbook case of white privilege and said he felt dispirited by the outcome of the closed-session discussion.

“How can we work to do the work that we’re called for if we have tensions and we don’t trust one another?” said McDaniel, who was elected to Executive Council at the 80th General Convention in July 2022.

In the afternoon Feb. 9, Executive Council voted, 26-13, to accept Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s and House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris’ recommendation of Cisluycis, as acting COO – meaning that a third of the governing body voted against what typically would be a routine confirmation of a top executive leadership role.

Jane Cisluycis

Jane Cisluycis currently serves as the Diocese of Northern Michigan’s canon to the ordinary for operations. Photo: Episcopal Church

Some Executive Council members, at an online meeting in December and in person in San Francisco, raised concerns about the presiding officers’ candidate search, saying it was not open or thorough enough and that Cisluycis, who is white, was potentially chosen over more-qualified people of color.

Cisluycis currently serves as the Diocese of Northern Michigan’s canon to the ordinary for operations, and she previously served from 2015 to 2022 on Executive Council, including as chair of the council’s Committee on Governance and Operations.

The COO, a canonically mandated leadership position, oversees the offices of Communication, Information Technology and Human Resources for the New York-based Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the church’s corporate entity. Episcopal News Service is one unit of the Office of Communication, separate from the Office of Public Affairs. The COO also manages the church’s real estate, including its Manhattan headquarters, and ensures that initiatives mandated by General Convention and Executive Council are staffed and resourced. The position’s salary is listed as $241,985 in the 2022 budget.

The COO is also an ex-officio member of council, participates actively in the life and work of the council and maintains strong relationships with council members, in addition to coordinating relations between council and the church center staff, advising staff on matters of interest and importance, according to the COO job description form.

The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, who was elected House of Deputies vice president in July 2022, was openly critical during open sessions and on Facebook of the COO search process, saying it did not reflect the church’s own principles and ideals. Even so, she and others were encouraged by a Feb. 10 session in which Executive Council spent about 90 minutes engaging in small group discussions about the church’s Racial Justice Audit of Episcopal Leadership from 2021.

“This work is something that we have to go through. There’s no go-around. There’s no shutting down. We have to do this extremely important relational work, if only to model what we’re asking the whole church to do,” Taber-Hamilton, who attended by Zoom, said during a committee discussion on the church’s racial reconciliation ministries.

Discussions centering on systemic racism and racial healing are not new to Executive Council. In some form, the topics have been on the agenda of nearly every Executive Council since Curry’s 2015 election. Under his leadership, racial reconciliation has been one of the church’s top priorities, along with evangelism and creation care.

The discussion continues. What has changed, however, is that for presumably the first time, in what remains a predominantly white denomination, white members are the minority on an unprecedentedly diverse Executive Council.

As The Episcopal Church’s governing body between the triennial meetings of General Convention, Executive Council’s 40 voting members are a mix of bishops, other clergy and lay leaders. Twenty are elected by General Convention to staggered six-year terms – or 10 new members every three years. The Episcopal Church’s nine provinces elect the other 18 to six-year terms, also staggered.

In 2022, 20 members started their first full terms on Executive Council, and at least 13 of those members are Black, Latino, Asian American or Indigenous, bringing the total voting members who are people of color to 23, including both presiding officers.

Executive Council’s newest additions also include several younger members. Louisa McKellaston, for example, is a white millennial member from the Diocese of Chicago. She often could be seen in meeting rooms and halls at the Westin St. Francis hotel holding her newborn daughter in her arms or in a baby carrier.

McKellaston previously served as vice chair of the House of Deputies’ Committee on the State of the Church. Despite the interpersonal strains that surfaced during Executive Council’s debate over hiring a COO, she said she is hopeful that members can come together to work through difficult issues. “Conversations are starting to happen that really are urgent and should happen,” she told ENS before committee meetings got underway Feb. 11. “I think there’s momentum from this meeting that will carry those conversations forward.”

Curry hinted at the discontent over the COO search in remarks he made in the Feb. 9 closed session that were later released to reporters. “A diversity of perspectives and insights have been offered,” he said. “All have been shared, I believe, seeking the best way for our churchwide community to be faithful and effective in the work of supporting the church in our witness to Jesus Christ and his way of love.”

Afterward, in open session, Curry prefaced the vote by saying, “whichever way this vote goes, we stay in sacred space with love and respect for each other.” He also explained why the appointment was changed to an “acting” role, so that when a new presiding bishop is elected in 2024, the church can launch a search for a permanent chief operating officer.

On Feb. 10, a day after the COO vote, Executive Council devoted part of its plenary session on to a presentation and discussion labeled “Dismantling Racism on Executive Council, an Ongoing Process.” It was led by Zena Link, who served on Executive Council from 2015 to 2022 and now leads the Massachusetts-based Mission Institute, which facilitated the Racial Justice Audit of Episcopal Leadership on behalf of the church. The 72-page report from the audit assessed the racial makeup and perceptions of a broad sampling of the church’s leadership and summarized how race influences internal church culture.

“We’re kind of revisiting how our systems work in this country,” Link said during the session. “Racism is woven into the fabric of society and the church.” Executive Council has made some progress in understanding that racism and addressing it, but Link stressed that this was more than a box to check and forget. “If we don’t stay with it, the system will reset itself,” she said.

