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The message of the mission

By Thomas Ferguson

There are two oft-repeated statements in a budgeting process. One is that budgets are “outlines” rather than strict spending plans: whether in a parish, or a diocese, or a seminary, we adopt budgets that pledge to spend money that we do not yet have. We trust that pledges, or tuition, or assessments will come in as planned. Another is that budgets reveal deeper understandings of an organization’s outlook — just Google “budget as a moral document” to see numerous statements from politicians and other interest groups.

Budgets are often understood as extensions of ideological understandings of the nature and role of an institution. In the church, they evidence the ways in which we shape, incarnate, and give emphasis to how we are called to carry out God’s mission entrusted to us. There’s biblical warrant for this kind of thinking; Jesus once told his disciples that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The appropriate use of wealth in establishing the kingdom of God is one which Jesus speaks frequently about in the gospels. Budgets are somewhat dry reading, especially for those of us who have not taken a mathematics class since high school, so we can forget that there is at heart a missiological imperative in any budget: where we put our treasure determines what we do and how we do it.

In what follows I use “budget of the Episcopal Church” as shorthand for a wide range of churchwide ministries coordinated in various ways by the Presiding Bishop, Executive Council, and General Convention. This includes everything from the salary of the bishop of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe to the work of all the standing committees and commissions of General Convention to supporting staff in areas like Christian education and formation.

I have two main missiological concerns with the proposed 2013-15 triennial budget of the Episcopal Church approved (though there is some dispute about this) by Executive Council at its January meeting and now in the hands of the Program, Budget, and Finance Committee, a joint body of General Convention.

One is the understanding of missiology, or lack thereof, that has guided some of these budgetary decisions. It should be clear to most people that we are living in a time of profound transition in our society and in our churches. There are fundamental shifts in American society and American Christianity affecting all religious organizations. As a result of these and other realities, difficult choices must be made. What kind of structures should we have, what should we be doing, and how should it all be funded? What are the theological and missiological reasons for the choices made?

The official message from the January 2012 Executive Council meeting stated that the budget should “bear” the Five Marks of Mission, which were adopted by the 2009 General Convention as the “center” of the 2013-15 budget. But nowhere is it explained how these funding decisions bear those marks. For instance, why does this draft budget cut funding to the Anglican Communion secretariat in London and domestic dioceses but increase grants to individual provinces of the Anglican Communion and non-domestic dioceses of the Episcopal Church? We could ask a similar question about a number of other choices. Other than the mention of the Five Marks of Mission, there is no reference to resolutions of General Convention, Scripture, or any kind of governing or authoritative sources which informed the numerous decisions that were made. The only other additional guiding principle seems to be a survey commissioned by Council to determine at what level certain ministries of the church should best be done.

This leads directly to my second concern: a fundamental confusion in ecclesiology as it relates to mission. According to the accompanying budget narrative, it was noted at budget deliberations at the January 2012 meeting of Executive Council (and, for that matter, in the presentation of the budget to the 2009 General Convention) that mission and ministry is best done at an appropriate level, and this budget ostensibly reflects at what level certain ministries should be done. For example, on the assumption that youth and young adult ministries are best done at a diocesan or local level, the churchwide budget in these areas is cut dramatically. This is an inherently limited understanding of ecclesiology because ministry is never “done” at any one level.

There are numerous examples of how different levels of the church in fact complement one another. For instance: a parish calls a rector, since it would seem that parishioners know best what they need in a pastor. However, the bishop must license that rector to serve, since the bishop also has legitimate concerns and interests in who is ministering in his or her diocese. Yet the Constitution and Canons define who may properly be called as rector in any Episcopal church. A shibboleth underlying this budget seems to be the often misconstrued understanding of subsidiarity in the Episcopal Church: that one level of the church is free to do as it pleases so long as it does not contradict the level “above” it. Thus, it is argued, dioceses may pass canons to govern their internal life, so long as they do not directly contradict the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons, and a parish may pass its own bylaws, so long as it does not contradict diocesan or national canons.

The Standing Committee on the Structure of the Church attempts to define subsidiarity in its report to General Convention. However, this definition still notes that General Convention is the church in its “fullest embodiment” and that it “sets the parameters” for other levels of the church to take action — which privileges General Convention as the determinative body and does not reflect the mutuality and interdependence of the levels of the church. In addition, the resolution itself (A90, p. 536) nowhere notes this definition in the substance of the resolution. Convention does not vote on explanatory notes or Blue Book reports, with the likely result in the affirmation of the shibboleth.

This notion of subsidiarity does not accurately reflect the mutually interlocking levels of the church at the core of our ecclesiology. All levels of the church are involved with one another, with certain aspects of mission and ministry accomplished in a particular way, but not solely, at various levels. Let’s take another example: funding for the General Ordination Examinations is eliminated in the proposed budget on the rationale that this is best done at the diocesan level. However, the areas ordinands must show competence in are defined by the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, so dioceses are not actually free now to pick up this work “on their own.”

These two concerns strike at the core of the budgeting process as it is playing out in the Episcopal Church. We are not having important missiological or theological conversations about those difficult decisions and choices that we have to make. We are not setting mission priorities as a church; we are restructuring through defunding program, with decisions based on a flawed ecclesiology. In perhaps the best example of this confusion, the proposed budget calls for a churchwide conference to discuss significant structural change and priorities. But it calls for the conference to occur after the General Convention, after another round of decisions are already made: placing, in effect, the budgetary cart before the missiological horse.

The Very Rev. Thomas Ferguson is dean of Bexley Hall, Columbus, Ohio.

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