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Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Shift" Did Not Happen

The Diocese of Newark met in Special Convention in East Orange, NJ, on Saturday, beginning with registration at 8 AM and ending at approximately 12:30 PM to
(1) Consider a canonical amendment to our diocesan canons to incorporate the canonical changes required by A177,
(2) consider policy changes recommended by the Bishop's Advisory Commission on Human Resources (BACHR) and
(3) hear an initial report from the Mission Strategy Committee. 
First, we had Eucharist. The opening words of the processional hymn were from Jeffery Rowthorn's hymn (to the Abbot's Leigh tune) "Lord, you give the great commission, heal the sick and preach the word," providing one moment in the day when many people were smiling broadly.

The bishop preached a fine sermon (he almost always does) until he got to the part about the A177 debate. My gracious! Listening to him, one would have been prepared for the storming of the barricades. Turns out, his fears and anxieties may have had some grounding in his perception of reality, but he was wrong. I'm sure even he was happy about at least that part.

I must say that I couldn't have been more disappointed with the presentation from the Mission Strategy Committee. In my experience, mission is one of the most exhilarating, exciting aspects of the church. It's one part creatively entrepreneurial, one part gospel zeal, and many small parts of cheer leading disguised as education, sermons, and unexpected, illuminating - and, indeed, transformative - conversations.

This is all infused with a deep, abiding joy which helps to carry one over the momentary occasions of doubt and anxiety. Mission, in my experience, can be a bit like finishing the building of an airplane while you're still in flight. 

The presentation from the Mission Strategy Committee was, unfortunately, about as dry as burnt toast.  I heard several people - clergy and laity - ask, "Where's the joy?" Good question. Important question. If we are "doing mission" as an assignment or a necessary evil so more churches won't close, we are going to fail. Miserably.

I think this video of a remix of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood - In The Garden of Your Mind - ought to be mandatory viewing for the Mission Strategy Committee as well as everyone in the Diocese of Newark.  C'mon people! We can do this! We can even want to do this!

Curiosity and creativity are the basic tools for plowing the gospel fields of mission and ministry.

After that presentation, we got down to the reason that we all had to sacrifice a Saturday morning in June to sit in church and make changes to canon law and enact policy changes in clergy compensation packages.

More than 70 clergy and laity in the Diocese of Newark had signed a letter written by the (Newark Episcopal Clergy Association) outlining why we thought A177 was, in general, a bad idea and "cost-sharing" a particularly bad idea.

The basic appeal was one to honesty and transparency: "Cost sharing" is, in fact "cost shifting".

"Sharing" is something one does - willingly or begrudgingly - for the greater good.

"Shifting" is something the institution does to protect itself from what it perceives, at least, as a negative financial impact.

It is usually the institution which determines who will share what, often pitting one group against the other to fight for crumbs while it still holds onto the major portion of the pie (AKA "brokering").

One of the concerns was that A177 is pragmatic to a fault. In striving for "parity and justice", the Church Pension Group - the proponent of A177 in general and DHP (Denominational Health Plan) in particular - did not take into consideration the vast differences in qualifications, requirements, job descriptions and scope of work, nor the foundational theological differences and integrity of the sacred orders of the laity ad the ordained.

Of major concern, however, is that everyone understands that family health coverage could cost congregations thousands of dollars a year; yet, in requiring "single coverage only," clergy spouses/partners and children could be at risk for not having any health insurance coverage.

"That is why it's broken everybody's hearts," said Rev'd Janet Broderick, rector of St. Peter's in Morristown and President of NECA. "It's not that everybody is a penny-pincher. It's 'How do you do this kind of work and not injure your family'". (That, by the way, is a direct quote from an article in the Wall Street Journal. You can find it here - behind the pay wall, unfortunately.)

We tried, long before Convention, to argue on a logical basis: A177 strives for Universal Health Care but that is a concept that is being challenged in our government - right now in the Supreme Court.

Whether or not the establishment of a Denominational Health Care Plan (DHP) is a step in the right direction to achieving Universal Health care - which is to be desired - is still being hotly debated. The Church Pension Group (CPG) has not clearly defined "parity" and can not promise to deliver it across the board from diocese to diocese, much less Episcopal institution to Episcopal institution.

