[Episcopal News Service – Phoenix, Arizona] The liveliest discussion during the opening session of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council June 10-12 meeting here surrounded how much money the General Convention ought to ask dioceses to contribute to the church-wide budget – and what should be done about dioceses that do not pay the full amount.
The discussion took the form of an informal poll of council members by Diocese of Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth, chair of council’s Joint Standing Committee on Finances for Mission. FFM, as the committee is known, is in the process of helping to shape the draft 2016-2019 budget that council must construct by February 2015. Hollingsworth gave each council member 30 seconds to share what they are hearing around the church about the budget-funding process, and what they think ought to be done.
In the 2013-2015 triennium, dioceses are asked to contribute 19 percent of their annual income to help fund the church-wide budget. Each year’s annual giving in the three-year budget is based on a diocese’s income two years earlier, minus $120,000. The list of 2012 and 2013 diocesan commitments is here.
The Episcopal Church’s three-year budget is funded primarily by pledges from the church’s dioceses and regional mission areas. While the budget asks for 19 percent from the dioceses each year, not all dioceses give the full amount and thus the 2013-2015 projected diocesan income was forecast, in part, on giving trends. For instance, during the 2012 meeting of General Convention when its Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance (PB&F) was formulating the budget to present to convention, Episcopal Church Treasurer Kurt Barnes told the committee that the average rate of giving in 2012 had been 15 percent, even though the asking was 19 percent.
Most council members said during the polling here that they were hearing sentiment for a lower asking percentage, some sort of a progressive system with varying asking percentages based on dioceses’ varying financial resources, and accountability for dioceses that are financially able to pay the full percentage but choose not to, and for those for those dioceses that want to move towards paying the full ask.
When council members in their comments cited a number for a reduced ask, most named 15 percent. The Rev. Jim Simons from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said he had been hearing calls for a reduction in the ask “even as low as 10 percent.”
He added that he thought “we have not done a particularly good job explaining what the funds are used for.”
Katie Sherrod, from the Diocese of Fort Worth, said Episcopalians in that diocese have seen what happens when diocesan leaders choose to separate themselves from the rest of the church. “I think the asking is a very tangible symbol of us as a body in this world,” she said, adding that the reconstituted Fort Worth diocese is paying the full ask “for the first time in a very long time.”
“We will continue to do so at whatever level this church decides but we would be concerned if it went too low because we value those church-wide programs,” Sherrod said.
Deborah Stokes of the Diocese of Southern Ohio suggested “the chief concern is about accountability — those who are not paying [the full ask] and still getting the benefits of the church.”
Marion Luckey said that although she generally hears calls for a lower asking, her Diocese of Northern Michigan pays the full 19 percent asking even though “it does use money that could be used in other areas but we feel that that’s our commitment to the church.”
Bryan Krislock, Diocese of Olympia, said a lower ask ought to be coupled with a progressive system that takes into account the high fixed costs that all diocese have, and acknowledges that some dioceses have more financial resources than others.
Bishop Stacy Sauls, the church center’s chief operating officer, voiced no opinion on the amount of the asking but said the “order of the questions” is wrong. Rather than ask what the level of the asking should be, the question “ought to be what do we want to do, how much does it cost and then how do we fairly allocate the cost of that?”
The Rev. Gay Jennings, House of Deputies president, said she agreed with the need for accountability and noted that council talked about that issue two triennia ago “and did not make much progress.” A diocese that does not pay the full asking faces no sanctions such as what happens to parishes that do not pay the full amount asked by their dioceses, for example a loss of voting rights at diocesan convention or ineligibility for diocesan grants.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was the bishop of Nevada when she was elected presiding bishop, said Nevada has historically paid the full asking “often at great sacrifice.”
“The reality is that poorer diocese generally benefit from the church-wide programs and cannot fund those on their own,” she said. “I believe we need a missional conversation about … what can only be funded at the church-wide level and then figure out how to pay for it. I applaud the ideas of progressivity and accountability.”
