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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"A High Moral Obligation"

Per capita is under discussion in our Presbytery these days, and will be a special topic of interest for the upcoming Presbytery meeting, which will take place on Tuesday, June 28 at 7:00 pm, at the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church.

Per capita is of course the apportionment plan the Presbyterian Church has used, since the very beginning of our denominational history, to cover administrative expenses. Originally, it was a way of collecting money to cover the expenses of the annual General Assembly - particularly, for reimbursing travel expenses of commissioners. It has since expanded to cover most of the routine administrative expenses of presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly.

In 2011, Monmouth Presbytery’s per capita amount is $35.00 per member. The $35.00 figure is broken down as follows:
● General Assembly - $ 6.50 per member
● Synod of the Northeast - $3.95 per member
● Monmouth Presbytery - $24.55 per member

Per capita is NOT a tax. Although many Sessions ask their members to contribute the cost of their per capita through a special offering, this is neither required nor expected. Sessions are expected to fulfill their church’s entire per capita obligation regardless of the amount of any designated per capita contributions their members may make.

Rather than thinking of per capita as a tax, it is more accurate to think of it as a sort of denominational utility payment. Our churches all make utility payments for electricity, water and the like. For those payments, they receive certain essential services. The essential services provided by per capita are the things that make us Presbyterian – our denominational connectedness.

Now, should a church fall behind on its per capita payments, it's not going to suffer the same consequences as if it defaulted on its electric bill. We all know the electric company will run of patience eventually and disconnect the power supply, but the Presbytery can't throw a switch and de-Presbyterianize a congregation (nor would we ever want to!). Rather, we depend on mutual good will to make the per capita system work.

Essentially, it’s an honor system.

There have been times in the past when churches, facing unusual difficulties, have asked to be relieved of part of their per capita obligation for a time. The Presbytery has obligingly granted such requests. The system has been able to absorb that sort of hit from time to time. We’ve written it off as part of our mutual support for one another. When one weeps, we all weep together, as the scriptures say.

In recent years, though, the honor system seems to be systematically breaking down in some parts of the Presbytery. It will be reported at the upcoming meeting that about one-third of the churches are seriously behind on their per capita payments. A few churches have made no payments, or only minimal payments, for several years now. As a result, the overall amount of the Presbytery portion of per capita has had to be steadily raised (even as expenses have been slashed, by downsizing programs and staff). This means that, in effect, the churches who conscientiously fulfill their per capita obligation are made to pay for those who don’t.

It’s estimated that the Presbytery’s portion of the per capita asking – which is $24.55 – would be $8.00 less, or $16.55, if all the churches remitted their full per capita obligation. That means the total per member asking would be $27.00 instead of $35.00.

The Presbytery can't force Sessions to pay per capita. Officially, it's a voluntary contribution, a benevolence. That much is clear from decisions of the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission. The most recent of these decisions, Minihan v. Presbytery of Scioto Valley, 2003, was a complaint about a Presbytery policy that declared per capita payments by churches mandatory. The PJC agreed with the complainant and overturned the Presbytery’s policy.

Some pastors and elders, since then, have waved around copies of the Minihan decision, saying, “See! We don’t have to pay per capita. It’s voluntary!” Some have taken the decision as giving them permission to routinely divert money they once used for per capita to pay other bills – a tempting thing to do, in these tough financial times. Others have said, “We encourage our members to pay their own per capita, and will gladly pass along any designated contributions we receive, but we’ll pay nothing more out of our general church budget.”

Such actions are, technically, permissible under the Minihan decision. But, here’s the real question: Are they faithful?

Lots of people are familiar with what the Minihan decision says about the voluntary nature of per capita, which has been widely reported and discussed. Most people don’t realize, though, that the decision also includes a tightly-reasoned theological statement about the importance of per capita as “a high moral obligation.”

Here’s what Minihan says about the morality of paying per capita:

“Therefore, while our Constitution does not technically permit presbyteries to make per capita mandatory, we are necessarily bound together as a covenant community through our union to God Almighty in Jesus through the Holy Spirit (A Brief Statement of Faith, C-10.4, lines 52-57). Thus, there is a high moral obligation based on the grace and call of God to participate fully in the covenant community. Full participation includes time, talent, and treasure (G-10.0102h; W-5.5004). Moreover, all officers are obligated, by virtue of ordination vows [W-4.4003], to participate fully in the life of the Church. To participate partially or not at all and yet claim to be within the covenant community represents a grievous misunderstanding of our reciprocal covenantal obligations under the singular Lordship of Jesus (The Second Helvetic Confession, C-5.124-141). In other words, we are called to turn from the sin of individualism run rampant and embrace the covenantal community in which our Lord Jesus has called us to live as those who love as we have been loved (John 13:34). Therefore, withholding per capita as a means of protest or dissent evidences a serious breach of the trust and love with which our Lord Jesus intends the covenant community to function together (G-7.0103).”

I would love to see every Session who’s decided not to pay their full per capita engage in a careful study of this paragraph, looking up and discussing the biblical and Confessional references it cites, particularly the ordination vows they’ve all taken. How does the vow to “be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s word and Spirit” square with the decision to stick those same colleagues with a portion of one’s own church’s per capita obligation (W-4.4003e)? How does an elder or a minister promise to “share in government and discipline,” while at the same time shrugging and saying, “Sorry, we don’t do per capita” - which for centuries has been the preferred means of paying the basic costs of Presbyterian governance (W-4.4003i)?

I’ve been having this same discussion with our own Session at Point Pleasant, the church I serve as pastor. Last year, I’m sorry to say, we reached the end of the budget year without paying our full per capita obligation. Yes, we defaulted on some of it. It wasn’t an act of protest. We just ran out of money. Knowing that other churches have done the same in recent years, the Session decided (disregarding my advice) that per capita was something they could just - regrettably - let slide, without suffering any adverse effects. Other churches were doing it, weren't they?

There is an adverse effect, though. If per capita is an honor system, and if payment of per capita a question of morality, then maybe we ought to stop talking so much about our budgets, and start talking instead about our souls.

We're going to be talking a lot more about that sort of thing around our Session table this year. Maybe you'll decide to do the same in your church, as well.

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