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“Hey, you. Ebenezer!”
Ebenezer Droodge had the distinct impression that someone was holding onto his big toe and shaking it from side to side. He opened one eye. It was a young woman with pink hair, a nose ring and the PC(USA) denominational logo tattooed on her forearm.
“Now, that’s better. I was just starting to think you could be playing possum.”
“Who are you?” asked the sleepy church treasurer.
“I am the Ghost of Per Capita Present. Owooo–”
Ebenezer cut her off, mid-howl, with a stern glance.
“Oh yeah, sorry. They did tell me you’re not fond of the special effects.”
“So, where are you going to take me, O pink-haired specter?”
“I guess it’s true what they say. You really are getting with the program. Come with me, Ebenezer, and we’ll examine what per capita really is, dispelling some of the most common myths about this means of funding Christ’s mission.”
Whereupon the spirit pulled an iPod from her pocket. She placed an earbud in one of her ears and handed the other one to Ebenezer. He followed her lead, and the two of them leaned in towards each other as she pressed “Play.”
Considering the ghost’s fashion sense, Ebenezer found her choice of music surprising:
“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.”
With the first, pulsating notes of the bass guitar, the bedroom had fallen away. The church treasurer and the spirit now found themselves in the meeting-room of Ebenezer’s church.
“Why, this is a Session meeting!” he exclaimed, looking around at his fellow elders, all well-known to him – although none of them could see or hear him.
“You know what would help get us out of our financial bind?” one of the elders was saying. “If we could just get our people to pony up their per capita, we wouldn’t have to budget any extra money to pay off Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly. Sometimes I think being a Presbyterian is like checking into a luxury hotel. Everyone – from the parking valets, to the bellmen, to the desk clerk to the chambermaids – is looking for a tip. That gets expensive, and it doesn’t help when the people in the pews fail to pay their membership dues.”
“Did you hear that?” the spirit asked Ebenezer.
“The glaring mistakes that elder just made. Nobody even corrected her. That's typical!”
“What mistakes? It sounded pretty accurate to me. I’ve had years of experience keeping the church books, and let me tell you, in our best year we’ve never had anything better than 30% compliance on those per capita envelopes. Session always has to make up the difference.”
“Don’t get me started,” said the pink-haired guide, rolling her eyes. “There are so many things wrong with what that woman just said, I don’t know where to begin!”
“Just go for it,” said Ebenezer – knowing she would anyway.
“The first mistake she makes is to refer to it as ‘their’ per capita – as though the responsibility originates with the folks in the pews. That’s not what the Book of Order says. It says the responsibility for paying per capita belongs to the Presbytery.”
“Then where did we get the idea for those annual offering envelopes with the ‘suggested’ amount on them, that just happens to coincide exactly with the annual asking by Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly?”
“The Book of Order says presbyteries are allowed to raise the money, if they want, by levying an annual assessment on the churches. Because the presbyteries’ apportionment is based on the number of active Presbyterians within their bounds, most presbyteries ask churches to contribute their own, proportionate share of the Synod and General Assembly askings. The presbyteries also tack on an additional amount, to cover their own administrative expenses."
"Tell me about it!" said Ebenezer, with a look of studied dismay such as only a longtime treasurer can summon up. "Per capita's been rising faster than the rate of inflation for some time now."
"That's mostly the presbyteries' doing," explained the spirit. "It's not that presbyteries are extravagant in their budgeting. It's just that mission giving has been slowly decreasing for many years now, so presbyteries have been shifting items that used to be in the mission budget into the per capita budget. Most years, the synods and the General Assembly have been slashing their budgets to keep their per capita askings level, while the typical presbytery portion of per capita has been growing larger and larger. In a great many presbyteries, it’s now 4 or 5 times the amount Synod and the General Assembly are asking for.”
“So, then, you’re saying presbyteries don’t have to dun their churches for per capita payments?”
“Please, Mr. Droodge, I do understand the contortions treasurers like you have to go through in order to maintain positive cash flow, but can’t we stay away from the perjorative language?”
Ebenezer quickly nodded his assent. He’d been getting very comfortable talking to this engaging young woman, nose ring and all - but, she was a ghost. He was new to this haunting business, and had no idea what she was capable of.
