TREC’s legacy lives on nearly a decade later as post-pandemic church adapts to change at all levels

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Mar 17, 2023

The 80th General Convention in July 2022 was a pandemic-truncated gathering that coincidently echoed some of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church’s “vision and hope” for the triennial gathering. Photo: Randall Gornowich

[Episcopal News Service] In its 2015 report to the 78th General Convention, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church called for sweeping reforms to the church’s structures, governance and administration to create a “more nimble and accountable governing structure to undergird the mission of the Church.”

“TREC was formed at a time when there was a growing awareness and a growing anxiety in The Episcopal Church about our decline,” Minnesota Bishop Craig Loya, then the dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska, told Episcopal News Service. As one of TREC’s convenors, he called the task force’s report “a fairly natural first instinct for an organization to begin to address challenges in decline and vitality through structural reform.”

However, despite a widespread call for structural reforms three years earlier in 2012, General Convention agreed in 2015 to amended versions of just four of TREC’s nine resolutions. Only two brought immediate change, and those changes were in governance structures.

One resolution cut the number of standing commissions from 14 to two, calling instead for one-triennium task forces to study issues between conventions. The other slightly expanded Executive Council’s appointment power concerning the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s chief operating officer, chief financial officer and chief legal officer (a position created in the resolution). Convention refused TREC’s proposal to cut the council’s 40-member size in half and to take away some of the authority of the presiding bishop, such as giving council the power to fire a handful of upper-level DFMS employees.

In the more than eight years since TREC made its proposals, Loya said he thinks that “a lot of the kinds of adaptive change that we know the Holy Spirit is longing to bring forth are probably going to happen through small experiments in local communities from which we all learn and make bigger changes.” The Episcopal Church has “so many different ministry contexts rooted in a variety of different cultures” that it has always had trouble making large-scale changes that make sense in all places.

“I think that what we can best do, those of us who are leaders in the church, is to continue to do what we can to make space for those Spirit-driven experiments in local places and be intentional about how we are reflecting learnings and then sharing those learnings across all of our diversity,” he said.

While it cannot be strictly attributed to TREC or other top-down suggestions, change is afoot around The Episcopal Church, such as the dioceses of Chicago, Newark and Oregon selling or attempting to sell their headquarters and various congregations using their land to grow food for their neighbors or selling their buildings to support their outreach ministries.

However, Loya added, the church can also continue to reform its denominational structures. House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris, whose service on TREC was her first exposure to the church’s institutional leadership structure, would agree. She told ENS that the pandemic and broader changes in the culture signaled to the church that “we’re heading into a period of life where we see a need for a different way of organizing ourselves as a churchwide community.”

Some members of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church listen on Oct. 2, 2014, at Washington National Cathedral as co-convener Katy George, on the monitor, speaks about the organizational perspective of TREC’s work. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

TREC had roots in a 2011 House of Bishops meeting when Bishop Stacy Sauls, then the church’s chief operating officer, suggested that bishops rally their dioceses to call for structural reforms that he said would better focus the church on mission. More than 50 resolutions calling for structural change came to the 77th General Convention in 2012. They resulted in a single resolution that both houses passed unanimously calling for a task force to submit “a plan for reforming the church’s structures, governance, and administration” to the General Convention in 2015.

TREC’s mandate had a “wide-ranging, unattainable scope,” Ayala Harris said, but it also provided “a sandbox in which to reimagine The Episcopal Church without any real idea of what that might mean.” She added with a laugh that the church was united in hating the group’s final report.

TREC’s recommendations “weren’t rejected but they weren’t received either, and that’s kind of normal with any kind of change of substance,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who served on the task force while he was the bishop of North Carolina, told ENS. “It may have been the right thing, but it just may not have been the right time.”

The 2015 convention rejected TREC’s proposal that each diocese develop “a theology of sacredly inclusive use of space that is adaptive and generative financially and spiritually.” The task force also had suggested the church form regional groups of experts to help re-envision possible alternative uses of space. Then, in the spring of 2020, Episcopalians faced the question of how to worship when they could no longer gather in their buildings.

“We saw this church do what no resolution of General Convention could have gotten it to do,” Curry said. “And that was figure out how do we worship the Lord God Almighty and join together in prayer and praise and strengthening each other and inspiring each other and learning from the Scriptures when we can’t be together. The church figured out how to do it. It wasn’t pretty all the time. It was a little awkward, but God got worshipped.”

Loya, who was elected bishop six weeks before the March 2020 lockdowns, likes to joke about what would have happened if he had told people before the election that the first thing he would do is make every church shut its building and worship online. “Yet there we were,” he said.

Church leaders also had to decide how to convene the 80th meeting of General Convention, originally scheduled for the summer of 2021. “Someone remembered we said something about this on TREC, and all of the sudden TREC was back again,” Ayala Harris, who was a member of Executive Council at the time, recalled.

One of TREC’s rejected resolutions proposed General Convention become a unicameral legislature with 200 fewer deputies; moreover, in its report to convention it said its “vision and hope is that 2021 and subsequent [General Conventions] would include no more than five legislative days.”

When the 80th meeting of General Convention eventually convened in July 2022, after being postponed a year, it was shortened to just four legislative days, non-critical legislation was postponed until the 2024 convention and legislative committees conducted their required hearings online ahead of the meeting.

Curry, Ayala Harris and Loya all say that the pandemic clarified many of the challenges the church faces – and moved the church to a different place “in our tolerance and perspective of change,” in Loya’s words.

Ayala Harris said: “I kind of forgot about some of that work by TREC until the pandemic hit, and so I think that the pandemic has brought up a lot of those feelings of change and how will we adjust to change in The Episcopal Church. The pandemic has forced us to make some changes, but I think we are on the precipice of looking at major changes going forward.”

The committee was pointing to changes it saw on the horizon “and since then we have had this experience of having to rethink everything,” Curry said.

“The Spirit was moving with us, and we figured out how to do it. If that’s what the Spirit can do with us in the pandemic, what can the Spirit do with us in the days ahead for The Episcopal Church?” he said. “That’s why I’m not worried about The Episcopal Church.”

Read more about it: For details on what happened to TREC’s other resolutions click here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in July 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.