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

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

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

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.


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


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

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

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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