Each morning at an Executive Council meeting, we begin with prayers and meditation on a Bible passage. At my table last week, during our discussion of one passage, a member said that every time he stands up to preach, or to lead a church group or meeting, he says to himself, “I hope this is about Jesus.”
It’s a good way to think about what Council does. All the minutiae of budgets, by-laws, and boards – tiresome as it can be, I hope it’s about Jesus. And surely it is. The way we use our resources, organize ourselves to make decisions, and argue and advocate for different positions, may be complex. But in the end, if all that politics helps us to advance the mission of Jesus, it’s all worth it. I hope.
Executive Council just concluded its February 2014 meeting, and addressed some important issues, though we left some questions unresolved. We have mountains of work to do, and not enough time in our three-day meetings to plow through all of it, though we do the best we can.
You can read a full report of our decisions on the Episcopal News Service site, here. While many areas Council worked on at this meeting were important (such as addressing human trafficking and football team names that support racial stereotypes), I want to talk about a few issues in particular here. My apologies for a long blog post aimed at Episcopal Church groupies!
First, after much debate and dissension in the blogosphere over conflict between Church Center staff and some former board members of the United Thank Offering, Council approved new by-laws for the UTO.
The GAM (Governance and Administration for Mission) committee heard heartfelt explorations of the issues that led to the controversy at our last meeting (October 2013). Those discussions were in executive session, so I wasn’t privy to their content (I serve on FFM, the Finances for Mission committee). GAM then formed a committee of Council members who worked with current UTO board members to come to an agreement. The only Church Center staff member present was Paul Nix, the legal counsel. This group met over four days in January 2014, and did a lot of work to get to know each other, to explore the history and mission of UTO, and to discuss the way the UTO operates. They came out of their meeting with a unanimous proposal for new by-laws and a new memorandum of understanding (MOU).
I asked Steve Hutchinson, the chair of GAM, to explain why new by-laws were necessary. He said there were some unworkable provisions in the old by-laws, such as the requirement for a 75% affirmative vote for anything to pass; a no-excuses rule that required every board member to be present at every meeting, with one absence a cause for dismissal; and presidential power to dismiss any other board member at any time without reason. I read through the new by-laws, and concluded that they were simply innocuous. I have no objection to them; they are simply a standard set of governance by-laws.
I had a few more questions about the MOU, which I shared with Steve privately and in Council session. My basic concern is that parts of the MOU can be interpreted in a way that allows Episcopal Church leadership (however that is defined) to create granting criteria for the UTO, and I do not believe it is Council’s intention to impose our judgment (or the staff’s) on the UTO. Steve assured me that that was not the intention, that everyone understands that the process would be: (1) the UTO creates granting criteria and proposes them to Council; (2) Council ratifies them in our usual rubber-stamp manner when given a proposal that others have labored hard over; (3) UTO goes away and does the work to determine grant recipients; (4) Council approves their grant requests (again, a rubber stamp in every situation I am aware of). Steve also assured me that the MOU (unlike by-laws) is not a legal document, but one that will continue to evolve and be modified, and that my concerns will be taken into account as the MOU is corrected and changed over the next few months.
For the record, I voted in favor of the new by-laws, because as I said above, they are simply innocuous. I voted against the MOU, because I would rather have a “fully evolved” and clear understanding of the process in any MOU that is adopted. However, I do trust Steve that the intent is right, and that all parties are satisfied. At some point, I hope Christians can stop relying on paper documents to do our work, and start trusting and working in partnership with each other. I think that the UTO and Council are already at that point, and I hope that whatever conflicts have existed between the UTO and staff will be reconciled. I am deeply grateful for the hard work that has been done by Steve Hutchinson and the other Council members to reach this point.
Once again, it should be clearly stated: no donated money will go to any other cause than to UTO grants. UTO administrative costs are paid entirely from UTO trust funds, which are administered by DFMS. We can all trust that our thank offerings are going 100% to their intended recipients.
Note that there is continuing confusion and unclarity about the status of “boards” (such as the UTO, the Board of Transition Ministries, the Archives, etc.), and how much oversight Church Center leadership has over staff working in areas of board operations. These groups are not separate legal entities, but are parts of DFMS and are legally subject to Executive Council/General Convention oversight. How much oversight staff is authorized to exercise is a curious question. GAM is undertaking further work to clarify this question, and I look forward to seeing their report.
Location of the Church Center
I serve on the subcommittee for the Location of the Church Center, which is working to respond to Resolution D016 from the 2012 General Convention, which stated that it is the will of Convention to move the Church Center away from 815 Second Avenue, New York City. There are two separate and interrelated questions involved here. First, if we are going to move, where should we go and what is our vision for a reconstituted Church Center (or similar creature by another name)? Second, what should we do with the real estate asset that we leave behind? We are making some progress on both of these questions, though they are large and complex questions that cannot be answered quickly. I can’t say much about what we are doing in response to the second question, because these deliberations are confidential due to real estate valuation considerations. But please believe me that we are progressing well on the real estate question.
With regard to the first question, we have received some very helpful responses to our survey conducted last fall. We had nearly 1200 responses, and they listed the following as the top five most important factors for a new Church Center to embody:
- Is affordable
- Provides affordable nearby accommodations
- Provides excellent hospitality
- Provides affordable meeting space
- Provides easy access for members to fly to
“Affordable” is obviously a very important consideration, as is the idea that a new Church Center should be a gathering place that people can get to easily, gather comfortably, and stay nearby at a reasonable price. This is a vision that I certainly agree with. We will be researching how we can respond to these hopes, and reporting back on our progress.
