Turning Our Stewardship Fears into Easter’s Sunrise

As my term as a member of the Executive Council for the Diocese of California began I was assigned to the Program and Budget Committee.  The job of P&B is to recommend a DioCal budget to the Executive Council, to coordinate efforts with the Department of Finance in forecasting expected Diocesan revenue, and recommend a balanced program of mission and ministry services that reflects the expected income we have to spend.

These are far from ordinary times in church finance.  I think we’ve done good work with the Bishop and Staff to understand the goals they seek to achieve in doing the mission and ministry work of the church.  We’ve also been doing heavy lifting in assessing the financial, budget and program risks we face as a faith community.  There will be less money to spend next year than this year, or last or the year before that.  The question is whether it will get worse before it gets better.

Based upon a realistic assessment of Diocesan revenue for 2012 we have recommended budget cuts totaling about $300,000 out of a total operating budget of a little less than $4 million.  This will result in a Diocesan assessment cap of about 17% for congregations on income more than $62,000.  If this recommendation is adopted this Fall it will be the third year in a row of declining revenue and thus smaller budgets.

There is a gut wrenching process of prayer and soul-searching going on in DioHouse to find the path to do God’s work effectively and prudently in the face of so many unmet needs.  At this ¼ point in the P&B marathon the preliminary conclusions we are considering are  uncomfortable but necessary based upon today’s estimates. BUT—-we worry that these reductions in proposed spending will not be enough by the time we get to convention this Fall.

Trying to catch a falling sword

Case in point, this week parish members at St. Timothy‘s Episcopal Church in Danville, CA received in the mail a letter from the wardens & vestry warning that at the end of the first quarter the parish has a projected year end deficit of $162,000 based upon pledges received, giving to date and a forecast of expenses. This represents 20% of the current parish budget at risk!  The plea to the congregation was to increase pledges and increase giving to close the deficit and avoid draining reserves, further cuts to staff or program. And worse, this is on top of pledge income reductions of more than $200,000 over the last two years as the recession hit our congregation hard.

You see the problem?

I suspect St. Timothy’s is not alone in this falling sword problem. The Diocese will feel the brunt of this reduced pledge income trend over the next several years because of the lag in the assessment formula. The cold truth is the budget we are about to recommend may be materially overestimating Diocesan income because of this falling sword problem across the congregations.

If I am right, we could also see more congregations asking for assessment relief next year than we expect today. We could also see congregations that are financially fragile pushed over the edge. If this is happening at St. Timothy’s then you know it must be happening across the Diocese. This is a frighteningly plausible risk to the Diocese that is too big to ignore.

What should we do?

It is obvious that the Diocese cannot increase its assessment on the congregations in the face of falling revenues in the parishes.  Unlike Jesus we cannot turn water into wine.  But neither does it mean that we give up on doing God’s work.  We may not be able to do everything, but we can do some things—-the most important things as well as our hands, hearts and treasure permit.  That is the focus on our prayers asking God’s help to find a way forward doing the work He wants us to do.

I believe God does not give us burdens he knows we cannot carry.  This long economic lent has encroached on our Easter but it cannot stop us from celebrating His resurrection and singing our alleluias. Our challenge is to pray and listen for God’s call guiding us on the choices we make.

So P&B will be taking this budget around this summer to the deaneries of the Diocese of California and talking honestly about our hopes and fears about the work of the church.  Our work in P&B is as much spiritual as it is financial.  We are praying for guidance about how to  focus on those things that have the most impact on church vitality, on meeting the needs of the poor, on supporting justice, on helping the homeless, hungry, sick and those in need.

The good news is turning over the rocks of our spending we are finding new ways to do old things better.  God is challenging bishop, staff and congregations to collaborate and share programs, ideas, time and talent as never before in area ministry.  We are thus reinventing the way the church does business without undermining the purpose of the church.

This process isn’t easy but it is holy because it is being undertaken in a sense of love, of service and of hope.  It is making the church more transparent and asking the faithful to get more involved.  It uses money where we get the biggest spiritual bang for the buck—if you will pardon this businessman’s lapse into bean-counting.  But in doing so it is also freeing us from the chains of ‘we’ve always done it that way’ to unleash new ways of thinking and doing the mission and ministry work of the church.

By the time the impacts of this recession have run their course we will, without doubt, be a smaller church in budget and resources.  But we will be a greater church in spirit, shared vision, in soulful prayer about the important work to be done in God’s name, and in the involved work of the faithful in doing that work ourselves because we will have walked this path together hand in hand singing our alleluias.

If that is God’s plan for us then it truly will be Easter.

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