Friday, 17 February 2012

Trust and Control

There's a new document circulating in the courts of the United Church. Entitled "Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relations" ( ) it is worthwhile reading for anyone who cares about how leadership is established, nurtured and improved in the local congregations of the United Church of Canada.

As someone who has spent a lot of years volunteering in the Pastoral Relations processes (PRP) of the church (that's a short hand for the various steps by which congregations identify their need for trained and paid leadership and connect with ministry personnel who provide that leadership) I certainly welcome this look. Our processes are cumbersome it is true. Whether they are unnecessarily so is part of the discussion.

The Report offers several useful suggestions. If adopted it would move all formal hearings and procedures to the Conference level. This is a good thing. Formal procedures are incredibly complex and fraught, very time consuming and must be done just right in order to protect the legitimate interests of all who are involved. Very few volunteers at the Presbytery level have those kinds of skills or that kind of time. The Report also suggests more professional support for PRP. That's good too. Human Relations and Labour legislation gets more complex all the time. A friend told me that in one province, highly skilled lawyers are backing away from labour law in large numbers because it is just so difficult to stay current with. How much more so for church volunteers?! It would be good to have more readily accessible advice on those questions. Currently, the very fine network of Personnel Ministers across the country are kept more than busy dealing with existing crises. It must be incredibly difficult to find time to reply to questions which are not yet critical in nature. The Report suggests a simplification of the Joint Needs Assessment Committee process. If you don't know what that is, you'll need to visit the United Church web site to find out. Let me just say that, from my perspective, that could be a very good thing. The current JNAC process is recommended - strongly. The problem is that, in the hands of well meaning volunteers, it can become prescriptive and legalistic, leading to delays and frustrations which are unhelpful in congregational life. Some delays and hard work are good if they produce important results and insights. Not all delays are such. Finally, the Report calls for more regular and credible assessment of ministry personnel. I think that's a great and long-past-due move. I'm not sold on the proposed mechanism.

Where the Report causes major concern is that it proposes to take most of the work for PRP as well as oversight of clergy and resolution of conflict from the Presbytery to the Conference level and invest those, in large measure, in employed staff. For the purpose of this reflection I'm leaving aside how we would pay the $1.5 million plus per year in salaries etc for these new positions. If something is worth doing we find the money to do it. This shift raises several concerns that I will simply enumerate with little elaboration:

* It changes the polity (the governance structure) of the United Church which gives certain roles and responsibilities to different bodies. You can't materially alter those and just call it an administrative tweak;

* It creates a system where oversight is given by one body (Conference) and support by another (Presbytery). I don't know of any place where those two supervisory functions are divided in that fashion;

* It replaces the Presbyterian form of mutual care and support with a Methodist model of superintendents. Methodist superintendents (in our history) were very formidable and powerful people. But it supposes a different style of church order than that of the United Church - essentially one based on bishops;

* The United Church has held the principle that conflict is most effectively resolved closest to its source. Admittedly we have not always adhered to that, but removing the management of conflict to a "higher" and more remote level seems to further limit the scope of earlier intervention;

* The Report states that the period of transition (the time from when one ministry personnel leaves until the next one arrives) is too long. That raises some further queries:
a. What is too long? For instance, what is the normal time frame for another not-for-profit volunteer organization to replace its senior administrative and program staff person?
b. Where are the delays? If the greater length of time comes before a vacancy is posted, that's a church process that we can adapt and tighten. However, if the great delay comes after a vacancy is declared (i.e. the job is posted) that's because suitable candidates are not available or not applying. Then no process short of mandatory transfer of personnel will fix the problem.
c. If one solution (as offered) is to alter the current JNAC process, how do we know that such alteration will not solve some of the current issues without the need for the proposed overhaul.

*The current JNAC process was brought in during the mid1990s. I have not been able to locate any evaluation of the process which asks whether or not it achieved the purposes intended or whether anyone has considered the unintended consequences. It may be that such an evaluation would point to changes that could be made without major alterations to polity and costs and address some concerns.

