Are we sure the budget won’t focus our mission?

by Benedict Varnum

In all the responses to the budget debate before Holy Week, I was surprised that I didn’t hear anyone wondering if the budget could be the right move.

It seems to me that many Episcopalians have been viewing the proposed budget in TEC as analogous to the Anglican Covenant: that there is an inappropriate effort to centralize authority where it has no place being centralized. In the Anglican Covenant debate, I know that I and others have a decent amount of frustration with the notion that we ought to centralize international Anglican authority in order for that central authority to place “clarity” into the diversity of our theological sensibilities. But I don’t think the analogy holds.

Episcopalians, who are not only tuned in to this problematic push for Anglican centralization, but also live in an America that is increasingly suspicious of ANY organized group (the Congress, either major political party, the Supreme Court, organized religion, organized media, Occupy protestors, Tea-Partyers, big business, super-PACS) may well have a good deal of extra energy for slamming a foot down on the brakes of anything that looks like a move towards greater organized, institutional authority. We’re struggling with our institutions. We’re not sure they can provide for us. We’re not sure they can hand us a good-enough reason to participate in them. We’re not sure we can trust their leadership. For some of us, it’ll be hard to untangle which parts of this are “America” tensions, which are “Anglican Covenant” tensions, and which are “TEC” tensions.

The problem I see is that in response to the proposed budget, and perhaps out of this emotional soupiness, a lot of anti-institutional anger has landed on “815 Second Avenue” (which doesn’t propose the budget) and the Executive Council, especially the Executive Committee (which does, and includes a few 815 folks). Some of this is, no doubt, appropriate and productive.

But how much isn’t? And, to the point, does it help us focus, or distract us from focusing, on the question of how we discern together as a national church whether streamlining our budget in this way will help us proclaim and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ? Many voices have been raised at the proposed budget, saying it could never could help us do so, but very few voices have offered an idea of what might. And I can think of at least a few reasons why the budget might have that in it after all.

Here we are, as a national church, at a budgeting moment, in a tough time for budgets. The national church has had a fierce conversation going for several years about how to become a more missional church. They have ideas; surely they want to try them. I have no doubt that the staffers feel the tension between opportunity and accountability even more acutely as our belts get tightened. We are a church that cheered on our presiding bishop when she explained that neither she nor our House of Bishops alone could immediately declare the position of the Episcopal Church to the international Anglican Communion after Gene Robinson’s confirmation in 2006 (because only General Convention speaks for the Episcopal Church), yet we also expect her to be the representative of our branch of Anglicanism to member churches in the Anglican Communion, and tend to be appalled when she’s not accepted abroad because of her gender or their disapproval of the theological positions that we arrive at (undertaking considerable wrestling and difficult discernment to get there).

Which is to say, even the top of our “org chart” (which is less of a “top” than her parallels in other Anglican Communion provinces are) is caught in tension between having a great deal of opportunity and responsibility on the one hand, and very little organizational authority on the other hand. My sense of the principle of “subsidiarity” is sympathetic to this: if we want clearer vision from the top, we have to staff it. We have to pay enough staffers that they have time to return phone calls and focus on things . . . and I’ll take a prophetic stance far enough to say we should pay enough staff that they can work 40-48 hour weeks, and not 60-80 hour weeks. Meanwhile, subsidiarity suggests (as this budget says) that other things need to be handled more locally.

I have no doubt that the budget was developed with input from some people who would love to streamline some processes so that they can pursue opportunities as they arrive, and that this budgeting was largely done in good faith, and not for mere power-gathering or political gain. We as a church get to have the conversation of whether we want to grant them that agility, or insist on our current model.

So far much of that conversation has been a fairly reactive discourse around what’s being cut. I have extensive thoughts as to what’s being cut to accomplish that streamlining, but they boil down to 1) some things must be cut to meet giving realities and 2) my background in formation as a youth, college student, parish seminarian working with youth, campus ministry intern, diocesan consultant for youth ministries, consultant for summer camp, and participant in national youth event planning through an Episcopal Relief and Development program show me very little that would be lost by acknowledging that the national office does very little youth or young adult ministry.

