Draft proposal presented for General Assembly per capita rate for 2023 and 2024

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly is holding a hybrid meeting April 18-20, with those in person in Louisville wearing masks. Screenshot by Lesliie Scanlon.

Here’s a preliminary, draft recommendation: That the General Assembly set its per capita rate for the next two years at $9.75 per member for 2023 and $10.75 per member for 2024. That compares to the current per capita rate of $8.98 per member — so it’s a proposed increase of 77 cents (or 8.6%) for 2023 and of $1 (or 10.3%) from 2023 to 2024.

The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) discussed that draft recommendation in a hybrid meeting April 18. But a vote on what the proposed per capita rate will be won’t come until May 2, when COGA, the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) Board and the board of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation meet in joint session.

Both the PMA and COGA need to approve a proposed per capita rate, which will then go to the 2022 General Assembly for its consideration. The assembly’s opening plenary will be June 18, with some commissioners in-person in Louisville and some participating online.

According to the draft per capita budget that COGA considered, that proposed rate would generate $13 million in revenue for 2023 and $13.6 million in 2024, compared to an $11.3 million budget for 2022.

During its Zoom meeting April 27, the PMA board is expected to vote on proposed mission budgets of $70.1 million for 2023 and $70.8 million for 2024.

The draft per capita budget is based on the following projections of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) membership trends: that membership would decline from 1.24 million members in 2022 to 1.23 million in 2023 and to 1.17 million in 2024. PC(USA) membership has been dropping since the mid-1960s — so the only way to produce more revenue through per capita is to raise the per-member rate.

Per capita is important because it’s the primary way the PC(USA) funds the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the ecclesial work of the church — everything from paying for the General Assembly itself to mid council ministries, ecumenical work and the work of the denomination’s stated clerk.

DeAmber Clopton, controller and budget manager for the Office of the General Assembly, presented information on the a draft per capita budget for 2023 and 2024. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

The proposed budget also reflects the ongoing financial difficulties of funding OGA — recognizing that for many small congregations, budgets are tight and many can’t afford full-time pastoral leadership or in some cases to hire a minister at all. In 2020, nearly 64% of PC(USA) congregations had 100 members or fewer, with more than 40% having 50 members or fewer.

So there is pressure to keep per capita increases as low as possible while still funding the needed work of the church.

The draft per capita budget also calls on OGA to draw from its reserves in order to balance the budget — taking $1.5 million from reserves in 2023 and $2.1 million in 2024. By the end of 2024, that would take OGA below the mandated level of having 30% of its total budget in reserves — probably drawing those reserves down into the 20-25% range, said Kerry Rice, deputy stated clerk.

Another option: OGA could draw those reserves down even further as a way of keeping the per capita rate increase lower, Rice said. “There’s no magic in this — we were just thinking these numbers might be palatable,” given that Presbyterians balked in 2018 at a large proposed per capita increase. “What’s a reasonable ask for us for the increase in per capita?” Rice asked. “Because there’s going to have to be an increase” to fund the work that needs to get done.

Built into the draft budget are some funding priorities for OGA, Rice said. Among them:

  • Seed money for either a national gathering or regional events for ecclesial formation and leader training that OGA hopes to host in the summer of 2023.
  • Some staffing increases for OGA, which lost eight positions through voluntary separations after the 2020 General Assembly. “That cut a little too deep,” Rice said, so OGA wants to create some new, reconfigured positions to meet emerging needs.
  • Increased costs for staff travel, if the COVID-19 pandemic abates and more in-person meetings begin to happen.
  • Enough money to hold a traditional, in-person General Assembly in Salt Lake City in 2024, if that’s what this year’s assembly votes to do. That would be the most expensive of the options under consideration, but OGA wants to make sure that the funds are set aside to pay for it if that’s the way the assembly decides to go.
Sallie Watson. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Rice asked COGA members – some of whom are pastors or mid council leaders – to say what they think Presbyterians at the grass roots might think about the size of per capita increase being considered.

“I think the key continues to be communication — to communicate what’s needed and why it’s needed,” said COGA member Sallie Watson, general presbyter of Mission Presbytery in Texas. “If we can communicate what and why, it will be better than just ‘Oh, they’re going to raise it again.’”

Eliana Maxim, COGA’s vice-moderator and co-executive of Seattle Presbytery, said she’s concerned about mixed messages regarding the funding needs of the church — in part because the assembly also is being asked to consider a report from the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability that includes a recommendation that the assembly create a commission to “oversee and facilitate” the unification of OGA and PMA. In other words, the assembly is being asked to consider restructuring the national church.

In an online meeting on April 18, the Moving Forward Implementation Special Committee voted to approve a comment essentially supporting that recommendation from the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability that OGA and PMA be unified.

The comment states that Moving Forward “recommends approval of the fundamental concept of unification” of the missional and ecclesial agencies of the PC(USA). The comment states that “in our four years working closely with the boards and staff of these agencies, we have experienced the culture of siloing, where shared values have not always been equally supported, decision-making has been disconnected, and cooperation has depended on the personalities and interests of individual leaders. We believe unification will provide a better structure to create the coordination and collaboration necessary to carry out the critical ministries of the PC(USA).”

Regarding the proposed per capita increase, Maxim said “for a great number of our churches, this would be a financial hardship.” And she wonders whether COGA might be “jumping the gun” in proposing increases before the assembly acts on the restructuring question.

Even with those concerns, COGA needs to present a per capita budget to this assembly for the next two years. COGA member Dave Davis, a pastor from New Jersey, said “I think any increase (in the per capita rate) will go over like a lead balloon,” because that’s how the church tends to respond. “I don’t think we should back off the reality check. … We should be very honest and open about all the complexities and realities” about what’s needed to fund the work OGA needs to do.

All the church agencies are confronting the realities of inflationary costs and “a desire to provide more service, to serve more people” by expanding the work of the Matthew 25 initiative and the Hands and Feet justice work, said Kathy Lueckert, president of the A Corporation. “We are saddled with a system that was created many, many years ago for a far different world. We have to question how sustainable it is over the long term.”

In addition to concerns about the budgets for the next two years, Rice said “one of the things I’ve been losing sleep over is the 2022 budget” — especially the amount budgeted for travel for commissioners to this year’s assembly.

Given how airfares are rising, “Well, shoot, that isn’t going to be anywhere close” to covering the actual costs this summer, Rice said. With inflation and escalating fuel prices, “there are a lot of factors that are going to continue to play havoc with our budget.”