Friday, May 31, 2013

At Some Point Fights Must End

A friend forwarded me an article from the American Spectator this morning deploring the Boy Scouts' change in policy to permit gay scouts to participate without lying about who they are. The author, Mark Tooley, argued that in changing its policy, the scouts consign themselves to the same fate as the Episcopal Church:
The BSA is deciding the follow the disastrously predictable path of once mainstream but now dying institutions like the Episcopal Church, which gets occasional media plaudits for its sexual liberalism but is otherwise ignored. And like the Episcopal Church, the BSA of the future, after losing a million members or so, will probably rely on the endowments of the dead rather than the active interest of the living, much less the very young.
Mark Tooley is with the Institute for Religion and Democracy, an outfit whose primary purpose is to discredit progressive theology within mainline Protestant churches. They mainly hang out on the disaffected internet fringes (Virtue Online, Juicy Ecumenism, etc.), and occasionally manage some mainstream exposure. They have little history of caring much about the Boy Scouts - the real target of their attack here are the UCC, the Episcopalians, etc. The most surprising thing about this article is its naked animus toward gay people; their normal MO is to cloak themselves in respectability before going on the attack. I don't worry too much about these people because they are basically PR hacks whose paychecks depend on their holding of these views.

That said, Tooley's statistics with regard to the Episcopal Church are correct. And even his interpretation of them, to a limited degree. Focusing for a moment on the Episcopal Church, in my view the great fights over sexuality over the last few years have been one of the reasons for our decline in numbers (though there are many others). That doesn't mean the fight isn't worth having, but we have to recognize that fighting comes at a cost - which is that few people want to join an organization that is fighting. The fact that these fights have stretched over decades, complete with lawsuits and schisms, means that taken as a whole, the church has been focusing so much on its internal stuff that it is little wonder that our funerals outnumber our baptisms by a wide margin.

Again, that is not to suggest that the fight was not worth having. But at some point the fights must end. The Episcopal Church has not gone as far on same sex marriage as I would like; neither have the Boy Scouts gone as far as I think they ultimately must with regard to adult leaders (I was a Life Scout; I came out before making Eagle and left before I could be kicked out). But now is a good time for laying down arms.

Within the Episcopal Church, the space that has been created allows for conversion of hearts. There are many who disagree with the stance the church has taken with regard to LGBT people. But they have chosen to stay. So we can remain in conversation with each other, worship together, and mutually prove to each other that it is right for us to remain in relationship. This is a posture that enables an outward focus to re-engage with the world outside the church, and to invite people into Christ's love, not our quarrels.

Just so with the Boy Scouts. Will hundreds of thousands leave? Time will tell. But just as many churches say they will cease to sponsor Boy Scout troops, there have been many churches that, for reasons of conscience, have declined to sponsor them. They should not wait for the Boy Scouts to come around on gay leaders before they shift their stance. The correctness of the decision the Scouts have just made will be found in a new generation of Eagle Scouts, some gay, some straight, who have grown up in an organization that values all young men, and who will reform the same organization to similarly value adults.

For both the Boy Scouts and the Episcopal Church: no one will ever care how just our policies for membership and participation, ordination and marriage, are if we are ultimately self-involved organizations who make no difference to anyone else. It is time for those who have campaigned for change in these organizations to pivot from agitation to support, while recognizing there is still work to do to get to full equality.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Dow Jones ex Machina - Comments on the 2014 Draft Budget of the Diocese of Indianapolis

This article represents solely the opinions of its author and does not reflect the opinions of the Episcopal Church of All Saints or the Diocesan Reimagining Task Force.

2014 Diocese of Indianapolis Draft Budget
2014 Diocese of Indianapolis Draft Budget Narrative

“For to those who have, more will be given, and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” Luke 8:18

I have been participating in the Diocese’s Bible Challenge since Lent began. With the encouragement of some hardy souls from around the diocese gathering on Facebook, and the peer pressure of a group of faithful readers in my own parish, I have been more or less keeping up with the reading.

That means that I have come across Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s formulations of one of Jesus’s hard, impenetrable teachings multiple times in rather short order. In the context of our faith, so rich with grace, what could this saying, which seems to confirm, not confront, avarice and self-dealing possibly mean?

As a professional in the investment industry, I work with
a number of endowed institutions, some religious, most secular. I am very familiar with the financial blessings and challenges they face. This experience also places me in sympathy with those who are very concerned about the current rate of spending from the endowment, though I am perhaps less concerned than some.

