House of Deputies

President Jennings gave these remarks today to the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget & Finance:

Our stewardship of money is a spiritual matter, and the budget is a deeply theological document.

What I do with what I have says a great deal about my Christian walk. So what we do as a Church with what we have been given says everything about who we are, what we believe, and the direction in which we believe God is calling us.

I also know that conversations about money and how to spend it can be fraught with difficulty, division, and conflict. When deciding how to allocate nearly $120 million over three years, there are bound to be disagreements, misunderstandings, and even confusion. I hope that, at this meeting, you will have great conversations about serving God in unlikely places, mission on behalf of the Gospel, and how best to allocate resources in ways that bring life and hope.

Here are some items I hope you will consider in your deliberations.

1) I hope you will examine budget decisions using the lens of how we can empower, equip, and support congregations in every manner possible. Hundreds of responses from the surveys sent out by FFM, Executive Council, and the Joint Nominating Committee to Elect a Presiding Bishop say the same thing – the most important work in the Episcopal Church right now is to strengthen congregations and equip members of  faith communities so they can serve Jesus and transform their communities and the world.

The survey conducted by FFM about the diocesan assessment provided very clear data that people want more resources to stay on the local level. The proposed budget takes an important step in lowering the diocesan asking from 19% to 18% in 2016, 16.5% in 2017, and 15% in 2018.

The reduced asking means over 4 million fewer dollars coming from dioceses to our church-wide budget next triennium than in the current one, but thankfully other revenue sources show an increase, and that is good news. There is more money than there was. How can that be? Endowment funds are performing better than we anticipated, more of the building at 815 Second Avenue is being rented and producing income, and some dioceses are participating more fully in the asking.

Reducing the diocesan assessment represents a significant investment in supporting mission through local efforts. And, throughout the budget there is more money for grants to support local mission and ministry.

2) The budget development process was very transparent and collaborative. Lots of people, indeed the entire church, had the opportunity to have their say. Please continue to be transparent in your work. The church yearns for an increase in transparency, accountability, and collaboration. One area that I believe could use more transparency is PB&F’s need for detailed explanations of all categories. Whether there is a relatively small amount of money in a line item or a significantly larger amount in a line item, you are entitled to receive a detailed line item description of what is included in that aggregate amount.

I believe it is your fiduciary responsibility to have that information available to you when you want it. No detail should be too small for those given the responsibility of presenting the General Convention Program & Budget this summer.

In this budget as in that for the current triennium, there are substantial sums designated for block initiatives, such as the 3 million for new church starts and mission enterprise zones. PB&F needs to have an understanding of who and what processes/criteria will decide the recipients for these funds and how their effectiveness will be reported back. I’m sure that information for the current triennium is available, and I am certain there are members of FFM and the DFMS staff who can help you with an understanding of current grants so that we can learn from what has worked and what hasn’t worked. Transparency and accountability are related.

3) I hope you will have important and sustained conversation about the word “sustainability.” You may want to read the blog of the Rev. Margaret Watson, a priest who serves the Lakota in South Dakota, who writes eloquently on sustainability in her context and why she believes that the amount allocated to her diocese is theologically bankrupt. She writes, “It’s not that the monies for this place will be slowly eliminated…it’s that the Church will give a grant so that the People here can figure out how to become self-sustainable, because the current model for mission is not sustainable…the Church helped make these circumstances…it can’t just wash its hands and walk away… If the whole Church cannot support such ministry as a sign of repentance, reconciliation, and restoration, then it has already lost the Gospel, and has nothing to say to anyone.” The Diocese of South Dakota is not the only aided diocese. Dioceses that don’t pay their full assessments are also aided dioceses – West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Springfield, Colorado, Rio Grande, West Texas, Montana, and 52 more. Then there is Western Kansas at 35% and Alaska at 23% - two small dioceses with limited resources.

4) I hope you will be grounded in prayer and scripture as you do this important work on behalf of our beloved church. My mother’s favorite bible passage is Philippians 4:4-7. There was a copy on the refrigerator, and a copy in her prayer book. It has become my favorite passage as well.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Philippians 4:4-7

I found it hard to understand why this particular passage was so special to her since she suffered intense and chronic pain for over a decade, and yet this is what she held on to:

Rejoice always.
The Lord is near.
Don’t worry.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Tell God what you need.

These are amazing words to live by – a blueprint for graceful and grace-filled living. Paul tells the Philippians that when you recognize the holy in every moment, you can rejoice even when faced with a challenge.

It does not take away the challenge but gives you a way to lean into God when life feels unsteady or uncertain. If you lean into God and believe the Lord is near, you need not worry, and you can give thanks in all circumstances knowing that you will never be left alone but rather sheltered by the Holy One who created you and loves you still. May these words guide and support you as you continue this critical work.

Finally, thank you for your service. I know how hard you are working and how hard you will work both before and during General Convention. Ask the hard questions, use fresh eyes, anticipate the questions of deputies and bishops, remember the poor and underserved, and let Jesus be your companion.