THE COST OF THE PRESENT MODEL

There are a lot of reasons why we need to start exploring new models of ministry in the life of the Episcopal Church. Most of these reasons, for me, have to do with a genuine and gospel-based desire to be more collegial and collaborative and mission-minded – to get over ourselves, get outside of ourselves, and better form disciples of Jesus Christ. That argument goes over pretty well with the lay leaders I have the pleasure of working with at St. George’s, Valley Lee. I’m also blessed that several neighbor Episcopal congregations – their clergy and lay leaders – are also on board with this desire to do more and be more, together.

Pitching ‘collaboration’ and ‘mission’ to top-level leadership in the Episcopal Church comes with conceptual approval, but also hesitancy and critical distance from suggestions from the field, coupled with good, if not uselessly airy and idealistic wonderings about whether and how we can “tweak the existing system(s)” and who has the power and authority to do so anyway.  The further you get from day-to-day life on the ground in the Episcopal Church, the further you get from life as a parish priest or congregational lay leader, the more you see only the meta-data and larger trends.

Here’s yet one more reason why we need to start exploring new models of ministry: we can’t afford the current one much longer.

In 2012, the missions and congregations of The Episcopal Church brought in $1,303,458,185 in pledge and plate contributions. That’s based on the 6,667 congregations and missions – both domestic and non-domestic. Simple division gives us $195,508 as, let’s say, Average Pledge & Plate Giving. I know that pledge and plate giving is one part of determining the Parochial Report’s Normal Operating Income (NOI), and I know the NOI is more than pledge and plate.  But let’s use this $195,508 number for three reasons: first, Kirk Hadaway and the Episcopal Church statistics gurus don’t report the average NOI (and I really don’t care that much to search further); second, the latter – namely, pledge and plate – is the singularly most reliable, albeit lagging indicator of actual ministry-based participation and giving in a given community; and third, I’ve already written about how utterly useless and stupid the NOI is.

Take our average Episcopal congregation, then: St. So-and-So’s, with their annual pledge and plate offering of $195,508.

Let’s say they tithe to the diocese (give $19,551), leaving $175,957. Now let’s do the math.

Based on the clergy compensation scale in the Diocese of Washington, a priest with, let’s say, three years of ministry-related experience should earn at least $49,057 in cash stipend, but when you follow the diocesan personnel guidelines you’ll also factor in pension contribution (18% of the stipend is $8,830.26) and health insurance (two-person medical and dental in 2014 is $18,336) and a modest car and cell phone reimbursement (say, $5,000) and a continuing education line item (go with $1,000) and you’ll get the total amount budgeted to having a full-time clergyperson is $82,223, leaving a remaining $93,734.

In this day and age, as well, a congregation poised for growth needs a support staff. Factor in a competent parish administrator who, let’s say, only works twenty hours each week. That employee would earn at least $19,508 according to the Diocese of Washington lay compensation guidelines. Also, given the church’s well-intended desire to achieve parity between lay and clergy ministers, there’d be an additional cost to health insurance (one person medical / dental is $10,224) and a matching contribution to a retirement savings account, say, $2,000. Added up, such a vital minister would cost $31,732. (If the parish administrator were full-time, that position would cost $51,241 – leaving $42,493 for everything else we haven’t paid for yet.  Such a package would never fly, however, so let’s keep maintaining the delusion that there’s a plethora of people on the job market with sufficient skills and gifts who are waiting, just waiting for part-time parish administrator gigs. Two further pieces are also important to maintaining this delusion: for one, you’ve got to pretend that this 20-hour/week parish administrator is able to move mountains and accomplish everything everyone wants him/her to do in that span of time; and, for another, you’ll need to pretend that the former delusion also means that absolutely no administrative work will ever keep the rector at her/his desk and away from the ministry field.)

