Reflections On Change and the Church

Fifteen years ago, when a friend suggested to Donald Romanik that he might be the perfect candidate to serve as President of the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF), Donald remembers asking, “’What’s the Episcopal Church Foundation”…followed by “tell me more.” A lawyer administrator for a nonprofit at the time, he was not actively seeking a new position but decided to apply. “And what happened,” he says, “is that during that process, when I sat down and put together a resumé, I felt it was the first time in my vocational/professional life that I was participating in a thoughtful, prayerful process of who I was, what was I passionate about and what was God calling me to do.”

Today, Donald recalls that experience as formative, “one of the reasons why the whole idea of personal and organizational discernment is really important to me – and consequently, important to ECF in terms of how we approach our work in the wider church.” And given the current global pandemic, the issues of racial injustice and deep divisions in our democracy, creating opportunities and venues for thoughtful, prayerful discernment about where God is calling us as individuals and as a people is of the utmost importance.

An independent lay-led organization

When he began work at ECF in 2005, Donald found plenty to do. “There was no budgetary discipline, no strategic direction,” he recalls. “I rolled up my sleeves, put on my executive director hat and got some of these things in place.”

With that work underway, it was time to develop a strategic plan. “All of a sudden, this organization that was doing all kinds of things – not that they were bad or good, but without any kind of clear direction – was finally deciding who it was and what God was calling it to be.” From that process, came ECF’s identity as an independent, lay-led organization that provides leadership resources and financial resources for building up the Episcopal Church.

A lesson in leadership

While we’re accustomed to reading ECF’s Vestry Papers online each month, some will remember that it began as a print publication, designed to help train and inform the leadership in Episcopal faith communities. Rectors subscribed and distributed copies to vestry members and other parish leaders. Online publications were taking off when Donald arrived at ECF, and he thought shifting the publication to the web might attract more readers. He assembled a team to consider what shape that might take. “I know nothing about this online stuff,” he told them, “but is there any way you could come up with making Vestry Papers kind of virtual?”

They came back with Vital Practices, an award-winning online resource that offers vestry members and other people of faith resources and tools to help them respond to the changing needs of the Church. The site launched in 2010. “And this is when I realized that if you delegate responsibility rather than tasks to bright, innovative, energetic people, they’re going to come back with something special,” says Donald. He credits the experience with moving him to a more collaborative leadership style. “If you give people general direction, they can do great things.”

The right place at the right time

“We have managed to be in the right place at the right time to respond to what was going on and what was needed. The fact that ECF is independent of the Church’s structure has allowed us to be more flexible and enabled us to be trusted by people across the spectrum,” says Donald, recalling the schisms in the Church over sexuality in his early years at ECF.

“In retrospect, we definitely should have been more involved in some of these issues, because they were issues of social justice and human dignity that are at the core of who we are as disciples of Jesus. But at that moment, because they were so tied into church politics, that didn’t seem to be the place to go —unlike, for example, the issue of racial justice at this time. It’s crucial that ECF become involved.”

The Vestry Papers summer series on racial justice and reconciliation was already in the works when George Floyd’s death ignited a firestorm of outrage, lending strength and urgency to that theme. “We’re very proud of these Vestry Papers issues and our resource hub on racial justice,” says Donald. The series and resource hub are just the start of ECF’s commitment to racial justice, however. “We are deeply aware that as ECF we have a lot of learning and reflecting to do in this area, but we are committed to keep working on it.”

Response to COVID-19

ECF creates, convenes, curates and collaborates — develops programs and resources, brings leaders together to learn and share ideas, and produces tools and partnerships for building up the Church.

“We played those roles very effectively, especially at the early stages of the lockdown,” says Donald. “We shared pandemic specific resources with lay leaders across the church. We brought endowment management and bishop clients together to talk about financial strategy. We gathered different groups of people and also had one-on-one conversations to ask ‘what’s happening…what are you thinking about…what do you need?’” Carefully curated COVID-19 resources on Vital Practices helped connect people to articles, videos and webinars on prayer, worship, online giving, finance and a great deal more. Production began on webinars addressing leadership and financial challenges created by the pandemic.

“I always say that I work with the best people, but this was especially evident during this time,” says Donald. “Our ECF family came together in incredible ways, supporting one another and swiftly and thoughtfully creating helpful offerings for our constituents.”

