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What they heard: Special committee listens to Presbyterian leaders discuss concerns and hope for per capita

LOUISVILLE – For seven months in 2019, the per capita work team of a special committee held listening sessions with leaders of synods and presbyteries across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — meeting either by conference call or in person with leaders of all 16 synods and of 108 presbyteries, with more than 200 people in all.

The committee began its meeting with worship in the chapel of the PC(USA)’s national offices in Louisville. All photos by Leslie Scanlon.

The team – one of two work teams of the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability – was probing for insights as to how Presbyterians at local and regional levels of the church think about per capita, the per-member fee (currently set at $8.95 per member) that the denomination asks congregations to pay to support the work of the national church. Here are some themes that emerged from those conversations.

Understandings. Basic understandings of the role per capita plays in the PC(USA) system ranged from more positive – the idea of partnership in a connectional system of ministry – to unhappiness with what’s seen as a “head tax” and frustration with the denomination’s national offices in Louisville.

Participants’ basic views of per capita “spanned from confusing to connectional to ‘the glue,’” a draft summary of those listening sessions states.

On the positive side, mid council leaders spoke of the community nature of per capita – “people working together to make things happen for Christ in the world,” the draft report states – and the sense of fairness in having a shared funding system. Among the types of services and resources that mid council leaders often cited as needed in a connectional church were Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (with the recognition that PDA often supports local congregations affected by fires, floods and more) and help with immigration issues.

But the mid council leaders voiced a lot of frustration as well — describing their sense of anxiety, anger and confusion, both with the per capita system and overall with “Louisville,” as Presbyterians tend to refer to the denomination’s national offices.

Committee members Debi Davis and Kevin Veldhuisen shared with each other during opening worship.

Financial squeeze. Mid council leaders feel squeezed in both directions. Congregations are encouraged to pay per capita, but not required to do so — and some don’t. Many synods and presbyteries assess their own per capita amounts to congregations, on top of the General Assembly rate, to  fund their own operations. And mid councils are expected to remit to the Office of the General Assembly the full General Assembly per capita amount assessed based on the membership of congregations in the presbytery — supporting the national church is considered “mandatory” for presbyteries, whether congregations provide the money or not.

Most mid council leaders reported that congregations provided somewhere between 75% and 98% of the per capita assessment, but in some cases less. The report states that most presbyteries collect less than 100% of the per capita assessed, but remit to the national church the full amount.

Time lag. The Office of the General Assembly relies on statistical reports that are two years old in assessing per capita. That time lag means that mid councils are expected to remit a per-member amount based on a membership that’s higher than the current one. From 2017 to 2018, for example, the PC(USA) lost 62,373 members and from 2016 to 2017, another 67,714 members. Even though those people may have died or left the PC(USA), congregations and mid councils are still expected to pay per capita for them.

See-saw effect. When per capita rates go up, mid council leaders say, too often mission giving goes down. The result: no more money to support a connectional system.

Local impact. Presbyterians and synods feel the pressures of the per capita system most acutely — particularly when mid councils feel compelled to remit to the Office of the General Assembly the full amount of General Assembly per capita, even though they have collected less from congregations. In some places, those financial stresses, exacerbated by declining membership and churches closing or leaving the denomination for more conservative ones, have resulted in constricting ministry work, staff layoffs, closing offices or cutting hours. The draft report also states that some mid council leaders feel caught in the middle, “bewildered, frustrated and/or helpless because of the inability to enforce payment” from congregations.

Committee member Diane Kenning served on the per capita team.

Lack of understanding. Many Presbyterians – including some who work for the church – don’t understand what per capita is or how it’s used. Mid council leaders reported that those in the pews especially were confused about the differences between per capita and mission giving, or the distinctions between the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) and how those agencies are funded.

That confusion extends to some extent to the mid council leaders as well.

The report states that “many expressed dismay, disappointment or anger that per capita was being used to fund part of the PMA budget” — currently, about 14% of per capita funds go to PMA for administrative expenses.

“Most conversations focused on the perceived tension and ‘infighting’ between the PMA and OGA,” the draft report states. “Many wondered why the two agencies are not one. Also many questioned why we have both ‘Hands and Feet’ and ‘Matthew 25’ initiatives” — Hands and Feet in OGA, Matthew 25 in PMA.

Most people don’t understand the PC(USA), A Corporation, the report states. And “everybody loves PDA.”

Communication. Mid council leaders expressed their sense that “ ‘Louisville’ is disconnected from the struggles and concerns of the presbyteries,” as the draft report put it. For example, one leader said their presbytery had written two years in a row to the Office of the General Assembly about the inability to fully pay per capita, but got no response.

Mid council leaders also spoke of the need for better interpretation of what per capita is and how it’s used, saying that what is provided often focuses more on why per capita is needed at the national church level, and not by presbyteries and synods. There also are differences in how presbytery leaders communicate with congregations the expectations regarding per capita — with some addressing it in written statements, some in conversations or presentations at presbytery meetings and some discussing it little or not at all.

Regional differences.  The understanding of per capita also varies geographically, the team found.

Many presbyteries formerly part of the Southern branch of the Presbyterian Church “do not have Per Capita as their sharing/funding model and never did,” the draft report states. “Instead they work from ‘Mission Giving’ or ‘Contributions’ or ‘Shared Ministry’ funding models.  Other regions such as the Northeast and Northwest almost exclusively (except 2 or 3 presbyteries) assess Per Capita.  There appeared to be as many different models of interpreting and assessment [of] Per Capita as there are presbyteries.  The language of Per Capita is understood by most Presbytery leaders, but it may not be understood the same way by congregations/presbyteries in particular regions.”

Committee co-moderator Valerie Young, a synod executive, led the committee’s per capita team.

Adaptive challenges. The team also asked mid council leaders about challenges they face that aren’t strictly financial or about having “not enough” money. Among them:

  • Difficulties searching for pastoral leadership, especially for small churches.
  • Finding ways to train pastoral leaders for congregations that don’t have a seminary-trained pastor.
  • “Regional issues were highlighted as an adaptive challenge,” the draft report states. “One person shared the story of attending a worship service where everyone showed him their concealed weapon, including a machete. Another shared the challenge of being part of a ‘moderate/progressive denomination in a deeply red conservative region.’ ”

What might replace per capita? “Overwhelmingly the participants suggested that a new system should be based on a percentage of the congregation/presbytery budget,” the draft report states. “Suggestions ranged from a small percent of income to a tithe.”

Some other themes: “Overall the response suggested that any new funding system must be steeped in communication, transparency and education. Awareness of the stewardship/financial understanding of communities of color must be part of the development of a new funding system.”

And “over and over again the mid-council leaders said, ‘Stop putting presbyteries in difficult positions.’ … Most presbytery leaders indicated they feel squeezed between ‘Louisville’ and the congregations.”

Click here to read Leslie Scanlon’s reporting on the special committee’s January 13 meeting.