(With apologies to Charles Dickens)
Ebenezer Droodge, church treasurer, awoke with a start from his fitful sleep. That noise – what was it?
It was nothing, he assured himself. Probably a little too much tuna casserole at the church potluck. Sure, that was it. Tuna casserole.
No, wait – he was sure he’d heard it this time.
“Over here, Ebenezer.”
“Over here, on your computer. Where you sit up late every night fussing with the church spreadsheets.”
Ebenezer looked, then rubbed his eyes and looked again. “Farley?”
Staring back at him from the computer monitor – which Ebenezer was sure he’d turned off before retiring for the night – was the bony visage of Jacob Farley, his late friend and partner in church work. Together, the two of them had pretty much run their church for the past 50 years. Droodge managed the accounts, and Farley buildings and grounds – until his untimely and gory death in a regrettable lawnmower accident.
If any major decision had to be made, no one in the church would imagine making it without first appealing to Droodge, Farley & Company. One skeptical word from either man could doom a new undertaking, no matter how worthwhile. Neither of them was much for smiling, but everyone on the Session knew how to look for that little softening at the corners of the mouth that indicated grudging permission to proceed.
Their small church had been through a succession of pastors in recent years, mostly new seminary graduates. Those who had been wise enough to stay on Droodge & Farley’s good side had moved on, in time, to other churches, and were doing well. As for those who had not – well, let’s just say Droodge & Farley were personally responsible for a modest increase in the ranks of insurance agents and junior-high schoolteachers.
“Ebenezer!” The shouted name startled him out of his reverie. “Enough exposition, already. Look at me!”
Ebenezer looked. The gauzy apparition of his friend was surrounded by chains. Attached to the chains were dozens of offering-envelope boxes.
“These are the chains I forged in life,” said Jacob. “It’s too late for me, but I have returned from the Great Beyond to give you fair warning. Amend your ways before it’s too late!”
“You mean, like, a budget amendment?”
“No, you fool! This has nothing to do with squeezing every last penny out of the church’s bank account. It has to do with generosity.”
“So, you’re saying I should increase my pledge?”
“It wouldn’t be a bad idea – you always were a skinflint. But that’s not why I’m here. I’ve come to warn you about something much bigger than your own personal giving. It has to do with the welfare of the entire church. Ebenezer, I have come to you tonight from beyond the grave to warn you about...”
(Here, there arose some spooky organ music, coming from Ebenezer knew not where).
“To warn you about...”
(Now, a clap of thunder so loud, Ebenezer’s seldom-opened 1985 Book of Order fell off the shelf.)
“I have come to warn you about... PER CAPITA!”
“Yes, per capita. Owooooooh!”
“You mean that annoying payment the Presbytery tries to get the Session to make every year, but which you and I always found some creative way to avoid?”
“The very same, old friend.”
“Tell me, then, why the powers-that-be in the Great Beyond are concerned with that? Isn’t it just a bothersome little tax that perpetuates a bloated church bureaucracy?”
“No, Ebenezer, that’s where we were both wrong. It’s too late for me now, but for the sake of your immortal soul, I have arranged for three visitors to appear to you tonight, to explain the finer points of the connectional nature of ecclesiastical funding.”
“You mean, like an administrative commission?”
“No, you foolish twit! You and I used to eat administrative commissions for breakfast. These visitors are far scarier. They will be shades, like myself. They have a story to tell that you will never forget. Owooooooh!”
The vision of Farley’s contorted face slowly faded from the computer monitor.
Resigned to his fate, Ebenezer muttered, “Bring it on,” before falling into a deep sleep.
The clock struck 1 a.m. and Ebenezer’s eyes opened wide. What dreadful wraith would he encounter next?
There was no one to be seen. His bedroom was silent. Ebenezer closed his eyes. “Blasted tuna casserole...”
“Ebenezer! You will not escape so easily.”
Ebenezer looked and saw, standing at the foot of his bed, the figure of a man in a tricorn hat, waistcoat and knee breeches.
“Nooooo!” said Ebenezer. “It couldn’t be. Don’t tell me you’ve come from the Tea Party! There is no cause for you to haunt me. I made my donation just last week.”
