[Episcopal News Service – Linthicum Heights, Maryland] Questions about the financial details of a proposed new churchwide anti-racism coalition commanded much of the discussion this week at a two-day meeting of General Convention’s Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance.
Meeting in person May 18 and 19 near Baltimore – the site of the 80th General Convention in July – the members of the budgetary committee generally focused their discussion of the coalition on a few main points of concern: the $2 million in funding every three years that has been suggested for the coalition; the budgetary mechanisms that would be needed to yield that funding; the church’s methods for ensuring financial accountability, and the risk that the coalition’s work will overlap with existing church offices and programs.
Despite raising such concerns and seeking greater details on the plans for the new coalition, members of the General Convention budgetary committee appeared to agree with the coalition proposers’ central point – that a long-term approach is needed to confront the church’s historic complicity with racist systems and the ways that legacy is still embedded in the governance and culture of today’s Episcopal Church.
“Our church and its ecclesiology and its structures are part and parcel of white supremacy,” Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas, a member of Presiding Officers’ Working Group on Truth-Telling, Reckoning and Healing, said via Zoom in a presentation to the budgetary committee on May 18. He was joined on Zoom by the Rev. John Kitagawa of the Diocese of Arizona, a co-chair of the working group.
“We’ve been caught up in the racist project of white supremacy, which is at the heart of our nation and at the heart of our church,” Douglas said.
The proposed Episcopal Coalition for Racial Equity and Justice would be a voluntary network of dioceses, parishes, church institutions and individuals operating outside of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, The Episcopal Church’s corporate entity. The coalition would be dedicated to improving the church’s uneven track record of prioritizing racial reconciliation and addressing the harm of colonialism and imperialism, at the denominational level and across its more than 100 dioceses.
Resolution A125, which would establish the coalition, doesn’t include a precise funding request, though it suggests a symbolic tithe on The Episcopal Church’s financial holdings, which the proposers estimate would yield $2 million for the coalition each triennium. The coalition would be able to supplement that amount with its own fundraising.
“I support the initiative, and I think it’s the beginning of important work and real work,” Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely said, echoing other members of Planning, Budget and Finance. “But I’m concerned that the unintended consequence will be to reduce monies available for aid to dioceses, for overseas partnerships. … I’m worried that by doing this work, we would undercut other work that’s helping communities that have suffered from colonialism and imperialism.”
“This is exactly the hard choices that General Convention will have to make,” Douglas responded.
The Joint Standing Committee on Budget, Program and Finance’s meeting was held at the Maritime Institute Conference Center. Over two dozen members, legislative liaisons and church staff members filled a conference room for the morning plenary sessions, all wearing face masks, while about 10 more people joining via Zoom appeared on a large screen at the front of the room.
It was the committee’s first in-person session of this legislative cycle, after holding several meetings and a May 5 hearing on Zoom. This and other General Convention committees have been meeting online since November as part of an extended preparatory period made possible and necessary by pandemic-fueled changes to the 80th General Convention.
The upcoming convention initially was to take place in 2021 but was postponed a year in the hopes that pandemic conditions would improve enough by July 2022 for an in-person meeting. Conditions have improved, but the presiding officers announced last week that they intended to scale down the 80th General Convention due to the continued threat of COVID-19 outbreaks despite public health precautions and the widespread availability of vaccinations.
On May 17, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, issued a follow-up message saying the convention would be reduced from eight days to four days, July 8-11. More planning updates are expected later this month, with the final plan expected in the first week of June.
The Rev. Mike Ehmer, the Program, Budget and Finance committee chair, alluding to the presiding officers’ announcement a day earlier, said he couldn’t offer any more details yet. “What we know is in the announcement,” he said. The decision could have profound impacts on this and other committees’ work. Church leaders are working out the legislative logistics of a shorter, smaller meeting, which likely will leave little time for budget amendments in person.
Ehmer’s committee is required by General Convention’s Joint Rules of Order to present its budget three days before the end of the convention, though bishops and deputies could vote to move that presentation a day later to accommodate the new timeframe. The committee, facing a sudden time crunch, plans to meet online again before convention.
The Rev. John Floberg, a committee member and priest from the Diocese of North Dakota, noted that General Convention has strived to make its budget process more open and transparent in recent triennia. “This really, really challenges that process of becoming more transparent,” Floberg said. “How do we not appear to backtrack on all that we gained?”
