A broken per capita system? Committee discusses financial sustainability for the PC(USA)

LOUISVILLE – The per capita funding system is broken, mid council leaders say.

Presbyteries are under stress — from having to send money to the national church that they are not always able to collect from congregations.

Restructuring of the top levels of the denomination may be needed.

And the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability is trying to provide some answers to the 2020 General Assembly about what changes need to be made, and to identify some experiments or pilot projects the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) might try to see what could work better.

The committee is meeting in Louisville Jan. 13-15, intent on drafting its recommendations to the General Assembly — and facing a Feb. 21 deadline.

After a long afternoon of work, committee members laughed during a lighter moment in the discussion. All photos by Leslie Scanlon.

It’s not likely that this committee or even the 2020 General Assembly will be able to come up with something immediately to fix the problems. But this committee may ask the assembly to begin the process of considering something new — a recognition that a per capita funding model that assesses a per-member fee is not sustainable in a denomination that’s been losing members for decades, and also in response to instructions from the 2018 General Assembly to develop “potential experiments for changes to the system” of denominational funding.

For much of the past year, the committee has been divided into two work teams: one focused on financial sustainability and the other on per capita. The per capita team has spent months holding listening conversations with more than 200 presbytery and synod leaders.

Jeanne Radak presented the report of the committee’s per capita team.

The per capita team heard from those leaders that “per capita is broken,” said Jeanne Radak, of the Presbytery of Newton. “It’s a funding model that’s a burden to the presbyteries.”

She also described several other themes that emerged from those conversations — including a perception of ongoing tension between the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and a sense that “Louisville” (as Presbyterians often refer to the denomination’s national offices) is “disconnected from the presbyteries and the synods.”

For some congregations and presbyteries, that sense of distance, along with their own budget concerns, translates into a reluctance to support the national church financially. At the same time, however, many mid council leaders recognize the value of a shared funding system as being fair, equitable, theologically based and supporting vital work such as Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Office of Immigration Issues.

Committee co-moderator Laura Cheifetz explained the timeline for the committee’s work, culminating in presenting its report at the General Assembly in Baltimore in June.

Some ideas that gathered support during the committee’s first day of meeting included:

  • Developing a program of education and interpretation to help explain to congregations why money is collected for the national church and how those funds are used.
  • Making some form of giving to support national church standard for all congregations and presbyteries, in recognition that the PC(USA) is a connectional church and that the national offices provide needed services.
  • Requiring the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly to have a unified budget — meaning they’d need to agree on the division of funds and on spending priorities.
  • Asking the 2020 assembly to create some kind of implementation team to shepherd work on these issues after the assembly concludes.

One pilot project under discussion would allow a group of presbyteries to experiment with a funding model in which they would not collect per capita, but instead give to the national offices on a percentage basis — perhaps a percentage of the presbytery’s budget or the funds it collects from congregations. That approach could take some of the pressure off of presbyteries that have experienced significant losses of membership, but still want to be financially part of a connectional system.

Rosemary Mitchell, senior director of mission engagement and support with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, suggested to the committee the idea of asking the assembly to commit for the next two years to help mid councils explain to congregations what per capita is and how it’s used. “We’re not going to shame anybody, not to blame anybody” for not paying per capita, she said. But “we don’t know what or if the pastor is telling the congregation about per capita.”

One of the difficulties, said committee member Timothy Ngare, of the Presbytery of Detroit, is that whatever funding system is used, membership is declining — so there are fewer Presbyterians to give. “We are not attracting younger people,” and most congregations in the PC(USA) are small.

Timothy Ngare

The Office of the General Assembly “needs more money, not less,” said Scott Lumsden, co-executive of Seattle Presbytery. The challenge is to create a model that “gets more money from the same people.”

The committee also will discuss on Jan. 14 the findings of the committee’s work team on financial sustainability, which presented its preliminary report at the end of 2019, including a series of draft recommendations. Among them: the possibility of restructuring the top levels of the PC(USA), possibly to have a unified mission structure at the top, instead of the two separate agencies that exist now, the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

That report also spoke of funding realities — about asking the 2020 General Assembly to approve a staff effort to find a new way to allocate both restricted and unrestricted funding to support the Office of the General Assembly, which depends almost entirely on per capita funding and is close to exhausting its reserves.

Read “What they heard: Special committee listens to Presbyterian leaders discuss concerns and hope for per capita” by Leslie Scanlon.