House of Deputies

President Jennings delivered these remarks to Executive Council on October 20 at the beginning of a meeting held in New Brunswick, New Jersey. 

Last month, at the kind invitation of the Presiding Bishop, I went to the House of Bishops meeting in Detroit. I am absolutely certain that when he invited me, he did not know that most of the people attending, including me, would be struck down with a norovirus. Almost certain, anyway.

While we were there, we held a session about the culture change initiative in the Episcopal Church. Many of you and many deputies were able to join by webcast, and, as Episcopal News Service reported, the meeting is believed to be the first time the House of Bishops and House of Deputies have met together outside of General Convention.

So just thinking about how to change the culture of the church to be more like the Jesus Movement is helping us make progress toward the kind of loving, life-giving, and liberating relationships that we know we need to cultivate. As I said during the joint meeting, people need to be invited into a system that encourages transparency, accountability, kindness, and embodies the values that we’ve been talking about. It’s going to take time. We can’t just say ‘Yeah, we’re going to be different.’ We actually have to be different, and people have to experience us being different, before they will believe that a change is taking place.

Since that meeting, I’ve been thinking about how to carry the progress we’ve made in creating the new Jesus Movement culture into preparations for General Convention. In my office, we talk about when a triennium “flips”—by that, we mean when people stop talking about feeling like it is “after the last General Convention” and start feeling like it is “before the next General Convention.”  

I think that this triennium is starting to flip, and I’d like to see if we can’t help it flip in a new way.

One of the struggles that we’ve had in recent years is a popular conception in some quarters that mission and governance stand in opposition to one another. It’s a mindset based in scarcity thinking:  if we spend a dollar on governance, we’ll have a dollar less for mission. I am in favor of lean streamlined governance, but I’m also in favor of keeping our structures and relationships healthy so that we can do the work God calls us to do.

If you want an example of what that looks like, please look at the brave and faithful action now underway on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota where the Standing Rock Sioux are at the forefront of a movement to stop the Dakota Access pipeline and protect the quality of their water and their sacred lands. Two governance leaders, the Rev. John Floberg and the Rev. Brandon Mauai, are among the leaders of that movement. We have strong relationships in that part of the church through our longstanding involvement of governance leaders like my predecessor Bonnie Anderson and the involvement of previous presiding bishops at the Niobrara Convocation. Earlier this year, the Presiding Bishop and several key staff members visited Standing Rock and helped to draw attention to what local leaders were doing at a time when the mainstream media was not paying very close attention. Episcopal News Service spread the word of his visit, and the Episcopal Public Policy Network has urged the members of our church to educate themselves and to get involved. This is what the governance of the church can accomplish for mission through long-term relationships and wise use of its resources.

We’ve spent a lot of time in recent years focused on our governing structures, and what we’ve discovered, I think, is that culture eats structure for lunch every time. If we don’t pay attention to what we’re learning about the culture of the church, and concentrate on changing it to create a Jesus Movement culture across the church, we will never make meaningful structural change.

But if we can change our culture, it will free up the energy and power of Episcopalians in all orders of ministry to fulfill God’s mission for the Episcopal Church. It’s our culture and our collective energy that will lead us to create a healthy, life-giving, liberating structure that makes the best use of our resources as the people of God.

I didn’t think of this on my own. This way of thinking about the relationship of mission, structure, and energy is drawn from the work of Dr. Robert W. Terry, former director of the Reflective Leadership Center of the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. His framework says that an organization accomplishes its mission by empowering resources to work through structures. It’s worth noting that he defines structure not only as the organization of an institution, but also the biases, prejudices, and preferences of the people within the structure that contribute to how power and resources are distributed to achieve the mission. That’s why culture can gobble up structure: no matter how flat or nimble or logical the org chart might be, if power and resources cannot flow freely to accomplish the mission, the structure is broken.

If you think about it this way, we made a big structural change in Salt Lake City, and I think it’s one that anticipates the Jesus Movement culture for which we’ve been longing. But I’m not entirely sure that we realized what we were doing. You’ll remember that we eliminated 12 of 14 standing commissions and created a number of task forces that have programmatic responsibility. If we look at the church using Robert Terry’s model, we’d say that what we did was build a structure to support the widest distribution of power and energy, which means that people in the organization are able to use their gifts, skills, expertise, and passion as much as possible rather than having that expenditure of energy limited by inflexible or artificial structures.

As this triennium flips, I’m beginning to see that happen. A few weeks ago at a joint meeting of interim bodies in Chaska, Minnesota, I saw a number of groups working collaboratively and effectively to accomplish the mandates they were given by General Convention in 2015. People are finding creative ways to address challenges, to gather input from the wider church, and to seek the experience and wisdom they need from outside church structures when necessary.

I’ve seen staff, members of Executive Council, and people serving on interim bodies create working relationships that are strategic, visionary, and inclusive of one another’s ideas, hopes, and dreams.

I’ve seen ministries and departments such as Episcopal Migration Ministries  looking creatively at new ways of working internally and on a churchwide level. 

The combination of Jesus Movement culture and a structure that supports wide distribution of energy is working for us, I think. I’m excited by this and the possibilities that it gives us. But it’s a little messy at times. We’ll have to live into it.

I’m also experiencing this new sense of possibility in the meetings that we corporate officers of the church are now having regularly with the presiding bishop’s canons. We’ve stopped seeing the relative structural independence of the officers as an obstacle to overcome, and we’re looking for ways for our group to maximize its gifts and expertise through shared decision-making and distributed executive authority. That’s our polity.

And, of course, I experience this same sense of possibility every weekend these days, when more dioceses elect new slates of deputies and I hear from them about their excitement to serve and their passion for the Episcopal Church. Every weekend, there’s new power and energy in the House of Deputies ready to bring about the Jesus Movement in the Episcopal Church, and I think that makes our structure something to celebrate.

Thank you for your energy, your passion, and love of the Episcopal Church and each other.

God bless you.