“Keep it 100” Taxes and Per Capita

I am one of those hyper-vigilant TurboTax users. I download each year’s program in early January, sometimes on New Year’s Day. And I start filling in the boxes … not because I’m that excited about paying taxes, but, frankly, because one year we were hit with an astronomical tax bill we weren’t prepared for.  Now I want as much time as possible to manage our cash flow for April 15.   As I fill in this year’s form, as I have for the past few years, I’ve been reminding myself that every tax dollar we pay is a celebration.  I celebrate the fortune we’ve had that requires us to pay in one of the higher tax brackets.  And I celebrate the fortune of being able to be a responsible and active citizen in this country and state.  Paying taxes is an act of patriotism.  I intentionally repeat these affirmations to myself, because there is so much anti-tax rhetoric out there.  I want to counter that rhetoric and have my feelings about taxes match my principles.

There are loud voices in today’s political and social discourse that is fed up with taxes.  “Taxed Enough Already” is the backronym of the TEA party.  “No New Taxes!” is heard often during political seasons.  Voting for a tax hike, for even the most noble of causes, is political suicide for many politicians.

From my anecdotal experience, I can sort the reasons for hating to pay taxes into two major categories:

  1. We can’t afford it.
  2. We don’t trust or don’t value the work of government.

I get that the cost of living for most Americans is making even the minimal tax bill a huge burden.  I believe that tax reform is a high priority for us … we need to close loopholes, and treat ALL income, whether it’s from work or investments or inheritance, the same.  And we need to relieve the burden on those whose income is at or  below the median. But, taxes are not evil or bad or, necessarily, something to be avoided.  Even new taxes or a tax hike, may be a great advantage for us as a people, if the money raised is being used to increase our ability to compete economically in the global economy, decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, increase our ability to educate our citizens, alleviate the disadvantages of poverty, or provide safety nets for all of us in the event of calamity.

Of course, there are lots of decisions our governments make about spending that I disapprove of.  I believe we need to be spending more on infrastructure, for instance, and less on defense.  I believe we should spend more on quality education for our most underprivileged students, and less tax breaks to large corporations.  More on public health efforts to deal with addiction and less on incarceration of people indicted on drug charges.  But these differences of priorities is not a reason to withhold my taxes or even complain about them … these are reasons, instead, to participate in government, to write to my legislators, and vote.  I’m sure many of the readers of this blog will disagree with my opinions, but that’s what makes our society work: having the freedom to participate in government and to disagree with each other.  Trust, however, is a very real barrier to democracy … and while there are some good reasons not to trust our leaders to work for the betterment of all residents a continued lack of trust will hurt us, if not destroy us.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA) I have heard many people “slip up” and call our per capita assessment to presbyteries, synods and general assembly, a “head tax.” Well, it is.  It’s an assessment by our collective organization as church in order to pay for the infrastructure, programs, staff, services, that we are required to provide through our own policies and legislation.  It is certainly a burden on congregations to pay their per capita assessment during unexpected calamity … a church fire, a hurricane, massive lay-offs in a small town, etc.  That is why it makes sense to me that the congregation is not REQUIRED to  pay per capita like a presbytery or synod is; when they find themselves in this kind of disaster, recovery supersedes payment to the denomination.  What happens, though, when congregations choose not to pay per capita assessment for other reasons that slip from a one or two year “rainy day” to a new state of normal?

Unfortunately, we’re facing that reality in Monmouth Presbytery as we struggle with creating a balanced budget for 2015.  23 of our 45 congregations paid their 2014 commitment in full, but that leaves almost half who have not.  Why do congregations choose not to pay all or some of their per capita assessment? We’ll be sending out a survey question with our estimate of giving form later this month; I expect, though, that the answers will fall into some nuanced combination of two answers:

  1. We can’t afford it.
  2. We don’t trust or value the work of the presbytery, synod, or General Assembly.

Here’s where I call on the leadership of our congregations to “keep it 100” (as Larry Wilmore challenged us in his new show this week); that is, let’s be authentic, honest, and 100% real in our responses to questions about denominational participation and support.

We can’t afford it.

Every congregation that faces financial trauma and crisis ought not to pay per capita.  They ought call upon the knowledge and support of the presbytery to help lead them through the crisis.  We’ve seen fine examples of this kind of faithfulness after Superstorm Sandy.  Many of our congregations had suffered trauma and crisis after the storm.  Many were able to weather (pun intended) the crisis through savings or insurance or initial support through PDA or the Board of Pensions.  Others were hit harder and their crisis is more long-lived.  For the congregations of Belmar and Tuckerton, for instance, support rolled in from the larger denomination, from congregations within the presbytery, and from the presbytery itself.  There is no way to prepare for the financial challenge of a hurricane and we need each other to get through.