A part-time organist with a bachelor’s degree and a mere five years’ experience, one who’s contracted to work only ten hours each week, would earn $12,524. Let’s also be exceedingly kind to this fictional congregation and suggest that the music director, in question, doesn’t need health insurance and opts out of the church providing some measure of retirement savings. Looking at the numbers, though, a local colleague of mine just hired a new organist / music director and the going rate, she reported, that most of the applicants quoted was $300 per service. With 52 Sundays in the year and three extra services (certainly Christmas Eve and maybe one or two others) that’d be a total compensation of $16,500. Splitting the difference, then, between the diocesan scale ($12,524) and the actual going rate ($16,500) let’s say that a gifted and competent music director would cost $14,512.

Between the rector ($82,223), part-time parish administrator ($31,732) and very part-time music director ($14,512) this sample congregation would’ve spent $128,467 — and that’s not including someone to clean and, maybe, a bookkeeper and/or a nursery caregiver or, perhaps, a formation director or youth minister. Let’s pretend that the floors magically clean themselves and that there’s a sufficient network of volunteers. Even among that limited personnel pool – rector, parish administrator and musician – that’s 65% of St. So-and-So’s pledge and plate collection. That startling number puts an even finer point on the financial struggle of most congregations; Kirk Hadaway from The Episcopal Church, in fact, softens this reality by focusing on Normal Operating Income (NOI), not pledge and plate.  Based on a 2008 survey, Hadaway reports that congregations with an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) between 51 and 100 spent 52% of their total NOI on staff, and those with an ASA of 151 – 350 spent 51%.  Those percentages go down as the ASA gets smaller than 50 or larger than 350 (those with ASA between 1-25 spend 31% of the NOI on staff, 26-50 spend 45%; conversely, those with 351+ spend 49%), but that’s because in smaller congregations there is hardly any staff support and a congregation has to have a lot of people in order for it to sustain the idea that there can be a full complement of staff.  I know that ministry is more than paying staff positions, but it is hard to imagine that these reductions won’t have a negative impact on how the Episcopal Church is able to deliver meaningful, transformative encounters with the living God in the various contexts and communities across this country.   The unquestioned dominance of the one-parish/one-priest system is financially unsustainable, and we are quickly heading to a church in which there will be plenty of buildings but decreasing ministries. 

If you’re running the numbers in your head, St. So-and-So’s would, at this point, have $67,041 remaining. They would need to budget that money on heating gas and/or oil ($10,000?), electricity and other utilities ($7,000?), household supplies and modest kitchen expenses ($4,000?), office expenses and staples and copier leases and paper and information technology support and needs ($7,000?). They would need to find some money for communion bread and wine, and they’d barely squeak out enough to really support the ministry of the altar guild and provide for meaningful and dynamic worship experiences ($6,000?). They’d most certainly continue to defer maintenance on their buildings and grounds and I’d suspect that they would only have a little bit to invest in modest clean-up or capital improvement efforts ($5,000?).

This isn’t even mentioning Christian education programs ($10,000?) or social justice outreach work ($10,000?), ministry and mission that is the bread and butter of the Body of Christ. Apparently there won’t be much, if any money left-over for supply clergy or guest organists, so those key ministers, the clergyperson and music director and parish administrator, will be limited in their ability to go away on vacation or retreat. So much money is spent on presence and personnel and property, I’ll bet, that there’s not a lot of room for dreaming about mission and ministry and what we can be doing in the wider community to make disciples of Jesus. At this point, we’re down to about $8,000 remaining in wiggle room.

Add to this that even if the clergyperson has a truly missional calling and is ready to serve in this ministry context, the rector will, if s/he tries to follow the clergy compensation scale, price her/himself out of that congregation in less than five, probably fewer years of service there. That is to say, when that rector gets to eight years of ministry – this is, again, based on the Diocese of Washington’s 2014 clergy compensation scale – s/he will be eligible for such a cash stipend and comparative increase in pension, not including the obvious increases to health insurance and other costs, such that the clergyperson’s entire compensation package will consume any remaining surplus in the parish’s checking account and start to drive down spending in other areas. In short, the clergyperson has less than a five year ministry in that place, lest s/he be the very reason why the congregation has to raid their savings account or investment income in order to manage cash flow, pay the heat bill, buy sufficient crayons for the Sunday School, or provide substantial help to someone who is truly in need.

