How the GCE went from 60 members to 18, and why that changes the conversation around the table
The October 2019 meeting of the 43rd General Council had 218 participants online. The June 2021 meeting had 212. The General Council Executive (GCE) meetings were slimmer in comparison—about 60 members attended each meeting, including the Sub-Executive of several members, and a large "permanent committee" structure that included both GCE members and members from the wider church. Plus staff support.
In total, between 75 to 100 people carried the load of work for which the GCE had responsibility.
That's a lot of people. Those who wanted to could sit back if they chose and watch the action. Observers could be present without being noticed.
But in 2018, something changed the sense of comfort found in those large numbers.
Under the 43rd General Council, the church restructured, which changed the nature of the meetings. The restructuring reduced the size of the GCE down from the 60ish people to 15 elected members plus three officers: the Moderator, past Moderator, and General Secretary. Representation also changed from the regions to a governance board‒type structure.
In short, the amount of work conducted by the GCE did not really change, but the human resources responsible for that work were drastically reduced.
"A smaller group changes the dynamic of the conversations and how the work is done. It makes it more intensive around the table when you're trying to build relationships, trust, and do the work of the church," says Arlyce Schiebout, who sat on the larger GCE before the restructuring and is a member of the current GCE.
Even more importantly, the pandemic changed how the GCE worked together, says Arlyce.
"The onset of the pandemic necessitated a new working style with virtual meetings, virtual information sessions offered by GCO staff, and more. There were fewer opportunities for building trust in informal and formal discussions on matters at hand, in addition to discerning the role of GCE and communication pathways," she says. "The deep discussion and wrestling with issues now take place at one table in plenary, and this changes the dynamic of the conversation with a small group. GCE is a diverse group that cares for one another as we grow together in our decision-making and leadership."
Work-flow task group
The 43rd GCE recommended appointing a work-flow task group to assess the types of business that go to the full GCE, what could be delegated, and whether an expanded committee structure might be needed.
The work-flow task group did its work, too, completing its report in November 2022 and making 10 recommendations regarding process, communications, Executive functions, equity, and governance coaching.
"Using the framework of the new structure, there are different accountabilities between the GCE and the annual meeting of the General Council than there were previously," says General Secretary Michael Blair. "We have a clearer sense of the GCE's governance role in the new structure, which the work-flow task group helped us identify."
The GCE's work
The current GCE is the second iteration under the new church structure, and its members have sought to understand the Executive's revised role in this new environment. While the General Council remains the decision-making body for the United Church as both a denomination and a legal corporation, as the 2022 update to The Manual states, the GCE does the work to get the church to the question and a decision.
In general terms, the General Council sets policy and acts for the United Church on
- pastoral relations
- the entrance to paid accountable ministry
It also makes decisions on denomination-shaping issues relating to public witness.
The Executive is still assigned specific work by The Manual to act on behalf of the General Council between its meetings, particularly around unfinished business, dealing with routine and emergency work, establishing committees, and administering the pension plan and group insurance.
"Now, with the 2019 changes in place, the work of the GCE, by necessity, is both that of a church council and a policy governance board," says the Moderator. "The GCE has some statutory functions and authorities delegated in The Manual. We are a church, but we are also a legal entity."
Before the restructuring, the GCE did their work on their own for three years until the General Council met again; although the General Council could always be recalled between in-person meetings, it was not common to do so. Now the Council is much more involved in that work because an annual meeting is standardized, in part for updates on the work that is being completed as set out by the denomination.
Trust, decolonization, equity, anti-racism
Although the General Council meets more frequently, the smaller and more focused body of the GCE is required to perform several governance functions, including
- discerning how to live out the call and vision God has given the church
- monitoring progress on goals
- encouraging and accompanying the General Secretary
- ensuring that risks are considered and addressed
"As with any group that has not worked together before, it is necessary to be intentional about building trust, developing community, and discerning the role that GCE holds in relation to General Council," says Arlyce.
Key to the work is intentionally dismantling the colonial legacies of the church as they relate to governance, which is critically and vitally important as both the Executive and the General Council step into renewed roles.
"We spend time talking about our equity aspirations, decolonizing our work," says the Moderator, who chairs the GCE. "We're making sure we are anti-racist in our approaches to defining the work of the church and being the body that has accountability for ensuring those things happen at the General Council Office and with its staff."
The conversation around the table has changed, in part because the group is smaller but mostly because the Executive is learning how to work together. They are intentional about being transparent with one another and holding difficult conversations that require deep listening and humility.
"We place great value in our evolving practice of equity and safe space that encourages one to speak without judgement and to make decisions that uplift the entire church," says Arlyce. "Becoming an anti-racist, intercultural church and seeking to understand and change its colonial actions needs time and intentional action, and GCE is trying to model a living, organic church."
She adds, "Accountability and transparency can be accomplished in various ways that provide the wider church with information from the GCE, while at the same time providing GCE members with the opportunity for a self-differentiated, non-anxious space for its discussion and decision-making meetings."
For minutes and summaries from the 44th GCE meetings, please go to United Church Commons /Governance/General Council Executive/GC44 Executive (2022-2025).