"Most presbyteries do raise per capita funds the traditional way, by counting heads and sending each of their churches a bill - but not all. A few presbyteries only ask sessions to contribute to general mission, then reach into that common kitty whenever they need money for administration, or when it’s time to pay their own per capita to Synod and General Assembly.”
The spirit continued: “Any money congregations give to their presbyteries, for whatever purpose, is considered a voluntary offering. Even per capita. What I think you’re really asking, though, is whether the presbytery assessments on churches are mandatory. They’re not. Presbyterian judicial commissions established that many years ago, by means of case law. Presbyteries aren't even allowed to indirectly pressure churches to participate, by restricting their access to resources such as low-interest loans."
"You'd never see that in the business world," Ebenezer pointed out. "Banks are very good at reserving their lowest interest rates for their best customers. Could you imagine a bank offering the same interest rate to a stranger who'd just walked in off the street as it would to a Main Street business-owner who'd kept half a mill on deposit for the past 20 years?"
"No, I can't," admitted the spirit. "But that's business. The church isn't a business. It's more like a family. When the prodigal son comes crawling back, it doesn't matter how much he bad-mouthed the old man on his way out the door. He still gets a ring on his finger and a plateful of veal scallopini."
"So then, at the end of the day, per capita giving is optional, right?"
"No, I wouldn't put it in those terms. There's a big difference between 'optional' and 'voluntary.' There's a long-established principle in Presbyterian law that congregational per capita payments can't be coerced, but the General Assembly has also long taught something else about per capita that ought to carry even greater weight with Sessions."
"And that is...?"
"The General Assembly has long maintained that, if a presbytery asks a church to pay a certain amount towards per capita, the local church must consider that request as a solemn moral obligation. I've never been able to figure out how so many Sessions that scream and shout and declare they're withholding per capita out of moral indignation - because of something the General Assembly has said or done, or failed to say or do - never, ever even consider THE POSSIBILITY that their payment of per capita is a moral obligation, in and of itself."
"Now, wait just a minute," said Ebenezer - forgetting, for a moment just who he was talking to. "Remember Angela Davis, that communist, Black Power lady? Our church withheld per capita when the General Assembly gave money for her legal defense. We believe that was a moral decision on our part."
"Oh, Angela Davis! Who could forget dear Angela Davis?"
"You remember Angela Davis? You hardly look old enough."
"You don't want to know how old I am."
"I guess not. Please continue..."
"I don't doubt that your Session considered that to have been a moral decision on your part, but let me ask you this. Did you ever consider that your withholding of per capita - which had the effect of increasing the amount all the non-withholding churches in the presbytery would have to pay in future years - was an abandonment of your moral obligation to your fellow congregations in the Presbytery?"
"Er, I don't think that ever occurred to us."
"I didn't think so. But, let's press on."
“Let me ask you a question. How is it, then, that our congregation, like so many others, asks our members to pay per capita?”
“I couldn't say. You’d have to ask your Session. I suppose they figure what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Most local churches who do conduct a per capita offering started doing it years ago, back when per capita was chump change. Nowadays, they pull out that special offering envelope, read the figure printed there, and it's sticker-shock time!"
“So, what else, O spirit, is wrong with what my fellow-elder just said?”
“Did you catch what she said about ‘membership dues’? That’s so far off the mark, it’s hard to know what to say.”
“And what’s wrong with an organization collecting dues?” asked the treasurer.
“That’s not the church’s way. The church thrives on voluntary giving, not compulsion. We attach no dollar amount to church membership, nor would we ever dream of doing so. Besides, there’s an unintended consequence of membership-dues thinking that not every Session realizes.”
“It hurts other giving. In staging a big push to promote the per capita special offering, not every elder realizes how easily their concept of a rock-bottom, minimum standard of giving can become transformed, in less-active members' minds, into a maximum. Here's how it works. An elder stands up to give a Minute for Mission and says, 'Come on, people, if you can't give any other money to the church, at least cover your per capita, so you're not costing us anything!' A certain percentage of members, hearing that message, will respond by thinking: 'Sweet! Thirty-five bucks a year as the sum-total of my commitment to the church! That's a bargain. I'll take it!"
“I get it. If the per capita offering conveys that message, it could even end up costing the church money in the long run. So, what else do you think about what we’ve just heard at the Session meeting?”