And it is sure to follow that a congregation with a nearly guaranteed turnover of clergy leadership every five years, on average, is a sure bet for a congregation that will only continue on a downward spiral in energy — sure it’ll spike with the new arrival but fall just as quickly thereafter — and a subsequent decline in time and giving and potential.

Not only can we much longer afford the currently dominant model of ministry in the Episcopal Church, but this is a time in which the moment is hot and, frankly, will quickly pass us by. Like it or not, we’ve arrived pretty late to the evangelism / mission game, but not so late that our numbers – our people and money, our total resources – are insufficient to the task at hand. We’ve actually got a healthier level of resources than many churches in our present situation.

But this is not a time to commission further studies or wonder who has the power to do what or ask fairly inane questions about how to transition the dominant system or shift the blame between diocese and congregation. No, this is a moment in which we know where we need to go and we have a pretty good stock of resources by which to do it.

So let’s do it.

THE STUPID PAROCHIAL REPORT

This will shock anyone who’s ever tried to teach me math, but I like numbers.  I believe that established metrics and regular evaluation are key to moving forward or, at least, knowing where you are and how you got there.  And I like trying to figure it out.

Episcopal Church leadership likes numbers so much they ask those of us on the ground every year to fill out “The Report of Episcopal Congregations and Missions according to Canons I.6, I.7, and I.17 (otherwise known as the Parochial Report).”  I like how they just casually toss in the Canons, a not so gentle hint.  Due March 1 this is, then, a time to celebrate that it’s done for another year.

THE PAROCHIAL REPORT

In its current form, the report stinks.  We’re hardly measuring the right things and the bulk of it measures the wrong ones.

The first section measures membership.  How many people were added?  Who’d you lose?  That’s how you get Total Active Baptized Members.  Those who are active but not baptized or were baptized in another denomination or, my goodness, another Episcopal church get a separate line: “Others who are active.”  Does no one move to a different city and not get around to having their letter transferred?  Also, in my experience, a greater percentage of the “Others who are active” are more active than those among the Active Baptized.

The longer we spend on this the further we get from more accurate metrics.  Measurements which point to vitality have to do with participation and discipleship — not membership.  The closest thing the Parochial Report comes to measuring that is Average Sunday Attendance, in my opinion one of the only worthwhile metrics.  The report tries to find the underlying story when it asks about baptisms or confirmations or “Total Church School Students Enrolled,” but these measure enrollment, not participation; sacraments, not discipleship; attendance, not leadership.

And don’t even get me started on the Letter of Transfer.  In six years, we’ve done two letters, one in, one out.  If evolution is the case, I hope the Letter of Transfer is the first thing to go.

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Recently, a member of a local congregation told me they’d like to transfer their letter to St. George’s.  They intend to stay connected to both congregations but want to transfer membership here.  I said “No.”  I don’t want theirs or, for that matter, anyone’s letter.  In fact, I want the idea that someone becomes a member at one parish which has one priest (or a team of clergy) and is defined over against the other local parishes, Episcopal and otherwise, to go away.  I’m looking for church as a gathering of disciples or, at least, a mixed bag of those who are, those who want to be, and those who are genuinely curious about the whole discipleship affair.  At least I want the institution called “church” to model this and no longer churn out measurement tools which are pre-programmed to tell us we’re not where we were back in 1957.  I guess that’d be the second thing I hope would evolve away.

More, this distraction is inhibiting the building we need to be doing.  Leaders at the height of the Baby Boom built new buildings and new parishes; today’s Parochial Report is a vestige of that time.  Today’s work, though, is to build networks across parish boundaries, connections across geographical divisions, mission relationships beyond the lines our predecessors drew.

In our diocese, the parochial reports trickle out via a notable tradition of public shaming.  Every year, the convention booklet publishes the list of errant parishes, listing the truants by name and in categories from bad to worse.

