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April 1, 2008: Funding Christ's Work

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of understanding what is "the role of the GAC in coordinating the mission work of the General Assembly..."

I am going to ask you to hang with me as we go through a longer note. This is not easy reading.

What Does the GAC Do?

According to G-13.0201,

The General Assembly shall create an Assembly Council which shall have the following responsibilities:


a . to cultivate and promote the spiritual welfare of the whole church;

b . to provide resources to support equal employment opportunity and affirmative action for members of racial ethnic groups, for women, for various age groups, for persons regardless of marital condition (married, single, widowed, or divorced), and for persons with disabilities;

c. to develop and propose, for General Assembly approval, the mission directions, goals, objectives, and priorities of the General Assembly Council, doing so by taking into account the mission work being done by sessions, presbyteries, and synods, and to propose for General Assembly approval an accompanying budget that will implement the mission
work plan of the General Assembly Council;

d . to act in those specific matters assigned to the General Assembly Council by the General Assembly or this Constitution, acting always according to previously enacted General Assembly policies, reporting fully to each subsequent General Assembly its actions;

e . to perform such additional responsibilities and duties as may be assigned by the General Assembly.

There is a lot of detail that goes into the fulfillment of those responsibilities. One piece of that pie is "Funding Christ's Mission Throughout The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)" which is Recommendation #23.

Recommendation #23

I printed it out. It is ten pages of single-spaced type. There are seven attachments of additional information. There is no way to get into this without dedicating some time for it. I spent about two hours reading it, re-reading it, and trying to get a handle on what is going on.

Let me be clear: the information is there. It is organized. It is clear. The struggle to understand was mine. That said, it also is my guess that many commissioners and advisory delegates will look at this recommendation, see how long it is, see what it is about, and say, "I hope someone else will look at this," or, "they know better than I do -- this must be right."

The action item proposed is that the General Assembly, "approve "Funding Christ's Mission Throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)" [the name of the report] as its mission funding strategy, and that this report supercede and replace the "Comprehensive Mission Funding Strategy Report" as approved by the 210th General Assembly (1998)."

Thus, there are two parts: 1) approve the new report; and 2) approve that the new report supercedes and replaces the previous report.

It seems as though this new report was necessary because of changes in the General Assembly Council structure; specifically, the creation of the "Communication and Funds Development" ministry area. The reconfiguration of the responsibilities within the GAC made obsolete parts of the previous report. (Attachment 1; Section C. Communications and Funds Development; Paragraph 2, Background.)

Are There Significant Changes?

The first question is whether there are significant changes. Yes, there are.

I identified two; though, in fairness, even with the amount of time I spent on this, I cannot say that these are the only two.

  1. Changes in designated giving

    After defining various kinds of giving (shared versus designated), the proposed system would dramatically impact designated giving.

    From the report: Funding for General Mission, under the stewardship of the General Assembly Council would fund mission and ministry not otherwise financially supported, to begin new initiatives or to "top off" and adqueately fund work that is supported, but not to the extent necessary to make it completely effective or even viable. Likewise, where a particular ministry through designated giving is oversubscribed, and understanding would be communicated as part of the process of seeking support that funding received in excess of the amount requested would be channeled to a similar ministry, where possible. And, further, such excess subscription would stay within the particular mission area as the ministry identified for support. (italics mine) (Section A. System of Giving, paragraph 1, Background)

    If I understand this correctly, it would be a HUGE change.

    Let me walk through an example to illustrate. Let's say that Mary Missionary is identified within the approved budget for $100,000. Mary is a well-known and successful missionary. Many congregations support her. Individuals and sessions across the country send in checks earmarked for "Support for Mary Missionary." In fact, checks in the amount of $250,000 are received for her support.

    Does Mary get $250,000? Under this policy, no.

    Under this policy, Mary still would receive $100,000. What would happen with the remaining $150,000? Well, it is described as "excess subscription." It would be "channeled to a similar ministry, where possible."

    That's a loophole big enough through which to drive a truck. How so?

    First, it would be the General Assembly Council -- and not the donor -- determining what is a "similar ministry."

    Second, it would be the General Assembly Council -- and not the donor -- determining whether channeling to a similar ministry was "possible."

