This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Against the 2015 Elizabeth Presbytery Proposed Budget.

            I intend to vote against the budget and Personnel Committee proposals coming to the Stated Meeting of Elizabeth Presbytery on December 9.  This budget goes against several basic principles of our faith and polity.  I hope that we turn from this approach and instead start asking ourselves deeper and more primary questions about the nature of discipleship, the mission of the church, and the role of a presbytery, and what our trust in the Lord Jesus leads us to do.   
            The proposed budget includes 4 major strategies for addressing a crisis framed purely in terms of money.  Each is breathtakingly short-sighted and guaranteed to make the situation worse.  With this budget we are continuing to careen from crisis to crisis with these thrown-together, ad hoc, last-minute, money-driven technical fixes.
            Here are the proposals for the 2015 presbytery budget and why I must oppose them, followed by some alternative proposals:      

1.  “We can save money by not paying our full per capita assessment to the synod and GA.”

            If we do this we are adopting the policy of some sessions to pay to the presbytery only what church members happen to contribute earmarked for per capita, something we have consistently advised against.  It is not individuals but sessions that are asked to remit the per capita assessment to the presbytery.  It is not sessions but presbyteries that are asked to remit the assessment to the higher councils. 
            If we start paying only what sessions remit, we are giving sessions an incentive to take the same approach.  If more sessions follow the presbytery’s example, the impact on the ability of this presbytery to serve its constituent churches could be severe.  It will also mean that the projected per capita income for 2015 is probably too high. 
            This self-serving and short-sighted action would also severely damage our covenantal relationships with our sister and brother Presbyterians in the synod and nationally.
            And the declaration of “a state of financial crisis” seems a bit overstated for a presbytery that has several hundred thousand dollars in the bank and still has an executive costing 6 figures.  By this reasoning who isn’t in a state of financial crisis?
            This proposal undermines the integrity of the per capita system.  It incentivizes churches to only pay to the presbytery what individuals donate for that purpose.
Alternative Proposals:
a.               We continue to pay our share of the per capita assessment for 2015, as billed by the             synod and General Assembly.
b.              We appoint a team to develop a fair way of funding presbytery operations based             on the value churches understand themselves to receive from gathering together in             mutual support, oversight, and encouragement.
c.              We petition the General Assembly to convene a working group to develop an             alternative to the obsolete and unworkable per capita system as soon as possible.

2.  “We can save money by using money given for mission to pay staff expenses.”

            In recent budgets, we have restarted the practice of drawing from the mission side of the budget to pay for the administrative and operations expenses of the presbytery.  
            We went through several years of hard work to build trust with the churches of the presbytery by separating these two, including two very difficult and unforgettable increases in the per capita assessment.  This is because we realized that the previous long-standing practice of this presbytery to use mission money to support staff is inherently unfair. 
            First, it pays for services received by the whole presbytery with money collected from only those churches that contribute to undesignated General Mission. 
            Secondly, when sessions and individuals give to “mission,” many assume this means their money goes directly to various service and evangelism initiatives.  We experienced some outrage from churches when they realized that money given for “mission” was actually being used to pay for presbytery staff.  The counter-argument, that “the staff facilitates mission,” begs the question: “Then what is per capita for?”  
            We have been moving to a model in which the presbytery’s mission is to support, encourage, and oversee the mission of its constituent churches.  Everything the presbytery does should be an aspect of this mission.  This means that time spent by a staff member administering a grant to a church is qualitatively no different from the time a staff member spends on presbytery efforts to cultivate good relationships between churches and pastors, or overseeing the training of new pastors to serve in churches, or resolving conflicts in churches, or trying to make sure the presbytery works coherently in serving churches.
            So if we have one mission, we might still collect money in two ways if that is deemed the most effective way to fund the two different aspects of the presbytery’s mission.  One should support the operations and administration, and the other should be devoted to actual service and evangelism efforts on the part of the churches, mainly through grants. 
               This budget undermines the integrity of the General Mission system.  It incentivizes sessions to designate all mission giving to specific projects so that none of it may be diverted by the presbytery to make up for a shortfall in per capita. 

Alternative Proposals:
a.              We move towards funding presbytery operations, administration, and staff solely with what is received from sessions in the per capita assessment or some other plan.  As far as possible, we reduce costs to match the income.
b.              We undertake a serious self-study in which we articulate the mission to which we are called by Jesus Christ, and what the actual role and function of the presbytery is in relation to its constituent churches, and that we then develop a mission design including a staffing pattern.

3.  “We can save money by cutting staff.”

