As the Episcopal Church reassesses and reimagines its structure in order to carry out God’s mission, the one elephant in the room we do not seem to be addressing clearly is our financial resources. Where will they come from? How will they be strategically deployed? And, with the principal of subsidiarity in mind, at what level of the Church are they best gathered and deployed? My colleague, Canon Frank Logue, has written about this in relationship to the Church’s published draft budget for the next triennium (See The Lever that Moves the Church). He named unrealistic revenue expectations as the elephant in the room referring to revenue as “the lever” that moves all other decisions. He is right, of course. Still, the conversation has been limited to how we will manage ever-scarcer dollars or how we might motivate people and dioceses to give more. While those are worthy conversations, they will not address the long-term funding arc that is not likely to change if we limit the conversation to only those topics.
The Task Force for Reimagining the Church has stated that diocesan expectations for supporting The Episcopal Church ought to be lowered to a more reasonable percentage, one that is realistic, manageable, and with which compliance by dioceses is more likely. This seems quite wise to me. We need to ask: What is the current pattern? What is the average percentage that is actually given? Where is the current median diocesan percentage? Answers to those questions will probably allow us to have a realistic conversation about the income side of the triennial budget. My hunch is that somewhere from 10%-12% will be the sweet spot for a new diocesan assessment (not asking) for the next ten years or so. That then will need further reduction after a decade or so to probably 5%-6%. Once that is projected out, then an expense budget can prudently be created that stays within realistic revenue. Executive Council’s proposal of going from 19% to 15% over the coming triennium is not helpful. It only continues our magical thinking, which will result in further guilt, blaming, and resentments.
With a greatly reduced, yet realistic, revenue budget The Episcopal Church’s triennial expense budget will take on drastic cuts that will be necessary in the short term as we begin to retool how we resource mission. As I indicated above, asking people to give more to their parishes, and parishes more to the dioceses, and dioceses more to the larger church is a dead end in the long term. Households and congregations are strapped as it is and many middle and working-class households in my diocese give well over $3000/year to support the congregation’s, and by extension, the diocese’s mission. Asking them for more is not pastorally sensitive to their own financial circumstances. The same is true when we go up the “food chain.” Asking congregations to give a larger percentage to the Diocese is untenable if those same congregations are going to engage in meaningful mission locally. That is why in Georgia four years ago we reduced our asking to a 10% percentage (and that will be too high within a decade or so and it will have to reduced even more).
If our middle and working-class congregants are giving sacrificially (as most are from my data here in Georgia), then what are our options for getting the needed resources for mission? One option is to go back to a previous model the Church used: getting our American version of royalty or the landed gentry to fund our mission. That is how the Church resourced its mission for centuries. Historically that transitioned into “pew rent” and then, in the 20th Century, to our modern notions of an every member canvass where all were asked to give proportionally working toward a tithe. That household giving coupled with endowment development has been the backbone of funding the Church’s mission for the last century.
I am not suggesting we shrink back from each household working toward tithing or from the Church’s long-term commitment to legacy giving resulting in endowment development. What I am suggesting is that those two traditional sources alone will not be sufficient in the future. We need a three-legged stool approach to meet our resource needs: household sacrificial giving, legacy giving that builds up endowment funds, and a new leg, for-profit business ventures. In some ways, this “a back to the future” strategy. For centuries many of our religious communities have “paid their way” by operating wineries, farms, and the like. They produced goods and services that people needed. And they were willing to pay market prices to these religious communities for those goods and services.
We have amazingly gifted lay leaders in our Church who are venture capitalists and experienced entrepreneurs. They have the know-how to partner with the Church to create business models that will produce both meaningful work for people in the businesses we start as well as income for the Church as a resource for mission. The Church can get “in the business of” goods and services we care about: affordable housing, green technology, sustainable agriculture, etc. There is real money to be made in all these areas as well as in other areas, that is, if we partner with the gifted people who could guide us. Yes, some of these future ventures will fail and the financial investment will be lost. That is the way capitalism works. But others will be successful and produce the revenue we need for evangelization and community witnessing.
I am aware that there are plenty of arguments to discredit this idea. If I were on the high school debate team, then I could also make those arguments for why this won’t work. That, however, does not change the basic reality we are facing. Our current method of resourcing God’s mission is not and will not be sustainable in the future. One only has to look at the numbers and the trends to see that truth. So, if not this new “third leg,” then what else will we try? Let’s have a conversation about that. As long as we limit the conversation to the unrealistic and untenable percentages Executive Council has put forward, we won’t be facing reality.
The Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase
Tenth Bishop of Georgia