Saturday, July 28, 2012

Parish Taxes

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so. (A staple of folk wisdom attributed to both Mark Twain and Will Rogers and repeated by Sachel Paige and Yogi Berra.)

We know for sure that we need over 100 dioceses, or else why would we have so many?  Just ignore our 47% membership loss in the last five decades and our closing of over 300 congregations in the last five years.  Turn a blind eye to the fact that comparable National Churches in the Anglican Communion average over 120,000 members per diocese while our average is under 16,000 members.  Overlook that the United Methodists, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians all have more members and fewer jurisdictions (dioceses) then we do.  Yes, we know for sure that we must have over 100 dioceses.  Friends, it ain’t so!

We also know for sure that diocesan mandatory assessments are necessary for the survival of the Church. This must be true because over 95% of our dioceses “tax” congregations.  Only one actually uses the word tax but make no mistake about it, forced payments by any other name such as assessment, apportionment, tithe, pledge, or fair share, are still mandatory taxes.  The Bishop of a Diocese that uses the polite term tithe wrote “This 10% is the minimum that any congregation should do.”  Then he then asks for additional giving for five separate budget categories: youth, Latino, leadership training, the diocesan camp, and expanded support for the National Church. Diocesan mandatory taxes average between 15% and 22%. Is it shame or guilt that keeps most jurisdictions from publishing the rate or budget on their web sites?

That’s right, congregations must depend on voluntary giving from their members and the National Church has an asking but not a requirement; but not the diocese – they require!! And they are prepared to use penalties for non-payment.  Many dioceses do have a provision for congregations to come, hat-in-hand, asking for a tax reduction so that they can keep more of their own dollars; demeaning!  Again, it ain’t so that mandatory assessments are essential for the survival of the Church.

So when the Episcopal Church decides, or is forced, to reduce the number of dioceses - the key element is voluntary giving by congregations to the diocese.  This is the Bishop’s worst fear! Nevertheless, necessity will cause some dioceses to merge as local congregations decide on the best uses of resources to do ministry, provide pastoral care, be served by trained rectors, and support the bishop.  Congregations working together can provide most if not all the program ministries of the diocese.  We trust our people to give (return to God) out of their blessings to the parish.  We, in turn, should trust our congregations to give to the diocese the correct proportion of parish blessings.  It is incongruous to trust our members as individuals but not to trust those same people when they are acting as a parish.

Some will suggest that various Constitutions and Canons make such a plan impossible.  Nonsense!  If enough of us who care about the future of the Episcopal Church band together we can make this happen. “Be it resolved that it is the mind of this Convention that all parish giving to the Diocese be voluntary effective immediately.”  “And be it further resolved that it is the mind of this Convention that all mandatory congregational formulas and penalties be unenforced until such time as they are removed from Diocesan documents.”  Pity the bishop that would deny the will of the people by resorting to legalistic maneuvers.

Who is willing to join in the campaign to undo what we know for sure, but ain’t so?


  1. Thank you Gary for this pertinent article addressing a subject that many of us think is critical to the survival and future of the church. Taxes are what they are, pure and simple, and no amount of
    "theologizing" will take that away. Of course it is up to the people. I think that it is time for the clergy and people to challenge their bishops and put voluntary language in the canons of each diocese, yea even in the national canons.

  2. Asking a Bishop to voluntarily give up or merge his see or allow a voluntary asking is equivalent to asking the Pope to renounce infallibility. We’re talking about giving up power, and it ain’t gonna happen.

  3. Merging dioceses and having fewer bishops may not happen voluntarily but sooner or later economic realities will make it happen. However, this process could be encouraged by an "Episcopal Spring" movement where enough folks band together and say the status quo must be changed.

    Don Brown

  4. When we decide it is no longer expected for us to support financially the work of our bishops, can we still claim to be Episcopalians? The budgets we create in dioceses often are too large, but the way to address that is not to claim that the finances of the diocese aren't our responsibility, both in crafting reasonable budgets and in sending in our congregations' checks.

