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Gay Jennings to Retire After a Decade of Leadership

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings is stepping down as president of the House of Deputies after serving three terms. TLC’s associate editor Kirk Petersen asked her to reflect on her tenure as the second-ranking officer of the Episcopal Church. She served without compensation for most of that time, until the 2018 General Convention voted to compensate the demanding position. The interview has been lightly edited.

How has the PHoD role evolved over your tenure?

I don’t think it’s actually evolved, it’s pretty clear in the governing documents. I think I’ve evolved, which you would hope any leader would do, over a tenure of 10 years.

The one thing about the role that has changed: now that it’s compensated, the door is open. Never in the history of the House of Deputies have we had a slate for president like the slate we have now. It’s an amazingly talented, diverse slate of people, and it speaks to the wisdom of compensating the position. Now it’s not just retired or people with independent means who can serve. The current slate, there’s deputies of color, it’s male-female, there’s a span of ages, it’s just terrific.

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and PHoD Gay Clark Jennings share a light moment at a 2019 Executive Council meeting

Does the House of Bishops have sufficient respect for the House of Deputies?

It’s hard to characterize the attitudes of an entire house, either bishops or deputies. Not only is it not possible, it’s probably not fruitful [laughs]. With a bicameral legislature, there’s an inherent tension. In the best of times, that tension is creative, productive; the two houses help each other see beyond themselves. There are of course times in our history when it hasn’t been a productive tension. It feels good right now.

I have excellent relationships with lots of bishops. I appointed a bishop to serve on my Council of Advice. I don’t think that’s happened before. That’s been wonderful. It’s very helpful to have some insight into the House of Bishops.

I think it helps that the presiding bishop and I have a good working relationship. The church sees that, the bishops see that, the deputies see that. Early in Bishop Curry’s tenure as presiding bishop, he invited me to two meetings of the House of Bishops, which I attended. I think that was also helpful.

What lasting effects do you expect on governance from the pandemic?

I think we’re living them. The pandemic’s not over. I’m thinking that the 2024 General Convention is going to talk a lot about how can we best function in the governance of the church. We’re already deeply into using technology in a different way than we ever anticipated. The legislative committees meeting online — there’ve been great benefits to that. I think there’s also been unintended consequences.

One of the resolutions from the State of the Church Committee is to do a serious evaluation of this adaptive experiment. What does it possibly mean for other uses of technology in terms of governance?

Also, what does it mean to be a member? What does it mean to be a communicant? What should we really be measuring? We measure what we value. So how do we measure average Sunday attendance? It was easy to do, prior to the pandemic. It’s not so easy now. I’m married to a parish priest. Everything’s changed.

What have we learned during these two and a half years? We have an enormous opportunity to consider how best to participate in God’s mission through our structures.

I don’t want us to fool with polity. How we do decision-making, how we distribute executive authority? How we bring as many people as possible to the table, all orders represented? That I don’t want to see changed. Obviously.

I’m committed to the polity. But how we live out that polity should always be up for review and adaptation and improvement and refinement.

Outgoing President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson seemed pleased with the selection of her successor in 2012.

Is it time to revisit the recommendations of the TREC report [Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, 2015]?

Those were great people, and if you look at where some of those people are now, they are significant leaders in this church. Michael Curry was a member of TREC. [Bishop] Sean Rowe was a member of TREC. [PHoD candidate] Julia Ayala Harris; Chuck Wynder, who was on staff; Brad Hauff, our Indigenous missioner; Craig Loya, now the Bishop of Minnesota; [Bishop] Mary Gray-Reeves, who leads the College for Bishops; Kevin Nichols, the Bishop of Bethlehem.

Those people who served on TREC became like seeds in the life of the church. They built leadership skills, they formed relationships. Some things were adopted by the church, other things weren’t. Now these leaders are advancing more contemporary solutions to some of the challenges about today’s church, rather than the church of a decade ago. Think about it: the church of 2012, when TREC was formed, to 2022 — a lot has happened in those 10 years.

I don’t know that we need to revisit the recommendations of TREC, but I do think the church should always be committed to looking at how its governance and structures provide the engine for mission.

I think there’s a false dichotomy: mission good, structure bad. That’s just not the case. I’ve always understood structure is the engine for mission. They’re not mutually exclusive; they’re inextricably linked.

One of the things TREC suggested was to reduce the size of the governing structure, the number of people on Executive Council, for example. General Convention is a hugely expensive thing, not just for the Church Center, but for the dioceses and the churches.

When people talk about reducing the size of governance, they’re generally talking about reducing the number of clergy and lay voices. However, you might be surprised to hear me say this: I don’t think there are enough bishops on Executive Council. There’s only four who are elected [by General Convention; a fifth bishop was elected by a provincial synod]. The Executive Council, with the chair and vice chair, that’s 40 people. That’s large for a board. So I think that certainly could be reviewed.

TREC also said the church needs to reimagine dioceses, bishops, and General Convention. How can we make General Convention more accessible, less expensive? We’ve always valued hearing the voices of anyone who wanted to testify — except you had to be physically present at General Convention to do that. By going online, anyone could testify from anywhere in the world. I don’t know what the number of participants has been. I’m guessing not as high as some hoped.

High points and low points of your tenure?

Low point is the death and disability of so many deputies and former deputies from COVID. Absolute lowest point. Current deputies who have died, or have long COVID, people in their 30s.

High points have included building a greater sense of community and identity in the House of Deputies; supporting deputies in their ministry of governance.

Jennings in Ghana in 2013

I’ve worked very hard to raise up new leadership, younger leaders, leaders who identify as LGBTQ+, leaders of color. I love watching these younger deputies take on leadership, when it’s challenging for them. Because they’re starting families, they’re starting new careers, and they’re passionate, they love this church. It’s not that long ago that most of our leaders were straight white men. I could pull out pictures of previous General Conventions.

The church I was ordained into in 1979 doesn’t look like the church of 2022. The face of leadership has been changing, and that’s been really satisfying. I don’t worry about the future, because this generational shift in leadership, I have a lot of confidence in them.

It’s been satisfying watching the General Convention maintain a commitment to social justice. Racial justice, gun violence, Indigenous boarding schools, environmental justice, the #MeToo movement, sexual abuse and harassment, both in the church and beyond the church. I’ve been privileged to sign on to some amicus briefs on behalf of marriage equality, and equal rights for our trans siblings.

It’s a high point to make a public witness, to say that as the Episcopal Church we believe in the full equality of all people. We’re able to say that not in spite of our faith but because of it. That’s enormously satisfying.

One last question, a real softball here. Who do you think should be the next PHoD?

Ha! A person who says their prayers [laughs]. Do you think I’m kidding? A person who loves this church and can work with a lot of people who may have very differing views, but a common commitment to the church, and to the gospel.

Every time I look at the pictures of those putting themselves forward, I just smile, because that couldn’t happen 10 years ago.

This was originally published in the July 3 print edition of TLC.

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