Those forms show that:
• Some of the more conservative special interest groups have sizeable financial resources. The Presbyterian Lay Committee reported total revenue for 2001 of more than $2.18 million; the Institute of Religion & Democracy Inc. more than $1.12 million; and Presbyterians for Renewal more than $4.79 million (although the majority of Presbyterian for Renewal’s revenue came from the camps and conferences it runs, particularly for young people).
• More progressive groups — including those working to change the PC(USA)’s ordination standards to allow gays and lesbians full access to ordination — typically had fewer dollars to spend. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, for example, reported revenues for 2001 of about $482,000, and the Witherspoon Society approximately $84,000 in 2002.
• The denomination’s three validated ministry support groups all have fairly deep pockets — with revenues for 2001 of $5.7 million for the Medical Benevolence Foundation, $4.6 million for the Outreach Foundation of the Presbyterian Church and more than $788,000 for Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. In part, that’s because each is engaged in significant mission work, much of it international. That may also reflect the skepticism with which some Presbyterians view the denominational offices in Louisville, and their willingness to give money to groups they view as directly involved in mission rather than, unrestricted, to the denomination.
• Presbyterians Pro-Life, a group that opposes abortion and works on end-of-life issues, reported revenues of more than $181,000 in 2001. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice — an umbrella group working with many denominations and faith groups, including the PC(USA) — reported revenue that same year of more than $1.7 million.
Quite a few of the special interest groups that do provide overall financial information — revenues and expenses, for example — aren’t willing to reveal the names of their biggest donors, arguing that those who gave money both expected and deserved privacy.
“We’re delighted to give them any information they want about our public life, but not about our donors,” said Parker Williamson, executive editor of the Presbyterian Layman.
“In terms of donor information — not a chance; that’s silly,” said Bob Davis, a California pastor who leads the Presbyterian Forum. “There is no legitimate business reason for requiring or even asking for that information.”
The Assembly has, however, expressed some interest in knowing more about the special interest groups and their funding. As a result of a commissioners’ resolution passed in 2002, groups that want to rent space in the Exhibit Hall must submit financial information — and that applies both to groups actively involved in lobbying in the PC(USA) to bigger-focus groups such as Church World Service (which reported the largest revenue, at $69.5 million); Project Equality, which works with denominations, nonprofit groups and corporations to promote equality in the workplace; and SERRV International, which runs a marketplace at the Assembly selling items often made by cooperatives or artisans from developing countries.
At this year’s Assembly, there was not a big rush to examine the big black binder containing the reports of those who had booths in the exhibit hall, but “five or 10 people spent considerable time with it,” including “curious people and a couple of advocacy groups,” said Jim Collie, a member of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. The federal government requires that the 990 forms be publicly available — “there’s nothing secret about those,” Collie said — but collecting them all in one place makes it easier for people to look at the finances of the special interest groups systematically. “What it did do,” Collie said, “was essentially answer a lot of questions the church has asked them to respond to voluntarily, and they never did.”
And, while it may not be a firestorm of interest, some do see a value in having more information about the groups involved, some in lobbying roles, in the life of the PC(USA).
“I think it’s great to have the accountability,” said Jack Haberer, a Houston pastor who’s president of the board of Presbyterians for Renewal. “If we pastors have to live with the terms of our call published and before the presbytery, let it be the same for affinity groups.”
Chris Iosso, a pastor from New York state who’s been active in progressive causes, has long been in favor of opening the affinity groups’ books to the public.
“I think it is fabulous, I think it is extremely important, one of the most empowering things here,” Iosso said in Denver. “The dynamic of groups demanding accountability of the General Assembly but refusing accountability themselves begins to be broken by the disclosure of substantial pools of money kept separate from the denomination itself. Mutual accountability is a healthy thing.”
The reports do show, Iosso said, that groups favoring the denomination’s current ordination standards — standards which limit the ordination of gays and lesbians to those who promise to be chaste — have significantly more funds than those working to change the ordination standards.
“You’re looking at better than $10 million in right-wing giving against, it would seem at best, a million dollars in progressive money, almost all of that [progressive] money raised to make ordination more inclusive,” Iosso said. Even at a time when an amendment to change the denomination’s Constitution on ordination isn’t up for a vote by the presbyteries, “we can have such stockpiles and constant information efforts going. It does say something about the war chests involved.”
Some, such as Haberer, also see significance in the big giving to groups that operate their own independent programing — to international mission work or programs such as Presbyterians for Renewal’s youth conferences or lay renewal weekends for congregations.
Presbyterians for Renewal definitely advocates particular positions on policy for the denomination — for example, James D. Berkley, PFR’s issues ministry coordinator, recently wrote that “PFR and our fellow evangelicals remain as steadfast as ever in our belief in the biblical correctness of our ordination standards, which rightly withhold from unrepentant sinners the responsibility of office.”
But Haberer said the financial reporting forms show that the vast majority of PFR’s work is “really to renew the spiritual vitality of the denomination” and that “our issues involvement is important because we want the church’s policies to be on track, but it’s all for the purpose of renewing the church.”
The push to require special interest groups to turn over information about their finances and activities began several years ago, clearly with the idea that some of these groups work intensively to influence the denomination’s policies, and consequently there ought to be some accountability.
In 2000, Hudson River Presbytery — in an overture that was passed by the General Assembly and also called for the elimination of “soft money” political contributions in national politics — instructed the Office of the General Assembly to ask “all special interest organizations that use the name Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in their names and distribute information to church members” to provide financial disclosure information. And the Assembly in 2001 approved a commissioners’ resolution asking affinity groups to provide information about their goals and theological emphases, their budgets and the size of their staffs, and a list of all donors giving more than $1,000.