It is appropriate, for instance, that we overspend what is generally accepted as a sustainable spending policy for an endowment in the midst of economic crisis. The endowment can function as a cushion to prevent catastrophic withdrawal of services in response to what may be temporary circumstances. It also allows the church in particular to distinguish itself as a reliable bulwark of support for needs of the wider community. As the economic emergency recedes, the endowment is then able to resume a normal level of spending as the portfolio’s market value recovers.

That is the theory, at any rate. But it has its limits. First, even in the most soundly managed institution, this approach implies that on average, the organization will be spending slightly more than a sustainable rate. That means that periodically the endowment needs to be topped up with a capital campaign or a major gift. This is not a sign of failure. Rather it is a sign that the donor’s original gift has been successful in sustaining the institution and providing a strong foundation for a new generation to build on. The Diocese of Chicago has recently been the recipient of such a major gift. We should be asking ourselves whether our mission is oriented to inspire similar generosity.

Second, this strategy can be sustained for some time in an institution that is structurally financially sound. But an organization that has a significant structural mismatch between revenues and expenses will inevitably run into a wall. The Diocese of Indianapolis fits the latter description today. Our largest single expense, health care, is largely outside our control. Almost half of our parishes receive some form of direct diocesan aid. These two areas of the budget are among the few to receive a significant increase in the current draft of the 2014 budget. Meanwhile, in the areas that the diocese once truly mattered to the community around us, as the visionary organization that founded numerous organizations ministering to prisoners, victims of domestic violence, and the homeless, we are now reduced to a payroll and benefits administrator. It should be a point of pride for us that these organizations are more or less able to stand on their own as independent organizations. But it is to our shame that as we are managing our budget today our diocese looks like it will never do so much good again.

Third, our current approach to the budget, which focuses on keeping up appearances and maintaining the status quo despite our diminishment in finances and numbers, puts us at spiritual peril. Rather than transforming in response to new circumstances, we find ourselves looking for a miracle from that other god, a Dow Jones ex machina, to restore us to our former glory.

Here we are, in the enviable position of being one of the wealthiest dioceses in The Episcopal Church, and year after year we find ourselves entrapped in narrative of diminishment, arguing over what to cut. Do we have little, or do we have a lot? How we approach our resources may prefigure how God will deal with us. For to those who have, more will be given, and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.

We are Christians. By definition, we have hope. And we are blessed to have ample examples of hope within this diocese. We speak often of the struggles of many of our small town parishes. But the vitality and comparatively strong material footing of parishes in places like Lawrenceburg and Bean Blossom among others challenge the notion that demographics dictate a declining church in Indiana’s small communities. We are among the few dioceses left to vigorously fund campus ministries, raising new generations of leaders for the church. Many of our large and small parishes are passionately engaged in local and global mission. For whatever its technical flaws, our diocese’s plans, expressed in the will of the 2011 diocesan convention, to give $500,000 for recovery in the Diocese of Haiti, shows our generous spirit.

Given the available resources and the present set of circumstances, how then might we begin to take steps to reorient our budget toward becoming a more visionary diocese, one whose resources show a greater commitment to loving our neighborhood and faithfulness to the Great Commission? Here are a few specific proposals:

1) Build capacity for stewardship at the parish level. We should take full advantage of our affiliation with The Episcopal Network for Stewardship, an excellent resource provider. My own attendance at their 2010 conference in Indianapolis was transformative in my understanding of a model of stewardship based on generosity rather than guilt. Specifically: The Episcopal Network for Stewardship is having another conference in Salt Lake City in July. While attending the conference is beyond the resources of many, TENS is offering four of its sessions on stewardship basics via webcast at the modest fee of $75. The Executive Council and Mission Strategy should work immediately to identify and recruit current or potential stewardship leaders in parishes needing additional stewardship training, providing scholarships for webcast attendance where needed. It seems this would be a wise investment of the Leadership Development line item in the 2013 budget. A potential approach would be to gather these leaders in a common location by deanery to view the webcasts together, accompanied by one or more proven stewardship leaders from throughout the diocese to facilitate discussion.

The stewardship capacity building could be further supported by structuring a portion of the mission strategy funding as matching funds based on incremental improvement in stewardship results based on Fall 2013 pledge campaigns. Speaking from the experience of All Saints, the availability of matching funds as an incentive for new or increased pledges has been instrumental in a renewed culture of stewardship in a parish not historically known for its affluence.

