Episcopal Church vs. Episcopal Church? (on budget and mission)

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The Rev. Susan Brown Snook writes on the future of the Episcopal Church on her blog “A Good and Joyful Thing”:

Reading the proposed budget for The Episcopal Church for the next triennium, I am reminded of the classic Dickens novel, Bleak House. The plot centers around a loosely connected family named the Jarndyces. Long ago, some ancestor died and left a valuable estate, and since then, various branches of the family have been caught up in the legal case Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, questioning which of them is the rightful heir. The plot meanders through labyrinthine Dickensian twists, until at last, the lawsuit ends. Not by determining an answer, though – by using up the entire estate in legal fees. Once the last hour has been billed, there is no more property to bicker over, and the lawsuit dies.

Well, you could say The Episcopal Church is caught up in a never-ending labyrinth of plot twists, and meanwhile, our resources are being eaten up by administrative costs. In a world that is rapidly changing, in which hierarchical institutions are being flattened, and new forms of church are bubbling up, our churchwide structure is caught up in a top-heavy model of ministry that simply eats up money. I don’t believe God will let this church die – but let’s don’t let it get that close.

After the insightful comparison to the Dickens novel, Snook moves to mission and budget, reminding us of the declining numbers and the aging population in the Episcopal Church.

She then moves to an impressive grasp of the numbers, how they tie to mission, and the problem of eliminating Christian Formation as a “short-term solution.”

Short Term: avoid making major shifts. The Christian Formation office was cut under the rationale that such things are better done at the local level. I don’t agree, because I think it is tremendously short-sighted for a church that is suffering from failure to form new disciples (especially among the young), and from aging demographics, to cut youth and college programming. Strategic vision for the future would require increased, not decreased, resources for youth/young adult ministries, at all levels. True, this is a ministry that is essentially done at the local level – but we can’t simply remove all its churchwide supports and expect it to thrive on its own without strategic work to make sure other structures are in place to support it.

But that’s my argument; you can disagree. Here’s the point: if we cut Christian Formation in this budget, we are making a huge long-term decision based on narrow short-term thinking.

Also impressive is Snook’s persistence in combing through the budget and asking questions:

…there is one large and rather strange adding error. The total for line 689 is overstated by $1,412,770. I asked Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls and Treasurer Kurt Barnes for an explanation of this discrepancy (and I thank them for their careful attention to my question). It seems that in the rush of approving the budget, Executive Council first deleted 10% from this area and then may have decided to add it back in – but the details are not clear and no one really seems to know.

It is worth going over Snook’s post on “short-term technical fixes” in detail, and I am looking forward to her next post which promises to be on “Long-Term Thinking” and the adaptive challenges ahead.

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Benedict Varnum
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Benedict Varnum

I think that Rev. Snook's argument misfires in the suggestion that if there is a national event every other year (Gather), then all college students have access to Episcopal exposure.

I only have anecdotal data, not statistical, but the students who attended Gather the year I went were the students who ALREADY had an Episcopal connection. The students attended in groups, with their campus ministers (or sometimes a diocesan coordinator or a parish clergy person who had connected with the college or university nearby.

Which is to say, respectfully, Rev. Snook has the pathway backwards: Episcopal students who already have Episcopal formation will attend events that provide Episcopal exposure; students who do not already have it will not gain it through the Gather event held every other year.

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GrandmèreMimi
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My question is: which would we rather spend this money on? Giving some true spiritual support to a young generation that we are in danger of losing? Or giving 3% across-the-board pay increases to an already bloated administrative structure that absorbs 65% of the money dioceses send to 815? I really don't see any contest here.

Susan Snook, nor do I see a contest. A huge 'Amen!'

June Butler

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E B
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E B

I would love to see more work down on campuses and via chaplaincies, regardless of the mechanism.

One of the best parts of college for me was the chance to just hang with clergy. Discussions as often as not were decidedly low brow, ranging from frat parties to casual sex, but they were decidedly formative, and helped me understand that moral considerations typically come into play not in the great passages of life, but in the day-to-day transactions of existence.

Sadly, today's resource constraints, together with a culture in which clerical boundaries would too often be perceived as preventing clergy from drinking coffee and hanging out in the student union with some college kid, are resulting in the loss of one of the great formational opportunities in TEC.

