Mainline moves to trim bureaucracy

December 5, 2011

A  list of the Episcopal Church's 75 commissions, committees,
agencies and boards spilled over eight PowerPoint slides during a recent
presentation by its new chief operating officer, Bishop Stacy Sauls. By
his count, there are also nearly 50 departments and offices in the
church's New York headquarters and 46 committees in its legislative
body, the General Convention.

Sauls, hired by Presiding Bishop
Katharine Jefferts Schori in May, said that he has since learned there
are even more offices "that I had never heard of before."

"It has
become just Byzantine," he said. "The governance structures have grown
by accretion, without any strategic plan." Nearly half of the
denomination's budget is spent on overhead, according to Sauls.

Meanwhile,
Episcopal membership continues to drop, dipping below 2 million in the
U.S. for the first time in decades. Donations, too, are down. It is time
for change, starting at the top, Sauls said.

"We've been
operating in a system where certain expertise resides at the churchwide
level and pronouncements get sent down the pipeline," he said. "That
model is last century. It's a radically different time now."

Mainline
Protestants' national offices spread their reach into every field, from
liturgy to gender equality to disaster relief. But as they seek to halt
decades-long declines, a number of denominations are trimming their
branches and tending to their roots: local congregations. Many are
moving to decentralize power, shifting re­sources and responsibilities
from national headquarters and elected church­wide assemblies to
regional bodies and local leaders.

"There used to be a mentality
of: as goes the national office, so goes the denomination," said David
Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at
Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

Church leaders "are finally
getting the idea that the future of their denominations are tied to the
vitality of their congregations," said Roozen, coeditor of the 2005 book
Church, Identity and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times.

But
the moves have prompted protests from some longtime members who worry
that lay voices will be muted and long traditions of democratic decision
making will be jettisoned in favor of expediency. Roozen said mainline
Protestants lag behind secular companies and entrepreneurial
evangelicals in trading top-heavy bureaucracies for flat and fluid
networks.

Recently, though, they have been catching up:

  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved a plan in August
    that prioritizes congregational growth and moves its Churchwide
    Assemblies from every two years to every three.
  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) enacted a less regulatory and more flexible form of government in July.
  • The United Church of Christ voted overwhelmingly at its General Synod
    in July to form a 52-member board to succeed five existing boards that
    have a total of 300 members. A similar, preliminary proposal failed in
    2009, but UCC leaders are optimistic that by June its 38 regional
    conferences will provide the two-thirds margin to ratify the unified
    governance plan.
  • In the Episcopal Church, a proposal authored
    by Sauls and approved so far by 17 dioceses would appoint a special
    commission to study restructuring. The proposal will be debated at the
    2012 General Convention. Sauls has also suggested that the triennial
    conventions are too expensive and should meet less often.
  • Leaders in the United Methodist Church are pushing a major restructuring
    plan that would consolidate ten churchwide agencies into five. The
    agencies would be run by a 15-member board of directors, itself overseen
    by a 45-member advisory panel.

United Methodist Bishop John
Hopkins, who chairs a panel advocating  change, said the denomination's
13 agencies, publishing house and pension board collectively have 550
board members who meet just a few times each year. That's a recipe for
stagnation, he said.

The proposed changes would streamline the
denomination and make it more responsive to local congregations, some of
which view the national agencies as out of touch, according to Hopkins.
"We've got to flatten the church a little bit to make sure this
perceived distance is reduced," Hopkins said.

The UMC's Council of
Bishops overwhelmingly approved the plan and voted to redirect $60
million in church funds to develop young leaders and congregations. The
bishops, however, do not have a vote at the 2012 General Con­ference,
where the restructuring will be debated. And some United Methodists are
already lining up in opposition.

In a joint statement, leaders of
five racial and ethnic groups called the plan "oligarchic" and said it
"will exclude the participation of racial/ethnic persons." In addition,
the Methodist Federation for Social Action is pushing an alternative
plan that would create four ministry "centers," each with its own
33-member board. "Our process will be more inclusive of folks who are
not white," said Tracy Merrick, the MFSA's national treasurer.

The
Episcopal plan also has its critics. Bonnie Anderson, president of the
House of Deputies and the church's top lay leader, accused Sauls of
mounting an "end run" around a committee that had already been studying
restructuring.

Anderson also doubted the need for a special
commission to restructure the church. The House of Deputies and the
House of Bishops have already demonstrated the ability to make major
decisions—to allow gay bishops, for example—at recent General
Conventions, according to Anderson. "To think that we couldn't decide
ways to restructure the church is a bit naive," she said.

At the
same time, Anderson agrees that the Episcopal Church needs to change. "I
believe that we need more resources and authority at the local level,"
she said. "The days of the big corporate front office, if not gone
already, are dwindling pretty fast."  —RNS