Putting your money where your mouth is… or not

The Program, Budget and Finance committee released its proposed budget for the Episcopal Church for the next three years. The combined effect of its funding decisions will be to significantly weaken the church’s relationship with the Anglican Communion.

In line 193, there is the not unexpected slashing of the support given to the Anglican Communion Office. I’ve written before about what a bad idea this is so I won’t repeat it here. Deputies have been complaining all Convention about dioceses that don’t pay the full asking to the churchwide budget. What about provinces of the Communion that don’t pay the full asking to the Communion-wide budget?

The budget also cuts more of the (very modest) funding given as support to other provinces of the Anglican Communion while maintaining or increasing the funding given to Province IX (quite dramatically) or domestic dioceses.

In budget times as tough as the church is facing right now, any new line item is worthy of particular scrutiny. In line 251, PB&F proposes funding the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion (at almost half of what was cut from the Anglican Communion Office). CUAC is a fine organization. But what makes it so worthy of funding from the Episcopal Church when so many other places are being cut. My guess? CUAC has a pretty good lobbyist at General Convention and the ACO, sadly, does not.

It seems there is a very easy amendment to make to this budget to cut the new funding for CUAC in order for the church to move closer to its ACO obligations.

The budget slashes funding for the ministry of communication. Episcopal News Service is heavily cut. It looks like there’s a lot less money for web sites and the like. I find this tragic. Communication is what keeps us one body in Christ in this age of mass media. If you don’t have a good web site in this day and age, you’re nothing. Cutting this funding will only further balkanize and divide the church. (It’s instructive that on line 10 the budget dramatically reduces what it expects to earn in income from ads on the ENS web site. Perhaps if we had more reporters, more people would go to the web site, we’d get more advertisers, and the income would go up?)

The thing is, there’s plenty of “news” out there about the Episcopal Church in the form of virulent “news” outlets like Virtue Online (which was called out by Gene Robinson the other day). By choosing not to engage in this ministry, the church is ceding the discourse to organizations like Virtue Online, which are, sadly, too influential in the Anglican Communion.

Finally, it is interesting that in line 36, the budget asserts that the presiding bishop’s assistant for Anglican Communion Affairs can be eliminated (excuse me, “sunsetted”) “in light of normalized relations within the Anglican Communion.” It’s an interesting comment on where budget-planners think the state of the Anglican Communion is and perhaps explains some of these mistaken decisions.

The budget was released on the same day the House of Deputies passed resolution D008 which “commits” the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion. Just so long as we don’t have to spend money on it, it seems.

If the Episcopal Church doesn’t want to be part of the Anglican Communion, I wish it would just say it, rather than speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

How “mission” shapes budget

Here’s an example about how the Episcopal Church’s failure to have a conversation about what we mean by mission produces contested and confusing budgetary decisions.

The budget proposed for the next three years in the Episcopal Church adds close to $700,000 for the Office of Government Relations, to be focused on anti-poverty advocacy. Great! All Christians can get behind anti-poverty advocacy, right?

Except that it comes at the expense of other programs. More than a million dollars cut from funding the work of the Anglican Communion Office. Close to three million cut from the budget for youth programs.

The first thing to note is that these are policy decision being made without, to my knowledge, policy debates being had. I used to be a reporter and covered lots of budget debates in lots of organizations. One realization I always came away with is that how a group spends—and doesn’t spend—its money reflects its values.

The closest Episcopalians have come to a conversation about budgetary priorities is the constant repetition in the church of the word “mission” without any clarity as to what that word means. And since, as we’ve seen, one influential document defined our mission as simply being what Jesus says in Luke 4, spending more money on anti-poverty programs makes a lot of sense; “good news to the poor” and all that. (Of course, in the rest of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus spends precious little time with people we would identify as “the poor,” raising questions about how to interpret this passage. But that’s an exegetical conversation for another time.)

What if we defined mission a bit differently? This is not the place to lay out a full-blown missiology but what if we said that God’s mission is the restoration of right relationship between humans and between humans and God? (Our catechism says something very similar.) What if we saw relationships as being at the centre of our role in God’s mission? What if we thought that in the Incarnation, God in Christ takes relationship to a whole new level, crossing the barrier between divine and human and engaging with those who are different in a credible, costly, and vulnerable way?

In short, what if we said that mission is about building meaningful relationships with those who are different than us as we work towards that glorious day when there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10) Although in our polarized and fractured world we demonize and mock those who are different than us, the witness of Scripture is that, at the end, all of us who are different will be united in one. We might as well start working towards that, and, in the process, follow the example of Christ who engaged with difference in a way no one had ever seen before or since. It would be a powerful, counter-cultural model to the world around us if the church could be an incubator of heterogeneity rather than a mere simulacrum of the world’s drive towards homogeneity.

