[Episcopal News Service – Chicago, Illinois] The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council formally moved Oct. 17 to try to heal the wounds incurred during the recent controversy over the functioning of the United Thank Offering.
Council’s efforts included two resolutions and many statements of support for the future of UTO and its relationship with the wider church.
In addition, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told council that she and UTO board president Barbara Schafer, from the Diocese of Nevada, were working on a joint statement to later release to the church.
Steve Hutchinson, chair of council’s Joint Standing Committee on Governance and Administration for Mission (GAM), told his colleagues that his committee’s Oct. 15 discussions with four UTO representatives were “substantive, frank and productive.”
He characterized the attitude as one of “very strong support and high hopes to move forward – not to dwell on the past – but to move forward cooperatively.”
In one of council’s two UTO-related resolutions, passed on the final day of its Oct. 15-17 meeting here, members “acknowledged with deep regret the breakdown of communication and relationship between the board of the United Thank Offering and leadership of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.”
They “committed to a season of reconciliation and renewal of all involved in a thoughtful and faithful engagement and conversation to resolve matters of governance and administration, while honoring the UTO’s historic promotion of a theology of thankfulness, so that the mission of the UTO can be strengthened.”
At the same time the members committed themselves to “continuing support of the UTO by offering gifts of thankfulness on a regular basis through the ‘little blue box’ or [to] direct gifts to the spring and fall Ingatherings,” and invited the whole Episcopal Church to join them.
“We give thanks for the years of inspirational and prophetic service to the wider Church that the United Thank Offering and generations of women leaders have made, and look forward to celebrating the 125th anniversary of this important work as we seek renewal of this mission for generations to come,” Resolution GAM011 concluded.
Council’s Joint Standing Committee on World Mission also brought forward a resolution Oct. 17 expressing thanksgiving for the ministry of the UTO and support of its work going forward. Resolution WM015 affirmed the UTO board’s 2014 United Thank Offering Grant Focus and Criteria (to be posted Nov. 1 on UTO’s website). Finally, the resolution also encouraged every Episcopalian to get and use daily a UTO Blue Box.
Council’s discussions were prompted by the resignation in early September of four UTO board members over what became for some a controversial effort to draft a memorandum of understanding between the UTO and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, and new bylaws for the historic organization which Jefferts Schori said were meant to bring the operating procedures “into compliance with both federal law and with DFMS policies.”
Hutchinson said during a mid-day news conference Oct. 17 that the most recent controversy was “a bit of a boiling over of a broken relationship, frankly, some of which probably goes back for decades, some of which is more recent.”
He also noted that “notwithstanding 125 years of wonderful ministry in the church, United Thank Offering as an organization has never been formally defined as an entity in the Episcopal Church, and that has promoted a great deal of confusion at different times in its history and in some way has probably contributed to some of the erratic functioning in the relationship with other parts of the church.
Now however, Hutchinson told the council, there is hope for “a new identity, a new season of collegiality and cooperation.”
He told council that a working group of UTO board members and GAM members would soon be organized to continue the efforts to move forward.
Hutchinson, who had been involved earlier this year in the work on the bylaws revision and memo of understanding, had convened a closed GAM meeting on Oct. 15 with UTO board president Schafer; the Rev. Sarah Carver, appointed UTO board member from the Diocese of Eastern Michigan; the Rev. John Tampa, appointed UTO board member from Diocese of North Carolina and Margaret (Peg) Cooper, UTO Grants Committee chair, Diocese of Missouri. The four had been invited to the first day of council’s meeting.
Hutchinson told the council Oct. 15 that he would asked for the closed session because “this is about creating … a safe place for very open conversation.”
Those present, besides GAM members and the invited members of the UTO board, were Jefferts Schori; the Rev. Gay Jennings, House of Deputies president; the Rev. Heather Melton, UTO missioner; Bishop Stacy Sauls, the church center’s chief operating officer; Paul Nix, church center legal counsel, and Sally Johnson, Jennings’ chancellor.
Hutchinson had said he wanted to create “a safe place for very open conversation” that would be “quite brutally honest where necessary, compassionate, hospitable.”
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 grants are funded in large part with the money that Episcopalians deposit in “Blue Boxes,” which they keep in their homes and offices. Over the last 124 years UTO has granted $131,789,046.70, according to a report here.
UTO suggests that people should daily pray and give – by putting some coins in their Blue Box – 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 diocesan in-gatherings. The UTO believes that thankful giving unites the givers spiritually with the people who benefit from their gifts.
During the group’s Sept. 25-Oct. 1 board meeting, Melton said said that giving to UTO has declined over the last 10 years.
In 2007, the UTO made 91 grants totaling $2,401,906.70. In 2009, it granted close to $2.1 million in 63 grants. For 2013, UTO awarded 48 grants for a total of $1,517,280.91. The complete list of grants is here.
Executive Council called in 2008 for a UTO study group to clarify the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s legal relationship with UTO. (The DFMS is the church’s corporate legal entity.)
Sandra McPhee, the first chair of the group, noted at the time that there was nothing in writing that spells out the UTO’s relationship to the DFMS, despite the fact that UTO was using the tax-exempt number assigned to the DFMS by the Internal Revenue Service, which expected the DFMS to “control” the UTO.
The council committee that proposed the study group also noted the UTO’s declining revenue and wondered if UTO’s fundraising model and grant-making methods needed updating.
The 2008 study group reported to council and General Convention in 2012. Council approved the group’s report in 2011, including a new set of by-laws and called for a memo of understanding between UTO and the DFMS.
Jefferts Schori called a meeting with UTO board members and DFMS staff this past July. During that meeting she appointed a committee to work with some UTO board members to draft a memorandum of understanding and to revise the group’s bylaws to bring about the compliance with federal laws and DFMS policies that the presiding bishop sought. It was that work that eventually led to the UTO board member resignations.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.
Correction: Feb. 11, 2014, An earlier version of this story reported that General Convention also adopted the UTO report and bylaws. Convention did not take action on either document.