Officers Alone See Report

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Only four of 40 members of Executive Council’s will see the report that led to the firings of two senior administrators and triggered calls for cultural reform at the Episcopal Church Center.

At Executive Council’s June 8-10 meeting in Chaska, Minnesota, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said he has shared the report solely with his fellow council officers: House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings, General Convention Executive Secretary Michael Barlowe, and Treasurer Kurt Barnes. No other council members will see what it says about what went wrong or why the misconduct was unaddressed until he was installed last fall.

“I decided that it was important to share it with the officers so that they would be aware of it,” Curry said. “The structural questions, or any organizational questions that were implied by the investigation itself, are actually being addressed by bringing in the Human Synergistics.”

Human Synergistics International is a human-resources consulting firm that the church has hired to retrain and address cultural problems among staff members.

Some nonprofit governance experts say it makes sense not to share a sensitive report with everyone on a large, 40-member board. Keeping it “close to the vest,” as one council member described it, makes leaks less likely. But some observers were nonetheless surprised to learn Curry was sharing it only with a small subgroup.

Good governance, according to Episcopal layman Jay Blossom, would normally involve sharing such a report with 10 to 20 percent of the board (five to eight members, in this case), including those who bring relevant expertise and are not all career church workers. Blossom is publisher of In Trust, a magazine that covers issues facing seminary boards of directors.

“If you’re that emphatic about this, then there must be some explosive information,” Blossom said. “And if there’s explosive information, then we damn well better see some big changes. You can’t both say, We have explosive information that we can’t share, and also, We don’t need to change anything, everything is going OK. That doesn’t make sense.”

At their June meeting, members of Executive Council expressed no qualms about Curry’s decision. Among those to voice approval was Fredrica Harris Thompsett, chairwoman of the Governance and Administration Committee (GAM).

“I am comfortable, from GAM’s perspective, with the way it’s being addressed internally and taken seriously,” Thompsett said.

Russell Randle, an attorney and member of the GAM committee, said sharing the report widely would risk imperiling attorney-client privilege vis-à-vis the report, which Curry commissioned. If that privilege were to be breached by circulating the report too widely, then those with grounds to sue the church could potentially access the report and use it against the church in court.

“We are paying close attention to what’s going on, and we are very conscious of the need to foster a healthy staff,” Randle said. “People are asking appropriate questions.”

Others on the board agreed with Randle and Thompsett that the report is being shared widely enough. But governance expert Brent Never cautions that council members, not the Presiding Bishop, ultimately bear legal responsibility for crafting policy based on insights from the misconduct episode. For that reason among others, he said, the entire council should see the report.

“The board is a fiduciary agent,” said Never, an associate professor of nonprofit governance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “They are signing on the dotted line. They are protecting the public interest. Therefore they are the ones who can be sued for negligence, so they need to be fully informed of any misconduct.”

Blossom noted that if only a subgroup of a board sees a sensitive report, the composition of that subgroup needs to be considered carefully. Filling the group with career church workers, he said, disposes the subgroup to feeling invested in the institution, becoming defensive, and having trouble hearing difficult truths about what went wrong with oversight.

“If I read a report and there is either explicit or implicit criticism of me, then I may misinterpret that,” said Blossom, who attends St. Mark’s Church in Philadelphia. “That’s one of the concerns: that it’s being read without an independent reader who can say, Wait a minute, when it says this, that was really something that you should have done. … You should have been overseeing this better, or you handled this wrong. … I’m going to read the report in a way that makes me look better, even if I’m trying not to.”

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