TREC: What I think I heard about ‘the contractor thing’ and why it sounds like good news
TREC: What I think I heard about ‘the contractor thing’ and why it sounds like good news

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I went to last week’s churchwide meeting of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) for two reasons:

  1. I believe TREC’s primary task of proposing changes to “the Church’s structures, governance, and administration” really will have a far-reaching and deeply felt impact on national, regional, and local Episcopal Church ministry, and I wanted to be present at this significant milestone.
  2. I wanted to comment on “the contractor thing.”

Heading in to the meeting, I shared with many others a confusion about what seemed like a significant disconnect. Although relatively minor against the larger scope of the work, its resolution in whichever direction will have a big impact on the community I serve in my position at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary.

The official line that inspired all this consternation came in TREC’s September Letter to the Church:

The recommendations that we will submit to the church and to the 2015 General Convention will likely take several different forms … [including] transition in the mission or program-related staff of DFMS to a primarily contractor-only model.

Full disclosure: Some of the folks who would be affected by such a transition (read “lose their jobs as they know them”) are my friends and close colleagues. But I feel confident that what I’m trying to give voice to here is a relatively objective professional assessment of the state of, in particular, faith formation ministry in the Episcopal Church. Here goes …

What’s inspiring and helpful to me about TREC’s work is its attention to the power of networks. Networks of invested individuals partnering for ministry are where work gets done, much more so than in committees and task forces. From where I sit, Forma is the most highly effective network training, connecting, mentoring, and resourcing the next generation of faith formation leaders. (More disclosure: I’m a Forma board member.)

The error, it seems to me, is in thinking that members of the Church Center/Missionary Society mission and program-related staff are not hugely important parts of these networks, well-positioned to play roles that few others can.

Networks are not purely local. They comprise connections between national, regional, and local ministers. For example, Forma benefits greatly from the contributions of regional and national faith formation leaders, including the staff of the Church Center/Missionary Society’s Lifelong Christian Formation Office.

At the meeting, Dwight Zscheile laid out these proposed functions for the churchwide organization:

  1. catalyst for ministry of all baptized
  2. connector for peer learning and mission
  3. convener for discerning churchwide policy and witness
  4. capability builder for leadership and ministry development

Like my Church Center colleagues, I have a job that’s intended to do these sorts of things, and in my experience it takes a huge amount of freedom and support on behalf of my supervisor. So my kinda unfairly pointed question was this:

Is that your experience of contract employees?

What’s encouraging to me about what followed is two-fold. First, TREC members made it very clear—both at the meeting and to me afterward—that they have heard loud and clear the large amount of feedback on this issue. (In fact, Dwight Zscheile had said earlier, “We’ve heard from a lot of you … don’t take away all the program staff; there’s stuff that’s working.”)

Second, all the push-back seems to have clarified the position. What contractors have, or should have, is a high amount of mission clarity and accountability. It’s clear from the Letter to the Church that that was the attractive aspect of contractor-type language.

And it was clear from the meeting that the feedback they were responding to in choosing that language reflected some very real concerns (in what offices, I don’t know) about authority, accountability, chain of command, etc.

What seems to be emerging is an understanding of churchwide staff that have a high level of clarity and authority—and appropriate accountability structures to match—for the mission of catalyzing, connecting, convening, and capability building. That’s the mission I see the Lifelong Faith Formation officers, and so many others, living out every day. (Obviously, I can’t speak to the authority and accountability issues the TREC members raised.)

So my great hope is that “the contractor thing” will serve, in the end, as an example of how this process worked fairly well. A new idea was put forward, feedback was received, further clarity emerged. Of course, we don’t know if the final report will reflect this learning process. And the question of General Convention’s reception of the report looms larger still.

But Bishop Curry told us to keep going, and it sounds to me that—on this issue—we may be moving in the right direction.

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching and a board member for Forma. He thinks you should definitely watch this most excellent #TREClive remix by Frank Logue.

Image credit: “The National Cathedral” by Geoff Livingston via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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