Sunday, April 30, 2006

Need to Balance The Church Headquarters Budget? Fire the Prophets

The Presbyterian Church (USA), my denomination, will announce another $9.5 million dollars in cuts to headquarters operations tomorrow. This will be the third or fourth major downsizing (I have lost track) since the reunited church created the Presbyterian Center in Louisville in 1988. It probably won't be the last. The Presbyterian Church loses a small city's worth of members every year. As the base shrinks, the money flowing downstream to HQ dries up, too.

The church's membership losses have not been the main reason that the denominational center faces another budget crisis, though. The money going to local congregations has actually been pretty steady. However, fewer and fewer congregations have been willing to send their per capita tax – ok, it isn't really a tax, but it is a highly suggested voluntary contribution – down the line to the higher judicatories, the more centralized offices of the denomination. And while there are many members who give extra gifts to their own congregations, and even to the presbyteries (regional bodies) that make up the Presbyterian Church, fewer and fewer give directly to the denomination.

I think the main reason that headquarters is being starved for money is that the rank and file don't trust that their gifts will be well spent. Let me be clear here – I have many friends in the Presbyterian Center, and I think HQ does many important jobs for the church. The quiet work of supporting congregations gets few headlines, but is most welcome to those who get helped.

The headlines, though, go to the self-styled prophets who work for the church, who "get out ahead" of the denomination to lead the church into social changes that the prophets know Jesus – or JusticeLove – would want us to do. In my church these change just so happen to always be in a leftist direction. I would have the same objection, though, to rightist prophets working in the central church staff.

Church bureaucrats should not be prophets; prophets should not be church bureaucrats.

As a rule of thumb, I would say that people who tell you that they are prophets, aren't. In the Bible, the kind of official prophets who work for the establishment get shown up by the real prophets who are sent by God.

The church needs prophets, as does society as a whole. That is why God keeps sending them. The place of prophets is outside the house of power, speaking truth. The Presbyterian Center is a house of power. It needs servants who the local congregations can trust. If the church trusted the HQ, the money would flow.


Denis Hancock said...

Your point about "prophets" that occupy positions of power is one that I had not considered.

I look forward to seeing how Louisville presents this, and how our friend on GAC analyzes it.

Quotidian Grace said...

Thanks to Denis who linked this post.

You make a wonderful point that I agree with. I wish it would happen--but I'm concerned that since the "prophets" are inside HQ, they will fight very hard to stay there and they have supporters outside the church who will help.

We'll all keep a sharp eye out on the doings at the GAC this week.

Gruntled said...

True, though the fallout from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy meeting with Palestinian terrorists does show that it is possible to fire prophets sometime.

Michael W. Kruse said...

Excellent Post! Although actually per capita is staying quite stable. It is unrestricted unified mission giving that is drying up.

The curious thing I find being on the GAC is that ACSWP and other entities of the General Assembly generate about 90% of the controversial press. ACSWP and these other oracles are entities of the GA over which the GAC has no oversight. People get angry about actions of ACSWP and withhold mission funds from the GAC. Such is the fun nature of my role on the GAC. *grin*

Lest you think GAC members are unaware about these "prophetic" adventures and the damage they do, be assured they are not. The first step is to get a focused and accountable structure in place. For the first time we are moving rapidly toward that goal. With that in place we then have the ability to weigh the value of one activity versus another. You can rest assured that paid prophets is low on my list of priorities. I am not alone.

Gruntled said...

Per capita may be steady, but only because presbyteries make up for congregational shortfalls and withholding, which in turn hurts presbyteries.

I am glad to hear of the silver lining of this controversy -- that it helps us move to a more accountable structure.

Larry said...

"Per capita may be steady, but only because presbyteries make up for congregational shortfalls and withholding,"


Our church stopped sending per capita some years ago. Yet our presbytery makes it up. If the truth be known a lot of churches are not sending to per capita to GA. GA does not want anyone to know how much of their per capita receipts are made up by the presbytery.

The 11,000 churches in the PCUSA have for too long been complicit in the radical prophetic noises coming from Louisville. For example, many church members will say "we support Israel" and then turn around and cut a check to Louisville so another entourage can have lunch with Hezbollah.

Wendy said...

I have a little different take on why the money seems to be drying up. It seems to me that our churches are doing pretty good in the percapita giving ... that is most Presbyterians are supporting their church at greater percentages than earlier. But, since so many congregations are losing members and they need to keep up their buildings and infrastructure, the local budget cuts are almost always in the area of unified giving. That happens on the congregational level, the presbytery level and the synod level. The real question is ... how do we turn around an aging and declining denomination? I think there are some good answers out there, but it means taking a hard look at what it really means to be Presbyterian, and being willing to change other non-core issues in order to engage a changing culture.

Gruntled said...

I don't know, Wendy -- it seems to me that the most effective evangelists, the ones most successful in "reaching the cutlure," are likely to be the most fed up with the HQ prophets.

