Briefly describe your experience in church governance.
Throughout my ministry, I have consistently had one foot in local, parish ministry and another foot in the wider church. I have extensive experience at every level of church governance:
- at the parish level as rector, seminarian, and Vestry member;
- at the diocesan level as a two-time member and president of Minnesota’s Standing Committee (both during bishop search and election processes), Diocesan Council member in several dioceses, and a host of ad hoc teams working on governance projects;
- on the TEC level as a 5-time deputation chair, member or chair of 5 General Convention legislative committees and 6 interim bodies, plus active membership on the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the 27th Presiding Bishop.
The past triennium+ I have served the first part of my elected term on Executive Council, chaired the Task Force to Develop a Mandatory Paid Family Leave Policy for TEC, chaired the Evangelism Grants program, served as an appointed member of General Convention Planning and Arrangements, and also chaired the General Convention Community Gathering team that planned dynamic speakers, panel discussions, and community videos for after GC worship.
I have been trusted in a variety of advisory roles including serving on President Gay Jennings’ Council of Advice for six years and being called upon regularly by advocacy groups to consult on strategy for justice-based initiatives.
A detailed account of my church governance experience can be found in my CV here.
The 13th century German mystic, Meister Eckhart wrote, “We should not think that holiness is based on what we do but rather on what we are…” Or as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it: we need to spend more time on our eulogies than our resumes. For me what is more important than a list of experience (the “what”) is the way in which those ministries were lived out and led (the “how”). Who we are while we lead is just as important as the things we accomplish.
I have worked hard to take this wisdom to heart in all of the opportunities I have had to lead teams, committees, or commissions in church governance. I have strived to create generative, relationship-focused environments safe enough to challenge, ask questions, or offer the crazy idea. In each I have aspired to lead the group to take the time to get to know and listen to one another, to learn about each members’ gifts, to pray and worship and stay connected to our common baptismal values and the Gospel. Creating this kind of environment isn’t about relaxing standards, making people feel comfortable, or extending unconditional praise. The intent has been to foster a climate of respect, trust, and openness where members can raise concerns, imagine out-loud, make a claim on the process, or take a big risk without fear or shame.
Further, I have organized church governance groups to begin their work from a posture of learning – taking the time to dig deep and understand the mission in all its complexity and nuance, bringing the whole team up to the starting line—together — leaving no one behind. Being able to think expansively and with imagination, I believe, is not just an individual skill. It is a collective capability and it depends heavily on a group’s culture, tone, and leadership. This is the ethos that is necessary to handle our biggest challenges and to reach our highest aspirations.
Why do you want to serve as President of the House of Deputies?
I put myself forward for consideration after extended, prayerful discernment and conversation with Episcopalians from across the church. I don’t take this lightly or with ambitions of greatness: I do it because I feel called. The ministry of church governance, and specifically of the President of the House of Deputies, aligns with my gifts, experience, and vision for the church.
Having been trusted to serve on President Jennings’ Council of Advice for six years, I have seen up close the joys, challenges, heartache, and opportunities of this ministry – both of what the ministry costs and, more importantly, what it can create. I understand the President of the House of Deputies to be a servant minister with a multitude of roles and responsibilities, including: convener, arbiter, facilitator, initiator, appointer, and collaborator. It requires faithful partnership with the ministry of clergy and laity who serve as deputies and/or as appointed members of interim bodies. It asks for collegial, relational engagement with the Presiding Bishop, members of Executive Council, church center staff, and bishops. The ministry also necessitates real spiritual maturity, including a daily practice that roots the work in a relationship with Jesus and the community of saints.
To my mind, the President has to be a bit fearless – willing to say the hard thing, ask the provocative question, take a big risk, or not know the immediate answer to a big problem. The President needs to be willing to consistently walk the fine line between protecting our church’s values around shared leadership in governance while opening space for innovation, re-thinking, and change. What I know about myself is that I too can be fearless, especially when it comes to building up the church, growing a relationship, living into the Gospel, strategizing for change, or facing a consequential challenge.
In many ways it feels like the paths I’ve walked in the church throughout my life have led me to this moment and to this call. My life in the church came alive as a teenager when I was invited into leadership in youth ministry on a parish, diocesan and TEC level. Episcopal Youth Ministry formed me, and through it I caught my first glimpse of what it looks like when lay people, clergy, and bishops join together to create impactful and meaningful ministry. Youth ministry taught me about servant leadership, racial healing, and justice as lifelong pursuits. It taught me about the theology of baptism and the priesthood of all believers. It taught me that I do my best work behind the scenes, building community and relationships, advocating for other people, watching for the Holy Spirit, and strategizing for change.