On a tangential note, while I fully support efforts to eradicate inappropriate relationships in the church, the distant formalism that we sometimes see in clergy is something that strikes me both as an over-correction and a missed opportunity. For many, the model of priest as “go-to-person” in times of crisis misses the mark; of greater value is a spiritual mentor who can help in day-to-day growth. If the latter is solid, laity stands a better chance of weathering the periodic storms of life.

Eric Bonetti

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Susan--I didn't suggest that these cuts would automatically make funds available for chaplaincies (that would be very wishful thinking). As I suggested above, I think this proposed budget--and it will be changed, of course--gives us an opportunity to think critically about where and how our resources are invested.

Whether the formation office is funded at 300k, 1m, or 3m, I think we would benefit from a real conversation about how that money--however much it ends up being--is most effectively spent. However much we invest in formation, I think we ought to have a vision of what we want to create and benchmarks to measure whether we are getting there. I'm not convinced that that has been the case with the current slate of programs emerging from Y/YA office.

And that's what I mean about this proposed budget offering an opportunity: I don't think we would be having this (somewhat hard) conversation without being goaded by the crisis of reduced funding.

Jason Cox

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Susan Snook
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Susan Snook

Agreed, Jason - but you are not comparing apples to apples. Cutting the Christian Formation office does not automatically make funds available to fund college chaplaincies. What it does, is it allows the TEC budget to be increased elsewhere - in administrative functions. I do not think this is a wise or mission-oriented use of our resources.

Susan Snook

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I guess what I'm saying is, I'd rather see resources go to directly funding chaplains/chaplaincies at the micro-level. I only attended one prov gathering when I was a college chaplain, but I'm pretty sure the only students present were from colleges that had a chaplain in place. I think directly investing in chaplaincies would have the biggest impact.

Jason

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Susan Snook
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Susan Snook

Jason - Megan is indeed funded by our diocese. The point is that most of the other dioceses in our province, and probably in our church, do NOT have college chaplaincies. Therefore the provincial young adult gatherings, which are funded by TEC's Office of Christian Formation, are those college students' only Episcopal involvement.

My question is: which would we rather spend this money on? Giving some true spiritual support to a young generation that we are in danger of losing? Or giving 3% across-the-board pay increases to an already bloated administrative structure that absorbs 65% of the money dioceses send to 815? I really don't see any contest here.

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Susan Snook
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Susan Snook

Jason - Megan is indeed funded by our diocese. The point is that most of the other dioceses in our province, and probably in our church, do NOT have college chaplaincies. Therefore the provincial young adult gatherings, which are funded by TEC's Office of Christian Formation, are those college students' only Episcopal involvement.

My question is: which would we rather spend this money on? Giving some true spiritual support to a young generation that we are in danger of losing? Or giving 3% across-the-board pay increases to an already bloated administrative structure that absorbs 65% of the money dioceses send to 815? I really don't see any contest here.

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Susan--my question is, who funds Megan? (by the way, I've known Megan a long time--hi Megan! 12 people and mirrors, TEC is).

You write:

"We have abandoned a whole generation by not funding college ministries, and we are about to de-fund the last vestige of them."

I worked in and around campus ministries for years, and its very true, the church did not fund them adequately. But what little funding we did receive (this was true in Diocese of Texas and Diocese of Los Angeles), came from the diocese, not 815.

I know some of the grants listed on the blog ("Grants for new campus ministry start-ups as well as commitment to longer-term support of these missions once the initial funding is ended") did fund chaplains directly. But directly funding chaplaincies wasn't the point. The idea, as with any grant, was that at some point chaplaincies would become--sustainable?

"Sustainable" college chaplaincies is an unrealistic expectation.

I'm not sure how effectively money was flowing down to the grassroots level under the old system. But the point is, unless someone actually pays chaplains salaries at the micro level (815? Diocese? Parish?), no amount of funding for Prov Gatherings will matter. Perhaps this budget is crisis and opportunity to have a real conversation about how we should invest our resources for positive results.

Jason Cox

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Susan Snook
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Susan Snook

For a list of the kinds of things the Christian Formation office of 815 provides for the wider church, you can see here: http://buildingthecontinuum.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/implications-to-formation-if-funding-goes-away/.

For a more personal reflection on how church wide programs have affected a number of Native American youth, you can look here: https://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/young_adults/keeping_easter_alive.php.