    Third, it would be the General Assembly Council -- and not the donor -- determining how to apply the "excess subscription" funds would be applied within the particular mission area when it was "not possible" to channel it to a similar ministry. So, money designated for Mary might end up being used for the entire budget AND administrative expenses of Arthur Apostate.

    Arthur was included in the budget for the same $100,000 as Mary, but did not get any designated support. Arthur's entire support was going to come from the "shared mission budget." However, because of the excess subscription for Mary, Arthur's entire budget is covered and the "shared mission funds" would be "equalized"; that is, would be available for other use.

    Now, this is great for Arthur and for the other programs that will be funded through the equalized amount. For the donors, however, this is not such a great result. It takes away the assurance that their designations will be heeded.

    I am willing for someone to correct me if this reading is wrong, but the plain language certainly allows for this result.


  2. Changes in allocating costs

Under "Section D. A shared System of administration and Accountability" (that's how they have it), section 3,

3. We propose that the system of giving developed by the General Assembly Council fairly and accurately allocate all costs associated with individual projects in the General Assembly mission budget, including the costs associated with the systems necessary for the support, promotion, and accountability of each item; and that the results of this system be communicated to the church as part of the General Assembly Council’s mission interpretation. This transition will be gradually phased in over a five-year period, beginning in 2009.

Background

The task force believes that our system of giving needs to be more transparent and accountable to donor intent.

Previous mission funding strategies have used designated mission giving opportunities as a means to fund direct mission, and undesignated mission giving as a means of funding the administrative expenses associated with mission. The task force views this as an artificial division, which fails to communicate clearly to donors the costs of doing mission. Allocating the full cost of mission activities in each item enables the church to communicate more clearly both the need for funding, and accountability for how the funds have been used.

For example, a governing body or individual choosing to support racial-ethnic education would be aware that included in the cost of that ministry would be direct expenses such as salaries, benefits, and promotional costs AND pro rata overhead expenses such as its share of financial systems, administrative support personnel, paper, utilities, the salary of the particular area director, etc. This would mean that the costs of doing mission would be spread more evenly among all the ministries that are supported by, carried out through or passed on to, the ultimate user by the national offices.

I absolutely support transparency and accountability. However, it is worth noting that this changes the system from a percentage basis to an "actual cost" basis. The amount charged would be over and above the per capita assessment.

On the one hand, it does make sense to allocate costs on the basis of use. On the other hand, it puts the denomination in a less competitive position as to whether it is providing the "bang for the buck." Consider the kinds of things listed here as the "indirect costs": share of financial systems for the WHOLE denomination, share of the salary of the particular area director, etc. These will inevitably increase the administrative percentage required from designated gifts; reducing the attractiveness of participating in missions through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This is a service-provider model. Institutions are struggling because they cannot compete in a service-provider economic model. The church is not a "service provider." We are missionaries with a gospel to share. Until and unless we realize the dramatic difference between the two, the incentive to give will continue to diminish.

What Is Being Superceded?

Now, if you have gotten here, you are probably sighing and wondering, will this ever end? This is all about ONE recommendation?

Yes, it is.

The second part of the motion is to approve this report superceding and replacing the "Comprehensive Mission Funding Strategy Report" as approved by the 210th General Assembly (1998). (Minutes, 1998, Part I, pp. 209ff)."

Like all of you, I have these Minutes in my office. Right?

Well, for reasons not worth explaining, I actually do have these Minutes in my office.

Included in the 1998 material and not in the proposed material is this:

A. From the Centralized Church Toward the Networking Church

20.0102 Presbyterians have lived in the culture of a centralized denomination. This corporate model, adopted by many American denominations at the beginning of this century, is no longer viable. [ed. note: Wow! This was 10 years ago] However, we need to understand this organizational system historically to successfully adjust to today's changing cultural contexts and assumptions.

20.0103 The New Testament ecclesia -- the local assembly or congregation -- was a highly connectional group. Those who experienced connectionalism in the first century could never have anticipated the highly structured business model we use in the twentieth century church. The New Testament system, from which Presbyterian governing bodies take their cues, is clearly not the franchise model operative in today's corporate world. Our current corporate denominational structure developed following the American Civil War. Businessmen who saw the value of conforming the church to modern business practices advocated a centralization of structure. Extensive bureaucracies were created and staffed by visionary leaders who were experts in their fields. This new corporate model brought unquestioned benefits. It brought coordination and efficiency to the voluntary mission societies. It also produced high-water marks in Presbyterian giving and missionary activity during the 1920s. The topic of the centralized, or corporate, denominational structure is clearly addressed by Craig Dykstra and James Hudnut-Beumler inThe Organizational Revolution (p. 307ff.), and it surfaces as a major theme for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the Presbyterian Presence series.