What happens in the "Diocese of Brigadoon" when "St. Swithins in The Swamp" can just barely afford to pay for single insurance for its three employees and yet "St. Aloysius in the Heights" provides its eight employees with full family coverage? Is that justice? Is that really diocesan parity?

Furthermore, the question arises, if the standard of The Episcopal Church is parity and justice to which dioceses and congregations must adhere, but CPG can not deliver on it on a national level in terms of standard premiums throughout the church, then is it a fair claim that justice and parity really are the standards of the whole church?

If you call it a Denominational Health Plan and not everyone in the denomination is treated equally or uniformly, is it still a denominational health plan?

Finally, there are some financial transparency issues which need to be addressed.  That is not a call to questions ethical business practices. As people have considered the deeper questions of this very complex issue, questions have arisen about such things as "management fees" and the projected health of the pension fund after this crop of Boomers retire, and the diminishing crop of people who contribute to the pension because jobs dry up and churches close.

We need more time - as 14 dioceses (eight of which are in Province VI), including the Diocese of Newark, and six bishops have called for in asking General Convention to delay implementation of A177 to 2015 or 2018. One diocese (Ohio) has called for the elimination of DHP.

We also tried to have conversations with the bishop who felt torn between his role as President of the Assembly (Convention) and that of Chief Pastor.

He therefore delegated those conversations to BACHR, who seemed to take the stand that they had listened and heard (a point hotly disputed by) clergy but were unconvinced and resolute in the policy changes they were recommending.

Exhausting all other approaches, we therefore decided on a strategy of defeating the canonical changes which would then collapse the BACHR recommended policy changes.

We were confident that this was low risk, since we believe that the implementation of A177 will be delayed in three weeks by General Convention.  If not, then it would be "our fault" that we were out of compliance with national canon for 25 days (the date of implementation is January 1, 2013. Our diocesan convention is January 24-25, 2013. We thought it was worth the risk.

Our strategy was to appeal on legislative procedures - avoiding the more emotional aspects of the debate on both sides.  Many of our legislative procedural challenges failed, as we thought they would, but it allowed us to surface the important issues without either the emotional drama or theological pontification that are often part of diocesan debates.

Don't you just hate it when "Father A" or "Mother Z" gets up to the microphone and blathers on and on, dressing up a political speech in theological language? Most often, their points are not cogent anyway (if they actually have a point, other than hearing the sound of their own voice) and detract from valuable time.

We only had an hour and a half for the business section of the agenda, which included the presentation of the Mission Strategy Committee. We wanted to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" as Jesus taught.

Ultimately, the canonical change was defeated 58 to 57 in the clergy order.

It was 62/119 in the lay order.

There were four clergy who decided to abstain based on theological ground. I also noted that a few clergy remained sitting for both the 'aye' and 'nay' vote. And, there were lots of clergy - and laity - who simply didn't attend this Special Convention.

I understand. Been on that high ground myself on one or two occasions in my life.  I was haunted, then - as I am now - by the statement in Matthew 5:37  in which Jesus teaches "Simply say yes or no. Anything more than that comes from the evil one". I'm always hesitant to abstain on a vote unless it really feels like I am not prepared and uninformed to take a stand.  I'm confident that was the case with my sisters and brothers. It's a very complex issue - socially and theologically.

I noticed that many supply and interim and part time clergy also voted for the amendment. I spoke with a few of them who said that while they may have wanted to stand with us, they also wanted to continue to work in the Diocese of Newark.

Many laity came up to me afterward to say that they simply did not understand what was going on. They stood or sat because that's what their clergy were doing. Most everyone expressed to me that they were grateful that we now have more time to be more intentional about studying how Universal Health Care will impact the church and being more informed when the debate surfaces again.

And, it will. Of this, I have no doubt. This is just the first round.

There was one very low point in the debate. Someone raised the point that the lay employees the church has today will not necessarily be the same number/constituency of lay employees that the churches will have tomorrow.  The Chair of the BACHR responded, "Well, 'shift' happens" - an obvious jab at the distinction between "cost sharing" and "cost shifting".