(The programs that likely will be lost with a much smaller national-level youth budget – Gather, EYE, annual conferences for campus ministers – are good programs; this falls under “1” above, though we might well have a conversation on what the network of diocesan youth coordinators who volunteer their time to these events would need to keep the programs running)

Add to that 3) the incredibly successful Young Adult Service Corps is (appropriately) being given additional funds to continue developing its work, and the budget reads to me the way it was presented in its brief explanatory document: an acknowledgment that different ministries are done more effectively on different levels, that the Episcopal Church does not – despite stereotypes – have all the money in the world, and that our funding is therefore being shifted to be used effectively. These statements can stir up our anxieties; it’s up to us to have a serious conversation about whether that anxiety is covering grief that we can’t do everything we used to be able to, fear that we won’t be able to do enough, confusion about how to do the work of the present moment and the road ahead, or a mistrust of anything centralized and institutional, now that the internet is letting us see a bit more of how the sausage is made.

But one thing I’ll say to that anxiety: my parish’s youth ministry will not vanish without a national church office. Neither will the youth ministry in either diocese I’ve been part of in the last ten years, nor at my sponsoring parish, or the parish I interned with during my postulancy. And beyond that, parents and families will continue to be among the primary spiritual and formative influences on their children, as they have been for generations.

Finally, I feel the most significant complaint that has been raised about the budget is that it is presented as a fait accompli – a budget we must pass . . . because the General Convention doesn’t present enough time to do anything else. This methodological critique may well point us not only to the greatest challenges, but also the new opportunities that the budget anxiety has made visible in the life of our church.

Because maybe that same interconnectedness and social technologies that let us cycle up our anxieties can offer us something else to do with that energy.

In considering how the church can do things differently, one of my go-to sources is the work of Clay Shirkey, who’s written several books (Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) about how the internet has changed the ways people can organize themselves. Shirkey links the internet to the police forensic model: “means + motive + opportunity = outcome,” noting that the internet (like the printing press before it) has changed the “means” available to us. In the church, we have the motive and the opportunity; can we use these means to create new outcomes?

The internet and e-mail are allowing us to see more of the budget earlier, and more of the budget process . . . and it’s also revealing how little we DO see and how much more we might be able to. This strikes me not as any subterfuge on the part of the budget-drafters, but rather the fact of a pre-internet budget methodology without a seriously defined alternative – we haven’t figured out how to make use of technology to have the broader, more transparent conversation we feel might be possible now – but that’s not the budget-drafters “fault.” It’s our common growing-pain as a church, and our common responsibility to address.

In practice, I believe this looks like an effort by people with concerns to use their voices on the internet to identify each other, connect, and refine and then offer back a response to the budget (some of this is happening in comment threads here and here). There are websites out there for the price of a google search that will set up a conference call for free. In three hours, a dedicated person could set up a WordPress or Blogspot page as a central hub to link to all the blogs out there, and for an hour a week, 6 people could offer 6 summations of what’s going on. Facebook and our blogs could be used to channel the conversation to that central site. The comment board at Program, Budget and Finance could be used to offer reflections (a later post notes that they’re reading it, although they haven’t engaged commenters directly – a position I can see some logic to without too much trouble).

As a parish assistant rector, I’m hardly the closest member of the church to the structure of these issues. But I’ve seen the reactions. And I believe that the people reacting care about the church. But if that care can be organized into a voice in the conversation, it might be able to offer that more-challenging gift: construction, rather than mere critique. What if we took our internet forums and made them the place where our voices meet? What if those who worked on the budget so far and those who might want to work on it before General Convention made the effort to trust that we all care about the gospel and the Church? I believe that the energy and passion is there. Much of it has been spent in critique; the question I’ll have in mind as I watch the next few months is, can we find it in ourselves to construct instead?

The Rev. Benedict Varnum has an M.Div from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. He is currently ordained as a transitional deacon, and anticipates ordination to the priesthood in early May. Benedict serves as Assistant Rector at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, KS. Benedict has directed some continuing education focus towards an interest in Systems Theory and its applications in the life of the church on various levels.

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