He made sure that staff stayed connected with weekly Zoom meetings in the first months of the lockdown and one-on-one calls to program staff. “We would do some business, but mostly it was just checking in with people,” he says. Monthly meetings on big picture issues and regular program and management team meetings resumed at the end of June, on Zoom, of course.

Donald and his staff are especially grateful for ECF’s supportive board of directors. “We draw strength from their wisdom,” he says, “and they have been particularly helpful during this time.”

Now, more than six months in, we’re past the early days of this pandemic, and Donald is convinced that ECF has to be more forward thinking. “Not that we’ve changed our mission, but we’ve been focusing on things that have been important at one point and need to morph into something that’s responsive or relevant to where we may be going in the coming months.”

The future of the Episcopal Church

Donald sees a significant role for ECF in shaping the future direction of the Church. “I think this pandemic has created an opportunity for an organization like ECF to be more proactive about helping the church confront some of its issues, whether organizational, leadership, financial, strategic or visioning and planning.

“The big question is, we’re not quite sure what the Church looks like in the future. We’re all wrestling with the challenges this period has brought us, and we have a lot of things out there, but what’s going to bring it together? Do we need to – not totally abandon our current mission – but reframe and reimagine some of the conversations we have about who we are and what we do?”

He sees a smaller, more focused Church once we are through the pandemic and other shared upheavals in our common life. “I think the church is going to be leaner, more nimble and more relevant to where people are – and it will include thousands and thousands of other people who feel a connection to the Episcopal Church. It may be a home church or a book study or a group of people who get together in a pub and talk about their life. But somehow they have an anchor in this institution called the Episcopal Church where they can go for sacramental, pastoral and formation support.”

“I also believe that the Church of the future will thrive on collaborations and partnerships. Not only do partnerships bring out the best ideas, they’re also a sustainable way to do our work together. In the last few years, partnerships have been a special focus of mine and we’ve accomplished some wonderful work with Forma, Gathering of Leaders and FaithX, to name a few of our partners.”

An Acts of the Apostles moment

Donald sees this as an Acts of the Apostles moment, a time when the movement that was the early Christian church, became something sustainable – an institution. And he believes firmly in the value of institutions. “The Black Lives Matter movement is incredibly important,” he says, “and it needs government, it needs NGOs, it needs the church, it needs business and industry to step up, to bring about the change necessary to deal with these issues of chronic racism.”

“My concern is that we’re in a period where somehow institutions are evil or no longer necessary and networks could take their place. In order for the Episcopal Church to move to this new iteration of being a movement that transitions into a new, vital, vibrant institution, someone needs to be thinking about that and talking about that.”

And he believes in the Great Commission. “I know it’s been used in problematic ways throughout history, but I still think we have the obligation to preach the good news of the Gospel, and we need to create an institution that is flexible and innovative enough to make that relevant today, five years from now and fifty years from now.”

Making a difference

If you ask Donald what he loves about his work, he says, “the opportunity to meet hundreds of faithful Episcopalians from all around the country who are engaging in mission and ministry in their own unique contexts.” He gains fresh energy, enthusiasm and new ideas as he hears their stories, sees their churches and meets their communities. “There have been many challenges and even setbacks over the last 15 years,” he says, “but nothing more difficult than this current time.”

“I truly believe that we will adapt and grow into a Church for the future. I suspect that Church will look radically different, but we’ll meet people where they are and share the Gospel with renewed spirit and energy. While ECF’s mission and strategy are adapting to these times, our core calling to walk with fellow Christians on the path to transformational ministry does not change, and I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of the journey.”

This article was authored by Susan Elliott in conversation with Donald Romanik.

Donald V. Romanik has been President of the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) since 2005. Formerly, he has served as an attorney in both government and private practice and has been active in civic, charitable and religious organizations. Since taking the helm at ECF, Donald has developed and nurtured new programs that help Episcopal communities of faith engage in visioning and planning, and develop leadership and raise financial resources for ministry. He has cultivated new partnerships and collaborations throughout the Church and beyond, including a multi-phase grant awarded by the Lilly Endowment Inc. to address the economic challenges facing pastoral leaders. He possesses strong Spanish language skills and has expanded ECF’s program and resources for bilingual and Spanish-speaking congregations. Donald is a strong advocate for the ministry of all the baptized, and frequently writes and speaks on topics relating to leadership and resource development for Episcopal organizations. Donald is married to Margaret Felton Romanik and has two grown children, one of whom serves as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas, and three young granddaughters.

Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, RenewalWorks and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She was Director of Communications at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” now in its 24th year and published by Forward Movement.