20.0104 But the model of the centralized denomination is no longer as effective as it once was. This shift away from the corporate structure is not a cultural phenomenon unique to the church. It is evident in many aspects of North American life. A system of networking is more likely to replace the corporate model for generations of the present and immediate future. Networking systems rely on egalitarian relationships between different parts, rather than on a hierarchy of formal power and authority. The work of the session is respected and taken as seriuosly as the work of the General Assembly. The World Wide Web [ed. note: when was the last time you saw it designated "World Wide Web"?], as an example of a network, suggests that there are multiple ways to receive information, share ideas, and provide leadership.

20.0105 In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin writes, "With the development of powerful denominational structures, nationwide agencies for evangelism or social action, it can happen that these things are no longer seen as the direct responsibility of the local congregation except insofar as they are called upon to support them financially" (p. 229). Will Presbyterians continue to fund something that may seem so unresponsive to their perceived needs? Research about factors that influence giving has found that the strongest predictors are the givers' feelings about their congregations. Denominational considerations appear to be more irrelevant as we near the end of the twentieth century.

20.0106 This is true for Presbyterians who, as a group, are among the most affluent and highly educated Christians in America. Of all denominational groupings, Presbyterians contribute financially to the greatest variety of organizations. However, Presbyterians are becoming less inclined to give in traditionally unified ways. They are also less willing to take instruction on their giving habits. These tendencies are only likely to increase as the Baby Boomer generation gains greater control of the economy.

20.0107 There is concern among many that these developments represent a turn toward "rampant congregationalism." This problem should not be easily dismissed. Both Jack Rogers in Presbyterian Outlook article, "We Do Not Need a King," and retiring Stated Clerk Jim Andrews in his final report to the 207th General Assembly (1995), comment on issues of power and control that cannot be ignored. They recognize that recent cultural shifts tend to focus on the positive aspects of more direct relationships that are replacing distant bureaucratic systems.

20.0108 The American embrace of the centralized denomination is also a Western phenomenon. This model is challenged by such discerning observers as Lamin Sanneh, a West African Christian, in his Christian Century magazine article "Global Christianity and the Re-education of the West." Sanneh states, "[T]he typical pattern of Christian history is as a movement of the periphery, of the relentless and radical circumvention of the establishment in obedience to a God whose central design leaves earthly arrangements provisional and dispensable...old assurances have deceptively long shadows in the twilight" (pp. 716, 717).

20.0109 We are not suggesting that we are witnessing the end of denominations. In Vital Signs, Coalter, Mulder, & Weeks note the plight of denominationalism. They say, "[T]he denominational revolution and the declining significance of denominationalism does not mean that denominations are going to die. In a society of disestablished churches, if denominations did not exist, they would have to be invented. (p. 100).

20.0110 We are suggesting that the future shape of our denomination will be different from what we now know, just as General Motors is a different company today from what it was in the 1950s. Even though church structures differ from corporate structures, both resopnd to the same cultural cross-currents. This is consistent with the Book of Order (G-9.0402b), which sees the presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly as facilitators rather than as gatekeepers of mission.

And it goes on. And there is more. (typo's are mine) If Recommendation #23 is approved, all this analysis would be relegated to the status of historical record. It no longer guides, it no longer informs.

Finally, the end...

So, what's the point? Well, several:

a. It takes time to prepare. I did a quick cut-and-paste of this post and it is -- without formatting -- five pages single-spaced. Again, this post is about one recommendation.

b. It makes a difference. The General Assembly is assigned a series of responsibilities in G-13.0103. These are serious; if commissioners do not prepare, then we have no one but ourselves for how things turn out.

c. Know what changes mean. This is not micro-managing; it is taking seriously the charge to faithfully discern God's call. We need to know what happens if definitions and processes change. When we supercede and replace, we need to know what is being superceded and replaced.

I have not come to any conclusions about how to approach Recommendation #23. In some ways it is like tilting at windmills; at the same time, there are some serious questions to be answered.