Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Hollow Church

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
TS Eliot, The Hollow Men

COD must break his Lenten fast from writing about Episcopal Church structure. It's not his fault, it's the Episcopal Church's fault, and he is only responding the hue and cry from the people demanding that he respond. Kind of like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky V.

The proposed triennial budget of the Episcopal Church was publicly released on March 1, and these words from Eliot's poem came to Crusty Old Dean as he looked over the budget. And, keep in mind, this is best-case scenario: this one is based on the current 19% request for giving from dioceses. If the nonsensical bickering between bishops and deputies and the PB and the PHOD continues, we may end up getting the alternative budget proposal presented to Executive Council which called for a 15% request in giving, which would reduce the amount available for this budget even more.

Allow me to start off with some disclaimers.

1) Anyone reading this blog should know Crusty Old Dean is all for reshaping how we think about what the church is, and have our structures be in the service of mission. Critiquing this budget should not be read as criticizing the need to change, which is often a strategy used by some to dismiss criticism.

2) COD worked for ten years on denominational staff and attended several General Conventions. He knows a little bit about how both work, and has friends and colleagues who are a part of both. None of this critique is fueled by any kind of axe to grind against anyone or anything; I don't think 815 is somehow inherently evil or useless, neither do I think General Convention is inherently evil or useless. I don't think bishops are evil or lay people are unable to take their place in the governance of the church. There are great people who choose to serve the church in these capacities and COD has nothing but respect for those who do so. This is not a critique of individuals, or of any order of ministry, but a reminder that structure needs to be in the service of what we claim we are called to do and the values we claim to hold dear.

That said, COD has some thoughts about this budget. These focus in two areas:

1) Process
2) Priorities

Process: For a church that revels in self-adulation at our supposedly holy and sacrosanct democratic process, and often thinks we are the only church in the Anglican Communion which has shared governance (simply not true) the reality is the budget is utterly lacking in transparency and consultation and democratic process.

The numbers don't lie. Income is down. Income has been down for more than a decade. When has the church ever decided to face this reality and call for a conversation about how to prioritize what we do and how we do it? The narrative to the budget, of course, speaks of a survey distributed to gain input. But this survey was on the level at which certain ministries and mission should take place, and not about the prioritization of what the church as a whole should be emphasizing. There's a call for a churchwide consultation in the secondary budget narrative, and a line item for this in the budget. But the discussion will come after two successive General Conventions will have gutted our denominational ministries almost beyond recognition. And a churchwide consultation can always be ignored by the governing structures that in the end control the budgetary process. These are just a couple of flaws in the budget narrative that speak to the multiple flaws in the budgetary process.

This budget, like its predecessors, will be crafted by a small group of people and submitted to the church with eventually the only option being to adopt it or else. The budget will be tweaked, to be sure, and will again go through the prism of the pointless bickering between the PHOD and the PB and their various parties in the lead up to Convention. But the budget will still be presented for perfunctory approval by GC as part of the usual triennial budget presentation farce more becoming of a banana republic than this organization that supposedly enshrines democratic principle. Crusty Old Dean wouldn't be a member of a parish where a small group of people came up with the budget and told the annual meeting to take or -- well, take it because there is no other option. But yet that is what GC does, meeting after meeting.

We essentially are restructuring the church by de-funding program, without any discussion beyond appointed committees and unelected staff. This should sound familiar, because it's exactly what we did in 2009, when an appointed, unelected, unaccountable Chief Operating Officer had more input into the budget than the entire General Convention as a whole. Crusty Old Dean thought it was wrong then and said so then.

As a recap to the 2009 budget debacle:

--Anyone should have known a massive budget disaster was coming. Yet a series of overly optimistic draft budgets were prepared which were revised again, reducing $141 million in expenditures from 2007-2009 to about $118 million from 2010-2012 when all was said and done.

--This budget was presented with two statements which were completely and utterly ludicrous.

One was that these were just raw numbers, not people, and implications for staffing would be fleshed out. This was a complete and utter lie, COD refuses to believe there was not a list of positions to be eliminated down to a person. Staff were fired, after all, before the budget was released publicly. Leadership announced they were walking away from a union maintenance contract at 815 without any discussion or negotiation before the budget was presented to Convention. Yet we are the church that seems to think we have a moral leg to stand on and lecture Apple and Wal-Mart and Scott Walker when we treat our own employees this way?

