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‘Where Your Treasure Is’: A Call to Financial Rightsizing

The Episcopal Church has been my home for the past 30 years. It is where I encountered Jesus in a real and powerful way. It shapes my theology and practices, offering a beautiful vision of the kingdom of God. In Oklahoma, where I serve, it is often the only church option for those seeking an expression of Christianity that is both credal and affirming. I think the Episcopal Church’s witness is vital.

For the past several decades, the Episcopal Church has developed a corporate model of church organization, rooted in a top-down approach. Recent internal studies, including the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), note that our current structures and governance models are not what the Episcopal Church needs for a healthy future. Unfortunately, those most invested in the status quo are also those who must approve the changes.

Everyone acknowledges that the religious landscape is changing. About a dozen churches had a full-time priest when I arrived in Tulsa  over a decade ago. Now, the number is half that. We also know that a church is less likely to grow numerically without a full-time priest. Several dioceses are combining or exploring new, collaborative mission models. Throughout the church, parishes and dioceses are being asked to do more with less, except at the top levels, where we now spend more on church chancellors than evangelism.

General Convention has tried to direct the institution toward mission and ministry, only to have funding cut in the next triennium. This is particularly true when one accounts for inflation. One notable exception is racial reconciliation, which has been expanded thanks to spending rules that ensure we fund this priority. There is no better example of this tension than the General Convention’s direction that the Episcopal Church official structures relocate from New York City to more cost-effective options, and the administrative structures’ ignoring of that resolution. As a parish priest, I cannot purchase insurance at a much lower price on the exchange or a local broker because General Convention says we can’t. What makes the resolution to relocate our administrative offices to a more affordable location merely optional?

Someone at General Convention 2022 said we are an administrative and governance system that has a church, not a church with a governance system. Our administrative and governance structures are not set up for church vitality. As the Rev. Chris Rankin Williams reported on behalf of the Committee on the State of the Church,

We are first and foremost in the business of making disciples, not good Episcopalians, though we make disciples in a uniquely [Episcopal] way.

I once heard a really great preacher say, “if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.” You guys should check him out. So we must ask, is this work in the service of the love of Christ or in preserving structures, power, and authority in the face of uncertainty? Part of what makes a challenge adaptive is that traditional authority and expertise can’t provide the solution. So we have to put our hand to the plow and not look back.

When structural changes or assessment changes are brought up, two of the most common concerns raised are that we need a study to determine our needs and to know what will be cut if this is passed.

We already have the answers to these questions. Several studies, including TREC, show that we need to align our governance and administrative costs with best practices.

The Church’s structures and governance processes have not yet responded to the profound changes occurring across the country and around the world. We see this in our inability to deal with very real and pressing issues: many of our parishes are no longer financially self-sufficient and cannot afford full-time clergy [on stipends]. Many of our churches are disconnected from the neighbors who surround them, with expensive buildings that consume too many resources to maintain.

The report notes the success of several grassroots efforts but also the inability of the administrative structures to adapt to support them.

In a D.Min. class at Virginia Theological Seminary, Dean Ian Markham warned that organizations can become top-heavy. Administration, buildings, and maintenance can begin to erode investments in programs, vitality, and growth. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, in its guidelines for nonprofits, suggests that administration and governance costs should be around 40 percent. For the Episcopal Church, this percentage is closer to 60 percent. We could apply spending rules similar to what we did for racial reconciliation, but I don’t see that passing.

We should not be surprised at the Episcopal Church’s resistance to change. Most organizations only change when forced by an external factor or a crisis. Even when there is plenty of warning for the crisis, atrophy often wins. This leads many in the church to wonder if reducing the assessment would force the church to make difficult decisions that we know need to be made but we have been unwilling to make. It will require conversations on the kind of church we need to be. It may finally encourage us to adopt the smart and healthy solutions TREC suggested, which mainly addressed the kind of structure and administration we need to be a vital church that makes a difference in the neighborhoods where we exist.

At the last General Convention, a few of us made a modest proposal from the floor of the House of Deputies. Let’s reduce the assessment by .5 percent and take the next few years to set a plan toward a 10 percent assessment. It failed, but over 40 percent of the deputies voted in favor.

For General Convention 2024, the Diocese of Oklahoma and several other dioceses have passed resolutions calling on the assessment to be reduced to 10 percent over a period of years. The Diocese of Georgia, whose bishop successfully led General Convention to lower the assessment to the current 15 percent a few years ago, passed a similar resolution that gives the Episcopal Church the next three triennia to set a new path. If that resolution were to pass General Convention, we will be afforded a push to move away from the 1950s’ corporate church to the church our neighborhoods need in the 21st century.

The Episcopal Church’s status quo plan has been to reduce our spending on evangelism, creation care, and racial reconciliation, our stated priorities, in favor of more governance and administrative overhead. The current budget was going to charge Episcopal Relief and Development for rent before wiser heads prevailed. We are cutting mission and ministry for more corporate structure, so maybe it is time to try a network-driven approach. Church, what do we have to lose?

The Rev. Everett C. Lees is the vicar of Christ Church Episcopal in Tulsa, OK. He is a graduate of Seminary of the Southwest (M. Div.) and Virginia Theological Seminary (D. Min.). He is married to Kristin and has three amazing kids.

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