* The claim is made that PRP consume an inordinate amount of time. How is that conclusion reached? PRP do consume time - they should given the importance of the pastoral relationship in the life and ministry of the local congregation. How much is too much? In Halifax Presbytery, while those volunteers in Pastoral Relations and Pastoral Oversight do spend a considerable amount of time and energy in that ministry, they are only a fraction of the Presbytery membership. The overall amount of time spend in the actual meetings of the Presbytery on these issues is quite small - a few motions most meetings. When there is a conflict situation the Presbytery executive is often drawn into time consuming meetings. Some of that is appropriate, given the Presbytery's mandate for the well-being of congregations; some of that may be inappropriate because a Presbytery executive is taking up items that would be best left to the responsible committee. So, again, how much time is too much time?

*The Report asserts that, in the absence of regular Pastoral Relations and Pastoral Oversight work, the Presbytery would shift its focus into areas of mission and justice or mutual support. Unfortunately, I cannot see the evidence that the nascent bulb of new focus is waiting to burst forth in the life of the Presbyteries I recall. Either it was already vibrant, visible and healthy or it was not. My sense is that, given the nature of the pressures on volunteers today, a removal of some piece of work will simply result in a rather relieved "let's have shorter or less frequent meetings."

* Finally, and perhaps most damning of all, there seems to be no evidence that the Report searches out new and cutting edge human relations processes in the volunteer and not for profit circles. Instead it proposes models of supervision which are not used in the best of industry today.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Ross. Here's my submission to the report.

    I commend the committee for proposing a reallocation of oversight responsibilities. My concern is an implication of the report: the reallocation of oversight authority from Presbytery to Conference.

    • The report proposes reallocation of episcopal responsibility: “The Conferences assume responsibility for the management and implementation of pastoral relations policy…” (p.6).

    • The report also proposes reallocation of episcopal authority: “By consolidating the primary responsibilities for the implementation of pastoral relations and oversight and discipline policies in a single court, the Conference…” (p.7).

    Such a reallocation of episcopal authority presents a fundamental change to our conciliar governance and polity.1

    The proposed reallocation of episcopal responsibilities is too important to get lost in a debate over episcopal authority. Because the report fails to address issues of episcopal function, the debate will be inevitable. I believe this can be remedied by the following:

    1) include a clear, unequivocal statement that oversight authority and accountability reside with the court of Presbytery;

    2) include a statement that differentiates between Responsibility (Conference staff) and Authority (Court of Presbytery): that Presbytery may assign responsibility for oversight tasks to Conference personnel while retaining episcopal authority at the Presbytery level;

    3) include a reporting step whereby the oversight responsibilities undertaken by Conference staff (and consultants) lead to recommendations that are reported to Presbytery for final approval.

    A related concern, which I believe the above recommendations will remedy, is the employment status of Conference staff. The newly proposed Conference staff positions, similar to Conference Executive Secretaries (CESs) and Conference Personnel Officers (CPOs), will be employees of National located at the Conference offices. As such, they are accountable to the General Secretary. Thus, the Report’s proposals effectively recommend the reallocation of the episcopal function to national staff position accountable to the office of the General Secretary. At the risk of overstating the concern: we risk having de facto Bishops and Archbishops.

    The Report’s proposed model includes reporting requirements to Conference Executive (or Sub-Executive), but this does not solve the dilemma so long as the proposed Conference staff positions are accountable to a National staff office. Where there is a difference of opinion between Conference Executive and the General Secretary at National, there is potential for conflict – begging the question: to whom are Conference staff positions ultimately accountable?

    My proposed revisions, in addition to addressing the episcopal function, allow the Conference staff position to undertake responsibilities with fidelity to national polity standards – accountable to the CES and National supervisors for polity fidelity – while retaining Presbytery oversight through authority to make decisions based on quality pastoral relations work undertaken by Conference staff.

    Brad Morrison