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Program, Budget and Finance Commission ponders creation of budget

By James Thrall
8/3/2003
[Episcopal News Service] 

After two nights of hearing testimony about ministries of the church and how they might be funded, the Joint Standing Commission on Program, Budget and Finance paused to consider its particular role: matching income with outgo.

The commission is charged with turning a budget proposed by Executive Council into a final budget for the next triennium. The budget will first be presented in a joint session of the two houses on Wednesday, August 6. Each house will vote to adopt the budget during their regular legislative sessions the next day. Saturday, after a hearing on funding issues and one on ways the budget might be spent, commission members mused about how they might handle their role in the middle.

Offering what he called “cartoon” caricatures of two extreme alternatives, Bishop Drew Smith of Connecticut suggested the commission could operate as a “handmaid” of the Executive Council, essentially rubber-stamping the proposed budget with minor adjustments. Or the commission could “radically reorder” the budget according to the “mission mandates” emerging at General Convention. Such an approach would cause “huge dislocation of program, committees and, yes, staff,” he said. “But it might align the church with the mission directives that we are sensing and hearing and seeing.”

Given the strongly positive responses to the five budget priorities that have been adopted by General Convention, “I don’t think business as usual is acceptable,” said Bishop Jim Waggoner of Spokane. “I think we have to look at being more focused, and maybe taking some more radical steps.”

Arthur Bjontegard, Jr., of Upper South Carolina agreed. A clear consensus seems to be emerging, for example, he said, around the top priority of youth and young adult ministry. “If we walk out of here with what I understand to be the current level of funding, I’m not sure I’ll be facing anything other than tar and feathers when I get home.”

Susan Delgado-Park of Honduras noted that many of the people who spoke at the hearing on spending emphasized how their particular ministries reflected one or more of the priorities, which emphasize young adults and youth, reconciliation and evangelism, congregational transformation, justice and peace, and partnerships within the Anglican Communion and other churches. Several of the described ministries of Province IX, which includes her diocese, and of Navajoland, she pointed out, reflected all five.

At the same time, Bishop David Joslin of New Jersey urged some kind of middle way between what he called the “reason” side represented by the Executive Council’s budget and the “feeling” side represented by the ministries that potentially could be funded. Especially in the requests voiced at the spending hearing, he said, “the passion is there, the energy is there, the emotion is there.” At the same time, “I don’t want to be washed away in that feeling, because I think there is real wisdom” in the Executive Council’s budget as it stands, he said. “There’s got to be some kind of balance there.”

The Rev. Altagracia Perez of Los Angeles said she wished all the bishops could have attended the hearing on spending, since the presentations would have given them ample ammunition for encouraging their dioceses to support the national budget. Hearing about the ongoing and possible ministries that need funding would counter skeptics who ask, “Why should we give 21 percent to that administrative, bureaucratic body?” she said. “These stories would spice up any sermon.”

The testimonies definitely “put faces and numbers together” in terms of the realities of ministries supported by the church, agreed Donald W. Bushyager of Pittsburgh, and Waggoner suggested videotaping the hearing in the future to permit a wider audience. Some of the ministries described represent “a part of the church that the larger church often doesn’t see or hear,” he said.

The Rev. Willa Goodfellow of Iowa said she is feeling more and more committed to concentrating on “a couple of good things” in the final budget. Rather than spread money too thinly, she suggested, “the way to be effective is to find the particular point, that if you push that point, you get change.”

Bjontegard agreed that “it’s better to do a few things well” and wondered specifically whether the proposal to support a national advertising campaign with $1.5 million represents too small a commitment to be effective. Emphasizing programs that match national with diocesan funds, on the other hand, he said, might be a way to “try to take our dollars and stretch them to something larger.”

Speaking through an interpreter, the Rev. Sandino Sanchez of the Dominican Republic made a similar point. “If we divide what we have to give [through matching grants], it is possible that we can reach the proposed budget. We should not allow our faith to be lost in this because we work for the almighty God.”

“We’re not the first to be frustrated by this,” Joslin pointed out. “If you don’t have more things to spend money on than you have money to spend, then your God is too small.”

