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Hearing on budget funding stresses challenges, opportunities

By James Thrall
8/1/2003
[Episcopal News Service] 

General Convention decisions about issues of sexuality might — or might not — affect the funding of the national church budget, the Standing Commission on Program, Budget and Finance was told Thursday.

In the first of two hearings, attended by about 100 deputies, bishops and visitors, the commission heard comments on funding the budget; a second hearing Friday evening was set to address spending.

While comments ranged from requests for a more lenient funding process to simple thanks for the commission’s work, a common subtheme expressed concern over financial implications of possible votes to confirm the election of the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire or to call for the development of a rite to bless same-sex unions. 

“If you haven’t begun to think in terms of some contingency, then maybe you ought to, given the decisions that may be made here at convention,” warned Warren Thrasher of Virginia, a parish junior warden. “I don’t mean that in any way as a threat,” but contributions from conservative parishes like his are likely to suffer, he said. “We have people who give voluntarily because of their beliefs in how they would like to see the message of Christ taken to the world.”

The Rev. Lorne Coyle, deputy from Central Florida, also warned of a potential "perfect storm” hanging over convention. “I see in this potential gathering storm two very strong fronts approaching each other. And as I look ahead at the effect of that confluence, I worry about what that might do to the budget proposals that you’re making since the budget is likely to be voted on after some of these events take place.”

“We feel we are in the midst of a significant faith crisis,” observed the Rev. Geoff Chapman of Pittsburgh. “We are facing, we think, a fundamental fracture in world Anglicanism and from our biblical heritage. And that really concerns us.”

His parish, he said, could face as much as a 15 to 20 percent loss of membership and possibly a greater loss of income because “many of the people who are inclined to leave would be some of the biggest givers.”

“If we change the church’s teaching on [human sexuality], my predication would be that there would an enormous decline in giving, in membership and in growth of our churches,” said the Rev. David H. Roseberry, deputy from Dallas. “People will not join a church that is so conflicted on this issue.”

But Robert Wright, treasurer of the Diocese of North Carolina, said he spoke for his bishop, Michael Curry, in stressing that “our decisions as a church must not be governed by fear of the unknown or by real or perceived threats, no matter where they come from, but rather by God’s calling.”

North Carolina is “strong and consistent in its support of the national church,” he said, adding, “I am confident that we will continue to thrive as a diocese.”

The Rev. Barbara Cheney, deputy of Connecticut, also said, “The future doesn’t scare me one bit.” The congregation she serves “is continuing to grow and expects to continue to grow following this convention no matter what,” she said. “That’s because there’s a larger call than any one or two issues that come before us.” 

She urged the commission to stress the “language of partnership,” modeled by her diocese’s “glad support” of the national church, which has helped her increase her parish’s support to the diocese. “It’s taken many years, but it has come out of that sense of partnership and gladness in giving to the national church.”

Deputy David Davidson of Lexington suggested it is “not fair” that poor dioceses like his struggle to give the requested 21 percent to the national church, while richer dioceses give less. He urged support of a resolution (B004) that calls for a study of the national funding system to suggest ways to improve support of mission and mutual accountability.

Bishop Suffragan James Curry of Connecticut made a similar point about accountability, noting that, although 62 percent of dioceses meet or exceed the requested 21 percent contribution, “38 percent of the dioceses of this church don’t.” While there are a host of reasons, some quite legitimate, he said, why dioceses give less, some decisions to withhold funding are “political decisions that in effect hold hostage the mission of the church.”

“As we gather in General Convention to make mission decisions,” he said, “the same people who are voting on that need to fund it. And we need to be accountable to one another.”

Perhaps the 21 percent request itself is just too high, several speakers suggested. The Rev. John Hiers, deputy of Southwest Florida, proposed that “10 percent could be more than 21 percent” if keeping the money to use for local ministry encouraged local church growth.

“A structure that requires 21 percent giving from its base is top heavy,” agreed the Rev. Andrew Cooley, a deputy from Colorado. “A vibrant church for the future is one that will require a better, more streamlined, more efficient use of our funds.”

The Rev. Michael Burke, deputy from Alaska, however, said he just wanted to thank the commission for their part in how funds are being used now.

“You know you spend an awful lot of time and effort, and a lot of numbers get crunched,” he said. “I’m blessed to be in a place where I see real lives changed because of those numbers, because of those things you do. The love of God is communicated, and faith in Jesus Christ is restored, and people are healed and lives are saved, literally.”

Letting people know just what their contributions do would help, suggested the Very Rev. Barry Kubler, deputy of Southwest Florida. “You can have more money, you can get more money, if you do a better job of communicating to the people that you get the money from, what we do with that money. Being accountable means sharing with them the information about what happen with that money. I think we have a ways to go in doing that.”

Deputy Patricia Abrams of Chicago also called for more accessible information. “Most people don’t speak financial lingo,” she said. “They are not on PB and F, and they are not on PB and F for a reason.”

New demographics in particular require new ways of communicating, others urged. The Rev. Mariann Budde, deputy from Minnesota, said growth in her parish has been driven by an influx of an “extraordinary number of young people and children” and noted that 50 percent of the congregation is under the age of 18. “We don’t feel we’re on a precipice. We don’t feel there’s any decision made here that would change our giving in any way,” she said.

At the same time, she said, the “people that I serve give according to their passions,” making it vitally important that the church develop ways “to get that passion across.”

Before the commission opened the microphones for comments, Deputy Arthur M. Bjontegard, Jr., of Upper South Carolina gave an upbeat report from the commission’s audit committee. The most recent audit of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society by the firm of Grant Thornton gave an “unqualified opinion” on the church’s financial statements, “noting no material weaknesses, deficiencies, irregularities or unrecorded audit adjustments and praised our strong internal controls,” he said. “This is the ‘best’ rating that a client may receive.”

The audit finding was consistent, he said, with the report from the church’s previous auditing firm, Arthur Andersen, for the previous two years.