Monday, June 25, 2007

Per Capita: What is the future?

How do you think about 150 years? The two track funding system which is now established in our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was created in 1857, exactly 150 years ago this year. In one sense 150 years is forever, since it is longer than any of us are old. Thus none of us have ever known anything else in the Church. In another sense, 150 years is not long at all compared to all of Church history, and 150 years is only half as long as our Presbyterian heritage in America.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is funded by a cumbersome, sometimes confusing, often controversial two track funding system for all the governing bodies beyond the session. On one track we have our Per Capita assessment which is the responsibility of the Presbytery to pay and to which almost all of our congregations contribute directly. The amount of Per Capita is defined individually by each Presbytery, each Synod and by the General Assembly and is calculated using total active membership.

The second track of funding is our general mission giving. Most of your congregations also contribute to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) general mission work. You make a decision about the amount of general mission you would like to contribute and you, we hope, forward your contributions to us regularly. Thus for 150 years our church has functioned using this two track funding mechanism: per capita and general mission giving. For us, of course, this is all that we have ever known.

The idea of the Per Capita assessment started in 1857 very small and very focused. It was intended to spread out and share across all the presbyteries the costs of the annual meeting of the General Assembly. Per Capita was created to pay for the meeting of the General Assembly each year; that is all. But in the first decades of the 1900s the church followed the values of our society in the conviction that larger, hierarchical, centralized organizations are best. The bureaucracy and institutional size of our denomination grew enormously as the church adopted the values of our society. We created the ecclesiastical equivalent of the public corporation. The church became a huge, efficient, organized, sprawling, national organization. Thus in 1923, following the massive reorganization and expansion of the General Assembly, Per Capita funding was expanded to include four new departments: Christian Life and Work, Publicity, Vacancy and Supply, and Church Cooperation and Union. Today when we try creating budgets within our governing bodies we must debate the confusing question of what should be funded from Per Capita and what should be funded from Mission.

Per Capita: what is the future? You will see in your papers a report from our Administration Committee, which I initiated, and which our Administration Committee and our Coordinating Council both endorsed. We are asking that beginning in 2008 the Presbytery will contribute 100% of our Per Capita Assessment. If approved this will be a significant change in practice. Our current practice is for us only to forward the amount of Per Capita which we actually receive from our congregations. This is important to me because I am interested in being part of the conversation about what the future financial system of the church will look like.

I believe that the two track funding system is no longer viable for the church today. From a financial perspective it is cumbersome and confusing. More importantly, from a theological perspective this system is obsolete. The Per Capita system is rooted in an establishment model of the church in society, which presumes that all active Presbyterians expect, enjoy and are connected to our large, multi- governing body, institutional, church structure. That is simply no longer true; the era of unquestioned institutional commitment and loyalty is long gone. Now the larger governing bodies – presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly – must deserve the loyalty and support of the people in your pews by expressing a ministry and mission that is faithful to Christ and fully supportive and responsive to our congregations. I believe that our Per Capita assessment, with its tone of obligation, is no longer financially viable in this new era.

A new mission shaped theology is beginning to take hold of our church and our thinking. In this sense, we are returning to our New Testament roots. The church is a people called out. The word itself, “ecclesia” means “a people called out”. When we are at our best, when we allow theological commitments to guide our financial practices, we understand that the church itself, in all its parts and expressions, is a mission. We are, first of all, an expression of God’s mission in Christ into our world. Thus, it follows, that everything the church does is mission. The mission of God in our world shapes, defines and calls the church. We are a mission-shaped and mission- charged people. Thus there is nothing the church does that should be aside from or apart from our mission in Christ. If we push out the implications of this kind of theology into the realms of organization, administration and finance you will soon share my conviction that everything is mission, and everything we need financially must then be provided by mission giving.

I believe we are moving toward a future that will see a streamlined, single track funding system that reflects this kind of missional theology. But how do we get from here to there? Now that is a very difficult and complex problem. How do you fix an airplane while it is flying? One vital, preliminary step is for us to make a full commitment to the funding system we have received and which is currently in place. Thus we have this action item before us to fully commit to the Per Capita system. And then when we are fully committed, we can begin to discern the way forward. My deepest convictions are reflected here. I do not believe we fix a problem or find a way forward by abandoning and neglecting the structure which we have received. Rather, we should make a full commitment to the system and structure which we have in place, and then devote our energy and creativity, together, to discerning our future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Baseball in Nicaragua

The crisp, hot, late afternoon sunshine in Nicaragua creates perfect conditions for playing baseball. We noticed that the construction crews seemed to finish up the day’s work with a bit more energy and gusto; several of them asked me as the work for the day wound down, “Baseball?” Just that one word, with their deep Spanish language accent, and the interrogative lilt rolling up at the end, turned a word into a question. “Si,” I would readily reply, wondering what I was getting myself into.

David, our host and translator, had organized the game the evening before. He told me that there are two things that the guys on the construction crews really love: work and baseball. They play all the time in the field next to the school. The schedule was set. Baseball after work today!

