House of Deputies presidential candidates participate in online forum

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 8, 2024
PHOD forum

Clockwise from top left, the Very Rev. Ian Markham, dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, is joined June 8 by Deputies of Color convener Joe McDaniel and the three candidates for House of Deputies president, incumbent President Julia Ayala Harris, the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton and Zena Link.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to provide a more precise description of the House of Deputies president’s compensation package, which includes additional money for benefits. 

[Episcopal News Service] The three declared candidates for House of Deputies president, in a June 8 online forum, frequently spoke of their shared desire to help navigate The Episcopal Church through a range of future challenges, though each drew contrasts in what they would emphasize in confronting those challenges.

Incumbent House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris is running for re-election against the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, the house’s vice president, and Zena Link, a former member of Executive Council. The Deputies of Color and Virginia Theological Seminary hosted the 90-minute Zoom forum, moderated by the Very Rev. Ian Markham, the seminary’s dean.

The House of Deputies presidential election is expected to take place June 25 during the 81st General Convention, which convenes June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Video of the candidate forum is now available here for viewing on demand.

Ayala Harris, a lay leader and deputy from the Diocese of Oklahoma, touted in her opening remarks the “consistent and stable leadership that I’ve shown over these last two years” while underscoring her three ongoing priorities of improving the accessibility, inclusivity and safety in church governance.

“I would like to be able to use this next triennium to further that vision,” she said. She also noted that the church is about to elect a new presiding bishop, and as one of the church’s two presiding officers, she said she intends to work collaboratively to prepare the church for its post-pandemic future.

Taber-Hamilton, a priest in the Diocese of Olympia, Washington, said effective churchwide leadership “requires opportunities for very intentional dialogue,” and she referenced her own Indigenous heritage as a Shackan First Nation member for influencing her emphasis on a community-centric leadership model.

“I would like to be a part of creating really intentional, proactive listening sessions that really go out there and capture people’s thoughts and experience, so we can adapt to the reality,” Taber-Hamilton said.

Zena Link, a lay leader and deputy from the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and a member of the house’s Black Caucus, served with Ayala Harris from 2015-22 on Executive Council, the church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention, and since February 2023, she has regularly attended council meetings to lead workshops with its current members on dismantling racism in the church’s governance structures.

“My candidacy includes a rich history of bringing people together across differences,” Link said. “I have the experience of harvesting and nurturing wisdom, one of embodying the wisdom of the deputation and deliberately seeking to benefit from the wisdom and agency of every member of the House [of Deputies], not just a select few.”

Ayala Harris, who was elected in 2022 as the house’s first Latina president, remarked several times on what she called the “historic slate of three women of color” now seeking to lead the House of Deputies. At each General Convention, all deputies are permitted to seek election as president and vice president after clearing a background check.

Since 1964, when the House of Deputies first expanded the role of president beyond presiding at General Convention, the incumbent president has faced a contested election only once, in 2003. The incumbent that year was re-elected.

This year will mark the first time an incumbent president has sought re-election since the role became a paid position. In 2018, General Convention adopted a plan to pay the president as a contractor “for specific services rendered in order to fulfill duties required by the church’s Constitution and Canons.” The president’s base pay in 2024 is $236,756, plus reimbursement for health, retirement and other benefits. The vice president remains an unpaid position.

The Deputies of Color is an umbrella group that combines the four caucuses that are organized around the church’s Indigenous, Latino/Hispanic, Black/African descent and Asiamerica ministries. The questions it developed along with Virginia Theological Seminary for the June 8 forum ranged from the broad – how the candidates propose to work through the challenges facing The Episcopal Church – to narrower questions about the House of Deputies’ Rules of Order and how best to address conflict.

Link suggested that a special committee formed by Ayala Harris to consider post-pandemic changes to the Rules of Order could have been more transparent and proactive in seeking input from all deputies earlier in the process. Such potentially significant changes to the legislative process “need to be discussed in a way that we feel like there’s been opportunities for multiple people to have discussions,” Link said.

