Convention budget process gets committee airing, with call for more input and better timing

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jul 7, 2018

[Episcopal News Service –Austin, Texas] In the midst the process of crafting the Episcopal Church’s 2019-2021 budget, a legislative committee took testimony about the need to change that process so all Episcopalians can have greater input in decisions about how the church spends its money.

Only two people, one bishop who had been involved in the process and another currently doing so, spoke to the Governance and Structure Committee on Resolution A102, which calls for a task force “to study and re-create the budget process for the church.”

Maine Bishop Steve Lane, vice chair of Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance, finds a quiet moment in a lonely hallway of the Austin Convention Center July 7. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The resolution was proposed by the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons, which says that the current process “does not make enough time available for input by the church at large prior to and during General Convention.” The situation makes for the “frustration, suspicion and disappointment of many deputies, bishops and other stakeholders.” The resolution’s explanation also says it is unclear who is responsible for budget oversight between General Conventions.

The current budget process is outlined in Canon I.4.6 (page 33 here). And, according to the joint rules of General Convention (II.10.c.ii at page 227 here), Executive Council must give its draft budget to the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance no less than four months before the start of General Convention (essentially by February of convention year).

PB&F uses the draft budget and legislation passed by or being considered by General Convention to create a final budget proposal. It also holds hearings for people to explain to the committee why their resolutions should be funded. The budget process at convention runs parallel to the resolution process, and often, one process overtakes the other.

“The greatest heartbreak I’ve had in the church was sitting at the hearings for Program, Budget and Finance and listening to people passionately come and ask us to please fund certain elements of the budget,” West Virginia Bishop W. Michie Klusmeyer, who served on PB&F at the 2006, 2009 and 2012, told the committee. “They were asking for anywhere from $5,000 to $250,000 and pleading their case passionately for what they wanted. I looked down at the papers I had in front of me and at that moment when the hearings were taking place, the budget was probably 96 to 98 percent complete.”

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

Klusmeyer, who pleaded for a better budgeting system, added that “had we all been honest, we should have stood up and said ‘It ain’t gonna happen.’”

The current draft budget was posted in mid-November on the General Convention website for comment by the church, the second time council has done so. PB&F met in the fall and again earlier this year to familiarize itself with the budget and has been meeting daily in Austin since July 3.

Maine Bishop Steve Lane, PB&F vice chair, told the legislative committee July 7 said that the budget committee got lots of comments on the 2016-2018 draft budget, but the current draft “got very few.”

Lane said PB&F’s current working draft has about $12 million more in funding requests than it has income to cover them. “That’s normal,” said Lane, who is in his third consecutive term on as vice chair.

“It’s our job to receive the requests and present convention with a balanced budget. I don’t know that that would change if we expanded the input [time]. There’s always going to be a greater demand for resources than we have at the moment. Program, Budget and Finance is going to have to do the hard work of balancing desires with resources available. The big problem right now is the time pressure.”

PB&F’s budget must be presented to a joint session of the houses of Bishops and Deputies no later than the third day before convention’s scheduled adjournment. To meet that deadline, the committee must finish its work essentially the day before. According to the draft convention schedule, that presentation is set to take place at 10:30 p.m. CDT on July 11. The two houses then debate and vote on the budget separately. Both houses must approve the same version of the budget, which takes effect at the beginning of 2019.

“It has become clear that it is very difficult for Program, Budget and Finance to materially change the draft budget from Executive Council to reflect funding priorities adopted by General Convention after the draft budget has been prepared or to incorporate funding for major initiatives or projects adopted at General Convention,” the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons said in its report to convention in which it proposed Resolution A102.

Between meetings of convention, the canons assign oversight of the budget to council while convention’s Joint Rules of Order assign very similar responsibilities to PB&F.

“And there is the reality that on a day-to-day basis, it is the staff which administers the budget and makes multitudes of spending decisions that ultimately affect and establish the actual funding priorities,” the Governance, Structure, Constitution and Canons said in its Blue Book report, adding that “there is an inherent conflict or lack of congruency and possibly accountability” between convention, council and staff.

In answer to questions from the committee, Lane said he thinks the budget process is “complicated; I’m not sure it’s broken.”

Over the last three triennia “the process has become increasingly collaborative with Executive Council” through the initiative of both groups, he said. During this triennium, for example, at least one PB&F member has attended each of council’s nine meetings and sat with its Finance for Mission Committee.

The result, Lane said, is that “this current budget is the best budget I have seen in my time with the church; it came to us balanced, it came to us prioritized.”

He said tension around the budget process comes from trying to balance “planning and accountability” on the one hand and “democratic participation” on the other. Council begins to build a budget after consulting with the churchwide staff and various groups around the church. However, that action was one way: council members soliciting input. “It wasn’t ‘y’all come.’ The ‘y’all come’ happens here,” Lane said.

Convention is “somewhat stuck with that structure” unless it can devise another “official and formal” way to get the wider church’s input, he said.

Asked if a task force is needed or whether council and PB&F could make the needed changes, Lane suggested that those two groups have already done such things having budget committee members attend council meetings, allowing PB&F to meet months before convention and posting the draft budget for comment. “It might be helpful to have a sense of direction about what you all want” in terms of how to achieve greater democratic participation.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.


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Comments (2)

  1. Jeffrey Cox says:

    Actually, I appreciate the hard work that the Executive Council does to create a budget. Personally, the General Convention should be looking at “50,000-foot” ideas and help the church to plan 5+ years in advance. It should not generally earmark budget items.

    The only item that General Convention needs to flesh out is what payment the House of Deputies Chair should make. This should be delineated. The Resolution approved is too vague and can be abused. Does adequate pay equate to $150,000 per year? Is it an hourly fee? The ECUSA needs the General Convention to be clear about the parameters.

    People in the pews know that the General Convention is its own culture with its own priorities. The best Episcopal News Service story in 2017 was the Christmas Eve story of the priest that traveled hundreds of miles to support parishioners. These small, predominately Native American congregations, needs great priests. General Convention can make numerous resolutions on diversity but never really touch the realities that are found in this story. This is the ultimate struggle. It feels that General Convention focuses on its own needs.

    Much Grace to those in Austin.

  2. Rev. Dr. James Hargis says:

    The whole process needs revision. The real problem is that we wasted millions of dollars under KJS (e.g. frivolous lawsuits vs Dioceses, Churches, and clergy wanting to depart from TEC, etc.) and we’ve been in financial decline for many years. In order to remain viable, we must figure out how do do lots more, with lots less. This isn’t rocket science, it’s business science. We don’t need big budgets. Jesus didn’t have them, and He changed the world. So can we!

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