Saturday, January 28, 2012

Money and Mission: Let's Have the Real Conversation

In the 1989 Batman movie, Jack Nicholson, playing the Joker, responds to the death threat of his former mob boss by cackling, "I've been dead once -- I find it liberating."

In 2009, I stood on the floor of the General Convention was we passed a budget cutting 30% of my colleagues on the denominational staff. To be honest, I was not all that concerned about my own position. I was young, ordained, had a PhD and a lot of good friends throughout the church. I'd get a job somewhere. Plus I knew it was coming; I may have gotten a C+ in high school calculus, but it was plain to me that the impact of the stock market collapse of 2008 on an organization dependent on investment income was going to be considerable, let alone the trickle-up effect on parishes to dioceses to denominational agencies. I had known friends and family members who had lost their jobs, some who were worrying about their jobs the day I lost mine. Who were we in the church to be any less effected by the Great Recession than everyone else?

So I was not concerned about me. Actually, I found it liberating not to have this spectre in my life, shadowing me and my colleagues as it had for months. I was, however, concerned about my church. I was concerned about the way that our polity had constrained our ability to address what was a crisis years in the making. We flew dozens of staff people out to Anaheim to have them watch as the budget was passed eliminating their positions. We found out who, specifically, would lose their jobs about ten minutes before the session to pass the budget was to begin.

To repeat, I don't blame any one person for the utterly disastrous way this situation was handled. I blame the way our polity has created an inability to address larger systemic problems we need to be addressing. I blame the kabuki theater that is our budgeting process, the farce we are all asked to walk through.

--In the months leading up to Convention, the Executive Council drafts a budget which everyone knows will change. The budgets prepared by Council are a waste of time whose purpose is to telegraph to the larger church what our overall financial shape is.

--The Program, Budget, and Finance Committee (PB&F) then meets after Council to draft the real budget. This is a committee of the General Convention and what it produces actually will get voted on.

--Though, of course, the draft PB&F budget must, in turn, be scrutinized by PB&F at the Convention itself. So there is no "real" budget until the meeting of General Convention itself. Thus in 2009 staff traipsed merrily out there knowing anywhere from 10%-40% of us will be let go.

--Then PB&F presents the budget to a Joint Session of both Houses meeting together, where they are told, more or less, to take it. There is no "or leave it" option. The two Houses then break to meet separately, grumble, and then pass the budget as presented to them by PB&F. Amendments are not really possible because
a) the budget has to be balanced
b) PB&F are the only ones who tell us what income will be
c) thus any increases in one place have to be offset by cuts in another place and
d) all of this has to be done before the conclusion of Convention

So, despite our belief in our democratic polity, a small group of folks prepared a budget and more or less tell the representative bodies to accept it. Further, there was no debate or discussion anywhere, in Convention or Executive Council or even internally among staff, about what our priorities were with regards to staff. The list of people to be let go was decided by an even smaller group of people; to this date, Crusty Old Dean still doesn't know who got to decide who stayed and who goes and on what criteria this was decided.

Christianity in North America has been going through profound shifts in the past 30 years which many are just waking up to right now. There's demographics (mainline Protestant denominations are have fewer children per family), multiculturalism (mainline Protestant denominations are shockingly and overwhelmingly white in a country becoming more and more diverse; one of our more multicultural dioceses has elected three consecutive white bishops, in two cases when equally qualified Hispanic and African Americans were also nominated), profound differences between Boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials (to give just one, the increasing rise of persons who have absolutely no connection to a religious tradition and churches we don't have the skills to reach out to them, only to duplicate models based on attracting folks who have some sense of what "church" is). And so on, and so on. And this is not just a liberal, Protestant phenomenon. The Southern Baptist Convention has lost members for several years in a row, and the Roman Catholic Church grew by less than 1%. The Pew Research Forum, Barna Group, internal denominational statistics analysis folks, Faith Communities Today survey work -- there is a wide and considerable body out there which confirms but also confounds some of the perceived conventional wisdom about what is happening.