Dianne Audrick Smith, a new Executive Council member who also serves on the Diocese of Ohio Standing Committee, said in an interview with ENS that Link did an excellent job of fostering open discussion among members, and she looks forward to having Link back at future Executive Council meetings. It is “generally a collegial body,” Audrick Smith said, though “we have much work to do.”

Audrick Smith, who previously served as a Union of Black Episcopalians chapter president, wouldn’t reveal how she voted on the acting COO, but she said she supports the presiding officers, including as they welcome Cisluycis to the church’s staff. Cisluycis start date has yet to be announced.

Audrick Smith and other Executive Council members focused most of their complaints on the process. A consultant was hired to seek out candidates for COO, but no search committee was formed, as is customary for top leadership positions at parishes and dioceses, and as happened when Geoffrey Smith was hired. That should be standard for executive leadership positions at the churchwide level as well, Audrick Smith said.

“We didn’t do that in this case,” she said. “I think we learned a lesson, and hopefully we won’t repeat needing to learn the lesson.”

Curry and Ayala Harris now are in conversations with Executive Council’s committee chairs on a plan for continuing the work of dismantling racism with Link as facilitator, at the next in-person meeting in June and possibly sooner online.

“It needs to be part of the very fabric of Executive Council,” retired Utah Bishop Scott Hayashi, chair of the Committee on Governance and Operations, said during a committee discussion.

Sandra Montes, a member from the Diocese of New York who serves as dean of chapel at Union Theological Seminary, underscored to the committee “how important this work is for this body,” given some members’ concerns about “division” and “strained relationships” over issues of race.

“We have to be in relationship, in safety, before we can even go further, move further,” said Montes, who was elected to Executive Council by General Convention in 2022. Earlier, during committee introductions, she referenced her personal feelings of exclusion as a Latina Episcopalian. “It’s very difficult to be in Episcopal bodies that are not ready for us,” she said.

The Rev. Anne Kitch, a priest from the Diocese of Newark, told ENS that difficult conversations are necessary if Executive Council is serious about dismantling racism.

“Beginning with the last term of council, the council as a body committed to intentionally working on dismantling racism – beginning with ourselves,” said Kitch, who is white and has been a member since 2018. “Council is one of the most diverse bodies in the church in which I serve, and this embodiment of council is even more diverse. And to me that is really hopeful for the church.”

While declining to comment on the COO debate, Kitch added, “conversations about how we are intentionally working to dismantle racism in our leadership are important at every level of decision-making in this body.”

Joint meeting of committees

Members of two Executive Council committees hold a joint meeting on Feb. 11 on topics that included the church’s racial reconciliation work. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

At this Executive Council meeting, members also engaged in parallel discussions about the presiding officers’ efforts to enlist volunteers for the bodies that will carry out the work of examining the church’s historic complicity with the federal system of Indigenous boarding schools. Those schools, some run by Episcopal entities, were partly intended to eradicate Indigenous culture by assimilating Native American children into white society.

Ayala Harris said she and Curry have been engaged in “a lot of deep listening,” especially at the recent Winter Talk conference of Indigenous ministries held in January. Curry echoed her comments saying they have been “careful, deliberate, slow because we need to follow the lead of the Indigenous community.”

Taber-Hamilton, who is Shackan First Nation, acknowledged the need for the church to be deliberate about its next steps – “we want to get it right, as right as we can” – but she also said she has heard from Indigenous Episcopalians wondering when the process will move forward.

This Executive Council meeting also convened two days after Curry and Ayala Harris announced they had formed a group of Episcopal leaders who will be tasked with developing a new Episcopal Coalition for Racial Equity and Justice, a network of dioceses, congregations, schools and other Episcopal entities that was mandated by the 80th General Convention.

The 2023-24 churchwide budget includes $300,000 in startup funds for the coalition, and Executive Council’s Committee on Finance spent time in San Francisco discussing more robust, ongoing funding for the coalition once it is up and running.

The coalition will need flexibility to do its work while still existing under some level of church oversight, Curry said during a committee discussion Feb. 11. “We just have to figure out how to do that canonically.”

Executive Council also approved a resolution voicing concerns about efforts by some state and local political leaders, most notably in Florida, to limit how Black history is taught in public schools. The resolution was proposed by the Rev. Charles Graves IV, a priest in the Diocese of Texas, who noted that this Executive Council meeting occurred during Black History Month.

Graves’ fellow Executive Council members offered enthusiastic support for the measure. Thomas Chu, a new lay member and attorney from the Diocese of New York, said it was an issue that could not wait for the next General Convention to take up.

“The church and the world need to hear from us now,” Chu said.

During a break in the final plenary session on Feb. 12, the Rev. Wilmot Merchant, a priest in the Diocese of South Carolina, told ENS he initially felt overwhelmed last year as a new member of Executive Council, but he and other new members are getting up to speed and making their voices heard. Merchant was invited to preach at the San Francisco meeting’s closing Eucharist.

“We have to be able to love and respect one another,” said Merchant, who is Black. “We have to be willing to cultivate that space for honesty that will create tension” – a good and healthy tension, he clarified – “as brothers and sisters, and not as enemies.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.