“And I’m not quite sure that that is what we’ve had,” she said. “I want things to be more open to the profound wisdom of the deputation as a whole.”

The proposed changes were intended to help streamline legislative business at General Convention while encouraging and empowering legislative committees to do most of their work online, as it was done in 2022 due to COVID-19 concerns, before recommending resolutions for consideration by the full House of Deputies at the in-person meeting in Louisville.

Ayala Harris acknowledged that this was a learning process for her as a first-term president. “I wish I had brought more voices into that special committee that I made,” she said, and, she also noted that the committee sought input online and held two listening sessions before revising the proposals based on deputies’ feedback.

“It is up to the House of Deputies if they want to support these various rules,” she said, noting the changes require a two-thirds vote. “We have a democratic process. We decide for ourselves what our rules will be. No one is imposing it on anyone.”

The Deputies of Color was among the churchwide groups that had raised concerns over the initial proposal for Rules of Order changes in August 2023, a fact that Taber-Hamilton mentioned in her response to the question.

“Going into the democratic process fully informed means we need to continue these conversations,” she said. “A task force is being requested because of people not really feeling that inclusion.” If approved, the task force proposed by General Convention’s Resolution D022 would spend the next three years conducting a broader study of the legislative process and including input from both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops.

This was the first of a series of forums planned between now and the various elections that will be conducted at the 81st General Convention. The Rev. Michael Barlowe, General Convention’s executive officer who also serves as House of Deputies secretary, has scheduled a forum for the candidates for House of Deputies president at 2 p.m. June 21 in Louisville. A separate in-person forum for vice presidential candidates is expected but has not yet been announced.

The Deputies of Color has scheduled its own online vice presidential forum for 3 p.m. Central June 15 in collaboration with the Seminary of the Southwest. It will feature the three declared candidates for House of Deputies vice president: the Rev. Charles Graves IV of the Diocese of Texas, the Rev. Ruth Meyers of the Diocese of California and the Rev. Steve Pankey of the Diocese of Kentucky.

Taber-Hamilton, who was first elected in 2022, has said she does not intend to run for vice president if she loses the presidential race, ensuring at least one new leader will be elected in the House of Deputies.

In their June 8 forum, Ayala Harris, Taber-Hamilton and Link identified several points on which they agreed while generally refraining from criticizing each other directly – including when Markham posed a question about how each candidate handles conflict and makes room for people who disagree.

Ayala Harris spoke of her own challenges over the past two years in responding to some conflicts related to Executive Council.

“I was new in this role and things were moving quickly, and because of that, we did not always communicate in a way with Executive Council members – and when I say we, meaning the presiding bishop and I – that council members needed to hear to feel like they were empowered to make decisions,” Ayala Harris said.

She went on to say that she learned from that experience, and now she and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry are emphasizing a greater openness and transparency in planning for the recruitment of a new executive officer for General Convention after Barlowe retires later this year.

Taber-Hamilton emphasized that effective communication is central to avoiding conflict. A good leader believes in “keeping people who are invested, keeping them informed, and not seeing requests for information as personal attacks,” she said, but rather “seeing requests for information as a natural product of people who care.”

Taber-Hamilton continued by saying that avoiding conflict means “not alienating people from their opportunities to serve the church by not appointing them to legislative committees and commissions.”

Link said she was hesitant to respond directly to the topic of conflict among churchwide leaders, though she also thinks that leadership means not just talking about collaboration but following through. She credited Ayala Harris for citing an example “in which that hasn’t happened,” though Link also alluded to other past collaborative “mishaps” without elaborating.

Ayala Harris responded by again acknowledging “some of those rifts on Executive Council.” When such conflicts occurred, “I also initiated bringing in a consultant to help us with our culture, who knew us really well.”

That consultant: Zena Link.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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