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What does financial sustainability look like for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?

ATLANTA – What’s at the heart of achieving “financial sustainability” for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?

One possibility on the table – although nothing’s been voted on yet, it’s all still up for discussion – is the idea of restructuring the top levels of the denomination. That may not ring a lot of bells for the average Presbyterian in the pews.

Joseph Ngalle, of the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina, and Debi Davis, of the Presbytery of Florida, during a discussion on PC(USA) financial sustainabillity. (Photos by Leslie Scanlon)

But a work group of the Special Committee on Per Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability is giving serious thought to asking the 2020 General Assembly to begin going down that path.

Part of their thinking is this:

At least some committee members believe the PC(USA) does have enough financial resources to do the work it needs to do – in other words, there’s enough money. But they suspect the denominational structure is flawed – that it’s not set up to make sure that the funds available are actually spent on the top mission and ministry priorities of the denomination. The reason why: there’s no one group responsible for setting those priorities and making that happen.

During a meeting Sept. 13-14 in Atlanta, the Financial Sustainability work group of the special committee floated some draft language of a possible proposal. The idea: together, the Moving Forward Implementation Commission and the Special Committee would ask the 2020 General Assembly to set up a new commission. That two-year commission would begin the work of denominational restructuring, if necessary, moving towards establishing a comprehensive mission strategy and priorities that would guide the work of all PC(USA) agencies and entities.

Also part of the proposal: review and align the financial agreements that govern how denominational funds are dispersed “so that each area of mission has adequate funds to support its mission long term.”

Let’s be clear – the committee has not voted on this. There’s no exact language. The Moving Forward Implementation Commission has not been asked whether it would support such an idea. Everything could change.

The conversation at this meeting revealed, however, some realities of denominational decision-making and finances that resonate from the top levels of the church down to local congregations.

Listen in.

The rationale. Scott Lumsden, a committee member and co-executive presbyter of Seattle Presbytery, wrote the draft language for the proposed recommendation. He said it was preliminary, and he wasn’t always sure he was going in the right way.

Scott Lumsden, co-executive presbyter of Seattle Presbytery, contends that structure, and not a shortage of dollars, is at the core of financial sustainability for the PC(USA).

But Lumsden said the committee’s work this year has convinced him of this: “It’s not the finances that are the issue. It’s the fact that we are not working together on how we utilize those resources,” to do the work the General Assembly has called the PC(USA) to do. “You can’t do that at one meeting every two years. There has to be a body that’s accountable between assemblies.  It’s really hard for me to understand how we got to the place where the two areas that are essentially carrying the lion’s share of ministry (the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly) do not coordinate together on mission.”

Timing. The committee is well aware that time is tight. Its mandate from the 2018 General Assembly requires it to produce a report for the 2020 General Assembly by December 31. Part of the reasoning for considering asking the 2020 assembly for a new commission: to do the work necessary to propose structural changes would take time.

No common vision. One issue: the General Assembly meets every two years. Between those meetings, there’s no one entity responsible for shaping the budgets of the PC(USA). There are six denominational agencies, each with its own governing structure, along with the PC(USA), A Corporation, the corporate entity for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).

Eric Beene and Mathew Eardley, both members of the Moving Forward Implementation Commission, attended this meeting – part of the ongoing effort at communication and coordination by groups working at the top levels of the church.

The Moving Forward Implementation Commission has been talking about that “what’s missing is vision,” Beene said. “A common unified vision of what the church is called to be and do.”

No common budgets.  OGA and PMA develop their budgets separately – even though some areas, such as work with mid councils, cut across agency lines.

In a move towards more coordination, denominational leaders hope to present to the 2020 General Assembly a budget that addresses the finances of PMA, OGA and the Administrative Services Group of the A Corporation, said Kathy Lueckert, the new president of the A Corporation.

Kathy Lueckert, president of the PC(USA), A Corporation, said the committee is raising important issues for the denomination.

“It’s a first step,” she said. “We’re not doing joint budget development – it’s still discrete.”

Presenting a combined budget document is not the same thing as developing budget priorities together, Lumsden said.

“And we haven’t even pulled off the (combined) presentation yet,” Lueckert said.

Dollars. There may be some pushback to the idea that structure, rather than a shortage of money, is the bottom-line concern about financial sustainability in the PC(USA) – particularly since many mid councils and congregations feel financially stressed.

Committee member Audrey Toombs spoke of the importance of making financial issues in the church understandable to Presbyterians in the pews.

“I understand this, but the person sitting in the pew might not,” said committee member Audrey Toombs, stated clerk and office administrator of the Presbytery of the Mid-South. They might think: “The presbytery is in financial strain, yet we are sending all of these dollars to the General Assembly, all of these dollars to the synod. What are we getting in return? We need to make the return known to the person sitting next to me in the pew.”

This committee has another work group that’s considering per capita – that work group is holding listening sessions with synods across the denomination to find out how they collect and use per capita (the per member rate congregations are asked to pay to support the work of the broader church) and to hear their concerns. At the 2018 General Assembly, mid council leaders spoke repeatedly of the pain that rising per capita rates are inflicting on small, struggling local congregations.

