It’s time to wrestle the church’s budget. Deadline: WEDNESDAY.

It’s time to wrestle the church’s budget. Deadline: WEDNESDAY.

When I started this blog in 2012, one of the first major topics was the Episcopal Church’s 2013-2015 budget. It had to be. That year the draft budget released for comment had math errors and accidentally cut almost all churchwide funding for Christian formation. It was a debacle.

The budget process worked. The math errors were corrected, the formation funding was restored. The Rev. Susan Brown Snook was elected to Executive Council from the floor of General Convention because the entire voting membership of the House of Deputies was grateful for her service. A priest, blogger, and former CPA, she helped a confused church figure out its finances.

Then there was the 2016-2018 budget cycle. It was a relief by comparison, but it was still a challenge. We were having an ecological crisis, yet there was almost no funding for creation care. We were having a crisis of church decline, yet there was not enough funding for new ministry development.

There was a public comment period, there was debate at General Convention, the creation care funding increased and literally at the last possible moment, the budget was amended to provide appropriate funding for evangelism and church planting ministries. That amendment enabled funding for grants for new ministry and a new infrastructure to support ministry development.

Every three years, it’s time to talk about the budget. It’s two days before comments are due on the current draft of the Episcopal Church’s 2019-2021 budget. The current draft is here.

The current draft is not good enough.

First, points in its favor:

  • Income is up while the percentage of asking is down – due to wider giving. This is great news and a trend that should continue.
  • Nobody has found any math errors.
  • It doesn’t accidentally eliminate an entire category of ministry.
  • Formation ministries (for youth and young adults) have received a funding increase.
  • Creation care ministries have received a funding increase.

There’s a lot good here. But there’s one gigantic problem: PRIORITIES.

(For the charts below, data is here – copied from the budget draft linked above.)

The last General Convention budget allocated 42.6% of all churchwide funds to governance, finance and legal expenses.

The next budget allocates even more: 45.3%.

This is not funding focused on the proclamation of the gospel and the making of disciples. This is funding focused on the perpetuation of institutions and the retention of assets.

There’s always a place for finance, legal and governance spending. It’s necessary. But if we are to be true to the gospel, it can’t be this much.

When churches focus on self-perpetuation, we die. When we focus on the self-giving life of Christ, and sacrifice in order to proclaim Christ, we live.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” Luke 17:33 (NRSV)

That’s the first problem. Here’s another: the values proclaimed on the front page of the Episcopal Church website don’t match the values embodied in the budget.

I always say I’m the biggest hypocrite I’m worried about in church, but now I’m worried for all of us.

We aren’t valuing evangelism when we cut funds for new ministry development from $3M to $2M. That’s currently proposed. It’s a terrible idea.

We aren’t valuing the stewardship of Creation if our total funds allocated for this ministry are 0.6% of the budget. It’s up from 0.5%, but there’s no way it’s a priority with less than 1% of the budget.

If we can’t be honest about this, and have a real conversation about what matters and why, we can turn out the lights right now. But we have time – General Convention is six months away. This is the beginning of the process. It matters.

As we talk about the budget, I want to begin to share the story of the new ministry I have been part of developing. It’s why I haven’t been writing on this blog – it has taken all the time and creativity I’ve had.

Plainsong Farm received a $20,000 grant from the church’s Mission Enterprise Zone (MEZ) grant program this triennium. It was the first significant money any Episcopal body put into this new ministry (although thanks be to God, we received some smaller donations locally from a church willing to take risks).

Once the national church funded us, we were no longer mostly invisible. We were no longer perceived as a wild-eyed idea probably destined for failure. Suddenly we were a project that had received investment from the wider church. Don’t underestimate how much that change in local attitude matters to a new ministry developer. It mattered to me.

The first year this ministry had any income was 2015. We received our first MEZ funding in 2016. We haven’t finished our numbers for 2017 but we know we took in revenue of at least $80K. Our board just passed a $100K budget for 2018. Less than $7K is the last installment of our MEZ grant.

So far we have existed as a restricted fund under the diocesan tax ID but we expect to incorporate in 2018. We receive no funding from the diocesan budget, but our bishop fully supports the ministry, and we reported to diocesan convention this year at his invitation.

It surprises me – but it is true – that what God called into being here is a farm based ministry with Gen X and Millennial co-founders. There was nobody at the diocesan level except our bishop (for whom I thank God) that I think had the faintest idea what a farm based ministry was when we began. If it weren’t for the MEZ grants, I’m not sure we would exist. Because of the MEZ grants, people are worshipping God, tending the earth, and growing as disciples in a context that also provides good food to neighbors who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

We need a lot more experiments like this. I continue to notice that the farm ministry draws people under 40 much more easily than the church does. When this is our age range (graph below), that matters.

I was a young adult without religion once; I’m an older adult with religion now. I am grateful to have discovered faith because it has made such a huge difference in my life. I want to offer it to those who might not find it otherwise. Don’t you?

If we want a church engaged in research and development to reach younger generations, we have to fund grants for new ministry development. Once we have a model that is working, we have something that can spread. We’re not there yet but we’re working on it pretty hard and we’re further than I thought we’d be by now. Without MEZ money, we could easily have died on the vine.

My diocese has a $1M budget total. At the diocesan level, there isn’t going to be $100K available for church planting. Those investments have to come through the churchwide budget. If they aren’t available, what kind of new ministry isn’t going to happen?

I want a churchwide budget that reflects the teachings of Christ to offer ourselves in ministry and make disciples – not one that shores up our existing institutional practices by allocating more and more funding to governance, finance and legal.

I want a churchwide budget that reflects the values we say we profess.

I want a churchwide budget that enables more people to live into Christ’s call to plant new ministries to reach new generations.

We’re not there yet, but we can get there.

Share your thoughts on the budget right here. The deadline is Wednesday, January 10th.

Have you been following the budget conversation this time around? What have I missed?

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