“I haven’t, Ebenezer. And I won't. I am the Ghost of Per Capita Past. Owooooooh!”
“Can’t you guys cool it with the wolfman howls?”
“Sorry, it’s part of our contract. My task is to explain to you why the General Assembly established per capita in the first place, and why those historic purposes are still central to the present-day offering. Take hold of this old communion token, and we’ll embark on a long journey...”
The next thing Ebenezer knew, he and the spirit were standing alongside a country road. It was unpaved, little more than a track through the woods.
“Here we are,” said the ghost. “Deep in the wilderness.”
“And where is that? Wyoming? Montana? Alaska?”
“Try central Pennsylvania. This is the early 1800s. Wait a few moments, and you will perceive the sight I have brought you here to witness.”
True to the spirit’s word, in a minute or so Ebenezer heard the approaching hoofbeats of a horse, its rider directing the beast straight towards them. Ebenezer threw himself backwards in the nick of time, landing in a thicket, feet waving wildly in the air.
Dusting himself off and recovering his dignity, he exclaimed, “That was close!”
“I should have explained. You are as a spirit in his world. He could not have seen you, nor touched you. In fact, had you not leapt backwards off the road, he would have ridden his horse straight through you.”
“So, who was he, and why did you want me to see him?”
“He is a commissioner, on his way to the General Assembly.”
“And the connection to per capita is....?”
“Oats. Per capita money bought oats for that man’s horse. The first per capita offering was established to fund the expenses of the General Assembly, paying the travel expenses of commissioners. Travel was not so easily undertaken in these early years. It took weeks for commissioners like this man to make their way to General Assembly. He is but a poor country schoolteacher, an elder in his backwoods congregation. He could never have accepted the call to serve as a commissioner, had he been forced to pay his own expenses. Were it not for per capita, only the wealthy could have participated in governance, and soon we would have had a dying church, one that in no wise understood the needs of all God’s people. Now, come with me...”
The next thing Ebenezer knew, he and the ghost were in a room full of people. He could tell from the shape of the windows that it had to be a church, although they were clearly in a parlor or meeting room of some sort.
The people – all men – were sitting around tables, with stacks of papers in front of them. From the way the furniture was arranged, the room resembled a courtroom.
It was as though the spirit could read his thoughts. “You’re right, Ebenezer. This is a courtroom. We’re in Cincinnati. The year is 1835. What’s going on here is a judicial case being heard by the Presbytery. See that man sitting over there? His name is Lyman Beecher. He’s a minister accused of heresy. Those other men attending this meeting have traveled far to hear his case.”
“What did he do?”
“Nothing you would consider out of the ordinary in your time. He had a more lively understanding of human free will than most Presbyterians of his day. He was also an abolitionist, a fact that made him no friends in some quarters. Some traditionalists who thought the doctrine of predestination excluded free will brought charges against him. He was acquitted. Lyman Beecher also happened to have a couple of soon-to-be-famous children who were growing into young adulthood at that time: Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Henry Ward Beecher, who grew up to become the most famous preacher in America in his day.”
“What does that have to do with per capita?”
“Hold your horses. I’m getting to that. Imagine what would have happened to Lyman Beecher, and to his family, had the unjust charge against him been sustained. Would his daughter, Harriet, have gone on to write her famous novel – a book some say did more than anything else to marshal public opinion against slavery? Would Henry have persisted in his plans, already under way, to prepare for ministry? Yet, the heresy charge against their father was not sustained. The Presbytery sought God’s will in prayer and found him innocent. Who do you suppose paid the costs of his trial?”
“I think I’m getting the picture. It was all the churches of Cincinnati Presbytery, through their per capita offerings, right?”
“Way to go, Sherlock. Now, off to our next stop.”
The next thing they knew, Ebenezer and his ghostly companion were on a railway carriage, rumbling across the prairie. Ebenezer could see, from the trail of cinders streaming by outside the windows, that this was an old-fashioned steam locomotive.
Seated across the aisle from them was a slight, bearded man with a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He was hard at work, writing – letters, by the looks of it.
“So, who’s this character?” asked Ebenezer.