  5. Don,
    Agreed. And as Gary pointed out, we’ve been watching this problem unfold for decades. And, so far, all we’ve agreed to do is “study” the problem. That’s what GC just did. Whether the next GC actually decides to take the recommendations of this latest committee is anyone’s guess, but history is not encouraging. And as you point out, nothing will happen until enough pewsitters initiate an Episcopal Spring. It will have to come from the pews.

  6. Hey, RJ,Dan and Don, thanks for your input. An Episcopal Spring, very interesting; maybe this little blog is a bounce for the Spring!! Dan, I appreciate your opinion; however, I do not think there is an absolute and direct tie between episcopal authority and parochial financial tax support. What I mean is that any form of funding can support a bishop including a voluntary ten percent or an endowment.(If 1/3 to half of all our constituent household units fully tithed and then a congregation tithed, any bishop would be happy even without much diocesan change! The organization Empty Tomb proved that analysis years ago.)The question is what episcopal authority requires what sort of funding? I don't think anyone would disagree that bishops need a minimal predictable stream of funding. But what is a diocese for or is there another operational structure to be imagined and/or tried? What is essential and what provides continuity with valid operational and missional processes? We need to define these actual needs and quit assuming what they are.

  7. Ron, I think we need to keep Gary's first point in mind when we talk about money. Why do we need to fund over 100 Dioceses when we have less than 2 million communicants?

  8. Appreciation to those who have viewed and commented, either on-line or directly by email, about “Parish Taxes”; each of you has added to the discussion of a critical issue in the life of our Church.

    The need to seek efficiency and reduce redundancies is well described by columnist Margaret Wente, writing for Canada’s largest English language daily newspaper; since the Church “. . . has shrunk nearly 60 per cent. Congregations have shrunk too – but not the church’s infrastructure or the money needed to maintain it.” That is the problem for Canada’s United Church and our own denomination. On the diocesan level - too many dioceses, bishops, staffs, programs, and buildings and too few people to pay for all of it. Wente goes on to add:, “Yet its leadership seems remarkably unperturbed. It’s considered wrong to be concerned about numbers—too crass, materialistic and business-oriented.”

    Voluntary giving by congregations will not be the end of the Episcopal Church nor the end of all Dioceses but it will trust the membership to determine the level of support appropriate to each ministry.

    Join in the conversation….

  9. RJ, yes,too many dioceses is the bottom line. The issue is finding and considering the possible plan(s) and political maneuvers to make the reduction. Gary's approach is the clean sharp, surgical knife. Kudos to the Margaret Wente quote from Gary. Thanks.

  10. I once suggested to my bishop that he should not have clergy on the diocesan staff full-time, but should assign them to serve mission congregations as well. I prefaced that suggestion with the comment that I wouldn't suggest returning to the practice of having bishops serve as rectors of parishes, although that is not a bad idea. I wonder if, as we consider dioceses merging, we might consider the value of having regional suffragans who also serve as rectors, especially in merged dioceses that cover a great deal of territory. Whether this would be preferable to regional archdeacond I can't say, not having worked in such a diocese, but as they say in Washington, all options should be on the table.
    I may have misread it or the C&C may have been changed, but I recall that there was a mandatory diocesan payment for the support if the General Convention as well as the voluntary payment for program.

  11. Dan, just saw your post re. GC, and it is mandatory. The idea of suffragans being dispersed has definite merit. Thanks, Dan.

  12. Daniel, good to have you join the conversation. Your suggestion to have the bishop’s staff serve part-time in congregations has been taken up by a number of dioceses; many smaller parishes have been appreciative. The concept of regional suffragans is another avenue to join together a pair of part-time ministries. In one northern diocese the Bishop is also half-time Dean of the Cathedral.

    Clearly, if the people, acting through their voluntary giving to the diocese, what this type of structure and are willing to fund it – give it a try. It might be helpful to have detailed “position descriptions” so that all parties are in agreement as to who does what and how evaluations are accomplished (especially needed for those in Episcopal Orders.)