Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Positive Move, but Issues Remain — Initial Thoughts on the Draft TEC Budget for the Next Triennium

Church nerds throughout TEC rejoiced yesterday to learn that The Executive Council has already released a preliminary draft of the budget for the next triennium (2016–2018). This release is earlier than required, according to Mtr. Susan Brown Snook, "because we would like to give people all over the church the opportunity to give us input and feedback." This is a marked improvement over the fiasco that the 2012 General Convention budget process turned out to be... so looking ahead, here are some initial thoughts.

Diocesan "Ask"
The raised exemption for a diocese to $200,000 is a kind and good thing to do. However, they also propose a gradually lower "asking" going from the current 19% to 18%, 16.5%, and finally 15% in 2018. I think this is one of the issues for which TREC needs to create a proposal. The current asking system is entirely optional because there are no consequences for not meeting the ask. Indeed, less than half of the dioceses in our church actually pay the full ask.

The ask needs to be changed to an apportionment and then set at a level that is fair, just, and provides the resources we need for ministry best done at the Churchwide level. Simply lowering the ask will not fix the problems we have with diocesan support for The Episcopal Church at the national and international level.

Salaries – Projected Health Insurance Premium Increases
In the next triennium, Executive Council projects that health insurance premiums will increase 8.5%. This is an indication that the cost of the church negotiating our own insurance, indeed the entire Denominational Healthcare Plan, is a complete failure.

When we consider the health exchanges, my own State of Michigan is seeing a variety of premium changes going on. Some are increasing (Humana will be up 17.6%, BCBS will be up 9.7%). Others are decreasing (Priority health is decreasing 5.5% and Molina is decreasing a whopping 21.6%).  In North Carolina, the insurance premiums on the exchange went up a meager 1% in the second year. In many states the projected increase on the exchanges is an average 2%.

However, even ignoring what's going on in the exchangers (which are still figuring this out in many ways, since they did not have historical underwriting data from which to create their initial premiums), our projected increases for the Church are still above the average price increase for the independent market—generally around 6% in recent years and, in Michigan, 4.6% last year.

The increasing cost of healthcare in the Episcopal Church has, as far as I can tell, actually gotten worse for most people under the denominational healthcare plan. Something else needs to be done for our churches (and for the Churchwide office) to be able to offer quality healthcare at rates that are at least comparable to what exists on the exchanges or the individual employer marketplace. If our health insurance premiums were not rising at such an exorbitant rate, imagine the mission an ministry we could do!

On the rest of expense side, I'm going to group my comments like the budget itself, under the categories of the Five Marks of Mission. (Though, to be honest, even I scratched my head as why some areas were included under one mark and not under another. For example, putting world mission work under Mark 3 instead of Mark 1 is an interesting choice... and one that likely reflects what much of the church believes mission work is—helping those in need instead of proclaiming the Gospel... but I digress...)

Mark 1: To Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
Mission Enterprise and Church Planting
I am delighted to see the proposed increases here, going from $2 million for Mission Enterprise Zones to $3 million. In particular, I am thrilled to see that the budget for Hispanic/Latino ministries is increasing nearly $100,000 and that this increase is for "church planting of Hispanic/Latino congregations." This is the kind of investment that it is great to see the Executive Council considering.

Mark 2: To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
Province IX
The increasing move to sustainability for Province IX is an encouraging sign. I simply hope that it is not rushed since Province IX remains one of the fastest growing provinces in our church (if not the fastest growing). I am all about investing in provinces, dioceses, and parishes that are doing the sort of ministry that creates growth and vibrancy.

Presiding Bishop's Office
The Presiding Bishop's office is scheduled to go up, but only a modest $100,000, much better than previous requested increases and one that seems primarily to be staff cost related (see above note about the health insurance rate increases...).

Mark 3: To respond to human need by loving service
Campus Ministry Grants
The decision to continue to increase our investment in Campus Ministry is an absolutely forward thinking and essential decision. I'm glad to see it.

Mark 4 To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
Poverty & Human Trafficking
Though this "mark of mission" does not see much change, a few items of change are significant. Increased funding for "Regional Poverty Conferences" and an event on human trafficking are the sort of work I know I'd like to see done under this mark. Good movement.

Mark 5: To strive safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain 
The fact that this mark has been decreased "in order to concentrate on the highest-priority areas: development of local networks focusing on creation care, and fellowships for specific projects" seems like an entirely reasonable and appropriate decision." I think that's all I will say on this one.

Supporting Mission through Local Efforts
Development Office
The significant increase in the Development Office ($1 million more than the previous triennium) will supposedly be offset bey the office raising $2 million dollars for the work of the church. Spending $1 million to raise $2 million might be a good idea... but the numbers on the whole thing seem a bit off to me. The office is basically going to raise the cost of its own existence and then another million... maybe. This should be a topic for conversation.

Stewardship Grant
In the previous triennium we put nearly $400,00 into Stewardship Development through TENS... I hope the Blue Book report will indicate what the result of that one-time grant was.

Anglican, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Work
Anglican Communion Commitment
I am beyond thrilled to see that our commitment to the Anglican Communion is returning to our earlier levels of giving. This is one area that had been slashed in previous budgets—a cut that made it hard to demonstrate to our Communion partners that we do indeed value the Communion and our relationships with our sister provinces. Returning to our previous commitment level here is a positive move in the right direction.

Ecumenical Budget
Our ecumenical budget is decreasing slightly, but it is primarily decreasing through models of ecumenical work that are not as vibrant as they once were, Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) being one example. Those organizations that are trying to restructure to function more effectively, like the National Council of Churches, are seeing an increase in our commitments. (Though, as I have written before, I have concerns about some of the direction of the NCC restructuring). 

Still, the overall decrease is something I don't like because I strongly believe much of the future of our church does indeed lie in greater and more vibrant ecumenical work... the problem is that many the current structures often seem not to be doing the ecumenical work that is actually needed. Once more, see here for my thoughts on that. (Hint, it's not living in DC and lobbying.)

It is also clear that this budget is also anticipating some of what TREC is proposing. The budget for CCABs has been significantly reduced, assuming "fewer CCABs or Task forces with fewer members but meeting more often." This is one aspect of restructuring on which there is much more agreement than others. But if it changes in the budget, that will indeed mean the General Convention needs to approve at least that portion of TREC's work...

The budget for "Legal Exp Churchwide Conflict Res." continues to increase, going from $2 million in the previous triennium to a proposed $2.5 million in the next. This is not sustainable in the long-term and while I vigorously support the retention of Episcopal church property and buildings, I hope we will see more Supreme Court decisions and negotiated settlements bringing an end to this unfortunate moment in the life of our church.

Overall, I'd say a good shot at a first budget—compared to last year, I would say this one is fantastic and awesome. I hope that members of the church will indeed receive this gracious gift of an early release and take a moment to read it all carefully and make their voice heard as well.