If you want to know one reason that the deputation from Arizona is very concerned about cuts to Christian Formation, here it is. One of our deputies (Megan Castellan) is a college campus minister. She points out that the Episcopal Church has so few campus ministers that the provincial youth gatherings, which are funded by the national church, are really the only exposure most Episcopal college students have to Episcopal expressions of faith during their college tenure. We have abandoned a whole generation by not funding college ministries, and we are about to de-fund the last vestige of them.

I will point out that it is not the Church Center's role to create curriculum resources - Leader Resources and Church Publishing do a fine job of this, along with other Episcopal and non-Episcopal groups.

I will also point out that I am not proposing to eliminate the finance office - merely to freeze cost of living increases, which the current budget proposes at 3% per year for every Church Center employee, in a time when many if not most local church salaries are frozen. I think that freezing administrative costs (which comprise 65% of the church wide budget, according to my calculations) is hardly a sacrifice compared to the cost of eliminating Christian Formation.

Please note, I am not advocating that the Church Center keep funding the Christian Formation office indefinitely. (My next post will address what I think we should do in the long term.) I simply do not think it is a good strategic move suddenly to de-fund this office without any plans for how its functions will be filled by others. Let's make a visionary and strategic decision about how to encourage these ministries at the provincial, diocesan, and local levels, before we decide to just slash them out of the budget. Really, a few administrative raises are not worth this kind of non-strategic move.

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E B
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E B

Interesting points about national youth ministry.

Vicki and Benedict, do you think that a national program for youth is intrinsically flawed? Or is our program so far wide of the mark that it makes sense to devolve the whole thing?

Note that I have no opinion on either of these specific issues; I'm interested in your perspectives.

Eric Bonetti

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I think there is some wisdom in what Vicki and Brian are saying, and it resonates with my own 15+ year experience of participating in and running youth and young adult ministries in the church. There are a couple of useful resources/events that emerge from 815 (although it seems to me these could continue to exist on 250-300k annually). But there are also parallel, non-815 related TEC institutions and programs that I turn to just as often, if not more often. An example: LeaderResources which publishes the Journey to Adulthood curriculum. There are many other examples.

Jason Cox

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Vicki Zust
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Vicki Zust

I've been following the angst about this on several sites and I have to say that I agree with Benedict.

I have done youth ministry all of my adult life - as a lay and ordained person and at the diocesan and parochial levels. I have never found that the 815 Formation offices provided anything of value to those ministries.

Even the youth who went to EYE did not engage significantly more in the parish or diocesan ministries than those who went to camp or other retreats. In some cases the 815 formation folk got in the way of things happening more than they helped.

Youth and children's formation is important. Doing it well is important. The 815 formation desks don't make that happen, they don't even help it happen. They could but my 20 years of experiance says that they don't.

If we want to do denominational level formation we need to have a conversation about how to do that well - that conversation will be more effective if we are building from nothing rather than trying to adapt something that hasn't worked for a generation.

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Benedict Varnum
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Benedict Varnum

I've written a detailed comment on the Kaze piece and submitted a longer-form essay on this topic to E.Cafe, which I understand will appear later, but I'd briefly point out here that there is a strong argument in favor of this aspect of the national budget:

We as a church have not demonstrated that we have sufficient wisdom about how to run a national engagement with youth/young adult/campus ministries to warrant it "making the cut" in our current context where we have less money in the budget.

(Meanwhile, few voices are acknowledging that we have PHENOMENAL youth/young adult/campus ministries . . . happening in dioceses, camps, parishes, and campuses.)

It is all well and good to say we should be expanding every program, or that we should do visioning and discerning work to learn how to nationally engage youth/young adult/campus ministry.

But we don't have infinite resources, and E.Cafe covered recently that "many dioceses can't or won't support the general church budget at the rate that General Convention requests[...]."

We also aren't focusing on the fact that successful programs such as Young Adult Service Corps have their funding going UP, which is to say we're funding success instead of failure when the national church DOES do its engagement with young people well. Meanwhile, good parish and diocesan youth/YA/campus ministry continues.

So what should a visioning conversation about how the national church finds some way to do youth ministry come at the expense of? And what do we think we'll gain from it, beyond the soundbite: "We do youth ministry at every level of organization."?

I participated very fully in youth offerings while young myself. And now as an adult, and over the past five years, I have worked in parish youth ministry, diocesan youth ministry, interned with a campus ministry, and served as a diocesan consultant for Youth/Young Adult/Summer Camp and Campus Ministry. I have talked with a number of youth and formation ministers who acknowledge that they rarely if ever talk to the national church or get any insight about their work from that level of our general church. I am a young clergy person who doesn't get "saddled" with youth ministry, but actually has a passion for it.