Budget for the Current Triennium
Good news on the budget front for the current triennium – we expect to receive $885,000 more per year in 2014 and 2015 than budgeted, mostly due to better than expected collections from two large dioceses. At our October meeting, Council agreed to use $258,000 to fund a new racial reconciliation officer. At the February meeting, we agreed to use $150,000 to fund a critically needed digitization project at the Archives.
In addition, we expect to use $312,000 in 2015 to support the Anglican Communion Office, in response to a request from the Presiding Bishop. If approved, this will raise our ACO commitment from $700,000 for the triennium to $1,012,000. According to Presiding Bishop Katharine, her request came not only in recognition of greatly improved relations with the Communion, but also as a gesture of support for some very beneficial work, such as the continuing Indaba project and reconciliation work. We did not officially vote on this request at this meeting, because it affects the 2015 budget, which does not come up for an official vote until October. However, I expect we will approve it then. Note that our 2013 and 2014 payments to the ACO were made as if we were spreading a total of $1,012,000 over three years. If the increased 2015 budget is not approved in October, the ACO will experience a severe cut, to $25,333 in 2015.
I support the archives work and the ACO increase, but I hope the budget requests stop there. These new revenues and expenditures will leave us with a surplus of about $1,050,000. In my view, this money should be used to reimburse the endowment for part of the cost of the Development Office. The Development Office announced the receipt of a pledge for $5 million for work in Haiti, which is good – they have now officially broken even, and have raised more than it costs to run the office. They always said it would take time to build their contact list, and I have no doubt that success in this area is a long-term endeavor. However, I don’t think the Development Office should be funded from the endowment. If the office were raising funds for the endowment, this might be appropriate, but they are not. They are raising funds for projects like Haiti and Navajoland – critical needs, but operating, not endowment needs. We need to find ways to fund this office from operations.
Budget Proposal for the Next Triennium
One of the most important responsibilities of Executive Council is to propose a budget to the next General Convention. The last two triennia, it has been a fiasco. Without rehearsing those prior failures, I can say that I came into Council determined that we should not repeat them. I was promptly appointed the chair of the Budget Process subcommittee, which has been working almost since the beginning of this triennium to put together the 2015 budget proposal. We hope that this will be a document that embodies a true, inspiring, vision for the church.
Here’s what we’ve done so far: requested all the CCABs (Commissions, Committees, Agencies, and Boards) to undergo a visioning process and tell us of their visionary priorities for the church’s work in the next triennium. The Standing Committees of Council have now reviewed those priorities and ranked their most important ones. Among our findings from this process:
- First, there is widespread agreement about continuing to engage in Marks of Mission initiatives, and in some cases expanding them.
- The current work being done in Mission Enterprise Zones, Province IX Sustainability, Young Adult Service Corps, and Engagement with Domestic Poverty was widely supported.
- Some other exciting and visionary initiatives were proposed.
- There was great interest in expanding our work with underrepresented ethnic groups, including evangelism, church planting, leadership development and support, strategic planning, providing resources in non-English languages, and anti-racism training.
- There was interest in considering issues of lifelong Christian formation, ranging from a church-wide conversation on theological education to grants for campus ministries to paying special attention to Christian formation of non-English speakers.
- There was a proposal to hold hearings across the country on issues of injustice and racism.
- There was an idea to encourage companion relationships between TEC parishes and dioceses and parishes and dioceses in other countries by providing funds for matching grants for mission projects.
In addition to these Marks of Mission projects, there were a number of excellent proposals for strengthening the ways our infrastructure supports our mission (which I won’t bore you with here).
At our June meeting we will take up the question of revenue: how much should we be asking our dioceses to pay toward support of The Episcopal Church? We currently ask 19%, but diocesan compliance with this rate varies widely, giving rise to much resentment on the part of dioceses that pay the full rate toward those that do not. In my opinion, 19% is too high, and poses an unfair burden on the dedicated dioceses that pay full freight. I believe we should lower the asking rate, though it will result in millions of dollars of reduction in TEC revenues. A lower asking will allow more money to stay in local hands, where it will contribute to mission in important and tangible ways.
At the June meeting, Council will be requested to make a decision on the revenue question, so this is the time to begin making noise if you have an opinion on the subject! Once we have a revenue estimate, we can begin to create a real budget, which weighs the priorities we have identified against the revenue available.
2018 General Convention in Austin
While we’re on the subject of paying the diocesan asking – the General Convention Planning Committee brought to Council a proposal to hold the 2018 Convention in Austin, Texas. This met with a question, because the Diocese of Texas is not paying its full asking – though it has recently raised its payment to 10%. Should we be holding Convention in a diocese that does not meet its full obligations? The answer the Planning Committee gave was that they have received assurances that Texas will be increasing their payment to full compliance before 2018. After receiving this assurance, Council voted to approve Austin as the 2018 Convention site.
This raises the whole question of our unjust system of asking. The most dedicated dioceses pony up the full amount, while recalcitrant ones get away with paying much less without penalty. What kind of accountability should we have? Should large church-wide meetings be prohibited from happening in dioceses that do not pay the full amount? Should non-paying dioceses be asked to explain their choice? Should the voluntary “asking” become a required “assessment?” I hope the 2015 General Convention will take up these questions.
I Hope it’s About Jesus
I have to say that attending Council is both an exhilarating and an exhausting experience. We work hard to get a huge amount of work done in a few too-short days. We do the best we can to make wise decisions in the face of a lot of time pressure and a lot of uncertainty. Sometimes it all seems very institutional and bureaucratic, and it is. But we are ultimately doing the best we can to steer a very large ship in the direction of God’s mission. In the end, I hope it’s all about Jesus.