Three months ago, hardly anyone outside the Diocese of Arizona knew Susan Brown Snook. A church planter and the founding vicar of Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Phoenix, a passionate supporter of Christian formation and evangelism, she focused her energy on her parish and her family.
Then the Executive Council’s proposed budget for the next triennium was released.
And suddenly, the Rev. Susan Brown Snook is one of the go-to people in the Church for those looking for analysis and answers.
Now, everyone is hanging on her every word.
“It’s the strangest thing,” she says with a laugh. “It never occurred to me” that so many people would pay attention to what she is writing. “It has taken me completely by surprise.”
The surprise has been that many in the Church now look to Snook for her calm, clear analysis, particularly on the budget and the Denominational Health Plan.
“I’m just a fairly obscure deputy,” she says. “I’ve been involved in some things churchwide … but I certainly have never been involved in church politics like this and I never wanted to be. But I felt I had something to contribute to that discussion.”
Snook first began to be noticed in October, after Bishop Stacy Sauls’ proposal for restructuring the Church became public. But it wasn’t until Executive Council’s proposed budget was released that people began to listen to Snook.
“In 2009 at General Convention, there was all that crazy stuff that happened when we made all those decisions to restructure the entire Church by cutting funding. I really believe restructuring needs to happen,” she says, “but restructuring by defunding is not the answer.”
It was Snook’s staunch defense of Christian formation programs, which were zeroed out in the Executive Council budget, that made Church people sit up and take notice.
“In the Executive Council budget, I really got very concerned about cutting Christian formation,” she says. “That’s what got me into this in the first place. Christian formation is one of my passions.”
Snook, 50, was a CPA for 10 years, “so I actually have the ability to crunch numbers,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how useful that kind of background is in the priesthood.”
She says she is getting known for her budget expertise, “but that is a side issue for me. What I’m really passionate about is evangelism, church planting, Christian formation and the formation of disciples.”
And yet, when the Executive Council’s proposed budget came out, that budget expertise came into play.
The budget was released during a clergy conference in Arizona, she says, “and people were upset. I said I would crunch the numbers for the (Arizona deputation). And then I thought, ‘How am I going to get this out there?’ I had this little blog out there that I didn’t really use (A Good and Joyful Thing, http://goodandjoyfulthing.blogspot.com/) and I posted my review of the budget on my blog, and now it’s up to 1,300 hits,” she says. “I’m totally astonished by it. … It has been very unusual and unexpected.”
Snook’s analysis drew enough attention that it was posted and reposted on Facebook and EpiscopalCafe.com, drawing even more comments. So many, in fact, that when the presiding bishop’s proposed budget was released, within minutes, people were asking, “What does Susan Snook think?” Within hours, she had posted her first thoughts on that budget, and within a few hours after that, her thoughts had been reposted on both Facebook and EpiscopalCafe.com.
“We seem to be wound up in all kinds of conflict and disagreement and personal things,” she says, referring to the intense discussions over restructuring, budgeting and the health plan. “I’m truly an outsider to all that. I have no way to judge between one side and the other. I don’t want to get involved in that conflict, other than to say that I’m really sad to see that happening.”
Because at least four dioceses have asked for the Denominational Health Plan to be adjusted or delayed, Snook also provided an analysis on that topic as well.
“I had a lot of hits on that blog post,” she says. “It’s hard to know whether the technical points that I tried to make came across. I am married to someone who is an expert on this kind of thing,” but even so, health care is complicated.
“Health insurance is a very technical subject. I think it’s just really important to understand the technicalities of it before you make emotional decisions. I tried to keep commentary on the national situation out of my blog posts. But that brings up all kinds of issues for people. On the national level with health-care reform, the mandate is essential to the economics of the plan. … I think we need to understand that the Episcopal Church is overwhelmingly led by people who are liberal on that issue. But that issue is just as important for us in our Church as it is on the national level.”
Snook hopes that her blog posts help bring down the temperature of the discussions.
“OK, maybe some people don’t like that the presiding bishop proposed the budget,” she says. “But on the other hand, her office did have some information not available to the Executive Council, so let’s take her proposal and look at it on its merit. If we allow personal conflict to prevent us from looking at the substance of things, then we will be a church mired in dysfunction. But I truly believe that we are a bigger church than that, and that we are a church guided by the Holy Spirit, and that we will be able to listen to the voice of God and find a pathway into the new millennium.
“Let’s be on the same team,” she says. “Let’s work together to see what we can accomplish. Let’s open up that space, not directing our attention at each other in a negative way.
“What we need to do,” Snook says, “is direct our attention to God and where God is leading us in the next few years, and also to the world outside. If we get so busy arguing with each other, we will forget our mission. I don’t want to see us get bogged down in conflict, because it takes all of our attention from the world outside.”
Snook’s final word on the state of the Church?
“The budget thing I think is really important, but what I think is truly, absolutely vital for our Church is to open up a conversation about restructuring that is led by the Holy Spirit,” she says. “If you set aside all the conflict and even the details of budgets, where do we really want to go? Where do we think God is leading us? How is God planning to surprise us?”
–Lauren R. Stanley, Staff Writer