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Denver meeting attempts to chart course for Native American ministry

By James Solheim
[Episcopal News Service]  A recent two-day meeting in Denver of the church's leadership in Native American ministries attempted to chart a course and sketch a vision for the future. The meeting revealed some broad agreement on vision but also exposed some lingering anger over how those ministries are financed.

The meeting adjourned with confusion over the role of the Episcopal Council of Indian Ministries (ECIM), established by the Executive Council in 1989 as the result of a recommendation of the Presiding Bishop's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Indian Affairs to 'develop a comprehensive and coordinated approach to Native American ministries' and serve as the major channel for funds to dioceses with substantial Native American ministry.

Bishops from the aided dioceses--North and South Dakota, Alaska and Navajoland--have expressed frustration in recent years that ECIM sought to control the funds for their dioceses and often operated with what they regarded as a political agenda.

'ECIM was created as an advisory for Executive Council and became the body to control the flow of funds to dioceses and control the ministry in those dioceses,' said Bishop Creighton Robertson of South Dakota at the Denver meeting. He charged that an agenda was imposed 'without regard to the uniqueness each diocese brings to the larger church.' In recent years ECIM has 'pushed aside proposals and plans presented by South Dakota, probably because it had another agenda.'

In his response, delivered the following day when Bishop Robertson had already left, Frank Oberly said in his capacity as ECIM chairman that he had hoped that the meeting would clarify what was happening to Native American programs at the national level. He pointed out that ECIM had not met since January 2000 and he wondered what was happening with Native American ministry and 'where are those programs that we have started?'

Oberly added, 'ECIM takes seriously its responsibility for good stewardship in allocating national church funding,' providing base support for Indian work in the four aided dioceses. It has also 'encouraged and nurtured 73 new ministry programs in to provinces and 20 dioceses between the years 1992 and 2000.' Facing a 'drastically diminished number of Indian clergy and trained lay leaders over the past three decades, ECIM identified theological training as paramount for survival of native ministry in the Episcopal Church,' he said.

If ECIM is still 'a viable committee,' it is time to call a meeting, Oberly said. 'How can ECIM reconcile any differences if they do not meet?'

In an attempt to clarify the role of ECIM in preparation for the meeting, the Archives Office researched the background of ECIM and said that the charter and bylaws proposed to Executive Council in 1990. 'We have checked carefully and can find no evidence of a formal resolution of Council authorizing this or any other charter and by-laws... It would appear to us that the formal connection between ECIM and Executive Council is tentative,' said a letter from Jennifer Peters, archivist for research.

Dropping a bomb

Bishop Steven Charleston of Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts, who served as facilitator for most of the meeting, said as the meeting neared its conclusion that 'true reconciliation isn't possible unless all parties are present, especially those who have a different perception and perspective. We're back where we started--the need for conflict resolution but that isn't possible in the time we have.'

Charleston said that the meeting had exposed 'a deep rift in interpretation of a moment in Native Ministry,' one that can't be ignored. 'Any attempt to move forward would be dangerous.' The Rev. Robert Two Bulls of California said 'it feels like a bomb was dropped.'

Bishop Mark MacDonald of Alaska said that the bishops from the aided dioceses were 'not talking about structures,' but rather 'new attitudes, new relationships.' Charleston said that the 'faultline of bad feelings and suspicion was not a good foundation,' that there is still 'baggage of unresolved feelings' going back to the creation of ECIM. 'If we don't resolve it, it will continue to fester and haunt us.'

Malcolm Chun of Hawaii said that the vision discussions on the first day had provided a level of trust that indicated 'we are ready to move on.' Others expressed impatience. 'I thought we were going to talk and plan for the future,' said Doyle Turner, chairman of the White Earth Tribal Council in Minnesota. 'There are people out there waiting for ministry--and they depend on you.'

'Before we can move forward, we need healing of the Gospel,' said the Rev. Ginny Doctor of Alaska.

