Friday, June 22, 2012

Bread and Circuses: the Presiding Bishop's Proposed Budget for ECUSA

Working with her staff, Episcopal Church (USA) Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori has, just two weeks before the start of the 2012 General Convention in Indianapolis, published a surprise draft budget for the Church’s next triennium. (“Surprise” in the sense that no one in the rest of the Church saw it coming.) She proposes the draft as an alternative to the mess that came out of the Executive Council’s deliberations which finished in January, whose substantial shortcomings I covered in this earlier article.

The Executive Council’s proposal went, by canon, to the General Convention’s Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget & Finance. It has the canonical responsibility to propose a final budget to the Convention, which must adopt one for the next three years. However, PB&F cannot alter the Executive Council’s draft until it begins meeting the day before General Convention opens. Thus it is unclear what it can do with the Presiding Bishop’s proposal, as well, before its initial meeting in Indianapolis.

The budget proposed by the EC was the product of a year-long, tortuous process which attempted to include input from all sectors of the Church. In the process, the staff at 815 Second Avenue—including the Treasurer, Kurt Barnes, and the Chief Operating Officer, Bishop Stacy Sauls, were largely bypassed until the last minute. This left no time for staff to ensure that the budget conformed to their projections—or even that it was balanced. (As published at the close of the EC meeting in January, the budget had a $1,250,000 gap between income and expenses, which resulted in a mostly imaginary projected surplus of $1,567,722.)

Recriminations for the fiasco were passed back and forth among the EC members and 815’s staff. Just three weeks ago, the latter produced an annotated edition for the benefit of PB&F which attempted to correct, or at least explain, some of the more glaring errors. However, it appears that the Presiding Bishop (whether at the urging of her staff or not) by then had already determined to take matters into her own hands, and mold a draft budget more to her liking.

The result is a budget calculated to appeal to the leftist ideology (think: social justice and world betterment) and twisted theology of both those at 815 and who will form the great majority at Indianapolis. Instead of the old divisions between categories of “Canonical, Corporate and Program”, the PB’s budget is split into categories of “Mission, Governance and Administration.” By moving some of the items previously classed as “Canonical” and calling them “Program” (in the former terms), she changes the name of the enlarged Program category to “Mission”, and then claims that her budget devotes the lion’s share of the Church’s budget to mission. Along the way, she has reorganized the grouping of the sub-items under headings that match the “Five Marks of Mission” (as originally developed by the Anglican Consultative Council).

But in doing so, she strains the categories quite a bit. For example, she groups the budget for all of ECUSA's Communications Office and services -- from maintaining websites and running the Episcopal News Service, down to the translators employed at General Convention -- under the First Mark of Mission: "Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom" (in the process shortening it to just "Proclaim the Good News"). It seems doubtful that one could justify every activity of the Communications Office as spreading the Gospel -- but then, the budget would not look as devoted to "Mission", would it?

So is this a more “Anglican” budget, intended to endear ECUSA to the rest of the Anglican Communion?

Yes and no. For one thing, although the Executive Council had proposed a reduction in the Church’s support for the Anglican Communion Office from the past triennium’s $1,160,000 to $850,000, the PB now proposes to give the ACO just $500,000. At the same time, she proposes to use the savings in what would have been given to the ACO to enlarge the budget of the Church’s own Anglican Communion office by some $500,000 over what the EC had proposed for it (see lines 192-97). This will be touted as “a greater commitment” to the Anglican Communion, but it is all in moneys to be spent by the PB in adding new staff and in entertaining visiting primates and other Communion dignitaries.

Then again, the PB proposes to raise $1.5 million in new funds for the relief of Haiti, by getting “faithful Episcopalians” to donate to match, on a 2 for 1 basis, the $774,000 already budgeted for such relief (lines 18 and 83). This will certainly please the clergy and laity who have been working there to help Haiti recover from its catastrophic earthquake—but should something be budgeted which apparently has not even yet been committed, or pledged?

Other money “found” since the EC met has resulted from a refinancing of the Church’s outstanding debt at a lower interest rate (line 329), but achieved by pledging the Church’s donated stocks and bonds as security. This allows the PB to project a payment on principal of $1.5 million per year for the next three years. Indeed, this successful achievement by her Treasurer and his staff may well have  contributed to the impetus for a new draft budget.

However, the PB was not content to book just concrete savings. As noted earlier, she decided to put in phantom pledges in order to redress the budget as “mission-oriented,” and thus in the process to offer bread and circuses to her constituency. As the basis for her newfound dedication to mission, the PB touts “zero-based budgeting”, which allowed her to review all the Church’s mission priorities from scratch, without regard to what it had been spending on them previously. But her approach has produced some genuine anomalies, which are not explained in any of the extensive comments accompanying her proposal. For instance, she has announced that, all of a sudden, the Church under her budget will spend $2 million on new church planting over the next triennium. “That’s wonderful!” I hear the Episcoleft already shouting.

But look again: she cuts the budget of for Congregational and Pastoral Development by more than 25%. So who will get the $2 million to spend on planting new missions and parishes? (Oops: scratch “missions” in that last sentence. She also cuts the Director of Mission’s Office by almost one-half.) Perhaps the idea is to hand it back to certain Dioceses, in exchange for their more generous commitments?