I have grown and deepened the ministry that began in my youth as a legislative assistant, community organizer, parish priest, family member, five-time deputation chair, advocate, local volunteer, and leader of multiple interim bodies and General Convention legislative committees. I have a track record of investing in the ministry of other people: whether it be walking alongside parishioners as they deepen their discipleship, mentoring new deputies, training new legislative committee chairs, or responding to the needs of faith communities to strategize how to turn a dream into reality. All of these experiences, all of these relationships, all of these paths have prepared me for the ministry of the President of the House of Deputies.
Describe your most meaningful experience in a leadership or legislative role and explain its relevance to your candidacy (This experience need not have taken place within the church).
The floor of the United States Senate hushed as Senator Tom Harken of Iowa approached the podium. The Senate had just approved the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and as was the Senate’s custom, the sponsor of the legislation was invited to deliver a concluding statement. Senator Harken gazed up at the visitor gallery, packed to the hilt with people from every walk of life, with every possible ability and disability. Then, glancing at his notes one last time, he delivered his speech, in its entirety, in American Sign Language. The moment felt like a miracle, nothing less than being led across the Red Sea into freedom for people with disabilities everywhere, and by extension, for everyone else, too. At the speech’s end there was the briefest silence before the chamber erupted in cheers.
In the years leading up to that moment, I served as a legislative assistant to the U.S. Senator from Michigan, Carl Levin. As an original co-sponsor of the ADA, Levin deployed me to work alongside Harkin’s committee staff in developing the legislation and cultivating support for it. The task was herculean. Every single member of the Executive Branch would be affected, a myriad of details and policies to develop and implement. Understandably, the small business lobby, among others, was skeptical at best, concerned that a new layer of regulation would put people out of business. Methodically, the committee staff plodded through each concern to the best of their ability, weighing the options, easing some aspects of the legislation in order to strengthen others and win more advocates, or at least, more votes.
Working on the ADA, seated on the Senate floor in tears when it passed, was a huge education. It was one of the most significant leadership experiences of my life – and not because I was anywhere near to being one of the prominent leaders of the effort. Nowhere will you find my name on a committee report or floor transcript, in a newspaper quote or by-line for any of the floor speeches I wrote. I was legislative staff – one of the masses who worked epic hours in poorly-lit offices, lived on mediocre pizza, and watched the sun come up over the dome of the Capital Building more than once. I was legislative staff – in the weeds, working the details, meeting with advocacy groups, bartering about nuances, building relationships with detractors. I was one small piece of a spectacular effort that bettered the lives of millions of people.
My participation in this leadership opportunity was important, too, because it offered critical learning experiences that have carried me through my professional life, drew me to church governance, motored my capacity, and, in many ways, delivered me to my candidacy today. Leadership lessons like these:
- Delivering on vision requires incremental change. Whether it be Congress, or governance in the academy or the church, impactful change comes slowly. One never gets everything they want in a single step. Change is a process that evolves over time, requiring vision, patience, and tenacity. It is always the long game.
- Innovation is possible in big systems. They may be clunky and inelegant, but large governing structures are capable of changing lives, living into shared values, communicating a prophetic message, and leading imaginative, adaptive change. Governing systems need to be in relationship with, and listening to, change agents on the ground. They must have a vision and strategy, humor and flexibility, and a clear, inclusive, transparent process.
- It’s all about relationships. Building connection through relationship is the most meaningful currency of change. Ask any community organizer, legislator, or church governance wonk. Relationships are the cells of any larger organism. Any initiative that tries to jump over the preliminary work of relationship-building cannot ultimately be successful.
- Sometimes you have to just go for it. There were countless logistical problems with the initial ADA, and in many respects, details about its implementation were elusive. But it was the ethical, moral, and arguably spiritual, thing to do. Sometimes the prophetic reasons need to carry the decision, and some of the logistics figured out later.
Finally, my part in the ADA holds great personal meaning as well. My brother Justin lives with the repercussions of a traumatic brain injury. My daughter Svea was born with hypocondroplasia, a form of dwarfism with correlating learning disabilities. I shudder to think what their lives would have been like without the ADA, without access to the wider world – and what the world would have lost not knowing these two unique people with so much to give. The opportunity to play a role in the ADA is one of greatest God-given gifts of my life.
What are the most significant challenges facing our church and how do you propose to address them?
A challenge facing our church, one that hurts us all, is racism. The Holy Spirit has opened a space for the church to dig deeper into our history of discrimination and violence against people of color, to name and address systemic racism and white supremacy, and to begin processes of healing, reconciliation, and justice at every level of the church. This critical work calls for a change from the old ways of one-off trainings toward the deeper, transformational work of storytelling, accountability, repentance, and repair.