Moments of grace

Despite the tension, there were moments of grace during the opening day's discussion of a vision for Native ministry. As facilitator Charleston used a group process 'to identify those major issues that we believe need to be surfaced, talked out and settled before we move on to renew our covenant with one another.' In his letter of invitation to the meeting, called by Sonia Francis in her role as director of program, Charleston expressed his hope that the first day would provide 'solid ground for our Native ministry' and that the second day would be a day of 'envisioning a better future.'

Charleston urged participants not to take sides but rather to move to 'a different place, moving beyond political climate and atmosphere' and a win/lose approach that 'leads to bitterness.' He invited them to draw on the 'Native tradition of open council where every person is valued, every voice is heard in a loving, forgiving circle of discernment and reconciliation.' He warned that the meeting faced two choices: either resolve the issues or make them worse. The issues are actually less significant than 'the attitudes toward problem-solving,' he said. 'Leave your anger outside.'

In seeking ways to resolve old conflicts and move into new levels of cooperation, Charleston cautioned that participants had to accept some limitations since they were not in a position to decide what Native American ministry would be in the future but rather to suggest directions.

Agreeing to a covenant of respect for each other, the participants moved ahead to identify core issues that were causing conflict and disagreement and then suggesting methods of reconciliation.

Mending relationships

Bishop Robertson said, 'We're not being heard by those who are making decisions about Native ministry.' He asked if ECIM would control the flow of funds to the aided dioceses and 'insist on accountability.' Sonia Francis, who convened the meeting in her role as assistant to the presiding bishop for program, said that the four dioceses are in the church's budget and the funds are disbursed automatically.

Bishop Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota pointed to tensions between ECIM and the dioceses and said that people resented the 'strong-arm leadership of the national church.' Ginny Doctor said that the vision had been clearer under former presiding bishop, Edmond Browning, but that recently there had been 'a lack of communication.'

'Much of the current confusion is over the role of ECIM in the past and present,' said Charleston. 'What would help us to clarify the vision?' asked Charleston. 'We haven't had the chance to come together, especially in the last few years, so vision is difficult,' said the Rev. Carol Gallagher of Delaware, a member of ECIM. 'We need time to mend relationships.'

'The problem isn't the vision--there is surprising consensus,' said Charleston, adding that he was convinced that the problem lies with the delivery system, the relationship between the vision and the structures used to implement it.

MacDonald raised the issue of the 'invisibility of Native presence' in the church. 'Our reality is not very important to most people. In Alaska we are living on such a margin that any little ripple could put us under. We're living in a community where people will need each other next week so we can't afford to alienate each other.'

'Look for the gift, not the differences,' added Chun. 'We're here because we are a people.' Turner said, 'We have lifted a curtain and discovered some wonderful possibilities.

Sense of hopefulness

By the end of the first day participants said that their original fears and apprehensions had dissipated and they were prepared for some authentic visioning--they had slowly embraced a sense of hopefulness.

On Sunday others involved in Native ministry joined the meeting, providing more of a cross-section of those involved and 'to iron out disagreements and confusion in moving ...and to look ahead.' Since not everybody was at the table, a wider conversation would be necessary in the future, Charleston said.

Picking up on the first day's energy, participants identified sources of disagreement and confusion and tension as a way of plotting a course ahead. Before catching his plane, Charleston said that he had been 'greatly reassured' by the surprising commonality of the shared vision and that the differences 'weren't that threatening that they couldn't be resolved.' In sharing a sense of healing, they were 'looking ahead with hope--and new commitment.'

At the end of the meeting, the large newsprint sheets on the wall, intended to outline the next steps in implementing the vision, were still blank. It was clear that the dialogue about possibilities had only begun and it would take some hard work to clear the debris of misunderstanding.

In an interview after the meeting, Francis said that 'it is time for Executive Council to clarify the status of ECIM and bring it in line with other governing bodies of the church.' She said that Oberly had called an ECIM meeting for November.