My concern, though, is not the crisis situations … it’s when crisis becomes the norm … when a “temporary setback” becomes normative and ongoing.  This is when the challenge to “keep it 100” becomes very difficult, because the consequences of redefining a temporary setback as a new normal threatens the people and ways of life we love in much different ways.  If congregations answer “we can’t afford it” when not paying per capita for the third, fourth or fifth year, or if there is no “named storm” to point to, then it may be time for this kind of reframing.  The presbytery should also be called in at this point to help a congregation adjust to a more sustainable future … there are many options here, but all of them mean letting go of something we hold dear, and moving into a new future with hope and renewed faithfulness.  It could be letting go of names on the roll who have long left the church, it could mean right-sizing the building or staff, it could mean looking at social entrepreneurial possibilities for another income stream, it could mean partnering with another congregation by sharing worship space, yoking pastoral leadership, or even merging congregations.

Some congregations answer, “we can’t afford it,” when they’re not in a period of financial crisis or trauma.  I believe they are unable or unwilling to articulate to themselves and others the more authentic reality, that their relationship with the larger church is wounded or broken …

We don’t trust or don’t value the Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly.

Of course I don’t deny that congregations, pastors, and church leaders sometimes have well justified reasons for not trusting the larger church.  It pains me, whenever I hear the stories of how congregations were ill-served by the Committee on Ministry or the Presbytery Leader, especially when I’ve been an integral part of that hurt and brokenness.  In our larger culture, too, there is a call for the church to repent. I get that.  As a Presbytery leader, I promise I will do my best to hear your pain and respond with compassion and appropriate amends.  I want to keep it 100 with our member churches and pastors.  If you have a longstanding hurt, brokenness, or falling out with me or the presbytery of Monmouth, please contact me … I will buy you lunch and we can begin to rebuild and renew that relationship.  If your hurt is toward another denomination, congregation, pastor, church leader, etc.  I encourage you to call a trusted spiritual leader or therapist who may be able to help you work through that pain to place of reconciliation and/or forgiveness.

Some congregations are angry at the larger church for decisions it has made at the national or regional levels.  Some have been attempting to affect change by withholding their per capita as a protest or to leverage enough power to have the decisions reversed.  I don’t support this behavior, but I understand it. I don’t agree with all the decisions of General Assembly or the Synod or Presbytery — I doubt any of us do.  Some of the decisions I have thought to be unfaithful, unbiblical, and not Christ-like.  I don’t support withholding per capita or participation in the governance of the church as a response, however.  I believe in relationships … and we need to participate WITH each other especially when the conflicts are real and deep.  My husband and I have a healthy 35 year marriage because we have promised to be as authentically real as possible, to be full participants in the marriage … and we don’t leverage money or sex (or anything else) to get what we want.  If we find ourselves withholding affection or a part of ourselves, we work together for a way forward that is true to each of us and faithful to God.

We are social people.  We don’t exist by ourselves, and God calls us into relationship with God and with each other.  The Holy Spirit works through the church gathered … when we come together … that’s one of the core tenets of our Presbyterian and Reformed doctrine.  It’s not only power, but discernment, accountability, challenge, creativity and innovation that is manifested through working and living together.  Participating in our relationship in a tangible way … yes, by supporting our per capita … is a way of demonstrating that, participating in the Spirit, and modeling it for our congregation.

Are there changes we need to make? Certainly.  Should we be “taxing” our congregations in a different way? Perhaps.  We’ve been considering alternatives.

Most of the per capita in Monmouth goes for personnel and supporting the Synod and GA per capita.  Our staff share in the primary responsibility of supporting the mission, ministry and leadership of our member congregations.  We have other ways, too, of promoting leadership development in the presbytery … the presbytery offers grants and scholarships to individuals and congregations who have specific needs related to crisis and/or innovation.

It’s time.  It’s time to step up … let’s keep it 100.  Let’s be as honest with each other as we can be about our decisions to pay our share … in taxes, in per capita.  Let’s step up in our giving to our congregations, to our presbyteries and let’s step in to a new relationship with each other that is as supportive and authentic as we are capable.  With the presence of the Holy Spirit, I am certain we will be able to far more than we can do on our own.



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