On the way to GA: Understanding per capita proposals


As we approach the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one topic that has caught the headlines is the Office of the General Assembly’s (OGA) per capita request. In February, OGA proposed jointly with the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board a 38 percent increase to per captia, which would have raised the General Assembly per capita rate from $7.73 per member in 2018 to $10.71 per member in 2019, and another 7 percent increase to $11.45 per member in 2020.

In recent years, the annual increase has been from a few cents to around $0.25, so the February proposal was significant. Opposition emerged to such a large increase, particularly from a group of mid council leaders. And on May 30, J. Herbert Nelson, the stated clerk of the PC(USA), announced that OGA was sensitive to those concerns and would compromise for only a 10 percent increase for a rate of $8.50 for 2019 and another 10 percent increase to $9.35 per member in 2020 (instead of the total 39 percent increase request going before the assembly). However, this proposed increase of $0.77 for 2019 is still significantly outside the typical range.

Nelson has raised some concerns: incluidng his sense that many Presbyterians don’t understand how per capita is collected and used, and that with a 10 percent increase, OGA is likely to deplete its reserves by 2020.

Considering the high-profile nature of this item and the direct effect it will have across the denomination, it is helpful to consider some of the details and history of per capita in the PC(USA) and its predecessor denominations.

First, per capita is not just a General Assembly assessment but is part of the budget process for all councils above the session. The Book of Order in G-3.0106, a section on “Administration of Mission,” includes two paragraphs on financial support and budgeting. The first paragraph begins by saying, “The funding of mission similarly demonstrates the unity and interdependence of the church.” It’s a reminder that councils’ financial matters are related to mission — and participation in funding mission is a sign of unity as a church. The paragraph then talks about the responsibility to fund mission and is typically related to what many higher councils consider the “mission budget.”

The next paragraph refers specifically to per capita saying, “Each council above the session shall prepare and adopt a budget for its operating expenses, including administrative personnel, and may fund it with a per capita apportionment among the particular congregations within its bounds.” It is not specified here, but traditionally per capita funds the ecclesiastical and internal operations of a council. For example, the stated clerk of a council would be supported by per capita, but traditionally the executive would be paid from the mission budget.

At each General Assembly, the OGA and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board present their proposed budgets. As the assembly approves business items with new financial implications, the respective budgets are updated as the week progresses. Then, as one of the last actions of an assembly, the budgets are approved. If a number of new items are funded in the per capita budget, it is possible the per capita rate will have to be increased from the initial proposal.

Then, it is the responsbility of a presbytery to collect this GA per capita amount and the presbytery and synod amounts from each congregation, based on the active membership they reported for the preceding year. The presbytery is responsible for forwarding on their share to the higher councils their share.

The total budget of a mid council traditionally has an ecclesiastical component funded by per capita and the rest of the budget – often called the mission budget – funded by voluntary contributions and other sources. At this level there is no stipulated contribution from the churches for the mission budget, so it is typically funded from a number of sources, including individual and congregational contributions, grants, income from endowments and other funds — and from reserves if necessary and available.

Some mid councils have developed flexibility in how they construct their budgets and funding requests. For example, some presbyteries have gone to a unified request, in which they present congregations with the total amount needed for presbytery operations and put the per capita and mission amounts together. Also, some mid councils that have restructured to cover minimum operations have found that they have reserves and other income adequate to fund their work and have stopped collecting per capita.

So, where did per capita come from?

A comprehensive narrative of the history of the per capita assessment can be found in “How This Mustard Seed Grew: The Origin and Impact of the Per Capita Apportionment as a Means of Financing the General Assembly” by Clinton A. McCoy Jr., published in American Presbyterians in 1988. It dates the origin of the system now known as per capita to an assessment in 1857 of 5 cents per member for the Plan of Mileage. For many years, the purpose of the per capita apportionment was to fund commissioners’ travel expenses to attend General Assembly and for some other contingent costs of the meeting.

The assessments were not without some controversy over fairness to all presbyteries. In 1900, the assembly approved a new set of procedures that were more widely accepted.

The first major change to per capita came in 1923 when OGA added four new departments and the assembly, for the first time, agreed to expand the assessment’s use beyond the meeting itself to fund other operations of OGA. With the expanded use came an increase in the rate from 8 to 12 cents. This began the expansion of the per capita budget’s scope of use. Historically, major jumps in the rate have usually been associated with the denomination adding programs or restructuring, such as was the case with the significant jump in 1971 from $0.54 to $0.92.

As mentioned above, it is the responsibility of the presbytery to collect the funds and then to transmit to the higher councils their share. Beginning in the late 1800s, OGA has made it clear that this is a voluntary contribution by the churches; however, the presbyteries are expected to pay the full assessment, even if the churches don’t provide their portion. Assembly actions, Permanent Judicial Commission decisions and writings by the stated clerk (including a current Advisory Opinion) have emphasized this point. This has been a problem for presbyteries when they have had limited finances or their churches have had challenges with financial resources. It has also provided a tool for sessions to register protests by not paying their per capita, knowing there can be no direct repercussions to them.

And today, as has been the case for the last 50 years, the per capita budget is under pressure as the PC(USA)’s membership decines. This, and all the factors mentioned, will be part of the decision process as this year’s 223rd General Assembly considers how much needs to be collected to continue adequate operations of the PC(USA).

Also under consideration: an overture from the Presbytery of Newton that the assembly create a team to examine the denomiantion’s current per capita funding system.

For more information on OGA’s budget and per capita funding trends, read the Outlook’s analysis of the proposed per capita increase.

STEVE SALYARDS is a ruling elder living in La Verne, California. He is an IT manager and geologist at UCLA, writes the GA Junkie blog and has been active with his presbytery and synod.