Program, Budget and Finance’s 27 members are appointed by the presiding bishop, who serves as president of the House of Bishops, and the president of the House of Deputies, with one bishop and two deputies chosen from each of the church’s nine provinces.
The Rev. Patty Downing, the committee secretary from the Diocese of Delaware who also serves on Executive Council, presented an overview of the proposed $100.7 million churchwide budget plan for 2023-24. A two-year plan will mark a one-time but significant change from the church’s typical three-year plans, she said. She also outlined several distinct considerations in this budget, including the flexibility afforded by past surpluses produced largely because of pandemic-related income and expenses. Executive Council, which drafted the budget plan now being considered by Program, Budget and Finance, proposed setting aside $6.5 million in surplus for use either in the 2023-24 budget or the following triennium.
The pandemic also will shape how the church plans for the future, both the potential for financial turmoil and the appreciation of the loss and pain felt by so many in the church, with the death toll from the coronavirus now reaching 1 million people in the United States. “We need to hear that. We need to absorb that. And then we need to take it into the future with us,” Downing said.
Another major consideration, Downing said, is the budgetary impact of the seven General Convention resolutions proposed by the Presiding Officers’ Working Group on Truth-Telling, Reckoning and Healing in its March 23 report.
Most of those resolutions were assigned to General Convention’s committees on Racial Justice & Reconciliation, which held a hearing on them May 11. Program, Budget and Finance doesn’t consider the merits of such resolutions, only the ability of the church to incorporate their financial implications into its budget.
Byron Rushing, vice president of the House of Deputies and a member of the presiding officers’ working group, said most Episcopalians agree that the church should work to root out racism in its structures. “We are suggesting the most expeditious way to get that done,” he said. One key characteristic of the coalition, he added, would be that it would be accountable to General Convention every three years, not to Executive Council, which is the church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention.
Newark Bishop Carlye Hughes raised concerns that the scope of the coalition’s work could overlap with the church’s existing staff-led Becoming Beloved Community initiative. The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, was asked to respond and said that her staff was not consulted on the working group’s resolutions to General Convention.
“There would likely be redundancy in the system once the coalition is up and running,” she said, though she also suggested that such redundancy could be alleviated as the coalition takes shape and that the church may find benefit in “the kind of independence that this organization is proposing.”
Several members of the budgetary committee raised other concerns that the financial implications of Resolution A125 remain unclear.
In the concluding plenary session on May 19, Bishop Suffragan Jeff Fisher of the Diocese of Texas, vice chair of the committee, summarized those concerns in a proposed resolution. The committee “desires to support the establishment” of the coalition, the resolution said, but it “cannot fully support” that plan without more clarity on the following details:
- How would the “financial holdings” of the church be defined for the purpose of calculating the triennial funding of the coalition?
- How would coalition funding affect the 5% draw from investment income that already supports the churchwide budget?
- Will the coalition require start-up financing in 2023-24 up to or equal to the suggested $2 million?
- What effect will this have on future churchwide budgets?
- Does the 80th General Convention have the ability to commit funds in budgets that will be considered by future General Conventions?
“This might not be an all-exhaustive list to some of the questions you might have,” Fisher said.
The committee approved an amendment to the resolution Knisely proposed that committed the body to working with the presiding officers’ working group and General Convention’s Racial Justice and Reconciliation on figuring out an acceptable financial plan for creating the coalition.
The budgetary committee also approved an amendment proposed by Bill Fleener of Western Michigan that would address the potential for redundancy between the new work of the coalition and the continuing work of the presiding bishop’s Racial Reconciliation Office staff.
With those amendments, the committee passed the resolution in a unanimous voice vote.
Douglas spoke to the point of the latter amendment, amount redundancies, in his presentation a day earlier.
“There was huge and deep appreciation for the work that the church is already doing in our commitments to dismantle racism, white supremacy and anti-Black bias,” Douglas said. The coalition’s mission would be “building on, extending and advancing that incredible, good work. … This is not in any way seen as competition for and/or an alternative to that good work.”
The budgetary committee on May 19 also narrowly approved a resolution, in an 11-10 vote, that would hold the church’s investment draw for the 2023-24 budget to 5% or less, despite some members arguing the current percentage rate could limit the church’s budgetary flexibility.
The Rev. Mally Lloyd, the chair of Executive Council’s Finance Committee who also serves as the House of Deputies presidents’ liaison to Program, Budget and Finance, reminded the committee that if the anti-racism coalition or other General Convention actions require additional funds, the $6.5 million surplus would be available if the investment draw can’t be raised.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.