The second lie was that the budget presented to the 2009 Convention reflected a need to do ministry at the most effective level, which may mean at the parish and diocesan or provincial level rather than national level. COD has no problem with this in principle, and believes we will be doing more and more of this. But the problem is that this was dumped on networks and organizations in 2009 without any warning or discussion. Example: COD was assistant ecumenical officer at the time. There is a diocesan ecumenical officers' network. The day after this budget is passed was I now to ask a network I have no control over, no accountability from, no idea of their training or interest, to help work with me on things which General Convention has mandated the church do? This is not meant as any slight; many people in this network are passionate, committed, dedicated, and talented people. But you can't ask an organization overnight to do something it may not be ready or trained to do. Repeat as necessary for other elements of mission and ministry and related organizations. It would take time to morph into a network of networks. Rather it was dumped on the church.

It was dumped because that was simply a ruse. 2009 was reorganization by getting rid of people nobody had the guts to fire and by defunding certain offices decided on by a small group of people, many of them appointed and not elected to anything or accountable to any of the structures of our democratic process. The lack of transparency and vision clouded the 2009 budgetary debacle. Sadly, this budget is little different. Despite the survey and the verbiage, this is the product of an Executive Committee, with strong input from appointed staff members, which presented it to Executive Council, where it will then go to GC, where there will be public comment, but again a committee behind closed doors with strong input from appointed staff will come up with numbers that will be implemented by even a smaller group of staff.

Sidebar: We didn't use to do it this way. The Episcopal Church spent over 20 years debating the formation of the Executive Council (then called National Council) and the proposal to make the PB an elected office, centralize scattered ministries into a denominational staff headquartered in New York, and to create provinces. These issues were discussed from 1901-1919 at every single General Convention. A major survey and poll was taken to get input from dioceses and church organizations. We had an extended conversation about structure that sought input from a number of parties. The Executive Council used to publish detailed line item budgets on a regular basis for ongoing financial disclosure rather than having people see the budget only once every three years. Oh and by the way we also established the Church Pension Fund concurrently at the same time.

2) Priorities

The numbers don't lie. This is a reduction from $141 million total over three years from 2007-2009 to $118 million over three years from 2010-2012 to $104 million for 2013-2015. As Jesus once said, where you treasure is, there you heart will be also. However these priorities were determined, where we are putting our funding is where our emphasis will be.

The pie charts at the end of the proposed budget shape these numbers in a way, showing how much we are spending on mission. One could argue that depends on how you define mission. Putting it another way, you could say we spend $54 million of the $104 million on the PB's office, the GC and GC office, and Finance and Administration. You could say we spent over 10% on General Convention alone. 10% of our budget on an organization that meets once every three years and spends a good deal of its time passing resolutions like this and this and this and this, not including resolutions passed expressing this church's ardent concern for things we have eliminated through the budget process. Not that Crusty Old Dean is not in favor of some of the things GC resolutions advocate for. But do you think the world gives a s**t that GC supports the teaching of evolution? Isn't this the kind of thing, you know, that should be dealt with on the local level? Unless that whole local level thing is a ruse that only applies to programs that are deemed expendable; it couldn't be possible that things the PB, PHOD, and GC do could be done on the diocesan or local level...

Back to the numbers. Let's start with the obvious one. Youth, young adult, and formation ministries are slashed about 90%, from about $3 million to $286,000. No more EYE or national Episcopal youth events. No more children and youth ministries, and on and on. Is there a person alive who is not completely delusional who honestly thinks that if GC consisted overwhelmingly of people under 40 instead of overwhelmingly people over 40 that this would happen?

Granted, one could and should argue that parishes and dioceses need to have good youth and young adult programs. Well and good. But here are some of the drawbacks of that: often these programs needlessly reduplicate efforts and resources. Often they search for models of best practices to adapt to their particular contexts. There are networking, communications, and curriculum resources that this cluster could provide in conjunction with dioceses and parishes. Instead it is slashed and all the worked dumped on dioceses, who will now struggle to do these ministries, resulting in a lot of hand-wringing as to why there are no young people in the church. There will be no young people in the church in part because for more than a generation we have consistently cut those budgets first.

