Money talk in the PC(USA): Per capita, who makes decisions, and more

We know, most Presbyterians don’t sit around all summer thinking about the denomination and money.

There are, however, at the top levels of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ongoing conversations about per capita funding and financial sustainability that will result in reports to the 2020 General Assembly.

Here are some of the threads of the funding conversations that have wound through a series of recent meetings.

Per Capita. A team from the PC(USA)’s Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability that’s looking into the denomination’s per capita funding system is in the process of holding consultations with synod and presbytery representatives. Among the points of discussion:

  • How do mid councils collect and use per capita?
  • What do mid councils do if congregations don’t remit per capita, the per-member assessment that congregations are supposed to send to support the work of the broader church?
  • If the PC(USA) didn’t use a per capita funding system, what might be a better approach?

“What I’m realizing is there are more ways to interpret per capita than anyone might have ever thought – certainly than I ever thought,” said Valerie Young, synod leader and stated clerk of the Synod of the Sun, who is co-moderator of the special committee and leads the committee’s per capita team.

Valerie Young, a synod executive, serves as co-moderator of the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability, and leads the committee’s per capita team. The 2018 General Assembly created the committee, instructing it to report to the assembly in 2020. (Photos by Leslie Scanlon)

Some presbyteries, for example, send to the national church only the per capita funds they collect from congregations, even if that falls short. Others remit the full per capita assessment, even if it’s underpaid. Some may not even collect per capita.

Although the listening sessions with mid council leaders are still underway, already the per capita team is noting significant regional differences.

Young also said the special committee is asking mid council leaders “if they could change the funding system or start with a brand new system, what would they do?” – a question that’s provoking considerable energy.

J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), said in another meeting that he sees many presbyteries still in a sort of “shell shock” over the departure of PC(USA) congregations over the past five or 10 years to other more conservative denominations – which for many mid councils meant a decline both in members and financial support.

“They’re still rebounding from the loss of churches and people,” Nelson told the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, known as COGA. As a result, many presbyteries have developed the practice of holding per capita money until the end of the year, to make sure they can meet their own budgets, and then deciding how much to forward on.

Another element: what role have fundraising initiatives by various PC(USA) agencies played in all of this? The Office of the General Assembly depends on per capita. But some other PC(USA) agencies have funds development staff – meaning they’re trying to convince donors to give more to support PC(USA) work, particularly through the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).

Those funding patterns have created a number of dynamics within the denomination, committee members said. Among them:

  • The sense that “per capita feels forced, mission giving feels good,” said committee member Paul Helphinstine, a minister from Tennessee, Per capita is seen by some as sort of a tax, about as popular as giving to the Internal Revenue Service, he said.
  • Mid council leaders have sometimes pushed back against efforts to go directly to people in the pews for fundraising – “feeling like they were protecting their churches from PMA asking for a lot of money,” said Kevin Veldhuisen, stated clerk and mission coordinator for the Presbytery of South Dakota. Some have essentially said, “you get what we give you. Stay out of our yard.”
Kevin Veldhuisen, of the Presbytery of South Dakota, said Presbyterians sometimes view per capita as akin to a tax.

That has changed somewhat in the current climate, particularly as the mission engagement and support staff at PMA is working more closely with mid council leaders, said Laura Mariko Cheifetz, a minister who serves as assistant dean for Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and is co-moderator of the special committee and leads its financial sustainability team.  But in the PC(USA), “people have very long memories,” Cheifetz said.

Sarah Moore-Nokes, general presbyter of Winnebago Presbytery, spoke of the idea of a covenant that existed a generation or more ago – that congregations paid per capita out of a sense that the PC(USA) does good work in the world, and churches want to support that.

But forces have been working to erode that sense of covenant, she said – among them, fundraising efforts by individual PC(USA) agencies; a trend towards designating donations to support particular causes (and not to pay for work with which donors disagree); the financial struggles of local congregations; and the reality that Presbyterians spread their charitable giving across a variety of causes – they don’t give solely to the church.

Who makes the decisions?

 Another question rising up in these discussions: who makes the big-picture budget decisions for the PC(USA)?

 A corollary: what’s the role of the A Corporation board in all that?

 The A Corporation – which serves as the corporate entity of PMA and OGA – has long existed, but in the last year has begun to operate with a reconfigured and more representative board, following actions of the 2018 General Assembly. The A Corporation also has absorbed the staff of what’s now known as the Administrative Services Group, which provides services ranging from human resources to accounting to information technology for at least some of the six PC(USA) agencies.

Part of the discussion now: to what extent is – or should be – the A Corporation board involved in setting budgets?

The answer seems to be that the A Corporation board isn’t involved directly in setting the budgets for OGA or PMA. That’s the responsibility of COGA for OGA, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board for PMA.

Laura Cheifetz, co-moderator of the special committee, leads the financial sustainability team, which is trying to assess how well things are working with the PC(USA)’s current funding system.

Cheifetz said the financial sustainability team is trying to assess how well that system works – including the question of whether unrestricted donations that are received always go to PMA; whether there’s overlap in spending or services provided; how it’s decided what percentage of per capita funds goes to PMA to cover administrative costs (currently that’s about 14%); what happens to funds that are budgeted but not spent; and how OGA can get additional operating funds if needed other than by raising per capita.

While the General Assembly approves budgets for PC(USA) agencies and sets priorities for the church, that happens under time pressure.

Beyond that, “right now there is no singular table that reviews the finances of the national church,” said deputy stated clerk Kerry Rice. “There is no singular table where financial decisions get made.”

Committee member Scott Lumsden, co-executive for Seattle Presbytery, said that goes to the heart of concerns about duplication and coordination of mission and priorities in the PC(USA).

“How can we be sustainable if the money that we spend on our organization for mission is not coordinated and streamlined?” he asked. “That seems to be the issue for me.”