“In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) itself, more than $15 million is spent each year by special interest organizations . . . which seek to influence the General Assembly and denomination as a whole, but are themselves unaccountable to the church whose name they use,” the rationale for the overture states. “The committee work, floor debate and administrative functioning of the General Assembly are increasingly shaped by these special interest organizations and their publications, with vastly differing resources, limited agendas and polarizing effects.”
Donors’ Identities Protected
But to some extent, the financial reporting — particularly the listing of big donors — is voluntary. And the response has been, at best, mixed.
According to Dennis Cobb, the PC(USA)’s manager of Assembly programing, the groups that requested exhibit space all complied with the requirement to provide Form 990 information, or submitted statements that they didn’t meet the income requirements for filing a 990 form. (“We relied on the word of the exhibitors as to whether they’re required to file it or not,” Cobb said.) Cobb said he knew of no group that refrained from putting up an exhibit because it didn’t want to disclose financial information. But, as representatives of several groups pointed out, that information is supposed to be made publicly available on request anyway — as Cobb put it, “those forms are available on the Web.”
Perhaps the more sensitive information has to do with who’s giving the money — especially the biggest donors. Some groups willingly provided it — among them, Presbyterian Border Ministry, Presbyterian Cuba Connection, the Shower of Stoles Project and Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.
Other groups gave some information, but not all of it. The Covenant Network, for example, indicated that in 2002, it received contributions from 73 congregations and nearly 1,100 individuals, and that 13 individuals or couples and 21 sessions gave donations of more than $1,000. It then lists the 21 sessions that made big contributions, but not any of the individuals.
More Light Presbyterians indicated that 16 persons and six congregations gave more than $1,000, and “we are surveying our donors to determine their willingness to have their names [be made] public.”
The Presbyterian Coalition reported that it had a budget of over $252,000 in 2002 and had a total of 320 donors, including churches and individuals, whose average gift was $550. “We have a covenant with our donors which does not permit us to publish their names nor the amounts of their contributions,” the coalition reported.
And some groups said they wouldn’t release information on donors at all.
“Privacy considerations forbid our providing such information,” wrote the Medical Benevolence Foundation. “The board considers our donor list to be confidential and does not publish that information,” The Outreach Foundation of the Presbyterian Church replied. “It would be unethical, in our view, to release the names of those individuals without their explicit permission,” stated Presbyterian Action for Faith and Freedom, which is affiliated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a cross-denominational group.
In its 990 form, the Lay Committee disclosed that it received a $120,000 gift in 2001 from The Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia, but did not give the names of other donors of gifts $1,000 or more.
“We remember the Hudson River overture, which set up the reporting requirements,” Williamson, the Layman’s executive editor, said in a phone interview. “And in that case, there was a rationale to that overture in which they lamented what they saw as growing radical right groups. ‘Look how dangerous they have been politically in the nation and how well-funded these conservative radical right things are. We see the same things happening in the church; we need to get information on the affinity groups.'”
But Williamson said the commissioners’ resolution which came the following year doesn’t apply to all affinity groups, because it specifically refers only to those who use the name “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” in their titles.
And while he said the Lay Committee voluntarily and willingly provides information about its mission, objectives and general funding, it’s not willing to give information about individual donors. The Layman is mailed six times a year, free of charge, to between 460,000 to 500,000 homes each time. It also has an Internet site that typically draws 7,000 to 13,000 visits a day, according to Williamson.
J. Howard Pew, of The Pew Charitable Trust, was one of the founding directors of the Lay Committee when it was formed in the 1960s, and “we have been a beneficiary of their generosity ever since,” Williamson said. But Pew “really believed that the Lay Committee shouldn’t depend on any one foundation or major donor,” and encouraged it to “develop very broad grassroots support,” Williamson said. “So while he and his foundation that followed him have been generous to us, the gift from the foundation represents something less than 10 percent of our income. Our income mostly is mom and pop income. It’s from 22,000 regular donors who give several times a year. And most of them are very modest checks. That was his philosophy. He said, `You need to be accountable to the people in the pews.’ We’ve tried to do that . . . We’re glad to report that we have 22,000 donors, but we’re not going to reveal the names of those persons.”
There also is some difficulty, according to Kerry Clements of the Office of the General Assembly, in figuring out to which organizations the term “affinity group” actually applies.
Some groups active in the denomination did not disclose detailed financial information this year. The Presbyterian Forum, for example, did not have a booth at the exhibit hall and therefore wasn’t required to file a Form 990, although Bob Davis, the California pastor who leads the group, said he’s perfectly willing to disclose that (and indeed, thought he had). And Presbyterian Forum was among eight groups that did not respond to the Office of the General Assembly’s request for financial information from the affinity groups, according to a report to the General Assembly. (Clements said one of the eight, the Presbyterian Coalition, did not meet the deadline for turning the information in but since has submitted it).
Two others, including the Outlook Foundation, which publishes this magazine, responded that they don’t meet the definition of affinity groups. (The Outlook Foundation did, however, rent space in the Assembly Exhibit Hall and submitted a Form 990 giving financial information).
Cobb said he’s not aware of any clear definition of what constitutes an “affinity group” and “that’s part of the problem . . . The Assembly or someone needs to come up with a definition for affinity groups if we’re going to have requirements for them,” he said.
Posted July 17, 2003
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