And let's look where there are increases. In all of the usual places, naturally. The Office of the Presiding bishop has $364,000 in additional staff. The President of the House of Deputies has $212,000 in additional staff. Neither of these offices lost anybody in the 2009 bloodletting, and they get increases here. The Controller's office at 815 adds $421,000 in staff, Human Resources at 815 (despite laying off a lot of people on the national staff the past four years) adds $271,000 in staff, the Treasurer's office $120,000. That's $1.4 million in added staff costs.

There is no transparency on any of these staff questions, yet it is over $1.4 million in increases when we are cutting $4.6 million overall. Likewise, there is no transparency on our debt: there is an increase of nearly $1 million in debt service and repayment. Add that additional $1 million to the $1.4 million in staff added costs, and there's $2.4 million of the $2.8 million of our eviscerated youth and young adult programs. Maybe they need $421,000 in additional staff in the finance office to manage our additional debt, but there's no way we would know because there's no transparency here.

To take another example of how badly this budget is put together: General Ordination exams are eliminated. COD has no real love of the GOEs. As an exam, they can be improved. They are costly, cumbersome, and difficult to administer and grade. He is all for radically rethinking them. But simply throwing it all back to the dioceses, with only a year to plan (we have people getting ordained in 2013 and a canonical requirement that they show competency in certain areas), borders on nonsensical.

It gets back to the whole ruse disguised as process. This is not doing ministry at the proper level -- it is General Convention telling the church where things should be done. This is not collaborative. This action with the GOEs is telling dioceses, not partnering with them, on what should be done at the local level. This is a place where there needs to be people coming together to co-create something, because theological education is a place where local and national both have interests. That's the core problem with dumping things on diocesan and parish levels. The reality is there needs to be a collaboration between local, diocesan, provincial, and national levels -- not 815 dumping things it wants to cut and telling the church it now needs to do them. How is this democratic? Who is the General Convention to be the arbiter of what should be done on what level of the church?

The GOEs are canonical, representing the required competencies as outlined in the national canons. We will now see how over 100 dioceses will devise 100 different ways to show competency for the same canons, and, in the end, we will probably spend more in terms of aggregate time and money letting over 100 dioceses design and implement ordination exams instead of fixing the one we have. Another way in which this is 2009 all over again: restructuring and power struggles under the Trojan horse of devolution to dioceses. Because people bitch about the GOEs and they are a pain to administer, let's just get rid of them and pretend it's in the service of throwing things back to the local level -- which, in the end, will cost more time and money than trying to fix the current situation.

There are other curious choices made: curious in its strictest sense, in that you really wonder why these were made. On the one hand, funding is slashed to the Anglican Communion Office. On the other hand, funding is increased directly to other provinces of the Anglican Communion. Is this a policy shift of some kind? On what basis? Who made this decision? If so, could we be informed of it? Or is it just coincidence? Likewise, aid to domestic dioceses and the historically African American colleges of the Episcopal Church is significantly cut. However, funding to Province IX dioceses is increased dramatically. What is the policy behind it? Who made these decision shifts in policy? How were the decisions made? Are we doing something other than telling dioceses with strong Native American constituencies (Alaska, North Dakota, and Navajoland among the cuts) to go f**k themselves while we give more money to Province IX? If not, please explain the rationale.

In general, there needs to be more detail and discussion. Apparently the various committees and commissions of GC are going to get a massive restructuring and shrinking, but we wouldn't know, because we only have the numbers. The Washington office gets a whopping $700,000 increase in anti-poverty programs. What programs? Why? Under what mandate? Research and statistics gets an increase. Put together, it's nice to know we'll be a faith-based NGO doing social action while we accurately know how many members we are losing.

It's not all bad -- there are exciting things which COD would love to have more detail about, too. There are massive increases to Episcopal Service Corps and mission personnel. Since ESC is one of the few things the church is doing which is getting some traction and brings together a number of different emphases (discernment, young adult ministry, etc.), it would be nice to know more about this. Similarly, there is this Co-Op line item here which talks about setting up various shared services with dioceses. Again, without more information, COD has no idea whether this is another idiotic idea someone thinks will make money and will be implemented poorly (when was the last time the DFMS turned a profit on the many failed ventures it has tried to set up? how's are those savings from the denominational health plan coming? No? Yours is going up as much as mine is?) or whether it truly is something innovative and with potential.

