Walk in Matthew Ellis' Shoes: A Day at the 2012 General Convention
General Convention is a pivotal event in the Episcopal Church. I tagged along to see the event in action, and later sat down with Matthew Ellis, chief executive officer of National Episcopal Health Ministries, to talk about his work and how it intersects with the the General Convention.
Hi Matt, thanks for taking time to talk about this. What is your role as CEO of National Episcopal Health Ministries (NEHM)?
As the only full-time employee for NEHM, it’s my job to direct the mission and vision. I work with the board of directors to accomplish those objectives. I’m responsible for all program coordination, fundraising, convention presence, partnership relations and communications.
What are your goals going into General Convention and how did you prepare?
Going into General Convention, there were several resolutions I think we had targeted, 14 or so, that we wanted to track because they were health-related in some fashion. We wanted to either impact the outcome of them, typically by having them adopted, or observe and communicate about them. My goal with every General Convention and meeting is to make contacts and explore partnerships, raise visibility of NEHM in the church and make sure people are aware and understand the good work we are trying to do.
So as the General Convention approached, you knew you had these goals in mind. How did you prepare?
I try to make sure I am knowledgeable about resolutions we’re tracking and those I am testifying about. I try to make sure I understand why the resolution is being proposed and that I form an opinion about it, that I can see why it’s necessary, why it’s important, what community or nationwide statistics impact the resolution—and what outcomes the church hopes to realize if it’s passed.
Yes, and I’ve seen you in action testifying; I can understand why you love the act of engaging with people, developing partnerships, presenting ideas, testifying. You’re good at it.
Well, thanks! What I really love is connecting with people, both individually and at General Convention. I think the process our church uses to establish its position on issues and chart a course for the future is fascinating and messy and awkward and public and wonderful in the same breath. I enjoy being part of it, I feel privileged and honored to be able to contribute my voice to church positions. I’m personally energized by General Convention. I find it to be a fascinating experience.
It’s hard to be effective on your own when you have a big job to do, that’s why we have partnerships. Who do you work with/partner with? How do you approach finding partners in the church?
We do have limited resources. I am the only full-time employee, so it’s critical for us to have partnerships at many levels to get things done, get our message out. Personally, my philosophy is that we do this best by being valuable to other people and to other organizations. For me, it’s about finding where we can be of service and help organizations with their mission, as long as it is compatible with our own. I’ve found that to be a wonderful way to identify partners. A few examples are the Older Adult Ministries Task Force and FOCUS, which stands for Families of Clergy United in Support. We’ve worked with both groups to develop guides for ministry and promote messages. We’re helping these organizations, and our audience benefits as well: these guides are valuable to them, too. To me, a good candidate for partnership is anyone we can help. My hope is by helping them and strengthening their ministry and message, we strengthen ours as well.
Describe a day at General Convention. How do you spend your time?
I’m not sure that everyone’s day looks like my day. But I’ll tell you what a day at General Convention is like for me, personally. My day starts at 7:15 a.m. I arrive and sign up to testify at a resolution hearing. I then wait in one of the ballrooms for my opportunity to speak. The committee chair will go through the resolutions that are being heard that morning. At some point I’ll be called; I’ll offer my testimony.
I typically wait around through the next couple of testimonies to make sure questions don’t crop up. But once I’m done testifying, I’ll move on to a different hearing and offer testimony there. By this time, the exhibit booths are up and running. I work with the NEHM booth—we’re fortunate enough to partner with the Episcopal Church Medical Trust on this. We structured the booth as an oasis, so there are plants and comfortable couches—and we have volunteer nurses taking blood pressures. In the afternoons, we offer free chair massages. It’s a very popular area for people to stop by and relax a bit, claim some quiet space in the midst of the exhibit hall. With the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition booth, it’s a little bit different. It’s an opportunity to display the AIDS quilt and to promote our resources, our website—a new format for the website, things that people might not be aware of. I find that the AIDS booth is a terrific place to spend time; a lot of people stop by to tell us about a quilt panel that was made for their brother or cousin or someone...we often hear some really touching stories. It’s really affirming. It reminds me of the individual ministry and its affect on people.
Kind of personally poignant.
Yeah, it really is. I spend a lot of time in my office or on the road talking to groups of people. But at General Convention—the AIDS booth especially—really gives me the chance to hear people’s stories and connect the ministry with direct service work.
That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have known that, which is why I’m asking you now! (laughs)
So we started the morning with resolution hearings, then the exhibit hall opens...much of my day is spent in the exhibit hall and tracking resolutions. We keep track of resolutions as they move through the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, keep people informed—sometimes committee chairs ask us for background information, that kind of thing. And once the exhibit hall closes down, that’s when my networking time really comes into play. It’s a great time to see everyone at once, so I meet up with people I may not have the opportunity to otherwise. Usually I’ll arrange at least two or three meetings for the evening. I typically work until 11:30 p.m. or so, meeting with people, talking about initiatives, plans, partnership ideas. Then I head back home, because fortunately this year the General Convention was in Indianapolis. I get started around 7:00 a.m. or 7:15 a.m. the next morning.
That’s a lot to do! This time around, how was it different?
For me, personally, it was much more calm. The 2009 General Convention in Anaheim was my first one. I didn’t have a good understanding of what to expect. I had never actually seen anyone testifying at a resolution hearing, I didn’t understand the schedules, how the hearings run early in the morning into the evenings—let alone all of the work that needs to be done in addition. So this time, I felt much more prepared. It wasn’t nearly as chaotic as my last convention, and maybe some of that is familiarity with the host city. I was the one who could tell everyone about a great place to eat that wasn’t in the directory. The home court advantage was nice. I just felt that I had a much better understanding of what was going to happen. It made the entire effort easier.
These were Matt’s initial thoughts after the 2012 General Convention. But we have much more information to share in the coming weeks. Come back to hear more from Matt about resolution outcomes and what they mean for your parish.
Terra Hoskins contributes to the NEHM and NEAC blog on a freelance basis. Drawing from her background in sales, communications and Internet marketing, she helps organizations create an online presence and use the Internet to expand business. Follow Terra on her blog: http://terrahoskins.com/ and on Twitter: @terrahoskins.