In my experience, Youth and Campus Ministers, asked about national programming, usually point to two things: EYE and Gather. Fine programs, but maybe not worth eliminating a national finance office or ERD to keep. And the experience I had at Gather and the reporting I get from others is that young people usually stick in the groups they came with. Campus ministers sometimes talk about the value of meeting each other at annual conferences; we're left with the question of whether there are ecumenical alternatives or local-networking possibilities that can replace that continuing ed.

All of this is without going into the actual finances of these organizations (the campus ministry I worked with got most of its financing from the diocese; I don't recall it receiving any material support from the national church). Gather and EYE expenses for the youth attending are typically paid by parishes/campus ministries, or diocesan scholarships (which also means that it's much more likely that local dioceses or parishes that already have good youth ministry will be able to attend). There's a question to ask here as well as to whether committed volunteers could get organized and continue to run these programs, or whether they can be placed elsewhere in the national church structure (or whether they're even being eliminated? What's being done with the $200,000+ remaining in the budget?).

Youth ministers (taken as a group) are among the most tech- and social-media-savvy ministers of our churches. What if they viewed part of their professional responsibility to be connecting to one another over these networks and sharing wisdom? I am entirely confident that a GC resolution to that effect would have a much more significant (and more immediate) positive impact on youth ministries than calling for a visioning process or keeping money in the previous triennium's budget shape. It shares the wisdom we already have.

This budget doesn't represent "abandoning our future." It doesn't represent "abandoning our children." The satire I look to is not Dickens' Bleak House, but Simpsons character Helen Lovejoy who responds to any anxiety with her catchphrase "Won't somebody please think of the children?"

Not all the budget critiques are mere hand-wringing; the process could be more transparent (especially as our church grows into the new possibilities presented to us by social media and internet networking). We really DO need to have serious conversations about what choices we make as a general church. But the dioceses I've been part of have great youth ministry, and the youth are committed Christians, which is more important to me than them being committed Episcopalians (most of them happen to be both). And in places where we don't have great youth ministry, I haven't seen anything to show me that putting more money into a national church youth line item is going to bring it to life.

your essay at Daily Episcopalian will run starting 4/13. ~ed.

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Susan Kleinwechter
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Susan Kleinwechter

Thank you to the Rev. Snook for sharing such thoughful insights.

I am ready for my church to engage in strategic visioning for growth. It’s essential to a large, hierarchical nonprofit organization with budget woes, an outdated operations model, and declining membership.

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Nicole Porter
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Nicole Porter

That's a good point too Eric, I'm not happy about this budget at all.

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E B
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E B

I hope the other part of Susan's comments also garners some discussion, which is around the de-funding of our work with youth. My perspective aligns with hers, as I believe it's a recipe for trouble when we ignore young people. As the future of the church, they are one of the best possible investments and support for their needs is one of the best gifts we can give.

Eric Bonetti

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Nicole Porter
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Nicole Porter

I agree with whoever the above poster is. We just can't write off our low parishioner numbers as "Well, everyone else is losing numbers too so...". Everyone isn't in the red like we are either.

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A Facebook User
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A Facebook User

My heart aches for my beloved Episcopal Church. There is a confusion and cynicism among the clergy and polite compliance among the laity. We keep shooting large holes in the historic faith and shy away from anything that actually sounds like biblical preaching and then wonder why we are losing population. Maybe we are not the "enlightened ones" we think we are. Maybe we simply need to consider what it means to hold the tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Ironically, there are few other denominations better suited to bring the radical message of the risen and living Christ to the world, if we can just quit apologizing for it.

Dear A Facebook User -- please sign your name next time you comment. Thanks for participating. ~ed.

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

See Kaze Gadaway's essay in the Daily Episcopalian section of the Café for one program affected by the budget.

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E B
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E B

Kurt,

Thanks for posting this. I was not familiar with Susan's blog, but she has done a great job in analyzing the budget.

It's interesting, too--one of the metrics that charities use to measure their peformance is their ratio of admin to program costs. If we use that measure, TEC isn't doing well. At all.

Perhaps it indeed is time to sell the office building--but it sure would be good see a strategic plan before we make any more major changes.

Eric Bonetti

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