This was truly a multi-purpose field. It is huge, easily the size of a full soccer field, with the main road of the village running along the long side of it. A few scrub trees line the edge of the field next to the road. There is a makeshift soccer goal set up at one end. Three long sticks: two sticking in the ground vertically, with Y notches at their tops, and one mounted horizontally in those Ys. No net in this soccer goal. I guess if you score a goal you must also chase the ball. The field also served as pasture, and we enjoyed watching the mama horse and her day’s old colt quietly grazing.

The baseball field is evident only because of its use. There is no backstop, no chalk lines, and no outfield fence. But the base paths were clearly evident from their heavy use. The area around home plate is smooth and clean. Home plate is imaginary; but obvious. First base is a now empty, paper concrete bag. Second base is a rag. Third base was imaginary; a spot in the dirt. What interested me about this field was the accuracy of its size. Despite the lack of real bases or a backstop this was, my measuring eye told me, really close to a full size baseball field. The spots in the dirt where the bases were supposed to be were in their perfect place; 90 feet apart in American measure. Baseball fields express beauty with their straight lines, angles, and symmetry. This field in the Nicaraguan dirt was beautiful.

David divided the teams, Americans and Nicaraguans all mixed up. This process took a while, with some thoughtfulness and discussion which was not translated into English for us. I guessed there was an effort to balance the teams, with some mysterious assessment made of our American ability. Indeed, we had two full teams. None of the Americans had gloves. So after three outs each player simply dropped their glove on the field at their position for the other team to pick up and use. The glove at my second base spot was gloriously well used, it flexed precisely like part of my hand, its leather was smooth and worn. This was an excellent baseball glove. It has been many, many years since I played real baseball, but as this glove fit over my hand I heard my heart whisper, “I can play this game!” A lifetime of baseball memories rushed through my mind: the feel of the glove, the grip on a hardball, the polished grain of a wooden bat, pick up teams, sweat and dust, grimy cap pulled down tight, kick the stones out of the way which may bounce up a hard grounder. Baseball is meant to be played; not watched. Baseball is poetry enacted.

We played fast pitch, regular baseball. The only difference is that each batter got ONE swing, not three strikes and unlimited foul balls; but one swing. “This will be a challenge,” I pondered. David instructed me, “They will pitch easy to you; wait for a good pitch and hit. If you strike, you’re out; if you foul off; you’re out, one swing per batter. Wait for your pitch.” This style made the game real fast, three outs came and went quickly. We settled into a very nice game; I found my rhythm and comfort. The memory of how to play this game came up out of my bones.

I played second base. I handled a few, routine ground balls, making the easy throw to first base. Innings went by quickly. Now we were back in the field, Carlos led off and drilled a hard grounder past the shortstop for a single. Jerry, a small, terrifically strong and always smiling construction worker, was playing shortstop. He yelled over to me; there was no need for translation. I knew instinctually that he said, “Be ready; double play.”

Instincts were correct. The next batter hit a hard ground ball to Jerry at short stop. As soon as I saw its direction, I started my move to cover second base. Jerry fielded the grounder clean and fast, turning to throw to me as I arrived at second base. His throw came hard, fast and perfect. I caught it while in full stride, stepping on the rag that was second base. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Carlos coming down the base line hard. He knew he was dead at second, so he started waving his arms and yelling to disrupt my turn toward first. I ran through second base and well past it to avoid his rush at me, stopped fast, and fired on a string to first base. My throw was also perfect, the first baseman ready and waiting. A cheer went up from all around. Double Play. Baseball glory.

On a Nicaraguan baseball field, of all places, I had this moment of true joy and blessing. Such moments are the stuff of real faith, exhilarating and thrilling and all grace. Why do we adults in America never play pick up baseball anymore? Why do we so seldom run and play, sweat and laugh? Why are our lives so structured and organized and professional? Why do a bunch of people from Derry Presbyterian Church – doctors, professionals, computer geeks, teenagers, executives – want to go to Nicaragua?

After a hot day building a concrete block house, while standing on a Nicaraguan baseball field I received a glimpse of an answer. We are called back to something deeper and more meaningful. We are called back to something that we often lose in our sophisticated, air-conditioned, sanitized, modern lives. We are called back to the dirt where we learn again the basic truth of all truth. We are not as good and proper as we think. The dirt makes us clean. We are called back again to the joy of life itself revealed, maybe, in a game of pick up baseball or the quiet contentment of helping to lay the block for a new home for a quiet, deserving family. We are called back again to a deeper joy by the boisterous fun of men who can laugh together while laboring for a weekly wage that would not buy a round of drinks in our town. We are pulled back again into a deeper respect for others by the dignity of the women who sweep the dirt outside their shacks, and hang their crisp, hand-scrubbed, clean clothes on barbed-wire clothes lines. We are inspired by the faith we see in people who have no reason to have faith. We go to Nicaragua because we need to face the mystery again of seeing people who are happy and content when they have no reason to be, while we are seldom happy and content when we have every reason to be. I learned about Jesus again mixing concrete and playing baseball in the bright Nicaraguan sun. I am very grateful. Thanks be to God.