(That is total speculation, of course—but the PB’s budget invites it, because it allocates so many millions of dollars for show-window causes, without specifying how and by whom—other than by the PB herself—the money will be spent.)

While making some specifically painful cuts (see below), the PB’s budget also is “balanced” only by more flimflammery: she achieves a supposed “surplus” for the triennium of $124,777 (after allowing for the $4.5 million in debt repayment) only by plugging in an across-the-board cut (5%) of $632,582 in Governance expenses (line 315), and a further $546,586 in unallocated reductions in the budget for the Church’s Finance department (line 333). The former cut is to be made in consultation with the EC; the latter by management alone. Thus in reality, the budget—which already removes 18.5 paid staff positions—is still out of balance by over one million dollars. (Subtract lines 315 and 333 from line 369.)

This is why it appears that the PB’s proposal is calculated more to look good and to appeal to the Episcoleft, rather than to be pragmatic and address realities. It promotes only the gain, while hiding most of the pain.

For the detail-minded, there is more, still more, along the same lines:

The PB and her Treasurer have been creative in finding more income than the EC was told it had to work with. After consulting with several wealthy dioceses, she has raised projected diocesan commitments by nearly $3 million over what EC had projected—but again, these are not yet written pledges, only assurances. That, plus the $1.5 million in anticipated Haiti donations, boosts the show budget by nearly $4.5 million.

Then she produces more discretionary funds to spread around by cutting items voted on by Executive Council: she has cut out nearly $800,000 in other grants approved (but not individually allocated) by EC, which included $423,000 to Domestic Missionary Partnership, and sums for ministries to the disabled, the deaf, and the Appalachians (line 165 - which misstates by over $600,000 the amount of the EC's draft budget for the lines referenced, and so makes the cut appear to be "only" $150,000).

Some commenters I have read think that the PB is budgeting for more staff at 815, not less. However, I think that is only an appearance, caused by the insistence of her COO, Bishop Sauls, that the budget reflect a 2% annual cost-of-living increase for all personnel, plus an 8% annual increase in their health-care premiums. If you look at line 381, you will see that this produces an increase of some $500,000 over the numbers that EC had in its budget, and the increases for those purposes are noted consistently throughout the document. If there are going to be staff increases (and there may well be), they are hidden for the time being in the blanket allocations for popular causes, which show no detail whatsoever.

I could go on, but what would be the point? The PB has tossed a shiny new golden snitch into ECUSA’s crazy game of budget Quidditch. It is calculated to appeal at the same time that it distracts. The resulting shenanigans at GC 2012 may be of interest to Harry Potter fans, but they will in the end form only another chapter in the Decline and Fall of the Episcopal Church (USA)™.

Panem et circuses, as Gibbon would say.


  1. The 3-year ECUSA budget of Jefferts Schori works if you want to believe it. So in that regards, I guess her budget might be a temporary success...that is, until people who run these programs try to get the money allocated to fund them, and are told to get lost. Then things will get interesting!

    I work at a small college that is in decline (it will probably be closed by the end of the decade so I pray I will have a different job by then!), and I've had to sit in Cabinet meetings and watch Trustee reports where all sorts of figures were presented that I knew were fiction. I watched an administrator show a $5000 state government grant that one of my colleagues had gotten to publish a small research journal, and I almost fell out of my chair. I'm sure none of the Trustees knew what I did, which was that my friend was using his own money to scratch together the journal because they used every bureaucratic means to thwart any chance he had to process his purchase requests for his own grant money! I'm not sure where that yearly $5k went for those 3 years he had that mini-grant, but not one cent went to support the journal.

    Another time I saw a figure that was for $17,000 for special purchases that my department head had to approve for the purchase for multimedia teaching tools. I was amazed because a mere 6 months before, I had tried to get a $100 request approved for my division, and month after month my request sat on this person's desk and then that person's desk, etc., then they lost the paperwork and I had to resubmit it, and then they wanted to know 'if I needed it' and I had to write two memos, etc.

    None of this on their part was incompetence--it was designed so that I would give up what I was supposed to get because (1) I had done the work and (2) got the approval of my immediate supervisor. "But," I asked my supervisor, "Why are they fussing over $100 if we have a budget of $17,000 for the year?"

    That $17k was basically a myth, our read budget was either $0 or whatever bone the chancellor's inner circle decided to kick to us. This whole experience was eye opening for me, and I think a lot of formerly pliable ECUSA people are going to have the scales drop from their eyes as well.

    I've heard that a myth is like an air mattress: it keeps you comfortable, but there is nothing in it. I found that out trying to get a $100 expenditure approved from a $17k budget that I thought was real because I saw it somewhere on paper. I think some of the more credulous folks at 815 are going to have a real eye-opening experience like I did, and I can't say it will be fun for them...sort of like when Keanu Reeves awakes from the Matrix dream and sees the human battery factory he is in! ;-)

    Hey: better they learn late than never. And better them than me.

  2. When the TEC budget refers to "church planting", one wonders exactly what the means. In ACNA, for example, it's just that - creating new churches from the ground up. In TEC, that could simply mean claiming that TEC parishes who are moving back into recently won property are considered "planted churches". Over the pat three years, how many new TEC parishes or even missions have been created?