David Robertson said...

The larger question is: Does the denomination need to be turned around? Does the PCUSA offer something unique in God's world that it needs preserving? Or is it an artifact of another time and a modern culture?

I'm not pretending to know the answer to those questions. But I don't think we should assume that the PCUSA is an integral part of the kingdom, no matter how much it "feels like home" for some of us.

Michael W. Kruse said...

Presbyteries are indeed making per capita payments. They are not required to raise the presbytery payment by allocating a proportional per capita amount to congregations but the great majority do. Technically the system is working but the disaffection of congregations who have been withholding is real (forcing presbyteries to draw on other sources) and is a clear sign all is not well.

Everything I have seen analyzing the decline in funds points ultimately in one direction: Competition. For almost everything denominations have done in the past there is now a competitor outside the denomination willing to offer the same services (ex. curriculum, missionary service, leadership training.) Furthermore, congregations are evermore inclined to directly fund local mission rather then sending money elsewhere to have a portion come back to them in local mission.

It seems to me two problems have an impact on dollars raised. One is the subject of this post. The usurpation of the body’s anointed role as a prophetic presence by a small group claiming prophetic anointing unto themselves disaffects people from the denomination. The other is a core communication problem by denominational leaders.

When I work with budding entrepreneurs I have them memorize the phrase, “Features tell, benefits sell.” Business people (and ministers) are inclined to tell what they do but the customer couldn’t care less. They want to know what the benefits are. The broader church asks of what benefit is an entity like the GAC? The GAC responds by listing features. Part of getting the GAC focused on outcomes and objectives is to get us talking about benefits instead of features.

Gruntled said...

"Features tell, benefits sell" is excellently put. My whole approach to religion, within the denomination as well as among denominations, is to point out the benefits (and inevitability) of competition.

Larry said...

M. Kruse---
You need to factor in another variable. Inflation.

I did a recent study comparing 1998 to 2004.

The costs to operate the 11,000 churches went up 17%.

The membership declined by 9%

The remaining members now have to pay 27% more in 2004 than they did in 1998 to keep their churches operating.

Members are getting tapped out.

Michael W. Kruse said...

Good point, Larry. As memory serves me, giving at the congregational level is actually increasing ahead of inflation levels. However, smaller percentages of the money are leaving the congregation for higher judicatories and more is earmarked for local ministry.

Gruntled said...

Is there an identifiable group that gives with directly confidence to Louisville?

Michael W. Kruse said...

Sorry. I am not sure I understand the question. (Long day and I am more dense than usual.) Could you elaborate more?

Gruntled said...

Doesn't help that I wrote my question so poorly (long day here, too).

There are people who give happily to their local congregations. There are some who give happily to their presbytery, and perhaps to a specific project run by their synod. There are many parachurch organizations connected with our denomination with a loyal support base. There are even specific projects, such as disaster relief or specific missionaries, run from Louisville that people will happily give to directly. But is there any constituency of members (not lower judicatories) who have such confidence in Louisville that they write checks with no strings and send them to the Presbyterian Center? There used to be more of one. That is, in part, where the endowment funds that support much of what goes on their came from. But in my travels in the church, even among the polity wonks and church cadres, I very rarely run across Presbyterians with that kind of confidence in our national bureaucracy in general.

Michael W. Kruse said...


My take is very similar to yours and I expect your breadth of experience and contact is wider than mine. I know of no particular constituency that gives in an unquestioning manner out of institutional. (It would be interesting to put that question to Joey Bailey.) I know that a woman gave about 6 million dollars about eight years ago that was unrestricted, but it was notable not only because of its size but because of its unrestricted nature.

I have heard Detterick say several times that the day of asking wealthy persons for sizeable donations to perpetuate institutions are over. Wealth donors want to see specific plans and measurable impacts. Pure institutionally loyalty isn’t sufficient. This is all the more reason why we have to get off of “features” and on to “benefits,” and really drive that story home.

Gruntled said...

If Joey Bailey still had a job ...

bill reed said...

A couple of points.

1. When I first became involved in the affairs of the PCUSA, (about 13 years ago) I believe the pensions dues were 27.5% of the effective annual salary of church workers, now it is 31%. This, of course, not a development unique to the church and is mostly due to the ever rising cost of health care. So a larger percentage of the money in the system is going to the pension/health care system, to provide for ministers and other workers. This leaves less money available for other programs like those at the GAC. It is a relatively small factor, but still a factor worth mentioning.

2. That leads me to another point. The Board of Pensions, The Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation are all significant parts of the national presence of the PCUSA. I don’t recall reading about many reductions at those entities. (There was a reorganization of the Foundation a couple of years back that got some publicity, but I don’t think too many jobs were lost and the last time I was at the Foundation’s building they were working on an addition.) These organizations are, generally less involved in controversial issues than the GAC and I suppose less likely to be seen as the false prophets that Beau suggests.

