I have been thinking about the work of the Task Force to Re-imagine the Episcopal Church (TREC). I've been more aware of that more since the last Report and the gathering, and the many responses. I've had two issues rise for me, issues that are separable but related.
Almost all the discussion has focused on issues of power and authority. That's relevant, of course. At the same time, it speaks to a climate of fear: will I, will we be disadvantaged?
However, it is not the most important issue for me. I am more compelled by the section of the Report that speaks to function. The Task Force is correct that ministry happens primarily at the parish. As a chaplain I often remind colleagues that the normative experience of the Christian is not at the hospital bedside but in the congregation. So, I'm excited at the thought of the Episcopal Church Center or whatever overarching structures we have as catalytic and connecting and communicating of parish
ministries. In all the conversation there seems to me to have been too little reflection on this, even positive. Perhaps it's so widely accepted that no one sees a need to comment.
To do that, the Task Force suggests that more be done through networks, and that concerns me. I work in a corporate environment and I am as aware as the members of the Task Force that everyone is talking about dispersed authority working in networks. At the same time, there are networks and the there are networks. I think that before we embrace that we need more conversation about what the network would look like that would connect and communicate the ministries and the catalytic ideas. I think that is part of what we need from the Task Force.
Let me say more. I have a lot of experience with networks, and I'm conscious of important differences. For example, most of my readers know that I'm a member and past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains (AEHC). AEHC is a voluntary professional membership organization supporting healthcare chaplaincy in the Episcopal Church - which is to say a network. I am committed to AEHC and to being a chaplain among the Episcopalians. I am also conscious of its limitations. Member organizations as networks are dependent on the time, energy, and availability of members. They are especially dependent on those members who volunteer to be leaders and officers. Of course, the officers and all the members have limited time, energy, and availability. That limits what connection and communication can happen. Of course, that also means they have limited memory. As a result, the same issues come back into conversation as if they were new. Sometimes they do look new because the circumstances around us have changed. But we discover on reflection that the basic issues, like the classic heresies, rise up again and again. Changing leadership means a risk (although not inevitable) of loss of institutional memory.
By the same token, there is difficulty in catalysis. With limited time and energy there is limited connection and communication, and ideas don't get shared. Basically, the network has too little and too weak a center to sustain programs of ministry. They can support some personal connection and advocacy, and those are valuable. On the other hand, I think the Task Force expressed higher expectations.
In a different model, I spend time on the networks Facebook and LinkedIn. Those networks demonstrate an interesting paradox. They appear chaotic. That is, individuals and groups find them decent tools for various efforts. In that sense these can be useful tools. At the same time, it is only a tool and each of those individuals and groups has disparate purposes.
The paradox is that these networks in fact have coherent purposes: to make a profit by providing a service. As chaotic as they can seem to users, they have clear centers of authority and power. They have ongoing experts who have institutional memory and carry through on the central goal. In fact they are largely invisible until they change the environment. We don't see them until they change security parameters or give us a new capacity that we didn't ask for. Those networks have a lot of disparate activity, but they don't really have dispersed authority. Moreover, that authority is hidden and not really accountable to the users. I'm not saying they are not useful tools; but as networks I don't think they are models we want to follow, especially with all the anxiety we're expressing about centralized power.
Then there are the Information Technology networks in corporations like the one I work in. I have a great relationship with the IT folks in our system. They do great work. They have a commitment to a central mission and clear (and even somewhat dispersed) authority. They understand that the network is a tool and not an end in itself. On the other hand, they are neither volunteers nor amateurs. They are also not cheap nor self-funding.
All of these are networks. Each has its strengths and it's limitations. None of them seems to me what TREC is talking about, exactly. So, I don't think we've talked enough about that. I think we need to have that conversation before General Convention, and I think TREC needs to lead it.
Again, I know that there has been more said and asked about power. I have other thoughts about that. I do think, though, that if we don't have the conversation about our expectations of networks we'll discover that those concerns get shaped not by our ministries but by the needs of the tools themselves.
If we're serious about re-imagining the Church, the questions of structures and tools are important. That is what I'd really like TREC to lead us in now.