Yet all of this is only tangential to the paroxysms of restructuring effecting not only the Episcopal Church but the United Methodist Church (voting on a massive restructuring plan in April of this year; how many Episcopalians know a thing about that?), Presbyterians and Lutherans (underwent major restructuring in the past several years).

Tangential because where is the conversation that needs to be had: What are our priorities? What do we need to live in to those priorities? How can structure be in the service of mission, ministry, evangelism and formation? And I do mean "all" structure; Crusty Old Dean found it laughable sometimes to watch bishops in the House of Bishops excoriate the national church and its shortcomings who run their dioceses inefficiently, haphazardly, dysfunctionally, and unprofessionally. COD also scratches his head about those opining how mission is always done better at the local level, having known many parishes that are so completely blind to the needs of their community, including one spending thousands of dollars on new mahogany doors for the church while cutting its budget for youth ministries. Of course there are dioceses that are run well and parishes which are doing incredible things: but we need to step away from generalizations and really look at how all levels of structure need to be part of a revitalization of the church instead of bland generalities by which we characterize these different levels.

We can talk, of course, about marks of mission and various emphases we have stated in the past. But that is all meaningless unless we can have bigger conversations about what needs to be done adequately to live into those emphases.

Put even more bluntly: the decisions made in 2009 were made without any conversation along the lines of, "OK, it's going to be bad; what are our main priorities and how do we need to restructure to meet them?" Rhetoric was cast around about having mission done closer to the grassroots -- well and good. But many of the networks that do mission outside of the denominational structure were not equipped to pick up the baton at a moment's notice. Take ecumenism, for instance: were we now going to say overnight to local and state networks: "Ok, have fun doing stuff we used to coordinate at the denominational level." These groups could do this -- I don't mean to denigrate them, there are hundreds if not thousands of clergy and lay persons doing fantastic and outstanding ecumenical and interreligious work at state, regional, and local levels -- but it would take lead time, training, planning, and coordination, not simply dumping responsibility.

I bring this up now for two reasons.

1) Because it's happening all over again. The recent Executive Council is having two budget proposals on its plate, one reducing expenses by $6 million for the 2013-2015 triennium, another reducing expenses by $21 million for the 2013-2015 triennium. The first would reduce maybe 8 positions, the second 36. COD wonders if there are 36 people left to be cut. We will spend time once again immersed in our own internal squabbles between the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies? This is, after all, why we have two budgets -- the PB advocating a 19 percent diocesan giving and the PHOD advocating the 15 percent giving. Will we continue bickering more about how we should go about a process of shaping a discussion of reforming the church in a system that takes 6 years to change anything if you're lucky than actually reforming anything. Or will we spend inordinate amounts of time at Convention debating things nobody will remember three years later and give short shrift to the budgetary process again? After all, consider how we fundamentally altered the world wasting everyone's time debating a resolution promoting the teaching of evolution in 2006. Crusty Old Dean, after being laid off in 2009, had drinks with his former boss and said, "If we turn inward instead of outward over the next 20 years, we are done. But just think of how righteous we could feel about doing so."

2) I bring this up because it's going to be worse. Our membership has dipped to about 1.9 million. COD believes this is going to get much, much more worse and we will shrink to about 1 million and close about 40% of our parishes in the next 20 years. It took us 40 years to get to this point and it involves many factors beyond our control. We need to stop bemoaning the loss and stop wondering how to turn the ship around. We need to be thinking about how we will rebound and adapt and be a smaller, leaner church more focused on mission, ministry, formation, and the Gospel - which may in turn mean we would be poised to grow not in 5 years but 25 years.

The decisions we make in the next 5-10 years will help determine whether that happens, or whether in 50 years we are nothing more than Amish with incense, a quaint relic.

And it infuriates COD because we have the ability to rebound. Anglicanism was given up for dead by many in the 1790s and early 1800s; the first Bishop of New York resigned his see and become a gentleman farmer and amateur botanist because he figured Anglicanism would die out with the last of the colonial families. However the Episcopal Church went through rapid and profound changes from 1800-1830, and benefited from demographic trends, and was reborn. We can do it. We've been given up for dead before.

I set before you today death and life, Moses once said. My fear is we will unwittingly choose death through lack of vision and turning inward.

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