If we said all this, we might have different priorities. We’d spend our money on a place like the Anglican Communion Office so it can continue its important work of bringing together different people from different backgrounds and different parts of the world to find common ground in projects like Continuing Indaba and the Bible in the Life of the Church. We’d make sure that the Episcopal Youth Event stays in business so young people from different backgrounds can engage in meaningful, Christ-centred interaction in a way they get almost nowhere else.

But we might not increase funding for the Episcopal Public Policy Network, making the painful decision that in a time of limited funds, policy advocacy is not part of the church’s unique charism.

You might disagree with these ideas (and you’ll note undoing EPPN’s additional funding doesn’t produce enough to fund EYE and the ACO) or you might have different ideas for moving money around in the budget. Terrific! What I wanted to illustrate in this post is the impact of not talking seriously about mission. My hope is that the church can begin to have a conversation about its budget—and the future of the church—that grapples with the missiological issues at stake.

If we’re going to place “mission” at the centre of everything, could we at least start talking about it?

How? or Why? And what’s the mission?

A friend who has read Diana Butler Bass’s latest book told me the other day about a point Bass makes repeatedly. Basically, as I understand it, Bass argues that the church has been too busy asking how questions that it no longer asks why questions.

I haven’t read the book but the insight struck me as true. We ask ourselves how we are “doing” church but we don’t talk about why we are bothering with it. Ashes To Go, an exciting idea that takes the imposition of ashes out of the church on Ash Wednesday, is still basically a how conversation. How do we impose ashes, not why are we bothering with this liturgy? What does Ash Wednesday mean in this day and age? (Why and what questions are closely related.) Perhaps, we think, the answer to the why questions are obvious but few things with Christianity ever are.

These questions are particularly pressing in the Episcopal Church as we prepare for a General Convention this summer that will be asked to make decisions about restructuring and pass a budget that deals with the painful reality of substantially diminished income.  Both these questions—restructuring and budget—are how questions. How do we be a church and spend our money in light of the realities of church life in 2012?

The answer that has been given to the underlying why questions is, simply, “mission.” We are told we must be structured for mission and we must spend our money on mission. But what is mission? Why is it important? This conversation does not appear, to my knowledge, to have been had. And it is a particularly important conversation to have because mission is in danger of becoming a buzzword, meaning different things to different people and so losing its force in dialogue.

To take one example, the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church, Stacy Sauls, last year proposed a resolution calling for a special convention on church structure. It reads, in part: “The Special Commission shall be charged with presenting a plan to the Church for reforming its structures, governance, administration, and staff to facilitate this Church’s faithful engagement in Christ’s mission to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk. 4:18) in a way that maximizes the resources available for that mission at all levels of this Church.”

The text thus claims to answer the why mission? question. It does so in a way that is faithful to scripture by pointing to Jesus’ “inaugural address” in the Gospel of Luke. (We should note, of course, that Jesus is here quoting the prophet Isaiah. There is little thought given in this resolution to what Jesus “adds” to this Isaianic mission, though of course he must add something or the Gospel would no longer be good news but good olds.)

But is Luke 4 the only way to think about mission? Hardly.

What about when Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”? (John 10:10) Or when Jesus is asked what to do to perform the works of God and he replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”? (John 6:29) What about when Abraham is told that if he follows God’s commands to get up and go, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), a promise repeated in Genesis? What about Jesus pre-resurrection commands to “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2) and post-resurrection commands to, famously, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”? (Matthew 28:19-20) There’s a whole whack of Pauline passages to consider as well, of course.

None of these are contradictory and all form a piece of the mission to which we are called as followers of God in Christ. Nor is God’s mission necessarily something best learned by pointing to individual passages. Rather, I’d have us consider the entire witness of the people of God as recorded in the Bible. But these few verses certainly complicate the picture of mission put forth in the Sauls resolution.

The recently-released budget for the next three years of Episcopal Church spending points up exactly why we need to be having a conversation on what we mean by mission. While the narrative to go with the budget mentions mission in its first paragraph, there is almost no explanation as to what the budget drafters think the word means. The result is that the conversation about the budget has been almost entirely about how questions, not why ones. Every decision in the budget is one rich with missional implications—cutting funding for youth events but increasing it for policy advocacy is a missional decision, for instance—and I want to talk about the what and the why before talking about the how.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of questions I’d like to think about in the run-up to General Convention

  • What is the mission to which we are called as followers of God in Christ?
  • What does the church have to offer the world in this generation?
  • Why is the Christian witness significant/important/meaningful in this time and place?
  • Why does the Episcopal Church exist? What is the unique offering that Episcopal followers of God in Christ can make to the world?

I have some thoughts on all these questions and hope to get around to sharing some of them. For now, though, I hope we can change our budget and structure conversation away from one that pits Episcopalians against one other in a scarce fight for money and power and towards one that starts asking what and why before asking how.