The PHoD has an integral part to play in the ministry of racial healing in our church. President Jennings, in collaboration with our Presiding Bishop, has initiated significant efforts to both assess where we are as a church and chart paths forward toward becoming Beloved Community, including: “Becoming Beloved Community: TEC’s Long-Term Commitment to Racial Healing, Reconciliation, and Justice,” the Racial Justice Audit, and most recently, the Presiding Officers’ Working Group on Truth-Telling, Reckoning, and Healing. In the coming years, as a church, we would need to keep our foot firmly on the gas pedal. More importantly, this time around (as there have been past efforts and promises) we will need to put extra tenacity and intent around implementation, periodic evaluation and strategic adjustment, accountability, and follow-up.
Not unrelated is the challenge of the church’s shrinking numbers. Check in on any Pew Research poll or academic article commenting on mainline Protestantism and the vocabulary is the same: decline, free-fall, collapse, even death. We know that on the whole, Sunday morning attendance continues to fall across the church, our membership is aging (the modal age of an Episcopalian in 2019 was 69), and numbers of weddings and baptisms have plummeted. I know that many local faith communities struggle with maintaining buildings, providing effective leadership development, and breaking free from dated patterns and expectations that no longer serve the church. The old way of being church is falling away, whether we like it or not. Ministers across the orders are exhausted because it is exhausting to maintain the parts of our church that are dying.
But we are a Gospel people with a message, faith, practice, community, and mission. Our biblical tradition is full of stories about communities of faith that were collapsing, being attacked or overthrown, falling apart, and dying. Over and again God’s core truth prevailed: life always follows death.
The House of Deputies President cannot address these challenges alone nor prevent what is falling away from falling away. Nobody believes we can legislate our problems away. We are a resurrection people and despite the obstacles we face as a church, we put our whole faith in God’s promise of new life. So – where are the paths to resurrection? to re-visioning, re-imagining, re-thinking what we can do and be? To what is God calling us? And what are we prepared to change or leave behind to follow that call?
To me, there would be two pathways forward: the first would open up more adaptive space within our governing structures, appointing voices of change and from the margins into that space, and working with the General Convention Office to resource that work, providing thought partners, research assistants, data collection support, and project managers. An excellent example is this past triennium’s House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, charged by President Jennings to be an “innovative think tank and incubator for adaptive thinking, innovative ideas, and fresh approaches to the church’s leadership, organizational thinking, and common life.” The Committee made specific and significant recommendations for what moving forward with adaptive work would need and look like.
A second pathway would be designing a strategic plan for the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church is currently without an agreed-upon vision for our future and a strategy to get us there. This is the work of Executive Council, inaugurated and guided by the Presiding Officers, and resourced by the General Convention Office. It is urgent work and the visioning part would optimally begin in the 2022-24 “bi-ennium” – engaging the whole church with ample and frequent invitations to participate.
The strategic plan process would need to include a comprehensive discussion about TEC’s financial resources. While church participation and membership decrease, our resources are not. According to TEC’s financial office, TEC holds approximately $293 million in trust which supports its annual budget with a 5% dividend draw. This figure does not include cash reserves or the estimated $4.5 billion in assets held at the diocesan and parish levels. Any strategic plan process would need to determining how our resources might best be leveraged to help us arrive at our vision. How might we re-imagine the use of these incredible resources to help us move toward a compelling, Gospel-based vision?
Are there specific changes you would like to make in the way the House of Deputies functions or the role the president and vice president play in the wider church?
Each of our House of Deputies Presidents have served our church in particular moments of our church’s history. Each has faced unique challenges and opportunities. It’s a huge ministry, and we have been served by spectacular heroes of the faith – who changed the church, gave us hope, and helped us live more deeply into our values around shared leadership. For me, proposing changes is neither an exercise of critique. or a distancing from, current or past presidents – quite the opposite. It is an effort to build on their prophetic ministry and to respond to the new challenges of the next chapter of our church’s life.
Ideas about change need to be grounded in an intimate understanding of the position’s scope, specific duties, and nuances. I have spent time with the most exhaustive job description available and served on the PHoD Council of Advice for six years, earning a comprehensive understanding of the President role. For our next few triennia, changes I propose would include:
- Deputies engaged in racial healing as faith formation. I understand the process of addressing my own racism and understanding myself as a raced person to be integral to my faith formation – a steady, intentional process both urgent and lifelong. I believe it is critically important that deputies have a demonstrated commitment to racial healing as part of their own discipleship. A President can have a stated and repeated hope that deputies are fully engaged – where they live and worship – in this spiritual work. Because the church’s work ahead is so consequential, deputies will need to bring their best, most spiritually grounded selves to the House, ready and rooted enough to engage the call to truth-telling, reckoning, and healing.