Because of the current funding structure, OGA is almost entirely dependent on per capita funding.  PC(USA) stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson has argued that a higher per capita rate is needed to do the work he thinks the denomination is called to take on. So it’s tricky to argue that per capita spending needs to go up, while also saying the PC(USA) has enough money to go around.

Also, PMA has experienced a series of layoffs and budget cuts over the last decade or so, and “it all had to do with ‘we don’t have the money we used to have,’ ” Beene said. “What you’re finding is we really do. … Why the disconnect?”

Part of the answer, said committee member Debi Davis of the Presbytery of Florida: for the last five years or so, the income stream for PMA has been relatively stable. Currently, PMA has an operating budget of about $70 million and OGA of about $12 million.

“If you go back 15 years, yes, it looks really dramatic” in terms of membership losses and declining revenues, said Laura Cheifetz. “But that has evened out.”

Laura Cheifetz serves as co-moderator of the special committee, along with Valerie Young.

Cheifetz, the assistant dean for Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship at Vanderbilt Divinity School, serves as co-moderator of the special committee, along with Valerie Young, synod leader and stated clerk of the Synod of the Sun.

Despite that general sense of the evening out of finances, OGA’s realities are different, said deputy PC(USA) stated clerk Kerry Rice. OGA is almost completely funded by per capita, and that’s the income stream more affected by membership loss and departures of congregations, Rice said. Unless changes are made – for example, to give OGA access to some of the income generated by assets that the Presbyterian Foundation holds on behalf of the denomination – then OGA will have to make the case to the General Assembly that per capita needs to go up.

Committee members also acknowledge that talk about possible restructuring raises concerns for employees of the denomination’s national staff – many of whom have witnessed or endured previous rounds of downsizings.

Lumsden said this: “It’s not about personalities. It’s about structure. It is not sustainable.”

Cheifetz, with trademark candor, added: “There are personalities involved.”

Is the time right?  “Let’s be honest,” Rice said “One of the changes that was very significant in the life of the denomination is we made some decisions about inclusion that are very different than where we were before. Some folks left because of that; some folks stayed because of that,” responding to definitive votes on LBGTQ+ issues. The recent General Assemblies “have been less conflicted than they used to be. There have been some significant cultural issues that we have settled, or at least we think we have settled, that have created a different environment.”

Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk of the PC(USA), said decisions on inclusion have created a different environment in the church.

Because of those departures, “what we hear is a bunch of people left, so our revenues are gone” – departures have impacted per capita, Beene said.

But as the committee discussed, there have also been decisions made since the reunion of the northern and southern branches of the church in 1983 about how the money that is available is shared among the agencies – and who gets to decide what the priorities are across the PC(USA).

Currently, PMA gets about 14.5% of per capita income to cover ecclesial and administrative costs including the PMA executive director’s office, the costs of the PMA board meetings, work of advocacy and advisory committee meetings and communications.

The committee has also been discussing whether it might ease the pressure on per capita if OGA had access to some unrestricted income currently used to fund PMA – or whether restrictions on endowments held by the Foundation could be interpreted to cover OGA’s work as well.

At the local levels of the church, there’s also a lack of understanding of these precise distinctions.

For example, the PMA board is on the cusp of making decisions regarding a proposal to initiate a $10.3 million fundraising campaign for capital improvements at Stony Point Center. The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly will have to decide by next spring how big an increase in per capita it wants to recommend to the 2020 General Assembly.

Those decisions are made separately – but for Presbyterians in the pews, committee members said, it all feels like spending by the national church.

Resistance. Is this proposal the best way to go? The Moving Forward Implementation Commission might not go along. Some might push back on the idea of a third consecutive commission (Way Forward begetting Moving Forward, now this) – more “kicking the can” down the street, as Lumsden put it. Or, to use Beene’s words, “the idea of another committee or commission coming out of a commission coming out of a commission.”

Eric Beene, from the Moving Forward Implementation Commission, said there’s likely to be some resistance to a possible restructuring.

The committee also is aware that the idea of having one central decision-making body between assemblies isn’t new – a version of that has been tried before, and no doubt there are Presbyterians around who remember what didn’t work so well with that.

Change takes time.  Beene said he suspects the proposal the committee is considering would face significant opposition. “There are a lot of folks who think things would be taken away from them in this, and there would be deep resistance,” he said.

 Lueckert, the new president of the A Corporation, also has extensive understanding of the denomination, having previously served as deputy executive director of PMA.

“You were tasked with a daunting thing, and not given a lot of time to figure it out,” she told the committee members. “In general, the way the church is financed across all agencies and all entities has been a little opaque. You’re going to help make it more transparent.”

At the end of the day, “the hoped-for result is that we have a coordinated mission effort at the national level that makes sense to people,” Lumsden said.

What the work group is considering recommending “is moving in the right direction,” Lueckert said. “It may not pass the first time. Look at all the issues in the denomination that have not passed the first time. But you’re raising significant issues, running it up the flagpole. … And in our own Presbyterian way, it will get us to where we need to go.”

Spanish is the first language for committee member José Rosa-Rivera, of the Presbytery of San Juan. He said he plans to submit his ideas and responses to the committee’s discussion in writing.

The full committee – both the per capita team and the financial sustainability team – will meet together in November.