Briefly describe your experience in church governance.
I am grateful to have had experience serving in various levels of governance throughout the church. You can find a list of all of the church leadership positions I have held on my website (www.juliaayalaharris.com/about), but I would like to tell you a bit about the most formative experiences I have had: serving on Executive Council, the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), and my parish’s vestry.
I have served on Executive Council since General Convention elected me in Salt Lake City in 2015. During this most recent triennium, which stretched to four years due to the pandemic, I was elected to the Executive Committee of Executive Council and appointed Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Mission Within The Episcopal Church. During this pivotal time, I have worked collaboratively with the Executive Committee and Joint Standing Committee members to adapt and respond to the needs of the moment. In particular, I have worked alongside our Presiding Bishop and president of the House of Deputies as well as the other chairs of Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committees as we navigated together our changing ministry priorities, response to racial injustice, and the pandemic.
In my first triennium on Executive Council, I served as Vice-Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Advocacy and Networking. In that role, I co-authored The Episcopal Church’s first comprehensive resolution on domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence and stalking, allowing The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations to lobby for the Sexual Assault Survivor Rights Act. I also co-authored resolutions on The Episcopal Church’s relationship with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, championed Episcopal Migration Ministries, shepherded resolutions regarding gun violence, and advocated for Episcopal-affiliated Historically Black College and Universities.
The Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC)
From 2012-2015, I served on the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC), which was an experiment in church governance. For church geeks like me, it was an opportunity to be a part of something truly unusual—a church think tank. We spent our time in prayer, listening to the wider church, and looking honestly at our church structures. Much of what I have taken away from my time on TREC cannot be found in the Blue Book report that we issued to the church in late 2014, because for me, TREC was more about how we questioned, imagined, innovated, and dreamed together. It was a leadership development program in the form of a task force looking at church structure. I believe this is why so many of us came out of TREC poised to take on major leadership roles across our church. My service on TREC has helped me be ready and prepared as I have helped to lead Executive Council through the disruption of the pandemic, which has forced us to adapt our structures.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norman, Oklahoma
As many lay leaders know, serving on a vestry allows us the privilege of walking alongside and supporting our clergy and the congregation. My time as a vestry member from 2015 to 2018, gave me the insight into the nuts and bolts of local, on-the-ground ministry of governance. As a vestry member, I came to understand how decisions made at the churchwide level affect a local congregation, and how local congregational learning can trickle up to the churchwide level. The lessons I learned while serving on my church’s vestry have been invaluable to me as a leader at the churchwide level. They have informed my perspective in areas such as evangelism and parochial report adaptations. From this vestry experience, I have come to understand the importance of listening to local leaders, and I value their input on churchwide ministries and programs.
Why do you want to serve as President of the House of Deputies?
I believe I am called to help bring about the change that our church must undergo to meet this current moment, and so I am a candidate for president of the House of Deputies. For me, a calling is about faithfully answering yes when Jesus invites us to participate in God’s mission, and I take this sense of calling very seriously.
My call to be a candidate for president of the House of Deputies has been deeply spiritual and personally transformational. Over the past several years, people around the church have asked me to consider running for this role. Yet I was hesitant because I do not look like many past presidents. I wondered if the church was ready to see me as a leader in this way.
As I have approached the end of my seven years on Executive Council, I looked at the ways I was able to further the work of our church while also creating space at the table for voices we do not typically hear. I reflected on how I have led as Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Mission Within The Episcopal Church, working collaboratively with our Presiding Officers and my fellow committee chairs. As a leader on Executive Council, I have brought people together to discern how we would respond to quickly changing landscapes on matters such as racial justice, the environment, and evangelism, gathering new voices to help shape our common mission. I have also called us to look within ourselves to face our history with Indigenous boarding schools, grappling with our Racial Justice Audit of Church Leadership, and hearing from those who find themselves at the margins of our present-day church.
When I became open to listening to what people were telling me about my leadership abilities and saw the evidence of how I have been able to use my skills to navigate stormy seas successfully, then my heart was ready to say yes to this call. I believe that I have proven myself to be the kind of leader we need in our next president: compassionate, strategic, inclusive, collaborative, and kind.
While it feels vulnerable to be the first Latina candidate, I walk this journey with joy, knowing that while I create a wider path for future leaders, I am also walking on the path created for me by the women who went before me. I see this type of path-building as an essential aspect of my leadership.
Leaving pieces of ourselves behind is not what Jesus calls us to do. We ought to strive to create a church where we can bring our full God-given selves to our church, where everyone is acknowledged as being made in God’s image, and where everyone has their Imagio Dei honored and recognized. As president of the House of Deputies, I would work to appoint leaders to interim bodies and committees to foster this type of inclusivity and model it for the rest of our church. Additionally, I would continue to build on the innovative work done by the House of Deputies State of the Church Committee during this triennium to make our parochial report better measure and reflect what we need to know to build the beloved community.
