On January 20, 2009, I had the very special privilege of watching President Obama’s first inauguration with Ron Heifetz, one of my favorite leadership gurus. Leadership Without Easy Answers was required reading for my DMin (Seabury 2005) and for a two year ministry fellowship program that started with a retreat coinciding with the inauguration.

The night before the inauguration, Heifetz gave his usual speech about leadership as the process of helping a community  deal with adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are problems for which a solution is obvious and readily available. Some problems demand this sort of solution. Adaptive challenges are situations where the problem is not entirely clear and the solution not readily apparent. Some sort of learning or growth will be necessary for change to take place.

The next day Heifetz talked with my fellowship class about applying these ideas in congregational settings. Then we stopped to watch the swearing in ceremony. At one point during a commercial break, someone asked, “What advice would you give President Obama right now?” As I remember his answer, he said something like this: “What I’m concerned about is that he’ll feel pressured to do several big, bold moves all at once. I would encourage him to experiment a bit, try a few small initiatives first, see what sort of difference they make, and let the country learn along the way.” (Click here for an article that describes what Heifetz said to his Harvard business classes on the Wednesday after that inauguration.)

I may not remember the conversation correctly, and I am not trying to open conversation about whether President Obama followed that advice. However, the spirit of Heifetz’s comments, as I remember them, rings true as I think about recommendations from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church. The Task Force is trying to lead us through adaptive change. Here is their vision statement from an Open Letter to the church dated December 2013 –

From the TREC December 2013 Open Letter to the Church
Imagine a world where all of our Episcopal parishes are spiritually vibrant and mission-focused. Imagine a world where our parishes consistently are good at inspiring their traditional members and also are energized and effective in reaching out to new generations and new populations. Imagine a world where the shape of our Church frequently adapts, as new parish communities emerge in non-traditional places and non-traditional ways, and as existing parishes merge and reinvent as local conditions change. Imagine a world where Episcopal clergy and lay leaders are renowned for being highly effective leaders, skilled at Christian formation and community building, at new church planting, at church transformation, and at organizing communities for mission. Imagine that Episcopalians easily collaborate with each other across the Church: forming communities of interest, working together to share learnings from local initiatives, and collaborating to pool resources and ideas. Imagine that the Church wide structure of The Episcopal Church primarily serves to enable and magnify local mission through networked collaboration, as well as to lend its prophetic voice. Imagine that each triennium we come together in a “General Mission Convocation” where participants from all over the Church immerse themselves in mission learning, sharing, decision making and celebration.

With the exception of the General Mission Convocation suggestion, not a single technical challenge for which an obvious solution exists is listed there. All of this is adaptive work, requiring us to learn and think differently. (One could argue the General Mission Convocation suggestion also involves some adaptive work).

The challenge for the TREC is that the church has asked for technical solutions to adaptive challenges. When General Convention approved legislation creating this task force, we asked them to present a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration (General Convention resolution CO95).

I’m not sure we’re ready for a plan. To use Heifetz language, I think it would be better in the long run for the TREC to continue to create a holding environment to help us focus attention on our problems – the fact that many of our parishes are not vibrant and mission-focused, we are not consistently effective at reaching new populations, and we’re not prone to collaboration. Indeed, the whole move toward a plan feels like work avoidance  (more Heifetz language) – as if creating leaner staffing structures and building more networks will make us care about mission.

So here’s a thought. Since we’ve identified one technical thing we can do, why not start there, with the General Convention gathering.

The General Convention gathering every three years is currently primarily a legislative gathering. Organizationally, it is a thing of beauty in a lot of ways – one of the largest legislative bodies in the world, House of Bishops and House of Deputies (equal clergy and laity) collaborating on legislation, wonderful discussion in committees, plus inspiring worship each day and a fascinating exhibit hall. Historically, Episcopal Church Women hold their triennial gathering concurrently with General Convention. Our value around shared governance is put on display, with generally good results. Congress could learn a few things from us!

Current TREC suggestions for General Convention gathering include limiting the length  of the gathering, focusing the agenda, and reducing the number of committees. There are also some suggestions to reduce the number of deputies from 8 to 6 per diocese, which would lessen the financial burden of diocesan representation. The overall goal is to allow more time for mission networking and conversation at General Convention. A lot of this happens anyway, either in committees or through the exhibit hall, but I think the idea is to create space in the agenda for more mission conversation and learning together. There seems to be a hope that people will come to the General Convention gathering for the mission work, not simply for the legislative work. In a way, the General Convention gathering itself would become more of that holding environment that we need to help us look at our challenges.

I welcome these ideas. I loved the excitement and complexity of the General Convention gathering when I served as a deputy, but we did spend a lot of time approving resolutions supporting the obvious or debating complex issues that most deputies are not equipped to consider thoughtfully. The best moments of GC 2012 (in my opinion) were committee of the whole conversations on the floor about the budget, committee conversations about open communion, testimony about blessing same sex relationships, and conversations that led to the TREC. Creating space for more of these conversations outside of a legislative process sounds helpful to me. Expanding the role of the General Convention gathering so that more of the church feels invited to attend and participate is likewise a positive step.

One caveat, though. The suggestion that the General Convention gathering become a mission convocation seems to imply that General Convention was not a mission focused gathering before. I think it was – and is. Our legislative process has been a means for engaging mission as an organization. What I hear the TREC saying is that legislation should not be the only way we engage mission when we gather.

Of course, General Convention is both a gathering and an organization. Changing the gathering is far easier than changing the organization, but starting there will help us continue to think about the kind of organization we need. Personally, I’m excited about this idea and hope we will be willing to give it a try.