Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rethinking TEC's budget


The Most Rev. Michael Curry has been Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church for less than two years. Yet, while attending the Diocese of Hawai’i’s annual convention in October, I was impressed by Bishop Curry’s pervasive influence on the proceedings. His influence was especially noteworthy because Bishop Curry was not present and will not officially visit this Diocese until 2019.



Evidence of his influence included:

  • A speaker early in the proceedings repeatedly emphasized that one of his favorite quotations was from Bishop Curry (Forgive like Jesus; love like Jesus; serve like Jesus)
  • A video report from the Diocesan youth attendees at the Episcopal Youth Event prominently featured Bishop Curry and his dynamic preaching
  • Several individuals referenced Bishop Curry’s call for Episcopalians to become Jesus people.

More broadly, Bishop Curry’s influence is evident across our denominational structures, organization, and programs. Illustratively, his influence is apparent in the new budget format that Executive Council member Tess Judge, who chairs the Finance for Mission Committee, recently announced: “In the current and prior triennia, the budgets were built to reflect the Five Marks of Mission. The 2019-2021 budget is based on The Jesus Movement with Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation & Justice, and Environmental Stewardship as priorities.” She also observed that the new format better aligns the budget with the staff’s current departmental organization, another indication of Bishop Curry’s influence. (Margaret Wessel Walker, “Invitation to comment on preliminary draft budget,” November 13, 2017)



As a priest who emphasizes Jesus’ many teachings about money and as a former business school ethics professor, I recognize the truth in the old adage, Money talks. How we – whether a business, an individual, a family, a parish, or a denomination – spend our money reveals our values and our priorities.



Closer examination of The Episcopal Church’s (TEC’s) budget suggests that we have some distance to travel before we actually realize Bishop Curry’s vision of a Jesus Movement.



First, the budget proposes a deficit of $4,491,411. If all of the people who sit in Episcopal church pews were actually committed to the Jesus Movement, giving would be substantially greater, thereby increasing income for dioceses and the national church. TEC needs to revitalize and energize its connections with its chief constituents, that is, its dioceses and congregations.



TEC’s anticipated income from dioceses over the 2019-2021 triennium is $87.2 million, or about $17 per Episcopalian per annum. Of course, not all 1.72 million nominal Episcopalians contribute to their local congregation, much less are active. However, those numbers do highlight that we Episcopalians are a long way from truly becoming Jesus People. In general, we have not aligned our individual values and priorities with those consonant with Bishop Curry’s vision of the Jesus Movement. Endowment and other non-offering income keeps TEC, like many of its dioceses and congregations, financially afloat, e.g., in 2016, plate and pledge income only slightly exceeded 58% of total income. (Cf. EPISCOPAL CHURCH DOMESTIC FAST FACTS: 2016).



Second, the draft budget underscores TEC’s (and Christianity’s) marginalization. Christendom, if it ever existed, is dead. The US economy in 2016 had a Gross Domestic Product of $18.57 trillion. Compared to total US economic output, TEC’s annual budget of less than $45 million is a relative pittance. The US currently has 540 billionaires, the poorest of whom could singlehandedly fund TEC’s budget for 22 years without any additional income or assets.



TEC will maximize its potential effectiveness by prayerfully and intentionally focusing its scant resources and efforts on a small set of priorities such as Bishop Curry’s three marks of the Jesus Movement: Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation & Justice, and Creation Care. Taken together, the draft budget recommends only $14.4 million for those three categories, about 10% of the triennium budget, arguably too little to maximize TEC’s impact. No longer can we try to be all things to all people, to undertake every ministry and mission that is part of ushering in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Reshaping TEC will inevitably require hard choices between competing ministry/mission options.



For example, I personally appreciate the ministry of several Bishops Suffragan for Federal Ministries. In my long service as a Navy chaplain representing TEC, their ministries provided vital support, guidance, and assistance. I remain firmly committed to TEC supporting our chaplains and their indispensable ministries. However, the proposed budget for Federal Ministries is almost three times that allocated to Creation Care, one of the three characteristics of Jesus People ($2.1 million versus $740 thousand). Concurrently, the numbers of TEC federal chaplains and of the Episcopalians to whom they minister are declining. Critically, the budget for Creation Care does not fund a staff position, a key element of effectiveness in bureaucratic organizations like TEC. Perhaps it is time to rethink how TEC supports federal chaplains. Alternative, lower cost arrangements may be possible for endorsing, guiding, supporting, and assisting federal chaplains. TEC needs to determine acceptable tradeoffs not only between lower levels of support for federal chaplains and increased funding for the marks of the Jesus Movement but also with respect to all of its existing programs.



Altering how TEC does ministry and mission is essential if we are truly to align our resources and efforts with the Jesus Movement. Realignment, as the foregoing example shows, will be costly in both dollars and reductions to valuable programs. Furthermore, attempting realignment will certainly trigger strong, vociferous objections. But being faithful stewards of our limited resources will require slaughtering some sacred cows as we make tough choices, choosing the more valuable of two good programs when we lack the resources to fund both.



Third, TEC spends far too much on governance and connectivity. The budget includes five addtional categories in addition to the three that correspond to the marks of the Jesus Movement. Those five are: Ministry of the Presiding Bishop to Church and World, Mission Within the Episcopal Church, Mission Beyond the Episcopal Church, Mission Governance, and Mission Finance, Legal & Operations. The last two categories represent almost 49% of the draft budget.



Mission Governance costs of $19 million are primarily attributable to meetings, including General Convention, Executive Council, and other internal bodies. Electronic communication and social media will enable us to replace many structures that worked well in the early nineteenth century. TEC and some dioceses have already taken initial steps in this direction. Additionally, a large majority of Episcopalians are disinterested in TEC’s governance and its national structure, either ignorant of what TEC does or believing that TEC provides little or no support to their local congregation. Connectivity, both within TEC and with other Churches, is increasingly the exclusive domain of an elite few rather than an essential component of the average Episcopalian’s spiritual journey.



Mission Finance, Legal & Operations costs of $40 million are primarily overhead, i.e., fundraising, financial management and accounting, legal, facilities, human resources, etc. At 30% of total projected expenses, this means that TEC spends something in the range of 70% of its total income on ministry and mission. If TEC were a secular charity, I would hesitate to contribute because of these high administrative costs. Even if the $40 million encompasses a few programs more accurately identified as ministry or mission, administrative costs seem disproportionately high and are symptomatic of an arteriosclerotic organization that would benefit from creative disruption.



The three characteristics of the Jesus Movement that Bishop Curry emphasizes – Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation & Justice, and Environmental Stewardship – may not be inherently superior to other emphases. However, TEC elected Bishop Curry as our Presiding Bishop. His influence is rapidly becoming pervasive throughout The Episcopal Church. So, let’s capitalize on that momentum, quit living in the past, sharpen our focus, cut overhead, and accelerate developing and funding ministries and missions for the twenty-first century, confident that the Holy Spirt will bless our efforts.

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