Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Hubris of Spending Other People's Money

Budget discussions in ECUSA's Executive Council continued to be contentious today at the Maritime Center, as the various factions duking it out are beginning to realize how little control they have over the process. For the General Convention activists, it is all about losing sight of the "vision":
“Neither iteration – 19 percent asking or 15 percent asking – provides a new vision,” Katie Sherrod said in reporting the reaction of the Governance and Administration for Mission committee. “We need a vision for the future.”
(Note to Dr. [hon. causa] Sherrod: The vision is right there in front of you, but you are incapable of seeing it because it does not mesh with your view of the world. Meanwhile, facts on the ground are fast overtaking what little remains of the things over which you still have some discretion. Soon you will not have any choices left to discuss, let alone make.)

Laboring under a different form of blindness to the facts, some Council members complained that the numbers were dictating the structure, rather than the other way around:
“This was not a strategic exercise but this was a mathematical exercise,” council member Vycke McEwen said later in the morning while council further discussed the budgeting process. 
Council member Lee Allison Crawford reported that her colleagues at her table felt the church was “just beginning to understand the system we inherited from General Convention 2009 with the last round of cuts.” The reorganized Church Center “has had success” and to change the system again would be wrong, she said. 
“The structure has to be an authentic reflection of our values and so we really should change ministries with deliberation and care and reflection and not just by sweeping cuts in a spreadsheet,” she said.
Yet a third form of blindness manifested itself -- "If we don't like what we're being told are the facts, we don't have to believe that it's really happening":
While council heard much discussion the previous day about declining mainline denominational membership and financial struggles caused both by those membership declines and the current economy, council member Brian Cole said that his table colleagues questioned the assumed implications of that information.  
He said they wanted to challenge the rest of the council to consider “if we believe decline is inevitable and ongoing forever, or do we really believe we have good news to share.”  
Finally, a self-deluding syndrome appeared which is always the fatal sign of a disconnected legislative body -- that is, a body which has disconnected itself from the people who pay for the cost of their very existence in the first place. That syndrome arises from the legislators' firm conviction that they know better how to spend the people's money than the people themselves do:
Cole also echoed a theme of some council members who questioned what they said was an assumption that reducing the amount of money the denomination asks of its dioceses would actually result in increased spending on mission activities at that and the congregational level.  
“We really have to decide what is a fair contribution for the work we want to do at the churchwide level and realize we really can’t control what other people do with the money they keep either at the diocese or a parish,” he said. 
You have that right, Mr. Cole. Please do keep reminding those discussing the budget that it is not their money to spend in accordance with their own beliefs and prioritiesbut to spend only as responsible stewards on behalf of those who donated it. And if the national church and its member dioceses can think of little more than using their donors' hard-earned money to fund grandiose bureaucratic visions, or  wasteful, alienating litigation, perhaps they should consider not accepting it in the first place.

Meanwhile, as usual, the final decisions will get made by the small group at the top, all the while as the lesser privileged receive reassurances that their concerns are "being heard":
The Executive Committee will meet later in the day Jan. 28 “to respond to recommendations and observations we’ve heard,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told council at the end of that discussion. The committee will discuss the result of that meeting with the whole of council on Jan. 29, she added. 
“We’re trying to respond to what we are aware is some anxiety around this,” she said, adding that council had wanted to try a new process for crafting the 2013-2015 budget process and that the process began several months later than the process normally does.
So by tinkering with the process, they managed to leave themselves with still less time to consider the budget, and to create an atmosphere of confusion and disorder:
“That new initiative I think was creative and hopeful, and it has presented us with a reality that is very different than we’ve experienced in the past,” [Jefferts Schori] said. “It’s more chaotic, but I would also remind you that the Genesis story says there’s no creation in the absence of chaos.”
And I would respectfully remind the Presiding Bishop, and the rest of the Executive Council, that they are not "creators", but stewards. Chaos is not the hallmark of good stewardship, but of its opposite.

God save the Episcopal Church (USA) -- if it be God's will, and if not: well, then, let the cup at least pass from them with a minimum of further pain and destruction.

[UPDATE 01/29/2012: Another hallmark of good stewardship is openness and accountability, and after a good start (thanks in no small part to Executive Council member Lelanda Lee and her blow-by-blow accounts on Twitter), suddenly it is "business as usual" again. The Executive Council ended today by adopting a budget, but the statement it released at the close of the session does not say what budget it recommended to the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance! (The latter Committee begins meeting tomorrow at the same venue to shape the final version of the budget to be presented this July at General Convention.)

So we Episcopalians who donate, and have donated, all the funds they are now disposing of, will be kept in the dark until ENS's intrepid reporter, the Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, publishes her story about the final day of the meeting. And meanwhile, the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies are engaged in a very public tiff over their channels of communication with the rest of the Church.

The Joint Committee's deliberations and changes to the budget will not be published until after General Convention, which means that the rank and file of pewsitters will have to remain ignorant until that Committee releases the budget at General Convention itself. Once they do send the budget to the floor, no doubt each House will allot the customary ten to fifteen minutes for its deliberation before adopting it as presented. And the Church will be launched on another of its triennia, with a formal -- but largely meaningless -- budget in place, which almost immediately the Executive Council will begin to modify yet again on the fly, in order to square with the facts on the ground.

Which facts, by then, will include more unilateral spending decisions by the Presiding Bishop and her Chancellor to launch yet more litigation -- regardless of budgetary constraints.

Isn't the "budgetary process" of the Episcopal Church (USA) one of the true marvels of twenty-first century corporate communication?  As I have earlier observed, the gargoyles of Notre Dame have nothing on the Episcopal Church when it comes to taking all kinds of elaborate measures to fend off demons and other ill-intended spirits who, its leaders fear, might interfere with its functioning. For the pewsters on the ground, however, there is nothing left but to contemplate the grand edifice that has been built with their money, and to admire the skills of its architects, who seemingly have left nothing to chance.]


  1. This sounds like a scene from Alice in Wonderland. I would not be surprised if they pass a deficit budget with a line item entitled "By faith" to fill in the gap. Its been done on the parish level so there is precedent. Now that would be creating something in chaos.

  2. It seem,to me, from reading Genesis, that there was a plan all along...where'"chaos" took a second seat to the reality that is. In other words, chaos was the first assumption, but there was always an order, first and foremost. There is no "foremost" in any of this chaos.

  3. The shifting alliances are very interesting. Back in September at the HOB meeting, Bishop Sauls suggested a massive reorganization that would put mission first and reduce overhead (which is currently 47% and does not meet Better Business Bureau standards for non-profit overhead). His suggested budget was $81 million for the triennium and would be funded by 1% giving to the national church from every parish.
    Bonnie Anderson was miffed that she didn't get briefed before his plan was rolled out. Now we have Bonnie championing a not-so-austere budget of $91.5 while +Sauls and +Schori want the bloated $105 million budget.

  4. Yes, Ralinda, you are quite right. But notice how quickly the facts overtake the news: see the update to the post above for further developments, which tend to show that the differing factions are settling into the trenches for a prolonged battle, which will culminate at Indianapolis in July of this year.

  5. They will eventually devour each other - I am quite certain of that.

  6. I suspect that it will all end, not with a bang, but a whimper (or at least what passes for a whimper in this day and age).

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer