ST. LOUIS – Should per capita be increased? If so, how high?
The General Assembly Procedures Committee of the 223 General spent most of the day wrestling with issues surrounding the revised proposed per capita budget.
The committee heard a presentation on the per capita budget from Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk of the Office of the General Assembly, and Joe Morrow, incoming chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. The budget presented was a revised version that emerged after pushback by mid council leaders on the first version that recommended an increased per capita of $10.71 for 2019 and $11.45 for 2020. Read more about that here.
Rice presented the narrative budget, which detailed how the money from per capita is spent. Rice shared some definitions of per capita such as, “Mutually sharing the costs of coming tougher to discern the Sprit’s leading” (which was adopted by the 207th
General Assembly) and “In a connected church such as ours, per capita is the responsible way of sharing costs that equitably belong to the whole Presbyterian community” (which is attributed to former stated clerk Gradye Parsons). Rice then went on to explain the various areas funded by per capita dollars, including:
- Churchwide Ministries, which provides funding for the biennial meeting of the General Assembly.
- Ecumenical and Ecclesial Ministries, which funds engagement with ecumenical partners.
- Mid Council Ministries, which supports the work of mid councils.
- Office of the Stated Clerk, which supports the stated clerk’s work as well as that of the moderator of the General Assembly.
Joe Morrow, incoming chair of the PMAB, presented on the portion of per capita that helps fund the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.
Morrow noted that the majority of funds for PMA don’t come from per capita, but said they are nonetheless an important and vital part of their ministry.
The revised budget would require that the Office of the General Assembly dip into its reserves to fund the shortfall caused by the reduced request in per capita. Rice said, “We will be asking: ‘What is it that you need from OGA and the national church and what is it you don’t need?’ ” He added, “GA is great about telling us what to do in the future … but not great at telling us what to stop doing.”
Commissioners and advisory delegates were not shy about asking questions.
Shelly Wood, a teaching elder commissioner from Whitewater Valley Presbytery, wanted to know what kind of support the revised proposal had from mid council leaders. In response, Rice recognized that the initial proposal had caused “great consternation” in that group and that there was “relief in the room” when the revised proposal was put forth. He said he thought “they could live with it.”
Many of the questions revealed the tension between funding the Office of the General Assembly versus funding mid councils and local congregations. Wood asked a follow up question: “If I have to increase per capita, I have to decrease my budget … so how will OGA support my congregation?” Rice replied, “We have to say, ‘What’s the value add?’ … The OGA is trying to provide a value add.”
Several commissioners noted that the Way Forward Committee was also addressing per capita and wanted to know how their work impacted the decisions being made in the General Assembly Procedures Committee. The moderator of the General Assembly Procedures Committee, Y. Dianna Wright of Salem Presbytery, reminded the committee that they were addressing funding for the immediate future while the Way Forward Committee was looking at a way to fund the work of the denomination over a longer term.
The Way Forward Committee (as a separate committee) is considering an overture from the Presbytery of Newton asking the assembly to appoint a team to review the per capita funding system and to consider financial sustainability over the next 10 years.
That overture asks that the team make a report of its work, along with “suggestions ofpotential experiments for changes “ to the funding system to the 2020 General Assembly.”
Jeanne Radak, the Newton Presbytery leader who served as the overture advocate, told the committee the overture emerged from the work of a financial think tank the mid council created to look at its funding system. “We did not think this overture would get much notice,” she said. “We said, ‘we have to do something,” so “let’s send it out to the universe to see what would happen.”
They discovered “this has gone a little viral,” and “there is energy in doing something about the per capita system.”
Radak said she’s also convinced that if the assembly does create a per capita funding study, its focus needs to be on adaptive challenges – on what changes can be made – and the leadership needs to come from the local level. “This national conversation has to come from the grass roots and be led by the stakeholders,” Radak said.
Sheldon Sorge is general minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery, which concurred with the Newton overture. Per capita is a “hot topic” in his presbytery, he said — with the presbytery contributing $50,000 a year to make up for per capita it is unable to collect for congregations. Sorge described per capita as “in effect a regressive assessment. I hesitate to use the word ‘tax,’ because we’re asked not to.” But the system essentially asks for the greatest sacrifices from congregations with the fewest resources, he said.
Sorge said he hears “expressions of deep anger,” when higher councils in the church are allowed to raise per capita rates, “while congregations have no such luxury.”
He was one of 40 mid council leaders who signed a statement earlier this year opposing a proposed 39 percent increase in General Assembly per capita from 2018 to 2019 – a proposal that was later scaled back.
Sorge said he received “sustained applause” for opposing the increase, and said, “All of this underscores the urgency that is felt by large numbers of Presbyterians in the pews to change the system.”
Even with a smaller per capita increase, “I strongly believe that compliance will drop, because I hear that from my congregations,” Sorge said. “Pain will be mostly felt by mid councils,” trying to cut programs in staff in order to send the required amount to the national church while congregations give less.
J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), offered his comments on the revised budget proposal, telling the General Assembly Procedures Committee that this was about being transparent about funding sources. He said: “Some people have seen this as a money grab. It is not.” He told the committee that there have been three consecutive years when per capita was not raised and “now we find ourselves paying for those” with the proposed increases.
Despite the consternation about the proposed increases in per capita, no one signed up to speak at the open hearings. Therefore, the moderator proposed questions to the commissioners to discuss among themselves in small groups. The group came back together to shared some of their comments with the entire committee.
While the commissioners valued the work of the OGA and appreciated Rice’s presentation, they appeared to struggle with the reality that more money going to per capita would mean less money for local mission and ministry.
Paul Helphinstine, a commissioner from Holston Presbytery, said the committee faced the difficult choice “of saying at what level of our denomination are we going to impact ministry.” Adding, “if the local church doesn’t succeed the national church will not succeed.” He was also one of several who noted, “This is an opulent meeting.”
Ultimately, the committee moved to consider the revised budget and then amended it. The amendment concurred with an increase up to $8.50 for 2019 and then to keep the amount flat for 2020 at $8.50. After taking time to pray, the committee voted 33 to 19 in favor of sending the amended, revised budget to the whole body. If the approved by the General Assembly this will mean an additional budget reduction in the OGA of approximately $600,000 in 2020.
The Way Forward Committee voted later June 18 to recommend approval of the Newton overture – although it increased the size of the study team to between 12 to 15 members (bigger than the overture at first suggested), to provide more diversity.
with additional reporting by Leslie Scanlon