Earlier during her opening remarks Jefferts Schori had said that she “still hopes that the Task Force of Reimagining the Episcopal Church will consider how, as a whole church, we can best support the local work of dioceses – and sharing resources is an essential part of that. But we need to think beyond the percentage asking from each diocese. Do current geographic boundaries make the most sense for a sustainable future for each mission unit – otherwise called diocese? Dioceses have always had these conversations about local parishes and congregations, and they make considered decisions about how to allocate personnel, financial, administrative, and building resources for the good of the whole. As a whole church, we’re being called into similarly strategic perspectives and decision-making.”
Hollingsworth concluded the discussion with a promise of more conversation to come. Having served two terms on PB&F and now chairing FFM, he said he knows that the church “cannot do the things that we aspire to do” with the revenue that is being paid in by dioceses.
He said his “greatest concern” is that the entire funding process “is not good for our soul, it is divisive.”
Jefferts Schori told the council during her opening remarks that she wanted “to point to the fact that as a Church, we are making progress toward a far more interconnected and networked structure.”
“We are focusing strategically on those areas where only the church-wide structure is able to support particular local mission efforts. Support for Navajoland and the renewing dioceses are examples, so is the sustainability work in Province IX. I believe and expect those efforts toward sustainability will increase in the future. We are bound to one another, and the health and growth of each part of the body of Christ is the concern of the whole.”
Jennings told the council during her opening remarks she had been thinking about “our discourse—our habitual way of speaking about the structure of the church” and how it might color “our discussions and decisions in ways we don’t intend.”
“What well-worn patterns of discourse are shaping our thinking in well-worn ways that no longer serve us well?” she asked. “Where can we admit new meanings, healthy tension, and opportunities to promote resilience? How can we work together to expand our discourses about the church to include more people, more contexts, more perspectives and more followers of Jesus?”
Also during the opening plenary
The rest of the council’s agenda
“We’ve got a number of significant issues at this meeting, all of which are related to how best to use the gifts we have as resources for church-wide mission,” said Jefferts Schori in her opening remarks.
Among those issues is the ongoing discussion about the use of the Church Center in New York. There are two executive sessions on the council’s agenda for members to discuss a new report from its Subcommittee on the Location of the Episcopal Church Center. One session was held at the end of the opening plenary June 10 and the other is scheduled as the first item on the plenary agenda for June 12. Prior to the meeting council members had to sign in to receive sealed printed materials related to the discussion; they will have to turn those materials after the meeting.
Council members will also discuss mission and budgetary issues in the Navajoland Area Mission; responses to justice issues such as human trafficking, Middle East peace, and environmental and climate concerns; hear about the church’s communion-wide covenant relationships; and will review policy in several areas.
The meeting is taking place at the Embassy Suites Phoenix Scottsdale. Council will travel to the Episcopal Church of the Nativity late in the afternoon of June 10 for Eucharist and a reception. The Rev. Susan Snook, Nativity’s rector, is a member of council. During the reception members will get a preview of Episcopal Relief & Development’s 75th Anniversary Photo Exhibition.
The council will meet in committee all day June 11. On June 12, the council meets in plenary session all day to hear committee reports and to consider resolutions.
The next day, a number of council members and staff will travel to Fort Defiance in northern Arizona to attend the annual convocation of the Navajoland Area Mission.
Some council members are tweeting from the meeting using #ExCoun062014.
The Executive Council carries out the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention, according to Canon I.4 (1)(a). The council is composed of 38 members, 20 of whom (four bishops, four priests or deacons and 12 lay people) are elected by General Convention and 18 (one clergy and one lay) by the nine provincial synods for six-year terms – plus the presiding bishop and the president of the House of Deputies.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.
Editors’ note: This story was updated June 11, 2014, to clarify the terms “progressive system” and “accountability”.