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.