Over the weekend, our delegation attended the webinar for all U.S. delegates to the GC/JC Conferences. Here are some personal observations and lots of questions…
The Zoom gathering started well. We were invited to reimagine our future and to discern how we can best live into our commitments and values. From there we moved to our primary agenda, which was to deal with a looming financial crisis, and specifically the episcopal fund (the fund used to support our bishops and provide them with resources to lead the church). We also considered how this fund impacts many other dimensions of our shared ministry.
With many graphs and statistics, we were shown that what we are doing is unsustainable. The list of reasons is long and includes demographic shifts (ie.,aging membership), a pandemic, and theological tensions. As one bishop put it – in a wonderfully understated way – “while we can’t predict the future, it seems unlikely that this will improve.”
Concerning the Episcopal Fund, all recommendations called for a reduction in the number of bishops. The recommendation from our own Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee called for a reduction of two bishops in our Jurisdiction. This would result in Arkansas and Louisiana becoming one episcopal area (meaning that we would share a bishop). Several other options were given, with all of them revolving around the question of “how many” positions should be eliminated. To further magnify the crisis, these proposals were called “interim” moves, suggesting that more reductions would be needed in the future.
This led me to ask this question in the Q and A: “Given the need to reimagine the future, and deal with a reality that is unsustainable, could we consider a reduction in compensation for bishops, aligning salaries to values of justice, equity, servant leadership, etc? And as a witness.”
There were many similar questions, and this idea became a major point of conversation. In my breakout room, for example, we wondered if these recommendations were not a “bandaid” reaction. We discussed the need to view this need through a theological lens rather than solely as an economic problem. What if we started with our calling to cultivate social structures that are consistent with the gospel and focused on the kind of witness we are called to give the world?
In the larger Q andA times, there were some attempts to answer the question. At one point it was said that this approach was not considered because GCFA sets salaries and that such a recommendation was beyond the authority of those involved in making these recommendations. At another point, it was said that the possibility of reducing salaries was considered, but it was decided to revisit this if the collection rate of apportionments fell to 65%. In these responses, it did seem that economic paradigms continued to overwhelm any theological considerations. I admit that continuing this discussion is “opening a can of worms.” Perhaps that explains our hesitation to explore the issues.
Is it time for this proverbial “can” to be opened? Irrespective of how many bishops are needed, (and I am not necessarily arguing for more) what kind of leadership do we need and how should we pay for it? How could we use this crisis to cultivate more just, equitable, and loving systems – and not just for bishops? If the General Conference cannot do this, could a system be developed where pastoral leaders could voluntarily enter into a covenant together? What might this look like?
For one more thought. Some wondered, during this gathering, why we were putting so much energy into this when there were bigger concerns. As I heard, it was like pouring energy into policy issues – like how to report online attendance – when a struggle for the survival of the denomination is at hand (It was also noted that we see this dynamic as a nation as well). So, this leads to one more set of questions for me: How might we align this financial crisis to our hope to create a church that truly makes room for all? How might we put this concern into the larger context and use it to bring health to the whole body? How might we turn this crisis into an opportunity for increased faithfulness and fruitfulness? May this be our aim.