In some way, in some form, we also need to see opportunity here. Church and society are changing rapidly. As COD has repeated on numerous occasions, when the way the world works shifts, the church shifts, too. People in 2100 will be astounded to know in 1970 people sat on endless committees and financed churches through weekly pledges, just like people in 1850 who paid pew rents and established volunteer organizations outside formal church structures would be astounded to tour 815 in 1960. The way the church looks, its structures, and how it organizes itself for mission has changed dramatically over the years. We're heading that way again.

Yet we can also make decisions to help shape these changes. COD felt in 2009 that the Episcopal Church was going to botch and bungle a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink what a denominational organization should be and look like. Indeed, we have wasted more time on power struggles between individuals in the church than in any systemic discussions, spent more time determining whose side someone was on than what we all stand for in the end.

We missed that chance. We need to see the current opportunity: to do the things we need to do without the dysfunction of our denominational structures. To come together in grassroots organizations focused around missional goals. This was how the ecumenical movement started: concerned lay people and clergy formed organizations like the Common Sunday School curriculum to the World Student Christian Federation to a host of other groups that brought Christians together across denominational lines. Then, in the post WW I era, the church started a long arc from 1920-1980 when the way you did things was by setting up structures. The ecumenical movement did the same; the National Council of Churches and new Episcopal Church offices on 2nd Ave were inaugurated only a few years after the United Nations. We used to work through local networks coming together before we centralized, organized, and over-professionalized everything in the 20th century. The church of the future is going to look a lot more like 1850 than 1950.

In the end, perhaps this budget is too timid. In a previous post (click here), Crusty Old Dean thought Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls' proposal for a Special General Convention in 2015 was too timid. Maybe this budget is, too. If we're going to embrace turning things over to the level of ministry which is best suited to it, why does General Convention get to decide that? Maybe we should get rid of the 19% asking, publish these line items, and let dioceses direct 100% of their giving. Instead of the people who make this budget deciding where our heart is and our treasure should go, what if we really let the church decide that? That, of course, will never happen because the power structures would never give up that control.

We are in a new way of being. Let those things which need to die a whimper die a whimper. The rest of us have much to do. May God's blessings be on the endeavors of those who will continue to do what we need to do in spite of the collective failings of our church. God isn't dead, but the church as we know it is. Let the dead bury their own dead.


  1. It's quickening to know that there is now company on the road outside the institutional church, questioning the structure.

  2. Thank you for a detailed and cogent analysis of what is, at bottom, a terrible budget.

  3. At the risk of sounding heretical, the first thing the national church needs to do is to move out of New York City. It's just too expensive in terms of what you have to pay staff -- even ignoring the cost of real estate. Besides, it's way over on the east coast -- what statement does that make? No wonder so much of the rest of the country thinks they're irrelevant.

  4. It has been proposed over and over at a number of different General Conventions to move it out of New York...never goes anywhere. Besides, Crusty Old Dean suspects they can't sell the building because the massive line item for debt service. I suspect it's mortgaged to the hilt and they wouldn't clear enough from the sale at this point, but that's pure speculation...because, you know, we don't know what that debt service is for.

  5. "Back to the numbers. Let's start with the obvious one. Youth, young adult, and formation ministries are slashed about 90%, from about $3 million to $286,000. No more EYE or national Episcopal youth events. No more children and youth ministries, and on and on. Is there a person alive who is not completely delusional who honestly thinks that if GC consisted overwhelmingly of people under 40 instead of overwhelmingly people over 40 that this would happen?"

    As a former youth missioner and Episcopal campus chaplain who saw this game played on both the diocesan and national level, I'm not even slightly surprised to see this type of draconian gutting of youth and young adult programming. We never learn, do we?

  6. Replies
    1. "Exactly" is right. Couldn't have been more eloquent myself, Joe.

  7. I'm a transitional deacon leading an inner city mission church which cares for our neighbors through food and relationship. We have rejected "church as usual" in favor of a strongly missional faith community that relies on building relationships and discipleship without the burden of programs. In spite of our efforts to listen for the Spirit and open ourselves to new visions of church, our continued work and life together is threatened. We are burdened with 100+ year old buildings, one of which should be sold but, of course, that must be negotiated with the diocese. And although we are designated a "mission" our "members" are somehow supposed to make our community self-sufficient and able to pay not only for our existence, but 22% askings. Our "members" include schizophrenic residents of a nearby group home, a young family that ran out of food a few months ago even though the mom is working and the dad is in school, homeless folks, and a small, courageous core of middle-class folks who are doing the financial heavy lifting. We receive support for our feeding program from individuals and congregations in our diocese, but there's no clear way to pay for our basic existence (buildings, electricity, all those things that allow us to be there in the first place)--even with a bare bones budget, lots of volunteer support, and using a cheap half-time, locally formed mission staff person (me). I'm working on some creative--some would say crafty--ways of developing alternative income streams, but don't know if we can pull it off quickly enough. Sorry to go on like this. The real point was to thank you for helping me understand why the money in the church is concentrated in the wrong places--far away from the deepest human need. And it's strangely reassuring to understand that our struggles are part of a larger systemic clusterf*ck that is trickling down through our diocese to the little red church on the corner. I'm not in favor of clusterf*cks, but at least I've had a glimpse of some of the forces that are making it hard to live our mission. Thanks for the clarity!

