Episcopal Women's Caucus reorganizes, plans communications emphasis

March 1, 2010

The Episcopal Women's Caucus board emerged from its annual meeting last weekend with new energy, fueled by a new structure, streamlined mission statement and a commitment to enhanced communications as a tool of advocacy for women.

The group moved from a traditional hierarchical "pyramid"-style of leadership, with an elected president and vice president, to a shared-leadership "circular" structure, where board members commit to tasks on a rotating, three-month basis and an elected "convener" serves a one-year term, said the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, who was elected convener. It committed to the new structure for three years.

The board adopted a new mission statement: "The Episcopal Women's Caucus: Advocating for women since 1971, theologically, spiritually and politically."

Identifying the caucus' strength of advocacy through communication, the board also committed to producing its trademark publication, "Ruach," three times a year; launching a monthly e-mail newsletter, "The Monthly Caucus"; and connecting with other church women's organizations -- such as the Episcopal Church Women and Daughters of the King -- to see how they can be in relationship in the absence of an Office of Women's Ministry at the Episcopal Church Center, Kaeton said.

Edited by Karen Bota, "Ruach" and the newsletter will focus on issues of history, theology, spirituality and politics, Kaeton said. The caucus' revamped website will debut soon, and its new Facebook page gained 257 members in its first 48 hours, she added. (The caucus has 350 paid members and distributes 2,500 copies of each "Ruach.")

Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, Feb. 25-27, the caucus board began by discussing its diminished energy level at a time of declining membership in many organizations, including churches, as chronicled in Robert D. Putnam's book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," Kaeton said. "The sort of passion that once not only held us together but drove us has started to wane. That's true across the board of lots of organizations."

The caucus started in 1971 to lobby for women's ordination but later expanded to advocate on a range of equality issues. With women serving as presiding bishop and House of Deputies president, people can be lulled into thinking sexism has been conquered, but that's no more true than that racism disappeared with Barack Obama's election, Kaeton said. "Just because we have a president who's a person of color in the White House, we have not eliminated racism; and in some ways it's more subtle and therefore more difficult to deal with."

Discussing how women and men's leadership styles differ, the board noted how a traditional "pyramid" structure "demands us to function in more traditional ways," Kaeton said, "and we thought that might be a contribution to the sort of lethargy that has impacted us."

When they began talking about implementing a "leadership circle" instead, "it was amazing how the energy started to get freed up in the room," she said. "We talked about how when energy moves in a more circular model, there's momentum and there's an easier way to enter the flow of energy."

Some other organizations -- including the Sisters of St. Helena -- already employ this sort of structure, she said. Participants will take on leadership roles, such as setting the agenda for the board's monthly conference calls or serving as secretary, for three months, with the opportunity to renew the commitment.

"It's an experiment, and one we're committed to for the next three years ... It may be something that becomes a model, not just for women's organizations, but for other organizations. I'm seeing ways to adapt this to the way my vestry works," said Kaeton, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chatham, New Jersey.

If it fails, they may conclude that the caucus "leaves a great history, but our work is done," she said, adding, "We're all pretty excited about the future, where we came to the meeting with concerns and worries."

"I'm very hopeful," she concluded, "that we are moving into a new way of being with each other that I think is more true to who we are and I think is potentially more attractive to a younger generation of women and men who do experience that sexism is alive and well but may not have had an avenue of either deeper awareness or an organization through which to do something about that."