Some applauded, but many voices booed what felt like a very inappropriate, exceedingly unhelpful and snarky remark. I heard several people call out, "Bad form!" It was not the best moment of Special Convention or, in fact, any convention of the Diocese of Newark, and I've been attending since 1991.

We are usually above that sort of snarkiness.

The high point, for me, was not winning. I knew it would be close but I just knew we would prevail. I've learned that you don't call for a vote unless you know you're going to win. Otherwise, you delay.

It was a quiet moment that, perhaps, went unnoticed by many in the room.  One of the members of NECA, a young clergy person, rector of a small rural congregation and father of two young children whom he obviously adores, moved to object to the amendment to Canon 14.

The bishop was taken aback by the movement. He thought it was just a statement of personal objection and not a legislative procedure. The chancellor - who is used to being one of the smartest people in the room and most often is - couldn't seem to find it in Robert's Rules.

The room was respectfully but quizzically hushed. Was this a trick by the clergy? Some kind of devious plot? Why can't the chancellor find it in Robert's Rules of Order? What is going on here?

The person who moved the objection, moved to the microphone with the citation from Robert's Rules. He saw that the chancellor was frustrated. Instead of calling out to her "It's on page ____," or gloating, or snarking, he quietly and respectfully and gently moved to the podium to show her the information. She was visibly grateful.

Such grace and style! Such good form! Such a gentleman! I was so very proud of him in that moment. Leaders set the tone for leadership. That's exactly what this young clergy person did.

I think that's precisely what NECA tried to do - demonstrate that we are intelligent, compassionate leaders who have done our homework and studied the issues and understand some of the implications. We can agree to disagree without drama. We don't need to be heavy-handed or devious or snarky. We just need to be the leaders that we are.

There are many complex aspects of health care reform and the movement to Universal Health Care. For example, while I, personally, do not have a "Cadillac" health plan, I am blessed to have a very good one. Ms. Conroy has Rheumatiod Arthritis and will, no doubt, need to have both knees replaced, eventually. She is in pain a great deal of the time.

In order to work, she uses Lidocaine Patches on both knees. A box of them, which will last her the month, costs $493.31. Celebrex is $261.89.

Because of our Medco insurance - which allows you to buy a three month supply at a reduced rate - she has a copay of $30 each, which we can afford. If I had a lower level insurance, we'd have to pay at least $250 a month for the Lidocaine and another $130 a month for the Celebrex, which we couldn't afford. And, of course, if we had no insurance, that would be almost $800 per month.

If we couldn't afford it, she would begin to miss many work days or not do her job adequately and risk being fired.  If she lost her know the story. It is being repeated in homes like ours all over this country.

Some people need insurance so they can go to work so they can get insurance so they can work.

Seniors are deciding whether or not to purchase the medication they need or pay the heat or grocery bill. Parents live in fear that if one of their kids falls from a tree and breaks an arm, they could be looking at credit card debt or bankruptcy.

What I want to know is, why are we talking about Health Care Reform and only dealing with the cost of health insurance? Why aren't we talking about the cost of hospitalizations and the corruption of Big Pharma? Why aren't we regulating health care costs at the institutional level instead of shifting the cost onto employers and employees?

When are we going to stop talking about restructuring and start doing it? If mission is best done at the local level, why do we need diocesan staffs and old, expensive diocesan office buildings that are, essentially, money pits? Why not have lots of satellite offices around the diocese?

Why not have the bishop be a rector of a church or dean of the cathedral and be, in that way, "bivocational" the way some bishops are saying all priests will need to be?

Something must be done. The Health Care Reform Act begins to attempt to do that. So does the Denominational Health Plan. However, it makes no sense to rush into put a Band aid on a festering wound. Careful analysis takes time.  We need to know the full effects of our policy changes before we enact them.

Part of The Great Commission is to 'heal the sick and preach the word'.

The Episcopal Church is trying to live into the commission.

"With the Spirit's gifts empower us for the work of ministry."


Paul Davison said...

The reason that we are talking about DHP and health exchanges and the like is that, as a society, we haven't made the decision (obvious to me) that access to health care must be a fundamental right.

One reason for that is that there is very strong feeling that "I shouldn't have to pay for someone else's health care!" (Am I my brother's keeper?) It's useless to explain that if they have insurance, they are paying for someone else's care and someone is paying for theirs, they are figuratively putting their fingers in their ears and humming loudly when you try to explain.

