Sunday, October 22, 2006

Presbyteries Should Not Cover for Protesting Congregations

The national offices of the Presbyterian Church are funded, in part by a per capita assessment on every member. Per capita is assessed by each congregation, which is responsible for passing a fixed amount up the line to fund the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly work. A few congregations around the country withhold their per capita, or that portion which is supposed to go to the synod and General Assembly as a protest. In addition, a number of congregations don't pay their full per capita because they can't afford to.

The official position of the church is that per capita is not a tax – the church is a voluntary organization, no one has to pay. On the other hand, no one has a right to withhold per capita as a protest.

Presbyteries are responsible for sending the full per capita up the line. This rule was invented to cover impoverished churches more than protesters. If a poor church could not pay one year, a richer church would be expected to pay more and all the congregations would look out for one another. Sometimes, though, the presbyteries cannot or will not cover the missing per capita. This year, the shortfall is expected to top $400,000.

When a congregation withholds part of its per capita as a protest, however, the protest is lost if the presbytery simply covers the shortfall.

I think this is a loss for the whole church. The highest levels of the church should be constantly aware of grass-roots protest. If disaffected locals find their voice stifled this way, they are more likely to exit the denomination altogether.

Let the protests be show. Publish all the congregational names. We all need to know what's going on at the grassroots, painful and embarrassing though it may be.


Quotidian Grace said...

I agree with you. I expect to see overtures in different presbyteries (including mine) to change this policy since the BOO requires presbyteries to pay it "if funds are available".

Alan said...

I agree. I think it's important to know who is withholding per capita so that charges can be filed immediately against the offending sessions.

Tyler Ward said...

Alan, you miss the point! Charges can't be filed against an "offending session" the General Assembly Perm. Judicial Commission ruled on that a few years ago. The presbytery can't even penalize a congregation which doesn't pay per capita, by not allowing them to take out a loan, which was what happened in Kansas.

I agree with Gruntled in that stifling grass roots protest is like trying to put out a fire with a squirt gun! If the fire exists, we need to know where it is, and what started it. The utter failure of the national leadership to see this is what makes them not only ineffective, but damaging to the church.

The bigger point is: YOU CAN'T PENALIZE PEOPLE IN VOLUNTARY ORGANIZATIONS! Granted the church itself is not voluntary, but when people can EASILY take and give THEIR money elsewhere, and a bureaucracy which they find stifling tries to impose upon them--it's a lose/lose situation.

Denis Hancock said...

One factor that we might consider is the recent move by GAC to enable Mission activities at the presbytery and lower levels, rather than trying to manage Mission from the top down. This was a quiet revolution and the PC(USA)'s statistics show that during the past couple decades Mission giving has gone up but unrestricted giving has gone down. GAC was wise enough to recognize reality and chose to work within it, rather than fight it.

I am uncomfortable with withholding per capita, but I recognize that there is a strong sense of mistrust that has built for a long time. I agree that the Louisville organization needs to be doing a little introspection and trying to find out where the breakdown is happening and what they can do about it.

If presbyteries are strongly encouraged (forced?) to pay the per capita for protesting congregations, then it can only cripple mission at the level where it is being most effectively carried out.

Stuart Gordon said...

This sounds like a song I've heard before, a rather discordant one. One melody sings about a denomination that will not function outside of mutual consent; another melody sings about coercive power from above. The irony is that I hear Alan singing like a coercive leader, and q.g. singing about mutuality.

But really, it isn't an irony. It's one of the core issues underneath the reunion, still among us. Is the denomination a regulatory agency or is it a mission agency? Does it keep everyone in line or does it enable shared action?

Practically speaking, the G.A. acting as a law enforcement officer on such a minor issue as per capita is a lost cause.

Gruntled said...

Thank you, Denis, for pointing out the "quiet revolution" of Louisville re-imagining the presbyteries as mission agencies. I think this is hopeful all around.

Alan said...

"Alan, you miss the point! Charges can't be filed against an "offending session" the General Assembly Perm. Judicial Commission ruled on that a few years ago. "

Sorry...I guess my sarcasm doesn't always translate well to an electronic medium. The fact that charges can't stand hasn't stopped people from filing them in other situations.

The real irony is that it is those who are supposedly "conservative" who are the ones most interested in severing ties -- whether that's monetary ties or leaving the denomination. I guess they've just found a safe way to be disobedient.

Mark Smith said...

Extortion is not a Christ-like value.

In any community system, people will win sometimes and lose sometimes. We all need to learn to lose gracefully and not try to harm the community by withholding our gifts.

We KNOW that some are protesting - they are howling quite loudly enough. How do we avoid hurting missionaries overseas when a local congregation decides to extort changes from the denomination by using money as a weapon rather than a gift?

Alex said...

"How do we avoid hurting missionaries overseas when a local congregation decides to extort changes from the denomination by using money as a weapon rather than a gift?"

I agree. Sure -- go ahead and post the names of the congregations that withhold per capita. I think it would be a *great* demonstration, not of their grass-roots protesting, but of their lack of grace in the face of a situation that all sides are struggling with.

Stuart Gordon said...

I tend to see the per capita issue from the perspective of a minister, and as such frown upon witholding money as a means of protest. But I try to see it from the perspective of an elder who strongly disagrees with various denominational actions.

What is a person's offering to the church? Why is it that someone freely gives a portion of his or her income and wealth to the church? Surely, the motives are many. Surely, there is altruism and there is sin implicated in all our deeds. But by and large, church people give gladly. What they want is simply good stewardship: they want to see their church(es) being stewards of money in the same way that pastors call members to be stewards.

It is no stretch of imagination to perceive gifts to the P.C. (U.S.A.) as investments in God's mission in the world. Whenever the denomination seems to lose track of that mission, of course giving will become less stable. I would fully expect a session's budget to shrink, should it get sidetracked in its priorities.

The question to me is not "to withold or not to withold?" The question is in the gray areas of what constitutes departing from mission. Presbyterians have been quite willing, as Denis said, to direct their mission giving to Presbyterian causes that have the trust of givers.

When has the denomination lost track of the mission, badly enough to justify witholding per capita? There is no black-and-white answer to that. Sometimes, grace and wisdom would call us to continue giving, even when we judge the church to be off track. Our aim in the church, after all, is always the restoration of relationships and lives.

Brett said...

I don't want to restore anything. I want these congregations out of the denomination. I'm so sick and tired of this namby-pamby crap. Just kick out the offenders. If this causes the death of our denomination, so be it. Presbyterianism doesn't deserve to continue existing if all it does is soft-pedal this bald extortion. This call for expulsion should apply to ministers, elders, members, and anyone else who can't get with the program. Go be prophetic somewhere else where your money stinks less.