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Presiding Officers Try to Calm the Waters of Church Leadership

By Kirk Petersen

Tensions between the staff and elected leadership of the Episcopal Church have flared to an extent that the church’s presiding officers recently sent a letter admonishing the Executive Council to treat church employees with more respect.

One senior professional who declined to be identified told TLC the perceived hostility from council members has been severe enough to prompt discussions among some long-time employees about whether they want to continue working for the church.

Council members are urged to take Safe Church modules addressing bullying, power and relationships, and healthy boundaries.

The “foundational teaching of our faith calls us to treat each other with respect, assume positive intent of one another, and be responsible for our own impact,” said the letter, signed by Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and President of the House of Deputies Julia Ayala Harris.

The letter reflects the fact that some Executive Council members elected in mid-2022 have launched a new era of aggressiveness in challenging the actions of church leaders.

While the letter is addressed “Dear members of Executive Council,” the staff was another intended audience. It was dated September 11, as employees were traveling for an off-site meeting, and it was shared with the staff on an internal chat platform. The complete letter can be found at the bottom of this article.

“We are blessed to work alongside an incredible staff at the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), working tirelessly to implement the policies and priorities of the General Convention,” the presiding officers wrote. “The Employee Handbook that Executive Council approved in February of 2023 says that all employees are entitled to be treated with ‘integrity, respect, and dignity’ and shall be free from any harassment based on any legally protected characteristics and from any retaliation.”

The letter urges council members to take several Safe Church courses, including modules addressing bullying, power and relationships, and healthy boundaries.

“We are called to debate. Let’s discuss vigorously and openly in session. But, let’s remember to challenge ideas, not individuals, and always assume the best and respect one another’s dignity,” the letter said.

“Let us open our ears to hear and, if we have something to say that will impact Executive Council, let us bring it to Executive Council first, not in the press or on social media.” That admonition seems to have been taken to heart. More than a dozen council members and staff declined to discuss the letter with TLC, even when offered anonymity. Through spokespersons, Curry and Ayala Harris declined to answer written questions about the reasons for the letter.

Most council members also have refrained from criticism on social media since the September 11 letter. An exception was Sandra Montes of the Diocese of Texas, who within a week posted on Facebook: “When I see episcopal church staff who have been bullies and racist to me and others I want to scream. People have brought this stuff up – all the way to the top!! How do they remain in positions of influence???!!! Where is the hashtag for abuse of power, intimidation, racism, elitism, bullying?!”

In addition to serving on Executive Council, Montes is dean of chapel at Union Theological Seminary, and is identified on the seminary website as an Indigenous Latina born in Peru and raised in Guatemala. She has a doctorate in education from the University of Houston and published a book, Becoming REAL and Thriving in Ministry, in 2020.

TLC reached out to Montes via her personal and professional telephone numbers and email addresses, and provided a detailed description of this article, but received no response.

Multiple sources familiar with the matter have told TLC that Montes is not the only Executive Council member whose interactions have been considered objectionable by some members of DFMS staff.  But she has been by far the most public in criticizing fellow Episcopal leaders — both on social media and in statements at council meetings for more than a year.

Despite extensive research in the weeks since the September 11 letter, including direct inquiries of council members and DFMS staff and monitoring of social media feeds, TLC has been unable to verify on the record any specific interactions of a similar nature involving other Executive Council members.

Less than three weeks before the letter, Montes made a more dramatic statement on Instagram, directed at unspecified diocesan staffs. She posted a montage of mugshots of former President Donald J. Trump and a dozen of his mostly white codefendants in the Georgia election case, with each person bearing labels such as “Bishop,” “Bishop Suffragan,” “Canon to the Ordinary,” and the like. A mugshot of a blond white woman was labeled “Canon for Hispanic Ministries (No se habla español).” Montes wrote: “Similarities to a bunch of our #episcopal diocesan office staffs purely coincidental.”

Within hours of being asked about the post, public access to her Instagram account was blocked. Her Facebook account had already been changed to private in recent days.

As previously reported, at the June 2023 meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, Montes was part of an exchange that some viewed as inflammatory or triggering. She acknowledged the Indigenous heritage of Episcopal Migration Ministries Director Sarah Shipman. She then added, “But you present as white.”

This led to a response from the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, racial reconciliation, and creation care. “As a Black woman, I’ve often been told that I’m not black enough,” Spellers said. Shipman declined to discuss the episode.

After the article was published, Montes reached out to TLC and expressed her concern that the June story was told in such a way as to shame her and that it withheld “very important facts and misremember[ed] others.” She noted that her comments came within the context of a larger discussion of art that was used on the cover of an EMM brochure that depicted people of color. The artwork was created by a popular white male artist, and Montes stated “that People of Color deserve to be depicted by People of Color.”

The September 11 reminder of religious and social norms comes at a time of substantial unease for the senior leadership of the Episcopal Church. Curry has been in and out of the hospital for months, and spent time in intensive care after surgical removal of an adrenal gland and noncancerous mass. The church has released little recent information beyond saying he is now resting at home and doing physical therapy. Two major meetings of church leadership bodies have been moved from Latin America to online to accommodate his participation.

Sandra Montes | Union Theological Seminary

Meanwhile, Ayala Harris publicly accused a prominent retired bishop of inappropriate sexual contact, and another bishop resigned in the face of allegations by his adult sons of years of physical and emotional abuse. The allegations, which both bishops deny, touched off a firestorm of protest on social media, and led to an inconclusive discussion by the House of Bishops about perceptions that bishops get a free pass in disciplinary matters.

Tensions have been building for months. In the first substantive meeting of the new council in December 2022, new members led the temporary derailment of the appointment of a longtime council member to the position of chief operating officer, citing diversity concerns. Jane Cisluycis, a white woman, later was confirmed on an acting basis in February 2023 by a vote of 26 to 13. While that seems like a comfortable majority, it was the first time in memory that anything close to a third of the Executive Council voted against a decision by the presiding officers. Unanimous or near-unanimous votes had long been the norm.

Despite statements to the contrary, the churchwide leadership of the Episcopal Church is remarkably diverse.

As previously noted, the two highest-ranking officers of the church are a Black man and a Latina. The executive officer of the General Convention is a gay white man, and the chief financial officer is a gay black man. Of the seven top officers of the church, only one is a straight white man.

The diversity extends to the Executive Council itself, where a majority of the members are people of color. The council, essentially the board of directors for the church, has 38 voting members, 20 elected at General Convention and two from each of the nine geographic provinces. The current roster includes 17 white people and 12 Black people, while the remainder are Hispanic, Asian-American, or Indigenous.

At the October 2022 orientation meeting of Executive Council, newly elected Tom Chu of the Diocese of New York said he previously had interacted with the council as a member of the churchwide staff under three presiding bishops, ending in 2008. “I found that this was the most racially and ethnically diverse council that we’ve ever had,” he said.

The council next meets online, October 24-27.

[pdf-embedder url=”https://livingchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/PB-PHOD-Letter-to-EC-91123-ENG.docx.pdf” title=”PB PHOD Letter to EC 91123 ENG.docx”]

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