“Sheldon Jackson. Got a college named for him in Sitka, Alaska. In the late 1800s, he founded over a hundred churches all across the Rocky Mountain region. When that part of the world got too settled for him, he headed off to Alaska. Jackson just followed the frontier, and wherever he went, churches seemed to spring up like mushrooms.”
“And the role of per capita in his case was...?
“Well, most of his activities were funded by what was then called National Missions, which wasn’t connected to per capita. The church had no problem raising voluntary gifts from Presbyterians to pay for Jackson’s highly successful mission work. Everybody wanted to say they had a hand in that! But, think on this. Somebody in the national offices had to do the necessary work of maintaining the records of all those new churches. That wasn’t as exciting a task, but it was every bit as important. There wouldn’t have been much point in starting those new congregations if we forgot where we’d put them, would there? Look at him – why, right now he’s writing a letter to somebody back at denominational headquarters, documenting his most recent work.”
“What’s next?” asked Ebenezer.
“We have one more stop to make, to view some more recent history.”
“I don’t have a good feeling about this...”
The ghost removed the tricorn hat from his head and waved it significantly. The sound of the locomotive and the click-clack of the rails became a distant memory. The next thing he knew, Ebenezer and the spirit were sitting toward the front of the balcony in a large church sanctuary. There was a hubbub of conversation, with people milling about just below them.
“I know this church!” said Ebenezer. “That’s First Pres, New Geneva, the biggest one in the Presbytery. I can’t imagine why you’d be taking me – Wait a minute! That man walking down the center aisle towards us looks... like me!”
“Indeed it is. And do you recognize the man you've just stopped beside?”
“Why yes, it’s Farley. I think the Presbytery must have been meeting here. People are milling around getting ready to leave.
“Oh, Mr. Droodge! Mr. Farley!”
“That singsong voice is a dead giveaway. I’d recognize it anywhere. That’s...”
“Alice Adams is the name, and as you may know, I’m serving on the new administrative commission that’s supposed to dialogue with churches that didn’t pay any per capita last year. Your church is without a pastor right now, but I wonder if we could get a date on the calendar for a one-hour meeting with a few significant congregational leaders, because...”
“I don’t see the need for a meeting. What do you need to tell us, Alice, that you can’t say right here?”
“Well, I suppose we could talk right now, if you prefer, but don’t you think that defeats the purpose ...?”
“Please, get on with it. Mr. Farley and I are busy men.”
“Well, if we must talk here, informally, in the center aisle of a church after a Presbytery meeting, I suppose we’d better cut to the chase. We’d like to find out what we can do for your church, at the Presbytery level, to encourage you to start remitting per capita payments...”
“Our Session has no intention of remitting any per capita this year, or any year. Last year, we were protesting the General Assembly's actions. This year, we can't afford it. Next year - who knows?”
“May I be frank, gentlemen? You heard the Finance Committee report at today’s meeting. The Presbytery’s going to have to make some severe staff cutbacks if we don’t see any increase in per capita coming from churches...”
“Let ME be frank, Ms. Adams. We think the Presbytery is in an overstaffed situation. We got by with just a Stated Clerk for most of our history, then we added an Executive Presbyter, and before we knew it, we had all those program specialists in Christian Education, Stewardship and the like. Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know. I’m being perfectly serious when I suggest we ought to let the entire Presbytery staff go – with thanks, of course – except for the part-time Stated Clerk the Constitution requires.”
“Mr. Droodge! May I remind you that some of these people have been with the Presbytery a long time? As an employer, we have a moral obligation to...”
“Are there no interim pastorates? Are there no pulpit-supply lists? If those people really know what they’re doing, they won’t be unemployed for long. And if they don't - better to decrease the surplus population on our organization chart!"
Ebenezer reached out and grasped his ghostly guide by the sleeve. "Please, spirit. I can't stand it any longer! Can't we just move on to our next destination?"
“Indeed we can. This first phase of your night's journey is nearly ended. I will convey you, now, back to your own bedchamber. But don’t expect to get any sleep. Tempus fugit. The next spirit will be on her way to you shortly.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2010 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved, although the author gives permission for this story to be reproduced in publications of local congregations or governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as long as proper attribution is given and it is not used for commercial purposes.