3. The list of people being laid off was, in a sense, impressive. Most of the members of the Staff Leadership Team (Kearns, McClure, Locklear, Campbell, Bailey) are among those being laid off on October 1. This means that the persons largely responsible for planning this reorganization included themselves in the layoffs. I realize that a lesser number of new positions will be created and these folks would be logical candidates, still I find this to be impressive.

4. Perhaps naming names is hard, but I would be interested to hear about some actions that constitute being “prophets.” One which comes to mind is Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick joining many other mainline leaders in condemning the invasion of Iraq. Is that an example of being a prophet? (I realize that the Stated Clerk is technically not part of the GAC but that distinction is lost on most people.)

Gruntled said...

It is impressive that they included the top assistants in the cuts. I expect most will be hired back, but still, John Dettrick's point that this is a re-organization, and not just a cutback, is potentially a gain. (I should note that I posted this blog before anything had been released about which people or which units would be cut).

The Board of Pensions, The Presbyterian Foundation, and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation all, I believe, "rest on their own bottoms" -- they make the money to pay for their own staffs. That is why they are not included in these cuts.

As to naming names, I have already mentioned the egregious example of Presbyterian Center staff who met with Hezbollah. Before that we can go back to the staffers who helped organize and fund the Re-Imagining Conference. Those instances are notable because heads actually did role when the prophets-in-the-institution went too far.

Michael W. Kruse said...

"This means that the persons largely responsible for planning this reorganization included themselves in the layoffs."

I think you have hit on a core issue here. The senior staff "gets it" and if anyone had doubt about us seriously trying to change I hope this point does not go unappreciated. They may not have laid down their live but they laid down their livelihoods. In the future, when we GAC types want to get petty about this or that action toward pet projects, what do you think we will be confronting in the back of our minds?

It is true that they will be eligible to apply for positions in the new structure but they have zero guarantees. The staff has been a shining example of servant leadership.

J. Tyler Ward, II said...

As a member of the COGA (Committee on the Office of the General Assembly) I have resisted the urge to publicly comment on the entire malaise of the PCUSA, but this discussion raises questions that I feel I can constructively contribute to.

1st- At the 216th GA in Richmond, I was the one behind the "I'm Enthusiastic about the PCUSA!" buttons, so the comments I'm about to make are not from someone who has been perpetually frustrated with the national church.

2nd- Having served a term on COGA, I'm as disappointed and disgusted with the work of that entity as I believe a human can be. What this has made me realize, is that a prophetic mentality permeates many of those involved at the national level, both staff and elected leaders. There is substantial manipulation of process which I personally experience on COGA and those engaging in it think they're so savvy it goes unnoticed. Wrong!

3rd- I believe there is a REAL unwillingness to tolerate dissent from the proscribed mentality/ideology that is so present. I don't think it happens that much with GAC because it is so much larger, but COGA, it has been my experience, that any type of dissent is scorned upon. No, they tell you to your face that this view on an issue isn't tolerated, but rather you know it when you're treated substantially different than you were when you first came on the committee. From the idle chit-chat that used to occur that doesn't now, to the juvenile actions that you would expect in a cafeteria full of middle schoolers.

4th- It not only occurs at the national level, but I was in a committee meeting today at the presbytery level where it was suggested that this committee make a recommendation that was intentionally misleading! --Now that is the Church of Jesus Christ!

5th- With these experiences, I can understand the cynical attitude of the Layman, even if I know they exaggerate and mis-report information. I can understand the feeling of betrayal, the sense that an institution and people in whom I have put my trust, and those responsible have abrogated that trust with seeming moral conviction!

It's not only the prophets that have to go, it's those who have used the positions entrusted to them by the church to make themselves head of the Church instead of Jesus Christ!

Also, currently working in an active political campaign for a Sheriff who is committed to eradicating corruption, I've realized that in the secular arena, you can expect corrupt dirty deals behind closed doors, but in the church, I would have thought and hoped for a higher standard, since we serve the highest of all standards-Christ!

I won't be handing out buttons that say read "I'm Enthusiastic about the PCUSA!" but will be fervently praying for God's transformation that I believe he has already started with this GAC re-organization!

Despite this behavior, we are still called to love our neighbors, and so I will do, not necessarily feeling warm and fuzzy about them, but rather through prayer and in resisting the temptations to respond in an un-Christ like manner during interaction.

(Disclaimer: As a staunch Calvinist, I am fully aware of my total depravity, so I don't want to come across as presenting myself as somehow superior, but rather to strive for a higher standard.)

Michael W. Kruse said...

Tyler, thanks for your observations about COGA. I have had so little dealing with COGA that I have no good read on the dynamics involved. I do know that the GAC is experiencing massive paradigms shifts and I pray that the same shifts will spread to COGA and beyond.

I still haven't decided about attending GA. If I go and you are there, I'll look for, or maybe we can connect at some future joint COGA/GAC event. I'd love to chat with you.