Late Friday afternoon the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs released a commentary on the church’s draft budget including a foreword by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, commentary by Bishop Stacy Sauls, the church’s chief operating officer, and a line-by-line explanation of the budget produced by Kurt Barnes, the church’s treasurer, in consultation with Bishop Sauls.
The budget, and the process that produced it have been the source of much anguished commentary across the church. The Very Rev. Thomas Ferguson, who blogs as the Crusty Old Dean, wrote a detailed essay brimming with frustration and a spirit of resistance that has circulated widely through social media. The Rev. Marshall Scott, chair of the deputation of the Diocese of West Missouri, filed a more irenic evaluation of the situation in a comment here on the Café.
I don’t have firm opinion about the substance of the budget, and I suspect that under the very able leadership of Bishop Steve Lane and Deputy Diane Pollard of the Program, Budget and Finance Committee, we may well arrive at a solution with which most of us are comfortable. My concern is about the damage we will inflict upon one another in getting there.
I am concerned, in particular, about how news about the budget is communicated to the church. The core of the documents released on Friday (Pages 4-20) sometimes read less like a comprehensive, evenhanded overview of the budgeting process than an attempt by one side in what I think was a principled dispute to assign blame for the woe that has befallen us in this process to the other. The Executive Council emerges from the report as incompetent and incapable of conducting the church’s business. Individuals who advocated cutting the diocesan asking from 19% to 15% are singled out by name, and cast in an especially poor light.
I nourish some slim hope that the occasionally finger-pointing, self-exculpatory nature of this document will arouse suspicion, and I wonder whether other people involved in the process will come forward to tell their own stories. I would have mixed feelings about them doing so. The church could use a fuller sense of what went wrong in this budget cycle than the document released on Friday provides, but another round of recriminations might only deepen the disillusionment with which so many Episcopalians now regard church governance.
My own disillusionment has deepened considerably in these past few days, but this has nothing to do with the budget. Politics, even church politics, is a rough and tumble business. Sometimes we say things we shouldn’t say, or question people’s motives without making the effort to understand them. (I am among those who commit this sin.) A thick skin is a prerequisite for those who want to wield influence in the church. All that notwithstanding, it appears to me that the Presiding Bishop, the chief operating officer and the treasurer (the three highest paid officers of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society) have crossed a line here. They have used one of the church’s most effective channels of communication to subtly damage the reputations of volunteers who disagreed with them. Intentionally or otherwise, they have sent a message that there is a public price to be paid for opposing them. If this practice continues it will harm the church more than any budget crisis ever could.