Episcopal Diocese of Olympia

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Case Study on The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia

Submitted by Michael O'Neill for Civic Intelligence: Theory and Practice, Spring 2011


The role of a facilitator is an integral piece of developing Civic Intelligence in any community. While the collaborative efforts of a group is likely to produce something greater than the sum of its parts, it is the skill and knowledge of the facilitator(s) of that group which contributes the most to fully realizing the potential of the group. I have seen this dynamic in action through my involvement over the past three years in the leadership at the Episcopal church in Longview where I live.

Throughout the past two academic quarters at Evergreen, as a student of Doug Schuler, I have studied community dynamics and Civic Intelligence. My reading and coursework has given me the background to see just how much The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia is doing to foster Civic Intelligence in the congregations it oversees. The main programs I am aware of are the College of Congregational Development and the Congregational Consulting Network. These two organizations within the Diocese provide training to individual within congregations and a resource of skilled professional facilitators to aid in fostering healthy community dynamics.

With the two pronged approach of developing skilled facilitators within local congregations and providing well versed and practiced professionals as a resource, the Diocese of Olympia is steadily increasing its capacity to build Civic Intelligence across a wide geographic region. Of particular interest is the skill set the Diocese is promoting in effective facilitators, the merging of ground up and top down models of leadership, and the ethic of free and open communication. I have been intimately involved with these three aspects over the past year in taking on the lead role within our local congregation as we move through the process of calling a new Rector to lead our parish.




Although the structure of the Episcopal Church is a traditional hierarchy, with a Primate at the head, other Bishops underneath her, and priests, rectors, and vicars under each Bishop leading individual congregations, there is a high level of autonomy at the diocesan and congregational level. The Episcopal Church is arguably more democratic than the United States Government as there are no lobbyists or huge corporate interests in the Cannons (laws) the governing body of the Church creates. Delegates from each congregation participate in diocesan conventions each year, and the 110 Dioceses of the Episcopal Church send over 800 delegates to a triennial General Convention where they work alongside a representative body of Bishops within the Church.

Within each diocese the Bishop plays mostly an oversight role and guides the region spiritually. Individual parishes are governed by a vestry of elected members from within the congregation. In my experience the election to the vestry is a formality of confirming a willingness to serve the community. I certainly did not campaign or seek out my position on our local vestry, but accepted the invitation when I was asked by our former Rector.

Because each vestry develops its own practices for conducting the business of the congregation our parish operates in a fairly unique way. Instead of mounting the burden of parsing the minutia of every decision onto one group of volunteers, several committees have been formed over the years to address issues of finance, outreach spending, and other time consuming issues. Our vestry does not follow Roberts Rules of Order. Instead we follow a consent model, where the meeting is facilitated by one of the two wardens and every member is free to speak on any issue until the body has resolved it. To make this model work and build a body that is working towards consent and not individual interests we follow these 10 guidelines to the best of our ability:

  1. Take time to become settled in God’s presence.
  2. Listen to others with your entire self (senses, feelings, intuition, imagination, and rational faculties).
  3. Do not interrupt.
  4. Pause between speakers to absorb what has been said.
  5. Do not formulate what you want to say while someone else is speaking.
  6. Speak for yourself only, expressing your own thoughts and feelings, referring to your own experiences. Avoid being hypothetical. Steer away from broad generalizations.
  7. Do not challenge what others say.
  8. Listen to the group as a whole -- to those who have not spoken aloud as well as to those who have.
  9. Generally, leave space for anyone who may want to speak a first time before speaking a second time yourself.
  10. Hold your desires and opinions -- even your convictions -- lightly

Although each vestry member only follows these guidelines as much as they are able, having these as the established norms for running our meetings is an important piece of facilitation in and of its self. I have seen this model foster many group decisions that were synthesized from the input of everyone. An example that stands out most clearly in my mind was a heated discernment about the annual budget where two opposing proposals seemed to be at odds. By having space for each member to speak a way forward emerged that acknowledged the concerns of both positions while standing on its own.


The organization of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and each congregation within it is really a marriage of grass roots and hierarchy. Apart from the ordained priest and possibly a deacon, the leadership of each local community is made up of committed members who desire to serve that community. Information about meaningful opportunities to participate in the wider faith community come into each congregation from the diocese as well as opportunities to engage in ministries outside of the local community. But for the most part each parish develops its own vision of how it will serve the community and worship within the Episcopal tradition.

While this approach helps foster an organization that can identify and serve very localized needs in disparate communities as well as supporting regional and global needs, there are challenges for both the Diocese and local parishes. Communication between the Diocese and parishes is limited. The Diocese is the only natural link between individual congregations. When a parish is dealing with internal struggles such as a change in clergy or reviewing/redefining their ministry goals, the relative isolation from the Diocese can complicate the process.

To meet these challenges the Diocese has developed The College of Congregational Development and a network of trained facilitators that are available to individual parishes.


products and projects

A strong example of how fostering an environment of inclusive thoughtful deliberation and how that builds strength throughout the organization is shown in the process the Diocese of Olympia has developed for the calling of a new Rector to serve a congregation. At St. Stephen's our Rector announced his retirement a little over a year ago. As a member of the vestry and through choosing to take an active leadership role through this transition I have been intimately involved throughout this process.