Per capita: Is its Time Passed?

The other night an elder asked me why we don’t take away commissioners and voting rights from congregations that don’t pay their per capita.  The question is indicative of the kind of feelings flying within many presbyteries regarding payment or non-payment of apportionment giving.  The short answer, of course, is that a presbytery doesn’t have the authority to do that. The Stated Clerk’s advisory opinion, last updated in 2009, states clearly that a congregation is not mandated to pay per capita.  At the same time, however, a congregation is nowhere specifically granted the right to withhold per capita because of protest.  While the technical answer to this elder’s question may be relatively easy to convey, the many questions, feelings and interpretations of our mission together and our connectional life as Presbyterians are much more complex and complicated …

Per capita apportionment has been around since at least 1734 as a way to fairly share in the administrative costs of being Presbyterian together.  When a congregation fails to pay, it is clearly an indication of a larger issue, which a presbytery has the responsibility to discern.  When a number of congregations fail to pay, the issues may be more systemic than individual.

So, why are some churches not paying their full share of per capita?  A few sessions have made statements that they are withholding per capita out of protest.  The protest may be against denominational change regarding the ordination of gay and lesbian men and women.   It may be over many other political or social justice issues the church has been speaking to over the years (gun control, Israel, immigration, health care etc.) It may be over the lack of mission spending around the world and in growing new churches here in the USA.  Some of these congregations are actually re-directing their giving to specific denominational or non-denominational mission causes.

Another segment of non-per-capita-paying congregations are not contributing their full share, because they have had hurtful or seemingly non-supportive experiences with the larger church.  Their protest is usually less articulated.  The stories they share, though, indicate a wounded-ness and a lack of trust of the “presbytery.”  The “presbytery” may be staff, committees, or the gathered presbytery itself.  For one reason or another, these congregations feel “let down” by their denominational brother and sisters and choose to hold back giving.

Clearly, some sessions and pastors don’t value connectedness within our denomination.  Some feel they have more in common with the Methodists across the street or the Lutherans around the corner than they do with a Presbyterian Church twenty or thirty miles away.   Some believe they don’t need to be part of a larger church, since their local concerns and efforts are so great.    With the interconnectedness of the internet and the post-denominational make-up of our membership, some argue against the continued need for denominational connectionalism.

There is another movement away from the “corporate” nature of presbyteries.  Just as there is a growing desire for less government in our political rhetoric, there is a corresponding desire for less structure and overhead in our denomination.  Some congregations are “voting” by simply not paying more than they think should be appropriated to such things as administrative costs, personnel, office, meetings, etc.

Finally, and I think this represents the largest number of congregations who don’t pay per capita, some just can’t afford it.  Aging and declining membership in congregations which are maintaining (or not maintaining) buildings and staff designed for much larger congregations, is taking its toll on our budgets.  Many congregations have been dipping into their “rainy day funds” for decades; operating expenditures have been significantly larger than income for many years.  These congregations are faced with tough decisions about paying their pastor’s salary, the electric bill, or per capita.

What’s apparent to me is that the hostility we’re experiencing between congregations that pay per capita and those who don’t breeds hurt, distrust, decline and a distaste for the presbytery … and that encourages further non-involvement and non-payment … do you see the spiral?

So, recently, I’ve been wondering … what if we didn’t have per capita?  Most of the old PCUS presbyteries have never had a presbytery apportionment (per capita in the south refers only to Synod and General Assembly).  So, a presbytery budget based solely on mission or benevolent giving is possible, if congregations are healthy and in relationship with each other, if they trust each other and desire to be working together in shared mission.  What if, instead of imagining ways to make our sister congregations pay their fair share, we imagined new and better ways of building relationship, building trust and respect, working on mission projects together, and growing in faith and discipleship?  What if we routinely excused congregations who can’t afford per capita from paying … no guilt attached?  What if we, instead, encouraged them to take some risks and imagine a different future for themselves?  What if we gave up a little more of the “corporate” nature of the presbytery and took on more of the work of the presbytery ourselves?  What if …?

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