Contra Costa Deanery Town Hall Meeting

Contra Costa Deanery August 24, 2010 Town Hall Meeting Notes

The meeting was billed as a town hall and more than 60 showed up at the Church of the Resurrection in Pleasant Hill for a discussion of a proposal to change the Diocesan Assessment formula.  I posted the documents earlier so you can read them for yourself.

There was tension in the room but not acrimony.  There was iced tea served as refreshment on this hot August night.  There was an eagerness for more information and a TEA party kind of skepticism among those in attendance.  This was a Main Street kind of crowd at its finest.

St. Timothy’s Danville has been the skunk at the diocesan lawn party for having the temerity to say that the parish could no longer afford or rationalize the level of its diocesan assessment given the state of the local economy and the cuts to parish staff and programs already endured and yet to come.  As you can imagine this has seriously irritated the Bishop of California.

In fairness, St. Timothy’s has conducted this act of ecclesiastical disobedience transparently, openly, and on the table giving the Diocese plenty of notice that it was considering the action, exploring options and praying over its decision. We could have chosen the more politically correct route of accepting the assessment and then underpaying—hoping for dispensation.   Instead, St. Timothy’s decided to be honest about a policy choice to conserve cash reserves by reducing its payment on the diocesan assessment from the current formula to 10% of expected income as if it were a tithe.  And in so doing, St. Timothy’s provoked the process of reconsideration of the Diocesan assessment formula now being discussed across the entire diocese.

Town Hall Discussion Focus

But the Town Hall meeting discussion that followed was about governance, transparency, and participation in the work of the church through the Diocese.  The sponsors of the meeting opened it up with what, at first, sounded like defensive denials about the process underway.  Shelton Ensley, chair of the Diocesan Executive Council had circulated documents in advance and the crowd cheered his commitment to transparency and openness. Roulhac Austin, vice Chair of the Executive Council and Sylvia Vasquez, Rector of St. Paul’s Walnut Creek attended as members of the Finance Department Working Group that put together the Assessment Formula proposal.

Steven Strane, Rector at St. Timothy’s told the crowd that he has heard many false rumors about the action proposed, the work of the Department of Finance and the hidden agendas of those involved.

What rumors you ask?  I know, you are shocked that there is politics in the work of the church, but there it was named, framed and exposed to sunlight.

  • The rumor that this was an attempt by the large parishes to close down the small weak ones,
  • That this was an attempt by the parishes to gut the Diocesan staff and budget to save their own,
  • The rumor of conspiracy against the social and ethnic ministries of the Diocese.

You could tell that some in the audience had heard these same rumors.  The act of putting them on the table and naming them as false and inviting honest, open discussion of each took the steam right out of the issue and turned the discussion to the broader issue of how do we do the work of the church in a time of such economic uncertainty. After about 45 minutes of clearing the air and exposing the hidden agenda suspicions we got down to discussion of the subject on the table.

Framing the Broader Diocesan Issues for Further Discussion

By the end of the next hour of dialogue the issues were framed largely around the following questions:

  • Good Start But Needs More Participation Across Parishes. The proposed change in the Diocesan Assessment from the Finance Committee working group is largely the work of involved clergy wrestling with the issues of finance and assessment formulae without much involvement from the laity and needed input from more parishes. The proposal creates a mandatory administrative budget and a voluntary ministry program budget for the Diocese.  In short the sense of the crowd was this is a good start but we need more discussion.  That has been the view of the Bishop and he is correctly sensing the views from the pews on that point—so more discussion, transparency and participation were called for before a decision is made.  Convention 2011 instead of Convention 2010 is better timing.
  • Imagine the Possibilities of Our Financial Life Together in New Ways.  The potential and risk of creating a voluntary program ministry budget across the Diocese excited the crowd.  It was daring all admitted, but do we trust each other enough to make it voluntary?  It opened the doors to exciting new ministry possibilities but we are not sure the Diocesan staff is on the same page as the parishes about those possibilities and priorities. It shifts both the control and the burden from the Diocesan staff to the parishes for ministry programs—we like that but can we get our parish act together and will we put our money where our mouth has been to support the programs?
  • Is this Jailbreak or Following Jesus? It was too bad the Bishop was not in attendance for this meeting to listen to the aspirations and exasperations of the crowd.  There is a growing TEA Party movement in the Diocese of California.  It has nothing to do with electoral politics.  It has everything to do with perceived relationships between the parishes and the Diocese, between the more liberal San Francisco part of the Diocese and the more conservative suburban parts, between the thriving parishes and the declining ones, between the social and ethnic ministry activists threatened by the youth ministry and growth ministry protagonists.  These issues are not new but discussion of them on the table is new.

Change is always threatening, but the current economic realities are forcing reconsideration of many conventional ways.  If we see the decisions to be made as a zero sum game—us-vs-them, or Diocese-vs-parishes choices we risk being distracted from the mission of the church.  And worse, we risk missing the opportunities that come from defining this “beloved community” as something the parishes really believe in instead of some ambiguous Dio-speak with no meaning and no substance behind it.

The Bishop’s TEA Party

There are risks for the Bishop of California in this process, but there is also great opportunity for him as well.  I was struck by the absent presence of the Bishop in the room.  There is a discomfort with the Bishop right below the surface.  There are rising expectations of change in the way the Diocese works with parishes.  Tonight the Contra Costa Deanery crowd feels the Diocese has a ‘we know better’ attitude that frustrates many.  The rumor that the assessment formula debate is a proxy for going after the Diocesan staff is born of such frustrations.  While the rumor may not be true, in fact, it lives in the anxiety it creates among all as the manifestation of their dis-ease with how the Diocese works.

Marc did not cause these problems but he owns them.  He inherited the bishop’s hat in a time when the economy no longer permits kicking the issues down the street for another day. My sense was that everyone in the room wanted to help the Bishop, help the Diocese, help the church succeed in its mission.  There was no lack of commitment apparent.

The Bishop’s problem in that room is hard to describe and even harder to resolve.  It is the perception right below the surface that Marc is among us but not one with us.  He must fix that or he will have a full blown TEA party on his hands.

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