The second theme that has emerged in my discernment conversations are the challenges posed by the Episcopal Church’s overall decline, uneven distribution of resources, and rural and urban divides. Parishes and dioceses are burdened with buildings that require maintenance and congregations that cannot support full-time clergy. Yet we still cling to old ideals that have ceased to be romantic notions of nostalgia and have become destructive fantasies. At the same time, innovative programs that are carrying the message of Jesus into our neighborhoods struggle for resources to stay afloat. We have not been adequately addressing the challenges related to small congregations in rural settings and we have barely begun to focus on how we go about revitalizing urban churches in changing neighborhoods.
Today, I believe we are finally ready to confront what we have ignored for so long by developing a vision and overall strategy for our churchwide structures. As we rebuild our church after the COVID-19 pandemic, we have the opportunity to build it back with the honesty, authenticity, and openness that younger generations are seeking. One way that I have already begun to address this is through my work on Executive Council. In the last several years, I have led the development of a mechanism for our church to research our history with Indigenous boarding schools and advocate on Indigenous matters both within our church and our government. Likewise, I created and appointed a committee to evaluate the grants funded through the General Convention budget with an eye toward ensuring access, inclusion, and resource distribution. As president of the House of Deputies and Vice Chair of Executive Council, I would continue to work collaboratively with the church’s other leaders to address these and other key issues by creating more responsive, creative, and forward-thinking structures.
Friends, we are in a Mark 2:22 moment: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” The pandemic has accelerated the pace of change, and in the past two years, we have discovered that the future church is already here. Lay and clergy leaders in congregations and dioceses across our church are imagining new structures, networks, and ways of leading that are bringing about our new way of being church. To become the church God is calling us to be, we must follow these innovative leaders and adapt our governance structures. We should not put new wine into old wineskins. It’s time to bring out the new wineskins!
I recently testified at a hearing of the House of Deputies Legislative Committee on Governance and Structure in support of Resolution A097 Evaluating Experiments in Adaptive Change (https://www.vbinder.net/resolutions/97?house=HD&lang=en), submitted by the House of Deputies the State of the Church. The resolution calls on General Convention to study adaptive changes and challenges that we are currently living through, including online legislative hearings and now a shortened and reduced General Convention, with an eye on whether or not these changes encouraged accessibility and inclusiveness in our governance structures. I spoke in support of the resolution because we need to evaluate what worked and what did not in the ways that we have attempted to adapt how we do the business of being church over this pandemic. This evaluation would have to include the changes currently being made to General Convention.
As a doctoral student studying nonprofit organizations, I have learned that organizations that actively learn as they emerge from a period of change are able to adapt to future changes successfully. If Resolution A097 passes, it will help us become this type of successful learning organization. This evaluation will be a gift to our future selves, enabling us to put forth effort now to learn how we adapted and stretched our muscles for organizational change so that we have this muscle memory in the future.
Even while this evaluation is underway, we must begin to take steps to make the 2024 General Convention more inclusive and accessible to all. As a lay person, I know very well the challenges that lay people face, professionally and personally, when committing to the ministry of governance, especially at General Convention. With my background in participatory strategic planning and evaluation, if elected president of the House of Deputies, I would seek out broad input from deputies to make data-driven decisions. I applaud President Jennings for sending a survey to deputies asking about their preferences surrounding this upcoming General Convention. I believe that surveys like this establish a new way of collective decision-making across our church.
The role of the president of the House of Deputies has a unique place in our polity and offers a unique ministry opportunity. Canonically the role is three-fold: president of the House of Deputies, vice-chair of Executive Council, and a vice president of the Domestic and Foreign Ministry Society, which is the churchwide structure’s corporate entity. The report from the Task Force to Study Church Leadership and Compensation from 2018 (https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/20902) provides considerable detail about the breadth and depth of the many duties and responsibilities of the president as well as the qualifications for the role. It is a document that I have studied in my discernment.
The way a leader lives into her roles is just as important as the roles themselves. The president of the House of Deputies makes more than 700 appointments to interim bodies, commissions, committees, etc. This is an opportunity to appoint a new generation of leaders who embody representation from across the church and who bring critical perspectives to the work and ministry of Jesus Christ. At Executive Council, I have seen firsthand how embodied representation matters when it comes to our priorities and how we achieve those priorities. To meet the challenges we are facing, the new president must build trusting relationships, strengthen leadership capacity, and create inclusive spaces where everyone can bring their whole, authentic selves to the work of becoming the beloved community.
Besides being a church geek, I enjoy spending time with my family. My spouse John, a city and regional planning professor, and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary this December. Our teenager Isabella educates and inspires us with her passion and wisdom on gender and social justice-related matters. Together we can be found hiking with our rescue dog, Ani, playing board games, gardening and watching Star Trek.
It is a privilege to be a candidate for the president of the House of Deputies. I am grateful to all those who have supported me in my candidacy. The discernment process that I have embarked on has led me to this point, and it has been nothing short of transformational. As a follower of Jesus, I continue to be shaped by prayer, community, and service. This discernment has strengthened me in all of those ways, and for that, I rejoice in this gift.