Last year, we were one of the tardy congregations.  The report forced us to count numbers we don’t categorize in the same way, and it didn’t allow us to use the numbers which point to vibrancy. Someone said, “File an addendum,” which I knew would be read but go nowhere.  A colleague said, “Just file it.  They don’t care.”

I’ve written elsewhere about the creative way this parish has found a more lively connection between mission and money, operations and ministry.  (Read here and here and here.)  In short, we’ve set up a completely decentralized budget.  It does two things well:  one, the operations of the church are supported by a lean, central operating budget; two, the ministries of the church rise or fall depending on the movement of the Spirit of God amongst the People of God.  We don’t fund outreach or Christian education, for example.  And the ironic good news is that they raise more money because they are free.  In turn, because our operating budget is so lean we can see, at a quick glance, what’s going on with operations.

We are growing, in part, because we’ve learned that operations and ministry are both mission and yet are not the same.  We’ve freed ministry from operations.  Further, we understand that operational functions are not only a vital part of the church’s mission but also support relational ministry.  This, in turn, gives a new validity to administrative functions and operations.

This budget strategy is healthy, life-giving and the only way to make a budget according to the logic of the Body of Christ, not the illogic of the world.  But it’s squarely in conflict with the assumptions behind the Parochial Report.

Our Normal Operating Income (NOI), then, is slim.  But that’s not all the money.  Even more small mindedly, the Parochial Report enforces a myopic view of expenditures and money raised.  Outreach expenditures are “Outreach from operating budget.”  According to this illogic, we report $0.00 given to build up our community and world.  In reality, we raised and spent $13,144.76 in 2012 and $9,767.71 in 2011, lots more money than we were ever able to give out of the centralized operational budget!  The report doesn’t even ask about Christian education or young adult or senior adult or youth ministry.

Beyond griping, here are five suggestions for revising the issues surrounding the Parochial Report:

1.  Determine new actual average measurements, in addition to Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), that might point to discipleship, leadership, and participation.  Poll church leadership and ask one question, “What are the things you do in the course of your week which tell you if something’s working and there’s growth energy?”  On the basis of what I’m sure will be a fairly universal set of responses, determine new actual average measurements.

2.Establish that Normal Operating Income (NOI) be determined by the total of four actual numbers: (a) total pledge contributions, (b) total ‘plate’ contributions, (c) any rental fees from parish properties, and (d) contributions from congregation’s organizations.

3. This will force and free up congregations to figure out other ways to budget the categories the Parochial Report currently determines as being inclusive of the NOI.  It’s likely they’ll stumble upon a decentralized budget like we use at St. George’s, Valley Lee.  They, too, will enjoy the healthy distinction between operations and ministry.  Moreover, they’ll see money given to support operations go up, if only remain the same.

4.  Make timely receipt of the Parochial Report without sufficient excuse and blessing from the Bishop or Ecclesiastical Authority the determining factor whether a parish or mission gets seat and voice and vote at that next year’s Diocesan Convention.

5.  Make 10% giving of NOI — the NOI I sketched, above — mandatory for all parishes.  If the diocese enables its congregations to find a life-giving connection between money and mission the diocese deserves 10%.  Counterintuitively, the reason too many dioceses abandoned mandatory giving is because institutional, diocesan leadership is unsure of their role as network builders and uncertain how to model a new way of being of the institution and, at the same time, free of the institution.

And while I’ll bet a lot of readers were with me right up until I said “turn it in on time or lose your vote” and “give 10% to the diocese” the larger point is this:  in an age in which people from all generations are happily walking away from institutions and institutionalism, the only choice remaining for those of us commissioned with leadership of these, face it, institutions is whether we propagate the old way (which a lot of us don’t believe in) or whether we use these structures to truly help people measure the areas in real life which impact joy, success, strength, and energy (positively or negatively).  When we revise our metrics, we might actually see more liveliness, vitality and growth than we’ve previously seen or appreciated.  We might, as well, see more clearly what’s standing in the way and needs to be removed or refashioned.  Who knows?  That awakening might actually make us more boldly the Body of Christ on earth, and more equipped to model it for others.