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Province IX conference explores self-sustainability

Learning from the experiences of others

[Episcopal News Service – Tela, Honduras] Autonomy had long been the dream of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (ECP) but it took the church's profiting from a dark period of history in the 1970s and 80s to firmly put it on the path to achieve that autonomy in 2007.

ECP Prime Bishop Edward Malecdan and Floyd Lalwet, counsel for ECP, March 1 shared the history of their church and its long, hard journey toward autonomy on the second day of the sustainability conference being held here on the northern coast of Honduras, Feb. 27 - March 5.

On May 1, 1990, when the Episcopal Church in the Philippines was inaugurated as the 28th province of the Anglican Communion, Lalwet said, the Episcopal Church in the United States was funding 60 percent of its operating budget and income from financial assets, and an endowment fund comprised the largest chunk of the other 40 percent.

Referring to the period of martial law imposed by former President Ferdinand Marcos, Lalwet said, "… at that time when massive grinding poverty and heightened repression was a reality that everyone woke up into, the Episcopal Church in the Philippines could literally close down the gates of Cathedral Heights and live in calm and peace while enjoying the luxury of the U.S. dollar that it was receiving from its mother church."

Malecdan and Lalwet told their story to more than 75 people gathered for the five-day conference, which was designed to train the leadership of Province IX to carry out strategic planning that will assist in developing resources toward long-term financial self-sustainability.

Each Province IX diocese – Honduras, the host diocese, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador Litoral, Central Ecuador and Colombia – is represented by a five-member team, including bishops, clergy and lay leaders. In addition, Cuba, Brazil, Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, Swaziland and Zambia, as well as the Philippines, are represented.

Observers include staff from the Episcopal Church Center, Church Pension Group, Episcopal Relief & Development, Trinity Wall Street and the Episcopal Church Foundation. The conference is supported by Church Pension Group, Trinity Wall Street, Province IX and an Episcopal Church Constable Grant, which also will fund ongoing developmental work throughout the province over the next two years.

With the exception of Puerto Rico, all the dioceses of Province IX, plus Mexico, Cuba, and the other Central American churches, which are organized as the Iglesia Anglicana de la Region Central de America (IARCA), receive subsidies in varying amounts from the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. Offshore dioceses in Provinces II and VIII also receive grants.

The three workshop themes include strategic planning at the diocesan and provincial level, entrepreneurial leadership and financial self-sufficiency.

"This is very, very important," said Francisco Duque-Gomez, bishop of the Diocese of Colombia and president of Province IX, adding that each diocese is unique in its own way; some new, some old, each with its own vision and shared concerns, and each with lessons to offer the others.

Beginning with the first day of strategic planning workshops, common problems and their causes began to take shape, including dependency on external resources; dioceses spread out over large geographic areas; lack of commitment; lack of clergy and lack of training for clergy and lay leaders; lack of entrepreneurial vision and training; fear of change and new forms of technology (such as Facebook and Twitter); failure to respond to new challenges of evangelism; not enough young people and/or failure to include young people in leadership positions; and inability to effectively communicate an Anglican/Episcopal identity.

The discussion moved from problems and their causes, to analysis, prescriptions for remedying the problems and action – addressed by workshop facilitators and presenters -- with the discussion to continue throughout the conference.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori celebrated the March 1 Eucharist, commending Province IX for taking the lead on this work -- work that the rest of the Episcopal Church can learn from, she said.

A case in point: the church in the Philippines

In the case of the Philippines, a five-year plan turned into a 10-year plan and then into a 15-year "stepped reduction plan," or gradual phase-out of the annual subsidy. And as in basketball, when the best game is played during the last two minutes on the buzzer, Lalwet said, the ECP stepped up its game in 2005 as certain death approached.

In mid-2004, denying the fear-filled temptation to ask the Episcopal Church to extend the subsidy, the ECP decided to stop using the annual subsidy – beginning in 2005, three years early -- in its operating budget, and instead use the money to seed an endowment fund.

"If we were looking at the 2007 end of the subsidy in the same manner as we're looking at death – something that was so remote and practically out of our consciousness – is the solution to further prolong such state of consciousness? We actually found a better solution," Lalwet said. "That is to immediately end the coma and actually 'die' as a receiving church much sooner than expected. Since we believe in the resurrection, we thought it was better to 'die as a receiving church' much earlier so that we could correspondingly resurrect much earlier.

"What subsequently happened was almost miraculous," he said.

All the projected fears that the church wouldn't be able to pay salaries or expand and would incur huge deficits were unfounded, and in fact, for the first time in 20 years the church ended the year with a budget surplus. And in that three-year period it built more new churches than in any previous three-year period, Lalwet added.

Autonomy was achieved by taking an inventory of the resources the church had, including a state-of-the-art hospital and schools, changing financial models and making management decisions to support long-term sustainability, among other "radical" decisions, Lalwet said.

One of the major obstacles to overcome was changing the "pervasive thinking of many Filipinos" who looked to the United States as a "source of salvation" and the Episcopal Church as "a rich institution where material benefits" could be derived from, Lalwet said.

The attitude began to change when congregations were given ownership, and their giving – much of the money coming from poor people -- to a central fund, matched peso-for-peso by the national church (in the Philippines), was given back to the dioceses to support the church in the local community, he said.

On Oct. 7, 1901, the Episcopal Church's General Convention, meeting in San Francisco, established a mission district in the Philippines, Malecdan, the prime bishop, explained.

"We are now in full throttle, moving steadily towards the fulfillment of our new vision, focused on making all our congregations full-fledged parishes by 2018," he said.

In the 106 years leading up to December 2007, the church established 32 self-supporting parishes – by 2018 it hopes to have 116 parishes.

Autonomy also changed the ECP's relations with the Episcopal Church from one of dependence to one of partnership. During the 2009 General Convention, when the church's budget was being slashed, the ECP presented the Episcopal Church with a check for $5,000.

"For people [from the Philippines] to give to the U.S. was unimaginable," Lalwet said. "There's a big change in the way we now relate. It has even changed the way we relate to [Episcopal Relief and Development].

"When a typhoon struck a few years ago, what we got from ERD was looked at as a loan … that's a great departure from past practices when we were only on the receiving end."

The Episcopal Church partners with Episcopal Relief & Development on food security programs throughout the country.

-- Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.

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