[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a statement Sept. 6 regarding the recent resignation of four United Thank Offering board members in response to a draft revision of UTO’s bylaws.
“The resignations of several members of the United Thank Offering board in the past few days deeply distress me. They appear to be the result of grave suspicion and the attribution of inappropriate and unhelpful motives,” the presiding bishop said.
“The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), and its elected and official leadership … have no intention of divesting the United Thank Offering of its funds or applying excessive controls to its practices. Our goal is the one that has continued from the beginning of this United Offering – to relieve suffering and help to build a series of ministries that ‘proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,’” she added.
The presiding bishop’s statement came after two of the resigning board members – Robin Sumners and Barbi Tinder – issued a public declaration on Sept. 3 saying that under the proposed new bylaws they believe “the United Thank Offering board will possibly be rendered powerless and voiceless by Episcopal Church leadership.”
“The abuse of power seems staggering. With the revision of bylaws written by DFMS leadership, anticipated to be presented to the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church in October 2013, the current United Thank Offering board, representing 125 years of service, will cease to exist,” the statement said.
The presiding bishop, in her statement, sought to clarify that the United Thank Offering is “a ministry of the whole church, and has been overseen since its beginning through members of the Episcopal Church Women and mission staff of the DFMS. It is not, and has never been, a separate corporation, and the current state of law in the United States (where the DFMS is incorporated) requires accountable connections with the corporation which holds non-profit status. That reality prompted a clarification of relationships between the United Thank Offering and the DFMS, with work begun in Executive Council in 2008.”
That work has continued, the presiding bishop added, and the most recent conversations have centered on “bringing the operating procedures into compliance with both federal law and with DFMS policies, and developing a memorandum of understanding between the two bodies. That work is not finished, and unfortunately the recent resignation of several United Thank Offering board members purported that those conversations were closed. We anticipate continued developmental work on those agreements and procedures, and look forward to continuing these conversations with the remaining board members, and the new members, when they are named. The goal of all this long work is to the continued existence and thriving of the ministry of the United Thank Offering. We fervently pray for a healed world, and the United Thank Offering is a very important way in which the year of the Lord’s favor must continue to be proclaimed.”
Jefferts Schori called a meeting with UTO board members and DFMS staff on July 15 at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, during which time she appointed a committee to work with Tinder, who was at the time the UTO board president, and three other board members to revise the UTO bylaws approved by Executive Council in October 2011 and adopted by General Convention in 2012.
“As we prepared for the joint meeting called by Bishop Katharine in July, we began to review all of the pertinent documents to understand the present structure by which the UTO board was operating,” said Paul Nix, legal counsel for the Episcopal Church and a member of the committee appointed by Jefferts Schori.
“The review of their bylaws raised several questions about various provisions which did not appear to reflect the actual structure of the board as it had been and was presently operating. There were also provisions we simply needed to discuss to fully understand their intent and how they were actually being applied. Thus, we placed a discussion item about the bylaws on the first meeting’s agenda. We also all anticipated that a new memorandum of understanding needed to be drafted, so that was placed on the agenda as well.”
Also serving on the committee with Nix, are Bishop Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer; Heather Melton, who has served as the UTO coordinator on the DFMS staff since June; and Steve Hutchinson, who serves as the chair of the Executive Council Joint Standing Committee on Governance and Administration for Mission and as chancellor of the Diocese of Utah.
In addition to Tinder and Sumners, Georgie White and Dena Lee were chosen on July 15 to represent the UTO board.
“All seemed quite willing to participate,” said Nix. “At the end of our second session in August, Robin Sumners agreed to serve as my main point of contact to work towards trying to reach a mutual agreement about the bylaws revisions and the memorandum of understanding created in time for the UTO board to approve them at their Sept. 26 meeting. This approval would then allow the Executive Council to consider the documents for possible final approval at its October meeting to be held in Chicago.
The second meeting of the committee and the designated UTO board members took place at the Church Center on Aug. 1 and was a “brainstorming session,” said Sumners, who resigned from the UTO board on Sept. 3 and who served as its communications convener, during a Sept. 6 phone interview with ENS.
