Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Populist Rage and the Election of a Vestry

March 25, 2009

Newsweek offers a guide to populist rage. We see people holding placards outside banks and (worse) holding them outside the homes of AIG executives. The House of Representatives passes what appears to be a vindictive and knee-jerk bill to recoup some of the money paid in bonuses to employees of companies who receive government money. Talk radio is full of ugliness as anger seeks a target and we are living in a world of free floating and negative feelings that seem to have nowhere to go. It seems to me that we are driving more aggressively and less generously, have less tolerance for anything that inconveniences us, are more demanding of people whose role is to serve us and so on and so on.

I’m grateful that we seem to be doing pretty well (at least collectively) as the people of God in being something of a leaven in the loaf, modulating our own anxieties, striving to be more the Church rather than less, offering more to the unemployed and needy in our midst and beyond our walls, serving where we can and practicing generosity.

To the degree that we are experiencing free floating stuff at All Saints’ is has been made manifest in an increase in ugly and anonymous mail. Anonymity is rarely appropriate in the community of faith especially as a cover for cowardice or a means of expressing feelings without accountability for their effect. Two of these communications, apparently unrelated to each other, have been aimed at our attempts to refine our system of electing a vestry. I am grateful that others who have questions and concerns about what our nominating committee has recommended and our vestry endorsed have done so in proper forums, for there are serious questions that can be and have been asked about how we raise up leadership in and for the Church, leaving ample room for the Holy Spirit to work.

There is clearly no perfect system. A full fledged ‘democracy’ in a parish large enough to render any expectation that everyone will know everyone else would lead to candidates campaigning, having platforms, exacerbating the problem of winners and losers in the community of faith and so on. I have remained (painfully and studiedly) neutral in recent discussions as I think it is generally known that I favor a ‘trusteeship model’ of leadership for a parish such as ours in which a ‘single slate’ of candidates touching wide swaths of our congregational life and where necessary bringing particular skills to the table would be presented for election by acclamation at the parish meeting. I also know from conversations over the past ten years that such thinking is a long ways from the desires and instincts of most of our leadership and I cannot promise that we will do better in the future with such a system than we have in the past. There is a desire among many that we actually get to cast a ballot and make a choice. Consequently we have, for a number of years and at some expense, conducted an ‘advisory mailed ballot’. The ‘advice’ of that ballot is then shared with those present at the congregational meeting after a motion to suspend the rules of order and elect by acclamation those with the most votes received on this ballot. The great strength of this system is that it has significantly increased the franchise. The downside in our experience of the past few years is that rather than raising up leadership that touches many parts of the life of our congregation we have elected those best known but from a relatively narrow segment of the parish. In an attempt to address this our vestry decided to give the nominating committee some discretion over one or two positions should that be deemed desirable by those who have given much thought and prayer to a slate of nominees reflective of the whole parish.

We may decide that this is not an improvement. Those who wish to speak to such a possibility can attend the parish meeting and enter into discussion of the motion to suspend the rules of order. This is a completely legitimate forum for such discussion in public, and has the possibility of our making a change immediately if the case is persuasive to those in attendance. Those with opinions or questions who wish to be more private have been invited in both a Monthly article and a rector’s forum to make themselves and their thoughts and ideas known to the committee. That invitation is still open.

The bigger question is what any of us do with free floating feelings that come upon us or arise within us from time to time in our lives, especially those feelings that seem to be about a sense that life has dealt us a bad hand or that something to which we believed ourselves entitled has been withheld from us. It seems to me that regular worship in the midst of the community of faith is a good reminder of what is really important and a place where some of those feelings can be transformed as sword are transformed into plowshares in the Kingdom of God.

1 comment:

David James said...

Mr. Hoare:

Sorry to hear about anonymous ugly letters; this is the first I've heard of it. No doubt there are currents and cross-currents in this wide-ranging congregation I'm not aware of. At any rate I would find membership in a church where everyone believed exactly as I did stultifying.

About the method or methods by which All Saints' vestry are chosen: I have no strong feelings about the process. It may not be perfect, but so far it seems to work well enough -- the main risk seems to be that if not enough eligible members choose to stand for the Vestry in a given year, you may end up with some duds. [I should clarify that by "duds" I don't mean people who might not vote the way I would, I mean people who don't show up for meetings.]

One final comment, which may seem obvious: when I used to work on public participation issues at the Wilderness Society, and later at the EPA, I noticed that, very often, disgruntled people attack a decision-making process when they are really mad at the outcome. Maybe, if as I gather there are disagreements about the way the Vestry are chosen, this is an indirect way of attacking decisions the Vestry have made, or are likely to make if so-and-so gets on.

I guess if I ever felt that way, the most positive thing I could do with that feeling would be to stand for a spot on the Vestry myself, which begs the question -- if there are disgruntled members out there, why don't they seek election to the Vestry one year?