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Ayala Harris Handily Wins Re-Election as PHoD

Julia Ayala Harris of the Diocese of Oklahoma easily held off two challengers to win re-election as president of the House of Deputies on June 25.

With 414 votes needed to elect, Ayala Harris received 521 votes on the first ballot, ending the election. Deputy Zena Link, a high school teacher and union leader from the Diocese of Massachusetts, received 241 votes. Vice President of the House of Deputies Rachel Taber-Hamilton, a priest from the Diocese of Olympia, received 64 votes.

Ayala Harris thanked her rivals for their courage “in putting their names forward for this historic slate.”

“I am humbled and thank you for your confidence in me and my leadership,” Ayala Harris said.

The campaign took on a harshly personal tone on the eve of the election, when Taber-Hamilton posted a 1,400-word message on her blog, writing that “the President has journeyed to this General Convention on a veritable corduroy road of people that she has thrown under the bus.”

Taber-Hamilton repeatedly indicated she was speaking on behalf of other people who had been treated poorly by Ayala Harris, but she did not name any of those people, and the 11th-hour message left little opportunity to explore the allegations.

She concluded by writing: “I am seeking a healthy church with healthy leaders who don’t hurt people by their own insecurities, ineptitudes, and inexperience.”

Ayala Harris responded with a 100-word email to news media, writing “the narrative is a misrepresentation of my presidency and is in direct conflict with my values and approach as a leader.” She described herself as “disheartened” by the vice president’s post.

It was a continuation of the low-key approach she has taken throughout the campaign. She repeatedly complimented her rivals during candidate forums, and expressed pride at being one of three women of color running for the position. Ayala Harris is Latina, Taber-Hamilton is Indigenous, and Link is Black.

Link waged her campaign in less personal terms, although it was clear who she was referring to in a June 21 forum when she said: “Now that this is actually a compensated position, the church has a fiduciary responsibility to use its resources effectively. … We shouldn’t be compensating anyone to be learning on the job, and I have a proven record of results.”

At a news conference after the vote, Ayala Harris said she was “heartbroken for our leadership and heartbroken for our House,” but would work with mediators, chaplains, and others in pursuit of reconciliation.

“I think one big lesson has to do with communication,” she said. “Some of our communication has been a little rocky or slow, so we’re going to work on that going forward.”

The Deputies of Color caucus endorsed Link with a message that praised her character and experience without alluding to her rivals for PHoD. The Rev. Steve Pankey, one of three candidates for vice president in an election to be held June 27, endorsed Ayala Harris.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry also praised her in his opening remarks to Convention on June 22. “I have to say a word of thanks at the very beginning to President Ayala Harris for her ministry as president of the House of Deputies, but also in the months that I was in and out of hospitals. … I just thank her for her leadership in that time,” he said.

When Ayala Harris was elected on the third ballot in 2022, five candidates were running for an open seat. The Rev. Gay Jennings was completing her third term and ineligible to run. The candidates campaigned on their credentials, and not a negative word was heard in any public discussion.

Unseating an incumbent requires a very different type of campaign than running for an open seat. It has to be a referendum on the incumbent. However well-qualified the challengers may be, they necessarily have less experience in the role they seek to fill. They have to convince the electorate that the incumbent is doing such a poor job that she needs to be replaced.

But in the “do-unto-others” environment of a church, it can be perilous to be seen as mud-slinging. Imagine running against a warden who is seeking reelection in a parish. It can be done, but it’s an uphill climb, and it’s likely to generate hard feelings.

PHoD is a multifaceted position. The most obvious role is presiding over the House of Deputies — a body that normally convenes every three years, at General Conventions.

As vice chair of the Executive Council, the individual is an active participant in meetings of the council, which meets three or four times a year, for three or four days at a time. Between General Conventions, the 40-member Executive Council essentially serves as the church’s board of directors. The PHoD chairs the Executive Council in the absence of the Presiding Bishop, and Ayala Harris fulfilled those duties during Curry’s convalescence in the latter part of 2023 and early 2024.

As vice president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), the individual is empowered to sign contracts and checks on behalf of DFMS, and serves as an officer of the corporation that runs the business functions of the church. DFMS was organized under the laws of New York in 1821. Its formal name is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

The PHoD does not oversee any of the departments of the Church Center, but Ayala Harris is supported by two staff members: Director of Communications Adialyn Milien, and Director of Operations and Administration Merrie Beard. She receives legal and other advice from an independent chancellor, Mike Glass, chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin.

PHoD is more than a full-time job, yet the position was unpaid until 2018, when the House of Bishops agreed that the leader of the other house of the bicameral legislature should be compensated. The deputies had passed resolutions calling for compensation at the General Conventions of 1997, 2000, and 2015, and each time the bishops killed the proposal.

The compromise that made the measure palatable to enough bishops was that the PHoD would not be an employee, but rather would receive “director and officer fees” as an independent contractor, in an amount to be determined. The compromise was proposed by Bishop Sean Rowe, one of five nominees in the Presiding Bishop election to be held June 26.  As an independent contractor, the PHoD is not eligible for employee benefits.

The compensation later was set by the Executive Council to fall within the range of the most highly compensated officers of the church. Ayala Harris’s compensation for 2024 is set at $236,757, but she would not collect all of that if she had not been re-elected. The PHoD’s term ends at the closing gavel of the House of Deputies at General Convention. This differs from the Presiding Bishop’s term, which runs until November 1.

The advent of compensation expanded the pool of people who realistically could serve as PHoD. As a volunteer position, the role was limited to retirees or people of independent means. Ayala Harris is three decades younger than Jennings.

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