We are trying an experiment. It’s a little different and it may not work. But I am convinced it’s worth a try. In fact, we have to try. Our experiment begins in a small way with churches and money.
The 25% assessment on parish income has been in place here for decades. It used to be a requirement for national grants we no longer get. But after the grants stopped, the diocese was all the more cash-strapped, so the assessment level remained in place. Under the weight of the 25% assessment, parishes have been hard pressed to engage in mission, to reach out in service and evangelism, or to try anything innovative and interesting. During all the years in which Nevada was the fastest growing state, our diocesan membership and attendance remained stagnant, and sometimes declined.
But that’s not what worries me. Sometimes as we have talked about money in the past, diocesan staff and governance sounded judgmental and suspicious, reminding me a bit of tax collectors. Meanwhile some parishes have engaged in creative accounting to keep their resources for themselves – often in ways that reflect selfishness and lack of integrity. But if the Diocese is trying to collect more than a parish can pay, is it any surprise that parishes resort to devious practices? If parishes resort to devious practices, is it any surprise that diocesan staff and governance should grow suspicious? The trust it takes to be a community or work for a common mission is missing on both sides. That’s what worries me.
After five years of watching the Episcopal Church in Nevada struggling under this burden of distrust, I suggested an experiment to the Standing Committee and they are going along with it. Call us crazy but we are going to try Christianity. We are going to try faith, trust, compassion, mercy. We are going to try a morality rooted in Deuteronomy and coming to full flower in the Sermon on the Mount. We start with faith – not as much faith in God as faith in each other. We are going to believe in the people in the pews and their local leaders.
We begin with something like unilateral disarmament. We cut diocesan expenses to the bone before I got here. We have now cut them to the marrow and are still just getting by with the 25% assessment. But we are taking the first steps anyway. It’s called stepping out in faith.
Step 1. Last year, we granted assessment reductions to several congregations that needed a break in order to take on new growth initiatives.
Step 2. Despite allowing parishes in need a break in 2012, we managed to spend a little less than we received. That could have been our security cushion this year. But instead of having a security cushion, we gave the money back to the parishes. We even gave money back to parishes that owe arrearages on old assessments.
Step 3: We announced the goal to begin reducing the assessment by 1% per year beginning in 2014.
Step 4. We then took a bolder risk and implemented the assessment reduction 6 months early. It kicks in June 2013.
Diocesan governance has taken the first steps. How might a parish reciprocate? Simply by flourishing and dealing with the diocese straightforwardly – as most of our parishes are already doing. We trust parishes to use new resources for God’s mission and we trust God to prosper those who serve the mission faithfully. That will enable us not just to get by on 24% but to keep reducing the assessment further to take the shackles off our people setting them free for God’s mission in Nevada.
Our ability to continue reducing the assessment depends on parishes doing two things: First, they will have to engage in creative, constructive, positive evangelism – not just saying mournfully “I wish we could get more people” – but actually doing what it takes to make that happen. There are specific concrete actions that grow congregations. I met with a congregation about those steps just two weeks ago. Second, parishes will have to engage in spiritually authentic stewardship education and campaigns – not scarcity based “give money or the church closes” manipulations – but authentic teaching of where our resources come from and our obligation to use our resources for God’s mission -- spiritual formation in generosity as the path to happiness. Many of our people have signed up for The Episcopal Network For Stewardship workshop July 11-13 in Salt Lake City. Some are taking it on line. Either way, it’s at diocesan expense. http://www.tens.org. This is a positive concrete step toward the kind of renewal that will enable the diocese to cut the assessment and fund further renewal.
There is more to this than supply side economic stimulus. Reducing the assessment is a step toward treating each other differently in all fields, not just money. But there are two fundamental ways in which we could deal with each other in a more Christian way when it comes to money. First there is the question of debt.
Some of our congregations have had rough patches and fallen behind on their assessment payments in the past. They did not lie about it. They just didn’t pay so they accumulated a debt to the diocese. When this happened, the diocese enforced the canons to compel the payment of every last penny. No forgiveness. No mercy in this dojo. Those folks felt abused.
So today when a parish falls behind, those congregations who were forced to pay 100 cents on the dollar in the past now insist that our current debtors be held to the same strict standard. It is like abused children who grow up to abuse their own children. Wrong once done leads to wrong repeated and so on in perpetuity. We are trapped.
But what about the Christian moral imperative to forgive debts? Take a look at this commentary on Deuteronomy 15 and Matthew 18. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/journals/ssr/issues/volume5/number2/ssr05_02_r03.html Banks may not forgive debts but Christians do. In the Lord’s Prayer, if we strip away the theological interpretations and stick with the literal text, Matthew 6:12 says, “Forgive us out debts as we forgive our debtors.”
What if those who have been held to harsh standards in the past were to forgive the diocese for our harshness and forbear from being so harsh to those who struggle today? What if we repented from our ingrained pattern of judgment and tried a little mercy? What might that do for our capacity to work together for God’s mission?
The second thing struggling parishes might try is approach the Standing Committee with their situations in an honest way expecting fair treatment from someone who wishes them well. I understand why some don’t. The Standing Committee has not always been a safe place to admit challenges. But this Standing Committee has come to the aid of several congregations when they were in a bind. These really are good people. Would it be possible for vestries and the Standing Committee to reason together in good faith for the common good?
The lyrics of Reno songwriter Kate Cotter invite us to remember our past and imagine a future that does not just repeat old habits.
If we can release,
If we can let go
If we can believe
Even when we don’t know . . . .
Let’s do it different this time
All of the pearls of our past
That are holding us back
Could we do church different this time? Consider the implications: How we go about being the church forms the characters of our members and shapes how they go about the rest of their lives. Could we form more open minds, more generous hearts? If parishes chose to be generous in supporting the common diocesan mission – as some of them already are, giving over and above their assessment -- might such behavior model a generosity that would inspire church members to be more generous with their own congregations? That was my experience in parish ministry. When we doubled our giving outside the parish, the giving to the parish tripled. Would church members dare to make a bolder pledge if they trusted parish leaders to respond with kindness and understanding if they cannot fulfill the pledge – just as the diocese might treat a parish with kindness and understanding when the parish falls short of its assessment?
If we change the way we treat each other over money, what other changes might that open up? Might we find kinder more helpful ways to discern calls to ministry? Might we cooperate with each other for faith formation, ministry development, and social engagement? Where might it lead?