Council Debates its Duties

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Orientation for new members of the Episcopal Church’s governing board proceeded smoothly Tuesday until members heard that Executive Council has not been keeping up with some key responsibilities.

The news came via Sally Johnson, chancellor to House of Deputies President Gay Jennings. In a plenary session of Executive Council, she read aloud what canons say in two places about functions of the Council. The council is to “establish positions responsible to the Presiding Bishop” and “set salaries of all officers, agents and employees of the Council and [the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society].”

The Floor Has Ears

Officers of Executive Council made an unsettling discovery before their morning session on Wednesday: a hidden audio recorder.

The Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, executive secretary of General Convention, announced the discovery as the council came to order.

“We discovered this morning a tape-recording device that had been concealed and was running,” Barlowe told a shocked room. “Look under your tables to see if anything was taped.”

Council members and staffers quickly rose from their chairs, lifted tablecloths, and searched under tables to see if any other recorders were planted in the meeting room. They found none and the meeting continued.

Around 9:30 a.m., the council went into executive session to discuss both staff issues and Haiti. Non-members left the room. Staff members closed the door to the meeting area and instructed everyone who had left the room to move away from the partition and cluster in a far corner of the dining room.

The hidden tape recorder was found on the floor near the lead table, where top church leaders have been seated throughout Executive Council, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and House of Deputies President Gay Jennings.

Church staff will investigate whether any surveillance cameras may have recorded someone hiding the recorder.

“This has never happened before,” said Neva Rae Fox, the church’s officer of public affairs. She said the council might discuss whether to take additional precautions.

Fox said the Episcopal Church Center in New York has never been known to be bugged during her nine years on staff. She said the church has no theories on who might have done it, and has not decided whether to report the matter to police.

“This one is important,” Johnson said. “It goes to the whole discussion [of] what level of oversight or responsibility do you as a board exercise versus what are decisions of the staff.”

Longtime members of the council were surprised to learn that all along, they were responsible for tasks that they had been leaving to the presiding bishop and Episcopal Church Center staff.

“You pointed out that Executive Council sets the salaries for members of the staff,” said Joe Ferrell of the Diocese of North Carolina.

“It does,” Johnson said. “The canon is very clear.”

“I don’t recall ever doing that,” he said.

“I don’t believe you have,” Johnson said. “That’s part of why I’m pointing it out.”

In practice, the presiding bishop’s office, overseen by Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls, has been creating staff positions and setting salaries. The staff has been informing Executive Council which positions it has created but not how much each position pays.

“We actually won’t, we generally don’t — wouldn’t reveal a salary figure,” Sauls said after Johnson’s presentation. Despite what the canons say, Executive Council does not currently receive that information.

Sauls questioned Johnson’s interpretation of the canon as vesting the council with responsibility to create positions and establish salary levels.

“I think that was an overstatement,” Sauls said, referring to Johnson’s remarks. “General Convention sets the budget. The presiding bishop’s leadership team manages the budget. And it accounts for that to Executive Council.”

The question of who creates staff positions and sets salary levels is timely. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry announced plans as the council convened on Nov. 15 to create a new position: canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and racial reconciliation. But creating such a position is not on the council’s agenda for this week’s four-day meeting, which adjourns Nov. 18. Bishop Curry is expected to make clarifying remarks on the topic before the meeting concludes.

Other duties of the board have been neglected as well. Canons call for Executive Council to conduct a performance review for the executive officer of General Convention, but such a review has not occurred in the three years that the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe has held the position. Barlowe told the Joint Standing Committee on Governance and Administration that he would welcome such a review, and the panel agreed to begin the process.

These questions of authority and protocol come as the new Executive Council, meeting for the first time in this triennium at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, adjusts to governance changes made at General Convention last summer. In response to recommendations from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), General Convention sought to clarify council’s responsibilities and distinguish them from those of staff.

“The Governance and Structure Committee, responding to TREC and other proposals, made some pretty significant changes to the Executive Council canon,” Johnson said. “The word oversee is new in the Executive Council canon, as is the word oversight.”

She highlighted how the canons now vest the council with oversight responsibility in a number of areas: the work of DFMS, including the disposition of funds and other property, and the Office of General Convention. But questions immediately arose about the meaning of oversight.

“It will be very helpful for the council and myself to have a very clear understanding of what oversight means,” said John Johnson, a council member from the Diocese of Washington.

Sally Johnson asked the secretary to schedule that discussion for a future meeting so she would have time to prepare on the topic. Elsewhere in the morning presentation, council members heard their fiduciary and other responsibilities explained. Attorneys urged them to take all their duties seriously. 

“You have some very specific canonical responsibilities,” Sally Johnson said. “If I were you, I would be printing these out, putting them in a notebook, and looking at them once a month.”

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