During the Aug. 1 meeting, Sumners said, the UTO board members stressed the importance of autonomy and UTO maintaining control of its communications, grant making and oversight of funds.
On Aug. 29, Sumners received a draft of the revised bylaws from Nix. She shared them with the rest of the UTO board.
The draft revised bylaws would put the “United Thank Offering Board entirely under the control of the Chief Operating Officer of DFMS and removes all autonomous functioning from the board,” she said, adding that they would remove the board’s oversight of funds, its responsibility for communications, and would dissolve the relationship between UTO and the Episcopal Church Women.
Sumners felt betrayed, she said, when she received the draft revised bylaws and for that reason she and the others resigned in protest.
The other two resigning board members are Georgie White, who served as the convener of the continuing review committee and who represented Asia and Pacific, and Secretary Renee Haney, representing Province 7, Sumners confirmed.
(The UTO board consists of one member from each of the nine provinces in the Episcopal Church plus three additional appointed members.)
A more detailed explanation of events is included in a supporting document prepared by church center staff and released Sept. 6 along with the presiding bishop’s statement.
The document explains that there “is not now, nor has there ever been, an attempt to ‘take over’ the United Thank Offering or to sever its ties with the Episcopal Church Women.” The document underscores that the UTO is a ministry of vital importance, squashes any rumors that there has been a misappropriation of funds, and that “100% of the annual gifts of the people of the church will continue to be used for making grants … None of these funds were ever entrusted to the UTO board or the committee that preceded it. DFMS is charged with the fiduciary oversight of those funds for the benefit of the United Thank Offering, not its board, and is legally obligated to use those funds for no other purpose. It has not, and it will not.”
And finally, the document said, “it is necessary that certain obligations be fulfilled by the DFMS rather than the board because the board is not a corporation and cannot assume any legal responsibility or liability. That is borne entirely by DFMS, its officers, and its board, the Executive Council. These obligations include personnel management and the fiduciary responsibilities for the appropriate use of trust funds, as already mentioned. New bylaws and a Memorandum of Understanding were being considered by the board and DFMS to recognize and implement these legal responsibilities.”
UTO is considered a board included in the church’s Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards (CCABs). UTO was established in 1889 as the United Offering by the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions and primarily supported the work of women missionaries. UTO later broadened its emphasis to include all areas of the church’s work.
UTO suggests that people should daily pray and give in recognition of their daily thanks for what God has given them. Oftentimes, the people whom the UTO calls “thankful givers” supplement their daily contributions before sending the money to UTO either individually or through a process known as the diocesan in-gathering. The UTO believes that thankful giving spiritually unites the givers with the people who benefit from their gifts.
Since the Sept. 3 resignations, senior church leadership – including President of the House of Deputies the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, General Convention Executive Officer Canon Michael Barlowe, and Sauls – have been reaching out to the UTO board through its new president, Barbara Shafer, and to the Episcopal Church Women through its president, Nancy Crawford, to consult on the resignations and other matters of concern about the board’s functioning, at least under its previous leadership, according to a supporting document prepared by DMFS staff released with Jefferts Schori’s Sept. 6 statement.
Discussion dates back to 2008
A study group was formed in October 2008 to conduct a “serious and extensive” study of the UTO. The council’s request resulted from a series of conversations that began in January 2008 and centered on the need to clarify the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s legal relationship with UTO. (The DFMS is the church’s corporate legal entity.)
The Executive Council, at its October 2011 meeting, welcomed a report from the UTO study group saying that the group and the UTO have developed a much closer working relationship and have resolved many of the concerns that prompted the study.
Mark Harris, who chaired the study group and was a member of Executive Council, said at the time: “We discovered that, in the process of doing this work, we rebuilt confidence between the two organizations.” Harris adding that a new set of bylaws passed by the UTO board in September 2011 “straightened out most of the issues that had to do with structure in ways that both satisfied the UTO and satisfied the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.”
That work was the result of a two-year effort to clarify the organization’s relationship to the church, explore ways to increase giving to the UTO, ways to make UTO better known to others in the church and ways to expand the organization’s approach to funding mission activities.