Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Counting the Cost

I've come across a couple of news articles in the last week that initially had me rather confused. Both were supposedly on the same topic; the approval of a budget for 2005 by the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. They offered quite contrary perspectives on what the budget tells us about the health of the Church.

The first article came out on February 11, which was rather surprising, since the Council didn't adjourn until February 14. The tale is told regarding the particular slant of this piece by the headline; "Episcopal Church funding down 12 percent". Gloom and doom. Here's the opening salvo;

A new report says giving by local dioceses to the national Episcopal Church dropped roughly $4 million last year - about a 12 percent decline in the first full year after the denomination confirmed its only openly gay bishop...
David Anderson, front man for the American Anglican Council, can't resist gloating just a little bit;

...Canon David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council, a conservative group of Episcopalians, said he expects donations to keep going down in protest of "the liberal revisionists' agenda, which includes a gay agenda."

"That big of a downturn, whatever the dollar amount is, hardly argues for a church where everything is fine and wonderful," Anderson said.
Anderson is the former rector of St. James, Newport Beach, which has recently attempted to leave the Episcopal Church and join a Ugandan diocese. You can read more about that, and his wealthy former parishioner Howard Ahmanson, here.

On Monday, after the conclusion of the Executive Council's four day session, the Episcopal News Service offers an alternative rendition of the budget; "Executive Council responds to Windsor Report, affirms budget increase in diocesan giving." Here is their take of the situation;

In other business, the Council affirmed a $49.6 million budget for 2005; this budget reflects diocesan giving that is expected to increase by 3.7 percent above 2004 levels.

Total fiscal commitments from among the church's 112 dioceses, which are mostly domestic, are budgeted at more than $28.5 million for 2005, according to Episcopal Church treasurer N. Kurt Barnes. This figure is up from some $27.4 million budgeted for 2004...
To be fair, the pessimistic first article did mention the 3.7% increase, but managed to bury it in the middle of the page. But what about the charge that giving is down by 12%?

Using some of the figures from the ENS article (which may be overly optimistic, imo), here's what actually happened;

In 2003, the budget asked for contributions of 29 million. They received 31 million. Where did the extra 2 million come from? Bishop Robinson was elected and consecrated in 2003. Some dioceses, anticipating a withholding of funds by conservative dioceses, voluntarily gave more than was asked of them. I know for a fact this was done by the diocese of El Camino Real.

In 2004, anticipating further withholding tactics by the conservatives, the budget was lowered to 27 million. The difference between 2004 and 2003 in anticipated income is 2 million, not the four million suggested by the first article. "Giving" was down by 4 million, yes, due to the voluntary "extra mile" giving during 2003. The budget anticipated, and appears to have realized, a 6% drop in giving, not the 12% insinuated in the first article.

Where is this drop coming from? Three of the dioceses who attach strings to their gifts to the national church are identified; Dallas, Springfield and Pittsburgh. Their giving, using the stats from 2001, represent a loss of 428,000, 114,000, and 119,000, respectively. These are old numbers, but they give us some ball park figures to play with.

Additional giving, beyond the regular asking by the national church, amounted to 60,000 from within the dioceses participating in the fiscal boycott, as well as an additional 180,000, effectively canceling out funds lost from Springfield and Pittsburgh. That means, out of 112 dioceses, we lost about half a million from one; Dallas.

I mentioned that I thought the news report from ENS is too optimistic. We still don't know what Fort Worth, San Joaquin, and portions of Florida are going to do. I anticipate others will join the boycott. There's at least eleven bishops in a huff over this.

As a rector and interim, I've always advised vestries to be careful about accepting funds with strings attached. These "special gifts" or "designated funds" can end up being a heavy yoke, and they are contrary to the teaching of good stewardship. Freely we have received; freely we give. When we give a gift, but insist it only be used for a designated project, or we'll only give it if the church does this or that, it's like we are still trying to keep a hold on it; we just can't let go of it. It also speaks loudly of a lack of trust in the Church.

I hope the Episcopal Church continues to ignore those who say to us, "Do it my way or I won't give you the gift." Who would want such a gift? Keep it. Your words and actions have already soiled it to the point that I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot crozier.

As with most budgets, the reality is that probably 80% of the national church's represents fixed costs. That means that the ministries that are the most vulnerable; outreach efforts, chaplaincies, prison ministries, support of small congregations, etc., are the most likely to get cut if there is a substantial loss in income. The ENS article states that this isn't going to happen. We'll see. It is unfortunate that the victims of this fiscal boycott will most likely be those in the greatest need. Do those who engage in "punishing" the Episcopal Church with such zealous tactics care that they are victimizing the victims? Apparently not.

Should these boycotters be allowed voice and vote at General Convention? After all, they have sent a clear message that they no longer consider themselves a part of the Episcopal Church. Personally, I hope we do grant them both. We should not engage in quid pro quo. That sends the message that the money matters. There are no membership "fees," for the same reason there are no "stole fees", in the Church. Grace is a free gift. We are bound to Christ and one another through baptism; not by paying dues.

I think we'd better tighten our belts. I suspect we'll see a continued loss of income during the next few years, regardless of the rosy report from the Executive Council. So be it. If we give in to the conservatives over money, then we will have shown the world that they were right; we have indeed ceased to be Christians.

What do we need to be the Church? Two or three gathered together, with Christ in our midst. We can do that in living rooms, in rented halls, and on street corners. Let the boycott begin. We will not serve mammon.

J.

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