2) Identify whether we have Mission Strategy parishes ready to take a transformative step. Over the coming triennium The Episcopal Church has budgeted for the creation of 50 Mission Enterprise Zones to fund ministry to underserved populations within the church, to the tune of $20,000 each, structured as a matching grant. Consulting with parishes committed to creative ministry, Mission Strategy should work with parishes to identify opportunities to restructure diocesan funding to qualify for a Mission Enterprise Zone grant. The most obvious candidates for this funding appear to be our parishes doing work with Latino populations and/or in rural areas.

3) Defer increased funding for communications until at least 2015. We must focus on maximizing the use of free or low-cost technologies before committing additional funds. Rather than identifying a way to get print media into parishioners’ hands, we should instead maximize the reach of the Gathered Community, which presently reaches only 400 or so people due to the diocese’s lack of e-mail addresses. Given the historic ability of the diocese to procure mailing addresses for its print communications, devoting similar effort to obtain e-mail addresses would be a worthy project. The weekly mailbag should be opened to a broader audience and should use Constant Contact or a similar tool for distribution. This can be done for under $500 annually. This would dramatically improve this communication’s readability, and also provides the ability to archive the mailbag’s contents. The problems of our web site are well known, and probably do require additional funding at some point. But it is now reasonably functional and not a top priority.

The diocese must comply with the resolution passed at last year’s diocesan convention and engage seriously with social media. Our Facebook group is reasonably active, but functions more like a classic e-mail listserv than an official voice for our diocese. Effective use of social media gives the diocese and other church bodies the unique ability to intrude, for lack of a better term, into where a great many people today are spending a great amount of their time. And in the proliferation of feel-good “spiritual” quotes one may perceive the Athenians’ grasping for their unknown god. Many of our parishes are active and effective users, but by using Facebook ineffectively at the diocesan level, the official voice of our diocese is silent.

4) Reduce the scale of diocesan convention. Our almost-neighbor, the Diocese of Western Michigan, completed their 2013 diocesan convention a few weeks ago within the space of six hours or so on a Saturday. This not only reduces costs, but also broadens the potential base of participation, including to young people and those in professions such as teaching that find taking a Thursday afternoon and Friday off untenable. The legislative calendar could be cut down considerably by recognizing the fact that we are already bound by, not required to assent to, most General Convention legislation, allowing social and workshop time to be available, as well as cutting down the workload of our General Convention deputation. The costly symbolism of holding the convention in various locations throughout the diocese should be dispensed with in favor of using existing diocesan properties with capacity to host a group of our convention’s size.

5) Restore the funding to our cooperating ministries. I understand that it is the desire of some for the diocese to move away from the checkbook philanthropy it has historically practiced with regard to the cooperating ministries. It is true enough that what we have been doing in recent years falls far short of “transforming unjust structures of society”, as we are called in the Five Marks of Mission. This today is the only material way in which our diocese, as a household, contributes to the well-being of the community around us. We misinterpret the message of Jesus if we think that the insufficiency of our actions justifies taking no action at all. As a diocesan household, one of our most exciting possibilities is the ability to do mission on a scale no parish can do alone. We are also shortsighted if we neglect the power of visible service as a tool for evangelism. In the present day, the CROSSWalk initiative against gun violence taken on by the Diocese of Chicago is a prime example. Funding the cooperating ministries the way we have historically may not be the long term way forward for the Diocese of Indianapolis, but until we discern a longer term strategy (and we must), there is no excuse for turning our backs on local mission opportunities. The restoration of this line item can be funded by deferring the funding increase for communications, reduced funding for diocesan convention, and by reductions in Mission Strategy that I have every faith will be obtainable through an intentional focus on stewardship.

This is not a plan for the long term. But this is a nudge to move our diocesan budget back on the right track, a track that reflects the call of Jesus to make disciples and to love our neighbor. A track, that with careful planning and sincere discernment, may cause us to be an apostolic institution worthy of future financial gifts. Through the generosity of today’s stewards and history’s benefactors, God has seen to bless this diocese richly with financial resources. But the attitude with which we view what we have has everything to do with what will happen to it. For to those who have, more will be given, and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.

Episcopal Vocabulary Lessons - A Report from the Executive Council Listening Session