A year ago (or was it a decade ago?) Rich Simpson asked me to write “something engaging about church governance” for this monthly email. Then at a recent Standing Committee meeting, we interviewed a wonderful candidate for ordination, and he asked, “What do you find fun about serving on the Standing Committee?” Every one of us laughed and shook our heads as we tried to figure that out.
What is engaging and fun about “church governance”? There is nothing like a global pandemic to lay bare the structure of any institution and let us visualize what is holding up and what is crumbling. And as our Diocesan pandemic response continues in Stage Two, it means that we are examining everything we do and every place we do it to promote the safety of God’s people. So, let’s take this opportunity to examine the structure of church governance here in Stage Two, here in our diocese.
Every good structural analysis of how the church works begins with the people. As far as that goes, we all learned it in nursery school. Remember? “Here is the church, and here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” On page 855 of The Book of Common Prayer, the ministers of the church are defined as lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. The order of those groups is intentional. Even though our name, episcopal, literally means of bishops, we know that most of our ministers are lay people. We people are the church.
The Standing Committee of our diocese serves as our bishop’s council of advice, particularly on matters concerning ordinations and property. At first glance, you would think that those struts of the organizational structure would not be related. But what we find serving on Standing Committee is that where we work—in our buildings, on our lawns, walking the streets of Worcester, folding laundry in Pittsfield, even on our laptops in our own living rooms—every place where we work is filled with people. The Standing Committee is charged with the stewardship of diocesan real estate. And that makes us a resource for rectors and vestries throughout the diocese as the real estate is managed.
There is no reason for property management unless the property is used for the people—and so the Standing Committee is also charged with matters concerning ordination. The Standing Committees of each diocese are asked to consent to the election of every bishop in The Episcopal Church. And on a local level, we meet a couple of times with each person in the ordination process, and thus get to know the folks who will serve the church by profession. The Standing Committee is charged with making sure that every person who is ordained has met all of the requirements that the church sets out.
Through our participation in ordinations, our engagements reach beyond our diocese—after all, human beings move around, even in pandemics. The most recent ordination of one of our folks was in late September, when Kevin Antonio Smallwood, a former Lawrence House intern, was ordained to the priesthood at Grace Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, near where he grew up. I “attended” the ordination with my son, who was KA’s housemate at Lawrence House in 2014-15. That is, we each watched on Facebook Live, while also talking with one another on the phone, and texting with another priest in our Diocese, and commenting on Facebook with my husband, who was on his own Facebook feed in the next room. It was different! And it was fun and engaging, for sure.
Because of travel and time restrictions, Bishop Marianne Budde of the Diocese of Washington ordained KA on our own Bishop’s behalf. KA is associate rector for youth and families at Grace Church. So, a bishop whose ordination we agreed to, ordained a young man who has lived in one of our buildings while serving in another, and who made relationships with our congregations in South Hadley and Springfield, and who now serves the church by forming the lives of young people—in the middle of a pandemic, when we serve one another best by gathering only in small groups!
What’s fun about serving on the Standing Committee? We get to meet fine people like Kevin Antonio, whose ministry is all about forming young people in following the Way of Jesus. And we get to know folks all over the diocese who are passionate about their service to God’s people, in and around and through our real estate. And we get to participate in the ministry of God’s people in the wider church, even when our travel and assembly are restricted.
The Standing Committee is not the only aspect of our Church governance. The General Convention of The Episcopal Church is a triennial gathering of over 10,000 church members, lay and ordained, who meet to strengthen the structure of the church. Pandemic requirements are forcing us to re-examine how we will meet in 2021, but we are already engaged in pre-Convention meetings. Our Diocesan Convention will meet virtually this year, a group of lay and ordained people from all of our congregations, considering how we are the church in Western Massachusetts. In between yearly Diocesan Conventions, the Diocesan Council meets monthly to further that work. And then there are the other committees and commissions that do the work of God’s people, focusing on ministry, creation care, beloved community, urban mission, Latino ministry, and—you know the problem with lists like this—someone gets left out! Please forgive my rhetorical awkwardness and remember this: God’s mission includes everyone. NO ONE is ever left out of the fun and engaging work of being God’s people in the world.
That nursery school finger play was not only about keeping little kids quiet and self-contained while waiting in line, although it requires concentration to knit your fingers in the right way so that when you open the thumb-doors, the finger-people will be there. But it plays at the truth. The church is the people. And the people have fun engaging in God’s mission together. Our governance is a structure to help us become together the people that God sees through God’s all-loving eyes.