House of Deputies President’s opening remarks to Executive Council

Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs
Posted Apr 18, 2012

[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson addressed the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council April 18 at the beginning of the council’s three-day meeting in Salt Lake City. This is council’s last meeting of the 2010-2012 triennium. Anderson’s remarks follow in full.

Happy Easter!

Like all of you, I’ve been thinking about the need to restructure The Episcopal Church. The demographic reasons, which [Episcopal Church Congregational Research Officer] Kirk Hadaway has shared with us, are clear: like other mainline denominations, The Episcopal Church’s membership is declining. Since 2000 our membership has declined by 16% and we lose about 50,000 members per year.

Because, in large measure, it is laypeople who fund the church, declining membership means declining revenue. As we are all aware, the church’s draft proposed budget for the 2013-2015 triennium includes $105 million in revenue available for operations, a reduction from the 2010-2012 forecast of $109 million available for operations. That’s 4 million dollars. For dioceses and people doing ministry “on the ground” that’s a lot of money.

But nevertheless, we are fortunate. Like so many crises this one has provided the church with an opportunity. Isn’t it just like God to do that? Provide us with these incredible challenges and then be with us as we figure them out.

As the world around us changes, the church must also change. Now that’s a no brainer. After all, we do want to be relevant, don’t we? This is our opportunity to initiate  proactive, life-giving change. Remember a year ago when, in my opening remarks we talked about ”creative change. I want us to change. But I want us to do it responsibly, with a conceptual framework that will keep us from the unintended consequences that come from reactive decision making. I want us to keep the decision making in the hands of all the baptized and not an elite few. We need a conceptual framework for meeting the adaptive challenges and technical fixes we face. We have the opportunity to face into the adaptive challenges – like declining membership — with thought and planning. Not hastily. And we can look carefully at those adaptive challenges, like declining membership, more easily when we make space by adopting some technical fixes that will give us room to think, to talk, to come up with ways to transform the “organization” of the church into a “movement” that embraces the faith, wisdom and voices of all the baptized.

Ron Heifitz, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, has something to teach us about how to create a movement. He analyzes change and the opportunities for leading it in part by distinguishing between technical fixes and adaptive challenges.

He says, “The difference between a technical fix and an adaptive challenge is the degree to which the adaptive challenge forces a response.” The church’s position in the 21st century is an excellent example of an adaptive challenge: This is NOT an adaptive moment. Adaptive challenges are far to big for that.  Societal changes and our declining membership are forcing us to change. Either we meet that adaptive challenge carefully or become irrelevant and, eventually, bankrupt.

You can find two videos of Ron explaining technical fixes and adaptive challenges on my website at

So how shall The Episcopal Church face this adaptive challenge? Heifitz cautions us against easy answers. Adaptive challenges, by their nature, can’t be solved in the old ways. He says,“…the solution to the adaptive challenge is outside our current ‘know-how’. There is no expert on the subject who can ‘fix the problem” Our current organizational structure isn’t equipped to do the job.

To recognize and meet the adaptive challenges before us, we’ve got to change not only the structure of the church, but also get closer to the “hands on” mission and ministry we are being called to do. But here’s the catch:  While our current structure can make some technical fixes that will open up space for adaptive challenges to be addressed, the change itself can’t come only from the leaders of the existing structure.

Instead, the expertise we need to meet our adaptive challenge needs to come from places both in and out of the church that are already facing the change creatively—from places where ministry is being done in flexible networks, where mission is being done in partnership with local communities, where new expressions of the Episcopal tradition are speaking with fresh voices.

As we approach General Convention, we need to focus on what we can accomplish as a legislative body:  on implementing the technical fixes that will clear the way for meeting the adaptive challenge.

This General Convention provides us with opportunities both to fix certain elements of our program priorities and ministry, to our pare down our big corporation-style administration system, to tweak our governance system and to adopt a triennial budget that will foster grassroots initiatives that can show us how to meet the adaptive challenge creatively and together.

For example, how might we amend the canons that govern the merger of dioceses? Many of us think that The Episcopal Church has too many dioceses and that the church can both save money and strengthen ministry when small dioceses join forces. General Convention could make some technical fixes in this area.

How about reducing the number of Standing Commissions and appointing task forces to address current issues? Some of the church’s Standing Commissions aren’t needed year in and year out, and we could be more efficient if Executive Council appointed and convened people in working groups as they are needed, disbanding after the work is accomplished.

We might also consider the use of the Episcopal Church’s endowment funds. Might we be better served by spending less of our endowments’ interest now so that we save money to implement the kinds of new initiatives and networks that could help us meet our adaptive challenge?

As we make technical fixes, we need to remember that we can’t legislate to solve adaptive challenges. Heifitz reminds us:  “…the solution to the adaptive challenge is outside our current ‘know-how.’

We don’t yet know how to transform the Episcopal Church into what God is calling us to be in the future. I believe that we will not find the tools we need at the top of the church’s hierarchical pyramid—in my office at Christ Church in Michigan, or at 815 Second Avenue in New York—but in the expertise of networks like Episcopal Relief and Development, Episcopal Service Corps, Forma (an association for Christian educators), provinces with active networks and others working collaboratively in dioceses and congregations.

At this General Convention, we have the opportunity to make the fixes that we have the know-how to accomplish. Let’s allocate money to grassroots proven Christian formation programs, youth ministry, young adult service corps. Mission? It happens most effectively on the local level. Where the people are – in parishes and faith communities – the people who are DOING the mission and ministry. What if we supported them with our budget?

I believe that understanding and respecting the difference between technical fixes and adaptive challenge will help us proceed with restructuring logically, making good use of the know-how that we already have.

More importantly, however, understanding adaptive challenge should help us approach the essential work of restructuring with humility, respect for what we don’t know, and deep caution about the danger of unintended consequences and false choices.

If we approach restructuring thinking that the job is simply about being efficient, we run a grave risk of diminishing the voices of laypeople and clergy. If we approach restructuring thinking that the job is simply about saving money, we run the risk of more budget processes—like the one we recently endured together—in which mission priorities take a back seat to number crunching.

Most importantly, if we approach restructuring believing in the false choice between governance and mission, we risk losing our central identity as a people whose democratic decision-making has led us time and time again to take prophetic action on issues of justice and peace and build strong mission relationships with one another and across the Anglican Communion.

It is my prayer that, in the end, the process of restructuring The Episcopal Church will allow us to listen more closely to people who do not carry important titles or sit in the councils of the church, but who know a great deal—perhaps more than we do—about how to create the next kind of church that God is calling into being.