I think that economically that best way would be the Medicare for all idea--a single-payer plan. That eliminates many of the issues and creates one less thing to worry about if your job is threatened.

Small Farmer in The City said...

So, a thought or two, Ma'am....

Whether or not SCOTUS finds for or against the Affordable Healthcare Act, it is a reality of American life that the cost of healthcare continues to rise at alarming rates.

You mention a denominational health plan yet one ENTIRE order is ineligible - the entire Laity!

One might think that the buying power of some 2 million plus Episcopalians represented by the Church Pension Group might be able to negotiate some rather substantial cost reductions for drugs, services, well-care, etc. with or without use of private insurance intermediaries.

While we're at it, I strikes me as wonderfully strange that so little has been said about the GC 2012 resolution to found a denominational credit union, or to think in terms of developing a net of products and services for our parishioners along the lines of many historical fraternal organizations...

If people see the Church and its organizations as directly impacting their lives, they reasonably are going to pay more attention to the Church and its governance - something devoutly to be hoped I believe...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - I do think we are coming to a single payer system. It's the only thing that begins to make sense.

If Christians aren't for Universal Health Care, I don't know how they can call themselves Christians.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

The DHP was set up for clergy AND laity. It's a step toward Universal Health Care. It's flawed and faulted but it's a step toward it. At least, that's what I think on my less skeptical days.

No, I don't trust the Medical Trust or CPG to have our best interests itself.

I've been making my way through the Blue Book (salmon in color, actually) and I haven't come across that. I'll certainly look it up, now. May even blog on it. I've tried for years to get one established in the DioNwk but mostly, the CFOs have looked at me like I had two heads and one was flopping.

Thanks for that heads up.

Matthew said...

Mission: methinks that if more (or all) clergy were doing more weddings on Saturdays in the month of June then there would be no time for such gatherings to discuss canons and maybe that would fix some of our other problems too. Years ago I was a member of a church of modest size. But we were growing. And you could not get the church on a Saturday in the month of June without booking years in advance because there was a wedding every Saturday in June. And the clergy were tied up with that.

Small Farmer in The City said...

Thanks for your notes, Elizabeth! BTW, I found that the Diocese of LA has a credit union - - and wonder if something could be built upon this foundation?

Many thanks for all you do!


Small Farmer in The City said...

And the General Convention Resolution on a Credit Union can be found by Goggling Episcopal Federal Credit Union - the text of the proposal comes up as a

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I think many clergy were not present precisely because they had weddings and/or funerals. One clergy person had a Street Fair and gave up the morning to be at Convention.

The sad part about this is that, if we had followed what Convention had said in January, about GC delaying implementation of A177, we would not have had a Special Convention in June. If GC delays implementation - as I trust they will - then we wouldn't have needed ANY Special Convention at all.

I don't think I'll ever figure out why the big push for the big rush. I have some theories but I do not want to cast aspersions on a group of people.

It's done now. We'll see what GC has to say.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Farmer - Thanks so much. I can assure you that we will bring up the idea of a Credit Union in January.

It's a great idea whose time has come. The 1% need to have alternatives from Big Banking.

Small Farmer in The City said...

And finally, may I offer another idea which I think would be useful as adjunct to a Denominational Credit Union: a Denominational Free Loan Society based on the Jewish communal Gemach (Gemilut Chasidim) Model -

Small Farmer in The City said...

And finally (really, final post today, I promise!) an article from the WSJ on No Interest Lending among the Abrahamic Faiths:

Jackie said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I have heard this argument from other clergy:
"the Church Pension Group - the proponent of A177 in general and DHP (Denominational Health Plan) in particular - did not take into consideration the vast differences in qualifications, requirements, job descriptions and scope of work, nor the foundational theological differences and integrity of the sacred orders of the laity ad the ordained."

and it holds not the water. In the "real world," one's education, level of (perceived) responsiblity, etc., do NOT pertain the the quality of benefits one is offered. The risk pools to which NP and for-profit companies subscribe cannot thusly discriminate. I have an MDiv, and one that structured with an high toward PhD study, and as such was much more demanding than the programs of study completed by classmates who are now ordained. I did not embarass myself when I took the GOEs. For various reasons I chose not to be ordained, but in terms of qualifications I am equal to most ordained clergy. That aside, I am not better, more worthy, more deserving of access to reasonably priced medical coverage than someone who can wear a collar. Nor am ai better, more worthy, more deserving than my administrative colleagues who do not have the dubious ebenfit of my education.