“It’s almost insulting, given the world in which we live, that we in the Episcopal Church can talk about scarce resources,” said Bishop Charles Bennison of Pennsylvania. “God has given us all what we need to have to do what God wants us to do, if we can only understand what God wants us to do.” Following that faithfully, however, he said, “might mean no longer doing some of the things we’ve always done because God doesn’t want us to do those things.”

Within his diocese, Bennison said, he has realized that it can be possible to “kill parishes with kindness” when it would be better to help “the people in those places … begin to own their own ministries and grow their own parishes.”

As a way to encourage dioceses that do not currently contribute the full asking to the national church, Dennis Stark of Rhode Island suggested that “perhaps we could have a faith piece that is beyond what is traditionally called a balanced budget.” The additional ministries would, if necessary, be funded with a “one-time draw from our endowment principal,” he said, but with the hope “that that money would be covered with additional giving from those dioceses that do not now participate at the level that the other 62 percent do.”

Such an approach “would take a large amount of faith,” he said, but would let those dioceses “identify with what their money would be used for.”

The Rev. Canon Johncy Itty of Long Island, bishop-elect of Oregon, said he wished there could be some evaluative criteria “to see if what has been done in the past has been effective and to use that in concert with the priorities that have been developed as the basis for future funding. Otherwise, we just will not know whether the things that have been asked for are working or not.” 

A bit of hard-headed evaluation of expenses would also help, said Joslin. “We practice boutique religion in the Episcopal Church,” he said. “Our bases are small, our congregations are small, our dioceses are small.” Compared with some other denominations such as the Lutheran Church, which tends to have bishops serving more congregations and full-time clergy serving larger congregations, “our overhead is considerably higher,” he said. “We do need to look at that, to what extent we could increase our ministry and mission if we decreased our overhead.”

Bennison agreed, noting that he understood that “we have the most expensive convention of any church in the country” as well as “the most expensive seminary system.”

Suggesting a way to do that that “might be a bit more personal,” Bishop Charles vonRosenberg of East Tennessee raised the possibility of looking at “the line item of PB&F.” To what extent, he asked, “are we willing to look at the work of this committee?”

Hearing from youth

Before launching into their reflections on the hearings, the commission heard from several members of the official youth presence, invited by chair Bonnie Anderson under the agenda heading, “So, Youth, Talk to Us.” Anderson told the three high school students that she hoped they might help the commission prioritize different youth initiatives, assuming that not all of them could be fully funded.

Tim Baer, 18, of Oklahoma in Province VII, emphasized the importance of a resolution (A007) that would provide $3 million to support training for ministers to serve children, youth and young adults. While in high school, he said, his youth involvement on the local, diocesan and provincial levels developed into “almost an identity for me” as an arena in which “I can be truly myself.”

Youth ministers who can support that kind of experience often have difficult times sustaining their efforts because they lack available training and support, he said. Baer suggested that if only limited funds were available, it would probably be best to spend it on a provincial level in order to spread the help as far as possible.

But Linden Prickett, 17, of Nebraska in Province VI, noted that “as far as the money goes, it’s very hard to prioritize” even on a provincial level since different provinces have different experiences and needs. “As far as Province VI goes,” she said, “we need a lot of help.” Other provinces may already have more developed ministries and need less assistance since “it’s a lot harder to get a new program started than it is to keep something going,” she said.

Kelsey Kemp, 17, of Texas in Province VII, said one area that should be emphasized is campus ministry to reverse a trend in which active Episcopal high school students tend not to continue involvement with Episcopal groups in college. “I definitely intend to stay active in the Episcopal Church when I go to college, but not all will,” she said. With stronger programs on college campuses, she suggested, “we have a better chance of keeping the people we have and drawing more people to our churches.”

Silvestre Silvas, provincial youth coordinator for Province VII, observed that after Episcopal high school students graduate, a “high percentage” end up involved with other, often nondenominational churches in college. “I’m not sure why that is,” he said, but he did note that the Episcopal Church is only beginning to catch up with other denominations in offering youth ministers specifically Episcopal training and resource materials.

Prioritizing in general is difficult when talking about youth and young adults, given the “overlapping and interacting constituencies” that fall within those categories, pointed out Thom Chu, national program director for ministries with young people. While the high school students who attended the commission meeting are 17 and 18, for example, the nearly 90 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 who attended the Young Adult Festival during General Convention “are looking at the world through different experiences, which gives them a different lens,” Chu said.