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General Assembly approves per capita increase as last item of business in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS – The 2018 General Assembly voted June 23 to increase the General Assembly per capita rate to $8.95 per member in 2019 and $8.95 per member in 2020.

That’s an increase of just over 15 percent from the 2018 per capita rate of $7.73 per member. The assembly voted 359-43 to approve that.

Y. Dianna Wright, committee moderator from Salem Presbytery

Some commissioners argued that the increase will harm the ministry of presbyteries if congregations don’t send the full per capita amount and mid councils try to make up the difference – sending the money to the national church at the expense of mid council ministry.

Others argued that this assembly had voted all week to authorize initiatives they knew carried financial implications – and now the time had come to find the money to pay for it. “I cannot leave here without saying ‘We’ve got to pay for what we’ve done,’ ” said Debbie Cenko, a minister commissioner from the Presbytery of New Covenant in Texas.

Lewis Casey Thompson, a minister from Philadelphia Presbytery, said the increase “will eventually begin to squeeze our presbyteries,” if congregations aren’t willing or able to pay the increased per capita.

Debbie Cenko, a minister commissioner from the Presbytery of New Covenant in Texas.

As in sessions, families and businesses, talk of money at the denominational level is complicated and often stressful. The 2018 General Assembly was keenly aware that the work it directed the church to do this week came with a cost. Even before commissioners arrived in St. Louis, they were talking about per capita – about what the church could afford, about the work it was being called to do.

The original per capita increase proposed in February by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board called for a large leap in per capita in 2019 and 2020 (from $7.73 per member in 2018 to $10.71 in 2019 – an increase of 39 percent – and to $11.45 in 2020).

The loud cry that followed from mid council leaders who said such an increase would negatively impact presbyteries brought about several listening sessions between stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson and mid council leaders. These conversations resulted in a revised, reduced budget being presented in St. Louis to the assembly’s Committee on General Assembly Procedures — with Nelson suggesting a per capita rate of $8.50 per member in 2019 and $9.35 in 2020.

Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk

The General Assembly Procedures Committee recommended revising the budget downward yet again on June 19 – recommendinga rate of $8.50 per member in 2019with no increase in 2020.

The revised and amended per capita numbers came to the floor of the assembly late on June 22, but commissioners chose to arrest the report until the assembly had completed all its business, so all the financial implications could be taken into account. That meant the assembly would wrestle with the budget during its last plenary session, June 23.

After a number of amendments, multiple questions and discussion for and against, the Assembly passed a budget that results in a per capita assessment of $8.95 in 2019 and $8.95 in 2020.

Per capita, and funding the ministry of both the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency more generally, has been top of the mind for many in St. Louis. Evidence of this fiduciary awareness was the passage of a commissioners’ resolution (03-22), “directing the Office of the General Assembly to Develop a Plan for Cost-Reduction Measures for Meetings of the PC(USA) General Assembly.” In addition, what came to be known as the “Newton overture” asking the assembly to appoint a team to review the per capita funding system and to consider financial sustainability over the next 10 years also passed.

Following the passage of the Office of the General Assembly budget, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s budget passed with no discussion or questions. The budget will include a little over a million dollar increase in 2019 as a result of the assembly’s actions on the Way Forward Commission’s recommendations. The assembly then approved the board members for the newly established 11-member A Corporation Board.

After one commissioner asked for a list of presbyteries that hadn’t paid per capita in 2017, co-moderator Cindy Kohlmann cautioned the assembly against pointing fingers. Two of the five presbyteries are in Puerto Rico, where people are still struggling to rebuild physically and economically from Hurricane Maria last September.

Funding per capita “is a problem for all of us as the body of Christ,” Kohlmann said. “It is something for all of us to be in prayer around, and all of us to be advocating for. So rather than calling out specific presbyteries (for nonpayment), let us instead work where we are,” to encourage more giving to fund PC(USA) mission. “Because you are commissioners and advisory delegates, going home. You are ambassadors from this assembly,” continuing the commitments made here in their congregations at home.

with additional reporting by Leslie Scanlon