            The Personnel recommendations included in this budget pretend to cut down on the presbytery’s unnecessary “regulatory” and “administrative” functions.  Since the essence of this plan is to fire one Administrative Assistant, and dump her full-time position into a new Stated Clerk position, boiling down 59 hours a week into 30, and change the other Administrative Assistant position to a half-time Communications Coordinator, the question has to be raised about exactly what will not get done.  (Based on history, it is safe to assume that almost everything these two people are doing will still be expected to be accomplished, only in less time and for less money.)
            The main motivation for the plan is financial.  In its implementation, this becomes a justice issue.  For none of the “savings” happen to come from the largest-by-far piece of the Personnel budget, the cost of having an executive, which is over $100,000.  In taking this approach, are we not echoing the attitude of a corporation that in a crisis manages to downsize its workers, while its executives remain untouched?
            But what is at least as disturbing here is the process.  This plan was sprung on the Cabinet with no notice.  It’s the biggest change in presbytery staffing in a decade.  Why did the Cabinet not have the material several days prior to the meeting?  Why was the staff never informed, let alone consulted, about the details of the plan?
            The staff kept the presbytery functioning during some very difficult years.  They and others did the work of an executive when it was required.  They put in long and sometimes unusual hours, and they often perform far beyond the limitations of their job descriptions. In the past, they have functioned under sometimes unhelpful leadership and little oversight.  They have had aspects of their compensation cut.  They have demonstrated strong and sacrificial commitment to the churches of the presbytery.  Did they not earn a place at the table where future staffing would be discussed? 
            The staff is not ignorant of the financial situation.  No one is making demands.  Indeed, the staff has been willing to share in whatever sacrifices may be necessary to sustain the presbytery’s mission.  Had they been invited to participate in its development as respected partners, this plan would be lot more fair, efficient, workable, and thrifty.  It would have generated far less anger and pain.  Instead, the Personnel Committee chose an adversarial approach, treating the staff, not as colleagues in ministry, but as expendable employees.

Alternative Proposals.
a.               We assign to a committee the responsibility to develop a provisional staffing plan for 2015, including the current members of the staff and the Stated Clerk in their deliberations, and following the principles that 1) we stay within the projected income from per capita as far as possible, and take the remainder from presbytery reserves, 2) any deficit be lower than $50,000, 3) we ask all staff members to sacrifice in some proportion to their current levels of compensation, 4) we begin now to develop a plan for 2016, when we expect per capita receipts to be significantly lower.
b.               We keep the nomination of a Stated Clerk with the Nominating Committee unless                                  that committee asks for that nomination to be done by another entity.  

4.  “We can save money by cutting mission grants.”

            So, the proposed plan is that, in addition to reneging on our per capita commitments, looting money from mission, slashing staff, and continuing to pay an executive six-figures, we’re also going to be cutting mission grants.  At this point we are attacking part of the whole reason a presbytery exists, which is to support the mission of its churches.  We’ve already shifted money from mission to staff; now we are cutting mission itself.   This is unwise.

Alternative Proposal:
We allocate all money received by the presbytery under General Mission in grants to churches.


            I believe we should explore the possibility and plausibility of budget plans that adhere to the following principles:

1.              We pay our per capita in full to synod and General Assembly, encouraging sessions                     to do the same for the presbytery.
2.              We take no money from mission giving to fund operations.
3.              Reductions are borne by all staff members (except contractors).

            A cursory and “ballpark” scan of the numbers reveals that the presbytery could keep to these principles and produce a deficit in the Personnel budget of considerably less than that generated by the Trustee budget, if these principles were applied to it.  If we worked with the whole staff and the Stated Clerk, limiting some staff hours, and reducing compensation levels to the presbytery mandated or recommended minima, it may be possible to have no deficit at all.  This, of course, would be in no way “punitive” or a result of poor performance; far from it.  It would put the presbytery in solidarity with its constituent churches, many of which are facing similar dilemmas.
            If we can at least begin to keep to these principles, we may be able to rebuild the trust and integrity necessary to move forward together as a presbytery.


Carl said...

Over here in Monmouth Presbytery, we feel your pain. We have yet to hear the recommendation from our finance people for our 2015 budget, but it will likely include similar austerities. I believe the only workable solution for any of us is to address together the elephant-in-the-living room issue, which is that we have too many presbyteries in New Jersey for our diminished church membership (which is something like half of what it was when our presbyteries were operating at full strength). The Methodists recognized this a few years back when they merged their North Jersey and South Jersey Conferences into one. We would do much better with 3 or 4 presbyteries in New Jersey, rather than 7. Anything else is just death by a thousand (budget) cuts.

Paul F. Rack said...

Yes. And in Monmouth your per capita crisis is far worse than ours. I am not sure about reducing the number of presbyteries. I would go for more and smaller presbyteries, and locate the program and administrative staff at the synod or State level. But it is certainly a conversation that is long overdue.