  8. What if we kept the the youth, young adult, and formation ministries, and defunded the PB office by 90%? I can think of many upsides. Is there a downside?

  9. The remedy for grassroots conversation re priorities is here. Right here. Thanks to COD and other places social media has flattened it. The old shadowy style is gone. Now someone has to wake up GC and clue them in!

    There's an "Unconference" (sounds like an "Occupy" to me) scheduled simultaneous to the usual TEC party in Indianapolis. It will be in a public space...buckle up!

  10. "Unless that whole local level thing is a ruse that only applies to programs that are deemed expendable..."

    Of course it is. As I have watched the machinations of congregations and property ownership, it has become very clear that the Episcopal church is a top-down organization. The locals exist because the church's hierarchy first.

    If that's your structure, why would anyone expect that local priorities or preferences have any place in the discussion? You must have the PB; if you don't, you don't have a church. The locals are simply by-products of the church.

  11. I truly appreciate your comments, COD. Your intentions concerning our just-getting-on-with-the-work at the grassroots is exactly what I'm attempting to do with the Imago Dei Initiative in New York City. We engage with emerging culture and emerging generations to best understand how to be present with young people and young adults in ways that resonate with them - for the very specific purposes of bringing them into the Faith, into parish life, and forming them as Christians within the enduring Anglican Tradition (building the habits of the Christian spiritual disciplines). It's tough, because these kinds of things do not fit into easily identified categories that many within the Church consider legitimate mission in our "modern" times. In addition, we are trying to figure out ways to re-establish campus ministries without formal Church financial support (which is not coming forth, as demonstrated by the budget priorities), and how to provide a way for priests who desire to do ministry outside the norm to actually be able to do so - and frankly, to enable priests to be priests in a Church that increasingly can't afford them.

    I'm not sure where this will all end - perhaps when the money is all gone we can rebuild. Yet, there are ways to continue, even if difficult in these days.

  12. Maybe TEC did botch and bungle the opportunity in 2009 to rethink what a denominational organization should be and look like.

    Well, 2009 will never come again, but that doesn’t mean we can’t completely reimagine in 2012 what TEC might look like if we were just dreaming it up for the first time now as a movement perfectly attuned to engage God’s mission in the 21st century and beyond.

    Invite everyone who wants to dream it all up again. I happen to know “unconferences” as a convenient way to gather creative people and give them all a hearing and the chance to form connections to make the coolest dreams real, so I’m getting some “unconferences” going. I just got a couple of phone calls today from people who have been involved in the Occupy movement and plan to convene gatherings to apply what they’ve learned there about what has and has not worked well about various ways of organizing in the camps.

    For right now, a bunch of us are using this Facebook page to gather:

    Please don’t be thrown by the name, if you don’t like it; it had to be called SOMETHING to start with.

    Let’s not wait for the blessing of a corporation before we have the conversation, connect with one another (and connect one another with the resources we need), and claim TEC as a *movement*, not a museum.

    Bring your friends to the conversation, and not just the Episcopalians. I understand perfectly well that millions of people of my generation (I’m 41) and others older or younger have been out there shaping the world we live in and founding and growing movements changing the world on a shoestring budget plus the ability to play well with others. Anyone who wants to see justice, peace, joy, and other good stuff writ large in our world is welcome.

    Have an unconference, a picnic, a TEC version of TED, or whatever else will get people together so we can do the stuff that needs doing. And then please share with others what’s working to connect people, create space for free-range ideas, and see some of those dreams realized.

    Let’s have a blast listening to one another and getting behind the stuff that a critical momentum of us think just might change the world.

    Keep in touch, please!


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