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Executive Council Attempts Online Relationship Building

By Kirk Petersen

Executive Council concluded a largely inward-focused four-day meeting October 27 after extended discussions behind the scenes but only limited public acknowledgment of recent tensions among council members, and between council and church staff.

Several members expressed disappointment that a meeting devoted to relationship building had to be held online, although they acknowledged the importance of saving Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry from the need to travel as he recovers from surgery. The meeting venue previously was planned for Quito, Ecuador, where the Episcopal Church has a diocese, and then for Panama City, Panama, where the local Anglicans are not part of the Episcopal Church.

Curry made opening remarks on the first day and closed the meeting with prayer on the final day. In between, plenary sessions were led by President of the House of Deputies Julia Ayala Harris.

Large portions of two plenary sessions were devoted to discussions of relationships, with news media barred from the virtual room. As previously reported, after opening remarks on October 25 the first item on the agenda was a 90-minute discussion of a September 11 letter in which the presiding officers, Curry and Ayala Harris, admonished council members to treat staff and each other with more respect. Although the meeting continued for two more days, there was no further public mention of the discussion.

The schedule the next day called for continuing the council’s series of discussions on “Dismantling Racism.” After private conversations in small “table” groups, the read-out made clear much of the discussion focused on the impact of race within the council, rather than in the broader society.

Zena Link | screen capture

“It’s not ideal to do building trust and relationships online,” said Zena Link, who facilitated the discussion on race. She is a former member of council who for years has been involved in anti-racism work in the church. “I mean relationships where everyone, every council member, is comfortable, and willing to share their thoughts and their ideas freely, without the fear of being criticized or getting something wrong.” There was reportedly an incident between two members at a previous council meeting where a comment that was intended to be benign was interpreted as a racial insult.

“There’s a lot of work that is really ‘white work’ and needs to be treated that way,” said the Rev. Anne Kitch from the Diocese of Newark, who is white. Council members need to “acknowledge when harm is done and take accountability when we cause harm,” she said. “Sometimes the leadership needs to step in and shut down disrespectful environments — that’s not something that can be self-monitored.”

Dianne Audrick Smith of the Diocese of Ohio, who is Black, said there is a “need to rebuild trust among the council, with the current set of situations that are really sort of an undertone to this meeting.”

“There is an exclusion on a number of the sort of high committees, things like Executive Committee and other things, because it is difficult for those who are not part of the dominant culture to even know how to get onto those things,” said the Rev. Charles Graves IV of the Diocese of Texas, who is Black. The Executive Committee of Executive Council is empowered to take certain actions between the thrice-yearly meetings of the full council. Graves is one of the 11 elected and ex officio members of the Executive Committee, five of whom are white.

The trend toward executive sessions extended from the plenary sessions to some of the committee meetings.

The Committee on Mission Beyond the Episcopal Church was wordsmithing a resolution expressing concern about the ongoing violence in Haiti, home to one of the largest dioceses of the Episcopal Church, when it suddenly voted to continue the conversation behind (virtual) closed doors.

David Paulsen, a reporter for the Episcopal News Service (and thus an employee of the church that is governed by the Executive Council), raised “an objection to this kind of use of executive session.” Committee chair Mark Goodman of the Diocese of the Rio Grande explained that the purpose of the executive session was “to receive sensitive information about the situation in Haiti,” and “that information dealt directly with personnel in that diocese whose well-being is the concern of all of us.”

Haiti has been a hotbed of violence for decades, particularly since the June 2021 assassination of President Jovenal Moïse. Several officials and former officials of the Diocese of Haiti have been implicated in trafficking guns into a country where murderous rival gangs are better armed than the police.

Paulsen said that while he understood the sensitivity, “I would like to renew my objection to the earlier exclusion of the media at the beginning of this meeting.” He added, “I would argue that simply having a conversation among the Executive Council members that you don’t want the media to hear, in my mind, is not a valid reason [for an executive session]. And certainly it does not point to the transparency that I think this body is striving for.” The committee voted to table the Haiti resolution pending further research.

TLC lodged a similar complaint with Public Affairs Officer Amanda Skofstad on a previous day of the meeting. Skofstad referred to the bylaws of the Executive Council, which place no restrictions on the allowable reasons for executive sessions. This is in contrast with rules governing secular government bodies, which typically permit executive sessions only for specified reasons such as personnel matters, litigation, contracts, or discussions that could imperil public safety.

After the meeting concluded, several council members, including the presiding officers, either declined to comment about personal tensions or did not respond when asked. The Rt. Rev. Scott Hayashi, the retired Bishop of Utah, said that in the past “there has been some very, very pointed questioning of staff” by members of Executive Council, to the extent that “I think if I were on staff, I would be wondering about what’s going on.” He noted that Executive Council, which is essentially the church’s board of directors, can make budget decisions that would affect staff.

Polly Getz of the Diocese of San Diego said there has been “a long history” of uneasy relations between staff and elected officers, and she thought the discussions were productive. She also remarked on the frustration of trying to do this work online. “It’s very difficult to have meaningful interactions when you’re on Hollywood Squares,” she said.

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