- Leveraging deputies in between General Conventions. For years I have ministered simultaneously on the parish level and in the structures of the wider church. Sometimes it feels like there is a chasm between the two. I think deputies are an important part of the connective tissue between wider church governance, dioceses, and local faith communities and would work to leverage deputies (through relationship, training, and community) to effectively carry the policies, asks, and resolutions back to their local faith communities and help equip lively engagement. Further, deputies can be leveraged to identify and recommend for interim body appointments people they know who are engaged in adaptive, imaginative, courageous ministry, with particular expertise.
- Expanding new and emerging leadership. Facing the church’s challenges together means we must expand access to the “room where it happens,” for young people, emerging leaders, people of color, LGBTQ+ and transgender people, and Episcopalians engaged in experimental or nontraditional ministries. I would continue the huge strides President Jennings has made in appointing a new wave of deputies to legislative committees and committee leadership, backing it with new and dynamic opportunities for training and mentoring. One of the challenges (and opportunities) of the House of Deputies is that in any given General Convention, a significant percentage of its members are first time deputies. New deputies bring with them new perspectives and can see what long-time deputies no longer observe. It’s the classic mix of the long-time deputies (who bring wisdom) and new deputies (who have the prophetic voice). I would help the House keep an ear out for the prophetic voice, open to what new deputies have to teach the rest of us.
- More training and community for new deputation and legislative committee chairs. During preparation for the past three General Conventions, I have been called upon by our President to assist in the training of, and support for, new chairs. Many times new deputation chairs are also new deputies. I’ve learned that building friendship and community encourages a culture of mutual learning and support that builds capacity, efficacy, and confidence.
- A focus on relationship as our primary work. Whether it be Executive Council, interim bodies, or the House of Deputies my mantra stresses the critical importance of building generative, trusting relationships with each other. Especially in a polarized society, strong relationships create environments safe enough to take risks and put ourselves out there without fear.
- Evaluating the size and scope of governance. Our governing structures must serve our church’s mission, vision, and ministry. The current scale of our structures is designed to serve a church far bigger than ours. I believe we can better align our governing structures with our size without compromising our common values of shared, diversified leadership.
- More adaptive space and exploration in governance structures. I’ve attended to this vision in the previous survey question.
Is there anything else voters should know about you?
Years ago I attended a CREDO conference. My most significant take-away was this little nugget: the church cannot be your whole life. God can be your whole life, but not the church. That pearl of wisdom changed me. After CREDO, I shifted gears. While still giving my ministry in the parish, diocese, and wider church governance the best of my professional energy and time, I began to build a more intentional, multi-dimensional life. I began praying Morning Prayer, every day, with space in the middle for Centering Prayer. This patient practice, over the long haul, has affected every aspect of my life. It grounds me, shapes me, directs me. It blows my mind that, almost without exception, there is always something in the daily scriptures or prayers that speaks directly to me in that moment or that day’s circumstance.
After that CREDO I re-invested in my relationships – with family, children, husband, with friends and neighbors. I gave a lot of thought to the artistry of friendship – how to cultivate it, help it grow, how to be most fully present when people I love are facing crises or hurt or death. I involved myself in the life of my city (Minneapolis), got involved with local policy making and candidates, and committed to environmental and racial justice work through the Twin Cities YMCA. I explored Minnesota’s Northwoods and learned how to identify plants and trees and even scat.
After that CREDO I turned to physical wellness, hired a trainer, and learned how to run, bike, and swim long distances. I became one of those crazy people who sign up for summer triathlons – preparing, training, and, if I’m honest, whining. I am slow as all get-out: definitely the turtle and not the hare. In a 5K city race, I was lapped (I’m not exaggerating) by a 10 year old. In summer months the Minneapolis Park and Rec Board allows residents to swim across city lakes, at specific times on specific evenings. On some nights it feels like half the city is there – kids, BBQs, frisbees, people of all ages, cultures, genders, and races. There have been times when I find myself treading water in the middle of the lake on a stunning summer evening, looking back at the beach with its swirl of humanity and feeling the deepest kind of peace and gratitude.
In the end, it isn’t about taking on more stuff to do – it is about living life fully and deeply in a kind of balanced flow. While initially it felt like efforts toward wholeness took time and energy away from my life in the church, in reality it’s the exact opposite: it has made my ministry more effective, compassionate, and considered. If I’m honest, it’s a more faithful life. While I bring my discipleship with me wherever I go and to all my relationships, the church is not my whole life. I consider that truth one of God’s greatest gifts.
My website: https://devonanderson.org/