“Well, the elder we were listening to is pretty unforgiving of church members who choose not to write that check. She blames them for ‘failing’ to pay ‘their’ per capita – as though it were some kind of tax, and non-payment were a moral failing. The Office of the General Assembly may count heads to figure out how much each presbytery owes, but that in no way means the OGA is telling presbyteries to say to their churches, ‘Pay this amount, then get your people to reimburse you.’”
“I’m starting to see how the familiar per capita offering, on the local level, can end up being a mixed blessing.”
“Bingo! You’re on a roll now, Jackson. Per capita is the toughest of all offerings to promote in the local church, because none of the things the money accomplishes sounds at all exciting. Who gets enthused about paying an electric bill? Or legal fees? Or postage? These are the things per capita money is used for. Lots of churches would do better to drop the per capita offering altogether, simply paying their obligation out of the general budget. Then, they could start a new special offering, one the entire church can cheerfully line up behind - and which would raise a whole lot more money to assist other areas of the budget.”
“You're talking about a mission cause, right?”
“Could be. Ask yourself: which would you rather do: write a check to help cover your church's pledge to support a missionary doctor who's saving lives every day, or to help pay the water bill? That’s one way to look at per capita, by the way: as a sort of ecclesiastical utility.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The services funded by per capita are necessary and important – like gas and electric. But they’re services Christians typically take for granted. Churches who’ve recently been through pastoral searches or have received presbytery help resolving conflict may feel otherwise. They have recent memories of how helpful the Committee on Ministry liaison was to their pastor nominating committee, or how the executive presbyter's counsel to the Session saved their bacon, when it looked like a church split could have been looming.”
“What about those churches that say to their presbyteries, ‘We can’t pay per capita, but we’ll just pass through any designated per capita gifts we receive'? I have to admit, that was one of the favorite ploys of my old buddy, Farley, and me when we were dealing with the Presbytery.”
“Church leaders who say such things haven’t got a clue what per capita really is. They’re laboring under the delusion that it’s some kind of optional tax – and whoever heard of an optional tax? Per capita’s not a tax at all (optional or otherwise).”
“So, how would you describe it?”
“If the church truly is the Body of Christ, as the scriptures say, then per capita is sort of like the circulatory system. You need a steady flow if the body’s going to remain healthy. Cut back on the surge of generosity - ratchet it back to a mean and carefully-measured trickle - and you’ll quickly arrive at the sort of crisis Paul describes in his letters: of one part of the Body saying to the other, ‘I have no need of you.’ Enough about this, though. It’s time to move on!”
In a flash, Ebenezer and the pink-haired ghost found themselves not in a church meeting room, but rather in a private home.
“I know this place,” said Ebenezer. “It’s the Cratchit home. Barb Cratchit is a single mother in our church. There’s that son of hers, the one they call Tiny Tim.”
“He doesn’t look very tiny to me,” said the ghost.
“The kid’s got an obesity problem,” explained Ebenezer. “Tiny” is a nickname, sort of a joke. You’d think the kid would grow up to be a linebacker, for sure, if it weren’t for his ADHD problem. They say he’s been kicked out of one school after another.”
“Let’s listen in to what his mother’s saying.”
“Really, Tim? Another suspension notice? Are you going to get yourself expelled from this school, too? I don’t know what I’d do, if it weren’t for the church. Sunday School’s the one place where you truly seem to fit in, the one place where they truly seem to get who you are.”
“I had no idea,” said Ebenezer. “I always thought Tim was just loud and undisciplined. Evidently, there’s a Sunday School teacher who seems to understand him much better. Who would have thought that just an hour on Sunday morning could have such a huge impact on a kid’s life for the good?”
“It’s time, Ebenezer,” said the ghost, pointing to the glowing clock on the face of her iPod. The hour is upon us. We must get you back to your house. You have but one other visitor to welcome this evening. I’m sad to say you will not find this one nearly so congenial.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ebenezer, a tone of dread in his voice. “What’s the third ghost like?”
“You’ll have to wait and see. Now, farewell!”
With that, the Ghost of Per Capita Present was no longer with him. Ebenezer was lying in his own bed once again.
A profound tiredness came over him, deeper than any exhaustion he’d ever known...
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.