I think I am misinterpreting what you are saying--I do have my dense days--so help me out. In a perfect world we would indeed have a universal single-payer system, but that lovely day will likely not dawn in our lifetimes due to what I believe was Pres. Obama's singular failure of courage during the crafting of the healthcare legislation. You and I absolutely agree on one thing--universal healthcare is an unmitigated good. As someone who is uninsured and therefore consigned when absolutely necessary to grossly sub-standard clinic care, I know the vital importance of this issue.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks so much, Farmer. These are great resources. Unfortunately, WSJ is behind a paywall so not everyone will be able to read that article.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I beg to respectfully differ, Jackie. I do not live in a "dream world" but in the "real world". People in the "helping professions" - teachers, nurses, etc, get COLA and merit raises based on the CEU's - Continuing Educational Units they earn. Promotions are based on educational levels attained.

Parish clergy are also expected to be CEOs. To compare the salaries of what clergy make - even including housing and other benefits - is to induce laughter.

Parish clergy are also on call 24/7/365 - unlike sextons, secretaries and organists.

Granted, that whole scenario changes when talking about Universal Health Care. I firmly believe that everyone ought to have at least the basic minimum health insurance for themselves and their families.

This is more about "cost shifting" than "cost sharing". It pits employers against employees while the institution retains the major share of the pie. That's what really needs to change.

Small Farmer in The City said...

Elizabeth, as my wife is a public school teacher, and I have served in that capacity in recent memory, I respectfully disagree with your assessment that people in the helping professions "...get COLA and merit raises based on the CEU's - Continuing Educational Units they earn. Promotions are based on educational levels attained."

My wife has not received a COLA in four years and the CEUs are mandatory for keeping her employment NOT a basis for receiving a merit raise.

We both have Masters and it makes no particular difference in promotion: promotions are usually based on politics rather than performance in any school district I've ever seen. Rather like being a cleric, eh?

As for providing universal health care across the denomination, if not our nation, I find myself wondering pragmatically what it might look like? Well-care? Low cost primary care for common ailments and illnesses? A mail-in pharmacy? Would having a Diocese focused and subsidized clinic/provider network be an option?

And does our aging demographic suggest a need for tailored options such as a Medicare Supplement or Long Term Care or At Home Services? Or Hospice for that matter?

Perhaps this is something to be addressed at Diocesan/Province levels rather than denominationally so folks can get the best care relative to their locales at reasonable costs? Especially if you have concerns about CPG and other central organizations...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Farmer - I suspect COLA and merit raises differ from state to state and region to region. This is what I know in my neck of the woods.

Perhaps you're right - perhaps the "D" in DHP shouldn't stand for "denominational" but "diocesan". Or, perhaps it should be PHP for "provincial". The argument against that, I suspect, would be that the "pool" would still not be big enough to effectively reduce costs.

I think one model is Canada. I am not an insurance specialist by any means, but my Canadian friends seem to be happy with their health care system.

I still think that it's not so much the health care insurance that needs reform but the entire health care system - especially Big Pharma. It's a disgrace.

The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga said...

Elizabeth, Can you put me in touch with the young clergy deputy who spoke at your special convention in Newark? I am a deputy to GC and a 34 year old priest from the Diocese of El Camino Real with a young family. I have private health insurance; participation in the DHP would more than double my congregation's premium payments and my out-of-pocket costs. Mandatory participation in the DHP saves the greater church money at the direct expense of young clergy and lay employees who lower the average age of the risk pool. Do you know of other places where conversation around age and the DHP is happening? I am exploring proposing a resolution mitigating the effects on congregations with plan participants younger than the average age of their risk pool, and need input and potential endorsers.
deep peace and many thanks...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Amy - Gee, there were several young clergy who spoke. Please email me at mother kaeton at gmail dot com and we'll chat.