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GEORGIA: Bishop Blasts Episcopal Church's Plan to Reimagine Church Structures

GEORGIA: Bishop Blasts Episcopal Church's Plan to Reimagine Church Structures
Executive Council's proposal of going from 19% to 15% is "magical thinking" resulting in further guilt, blaming, and resentments, says Scott Benhase
Bishop calls for assessment with teeth. No full payment, no voice no vote

By David W. Virtue DD
January 25, 2014

It's finally dawning on some liberal Episcopal bishops, and the occasional seminary professor, that the Episcopal Church is mired in ecclesiastical muck and that the money won't be there in the future to dig the Church out...or even to continue "God's mission" in any meaningful sense.

One such bishop from which enlightenment has sprung is the Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase of Georgia who wrote a letter to his diocese blasting The Task Force for Reimagining the Church (TREC's) proposals calling them "unrealistic" (even after lowering diocesan asking from 19% to 15%).

"The one elephant in the room we do not seem to be addressing clearly is our financial resources. Where will they come from? How will they be strategically deployed? And, with the principal of subsidiarity in mind, at what level of the Church are they best gathered and deployed?" complained the bishop who rode into the diocese in 2010 on a horse saying he had "a different way of being Christian", blaming unnamed fundamentalists for the division in the church.

He isn't saying that any more. Now it's the national church's vision that is at fault. He called the whole business of asking "untenable" and a "dead end."

He said his own diocese reduced its asking to 10%, but that will be too high within a decade or so and will have to be reduced even more.

"Then there will need to be further reductions after a decade or so to probably 5%-6%. Once that is projected out, then an expense budget can prudently be created that stays within realistic revenue. Executive Council's proposal of going from 19% to 15% over the coming triennium is not helpful. It only continues our magical thinking, which will result in further guilt, blaming, and resentments.

"People are being asked to give more to their parishes, and parishes more to the dioceses, and dioceses more to the larger church is a dead end in the long term. Households and congregations are strapped as it is and many middle and working-class households in my diocese give well over $3000/year to support the congregation's, and by extension, the diocese's mission. Asking them for more is not pastorally sensitive to their own financial circumstances. The same is true when we go up the "food chain." Asking congregations to give a larger percentage to the Diocese is untenable if those same congregations are going to engage in meaningful mission locally.

The bishop cited his Canon to the Ordinary Frank Logue, "The Episcopal Church currently asks each of its 109 dioceses to give 19% of their respective budgets to fund the church-wide budget. Forty-seven dioceses give at that rate or higher. Thirteen give 15-19%. Twenty-seven give 10-15%. Eight give 5-10%. Eleven give 1-5%. Five dioceses do not give anything at all. The current median is 16%."

The irony should not be missed. The Diocese of Pennsylvania is the eighth largest diocese in the Episcopal Church and gives a mere 4.9% to the national church...the legacy of Charles E.Bennison. Georgia, a much smaller diocese, gave 13.6% last year. If consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, TEC has it in spades.

The income of The Episcopal Church is not limited to income from dioceses which comprises just under 66% of the total income. Of the $111.5 Million budget for 2012-2015, the projected income from diocesan askings is $73.5 Million. Other revenue, including income from investments and rental income from the Church Center in New York, is projected to rise. That means the overall revenue would go up $4.6 million across the triennium in this budget projection. This increase in income is more than offset by expanding costs, the largest of which is the rising cost of benefits to Church Center employees.

As Bishop Benhase points out, the conversation has been limited to how we will manage ever-scarcer dollars or how we might motivate people and dioceses to give more. "While those are worthy conversations, they will not address the long-term funding arc that is not likely to change if we limit the conversation to only those topics."

One suggestion to putting teeth into the budget is by turning asking into assessments. With the $200,000 deduction, those not giving their full assessment would lose their voice and vote on the budget at both CCAB and General Convention levels and not be eligible for program funds, such as a Mission Enterprise Zone Grant. These dioceses would retain their seat in convention and continue to have voice and vote on other matters.

What Benhase wants is a three-legged stool that incorporates those two traditional sources and a third (new) leg, for-profit business ventures. "In some ways, this 'a back to the future' strategy. For centuries many of our religious communities have 'paid their way' by operating wineries, farms, and the like. They produced goods and services that people needed. And they were willing to pay market prices to these religious communities for those goods and services.

"We have amazingly gifted lay leaders in our Church who are venture capitalists and experienced entrepreneurs. They have the know-how to partner with the Church to create business models that will produce both meaningful work for people in the businesses we start as well as income for the Church as a resource for mission. The Church can get "in the business of" goods and services we care about: affordable housing, green technology, sustainable agriculture, etc. There is real money to be made in all these areas as well as in other areas, that is, if we partner with the gifted people who could guide us. Yes, some of these future ventures will fail and the financial investment will be lost. That is the way capitalism works. But others will be successful and produce the revenue we need for evangelization and community witnessing."


There are problems with this. The average age of an Episcopalian is 65 with parish average Sunday attendance being about 61. They are not the entrepreneurial generation.

The deeper question is why would this millennial generation raise money for The Episcopal Church for which they would see little return on their investment? I know how money is spent in TEC; it is spent badly. What about $40 million in legal fees is an inspiration to give money to TEC? Why would anyone trust Katharine Jefferts Schori to spend millions more dollars on a vague understanding of "God's Mission" that does not include the Great Commission, evangelism, discipleship, or church planting. Throwing money at any social project that looks good to TEC's leaders might not look so good to Millennials who have a totally different understanding of how money should be spent.

Furthermore, even a venture capitalist or small time businessman has to pay bills, the mortgage, and his kids education. Still only 1 in 5 small businesses make it in the marketplace.

One unimpressed Clergy Deputy, the Rev. Susan Snook observed, "TREC's members don't name it specifically in the report, but many of their recommendations seem to be aimed at providing palliative care for a patient that has entered a long, slow, inevitable decline".

Calling himself "The Crusty Old Dean," this blogger said his trust in TREC is no more. "The TREC report is, at times, an inchoate mishamash of the hyperspecific and the almost frustratingly vague, and this may be an element in its possible undoing. The report runs the risk of kicking too much of what it was tasked to doing to the Convention itself, including an almost complete absence of financial implications for the restructuring it proposes, which means it will may, in turn, get kicked down the road again."

Another blogger wrote, "I have been ordained for 35 years and a rector for 32 years. Beyond providing the services of the pension fund and now health insurance I can think of nothing I have used from the national church office that I could not have gotten otherwise. And other than management of my health insurance (which they charge a fee for.) and an annual visit of a bishop I think I can count on one or two hands anything significant in the way of services I have received from the diocese. And no I am not an isolationist and have served on commissions and committees. I think I am an average priest living my faith and doing my job. All this is my long way of saying I see nothing in TREC that will make the National office or my diocese more relevant to me, my ministry or the people of the church I serve and that may lead to a collapse if we cease to fund irrelevant entities."


CORRECTION to this story. I wrote that Pennsylvania was the fourth largest diocese in TEC. That is not correct. It is now the eighth largest having fallen from the position under the reign of Charles E. Bennison.

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