Thirty three Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders ― including eight former General Assembly moderators ― have written an open letter to the 688 commissioners to the upcoming 220th General Assembly calling recommendations to overhaul the church’s four special offerings “a serious mistake, causing irreparable damage to historic mission commitments of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

The recommendations of the Special Offerings Advisory Task Force (SOATF) ― authorized by the 2008 General Assembly ― “would fundamentally alter the historic covenant between our congregations and the General Assembly regarding Churchwide Special Offerings,” the letter states.

At the heart of the SOATF proposals is a recommendation that special offering receipts ― which have historically been designated for specific programs with specific percentage allocations to those programs ― would now be dedicated to “ministries” that are aligned with General Assembly Mission Council priorities and goals “in accordance with the broad designations established for the Special Offerings,” the SOATF report states.

Another key recommendation calls for the replacement of the Peacemaking Offering by a World Communion Offering to fund overseas mission. Peacemaking “endeavors” would be included in the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering, along with “community development,” “disaster assistance” and “hunger ministries.”

Currently the One Great Hour funds the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Self-Development of People.

“If we change [the offering recipients] from programs to causes, that does not make it any less designated giving,” SOATF chair Karl Travis told the Presbyterian News Service in a June 8 interview. “Across the world of philanthropic giving, we see caused-based funds development ― not programs or institutions”

Added SOATF Vice-chair Sarah Sarchet Butter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wilmette, Ill.: “People give for purposes they believe in. Programs carry out purposes, but people don’t give to programs. They give to the purpose.”

The letter-signers claim that “The current Special Offerings are not in trouble. In fact, Special Offering receipts increased between 2010 and 2011 …”

Overall, the four special offerings declined 1.02 percent in 2011, with increases only in the One Great Hour of Sharing (0.53 percent) and Peacemaking (1.32 percent) offerings.

“The special offerings have declined 25 percent in the last 11 years and 17 percent in just the last four years,” Travis ― pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas ― said. “things on the ground have changed quickly and profoundly in the last few years. We’re very conscious that this new model is a dramatic change from what previous generations in the church have experienced.”

However, he added, “Having served on three of the last four special offering task forces and chaired two of the last three, I think we know about the special offerings ― we’ve done our homework.”

“We are confident and convicted by the research we’ve done, the learning that we’ve done,” Butter said, “that the recommendations will strengthen the church, improve accountability, impact and maximize the potential of the offerings for the future.”

The capstone of the SOATF’s recommendations is the establishment of a goal to increase the special offerings to $20 million per year by the year 2020. Total special offering receipts in 2011 were $13.6 million.

With all other forms of giving to the General Assembly Mission Budget declining ― as the letter-signers noted ― the goal seems ambitious but Travis and Butter are convinced the SOATF proposals make it possible.

“We were asked how to raise more money and how to ensure the effective use of that money for Christ’s mission in the world,” Travis said. “We believe we can raise a lot more money for all the ministries supported by the special offerings. The disagreement [with the letter-signers] is not about values, it’s about technique.”

Butter said the success of the special offerings hinges on the support of all Presbyterians. “We can implement the best fund-raising practices imaginable,” she said, “but we need the commitment of Presbyterians to embrace Christ’s work in the world.”

Travis, a fourth-generation Presbyterian minister said, “We’re marking a generational shift. The new generation shares the values of their parents and grandparents but understand we must do things in a different way.” 

The SOATF is passionate about these ministries and programs, he said. “Our goal is to raise more money for them.”

The full text of the church leaders’ letter:


Dear Commissioner to the 220th General Assembly:

This letter comes to you from the undersigned Presbyterians because of our deep concern over the GAMC Report and Recommendations on Special Offerings. We believe that its adoption would be a serious mistake, causing irreparable damage to historic mission commitments of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The GAMC recommendations would fundamentally alter the historic covenant between our congregations and the General Assembly regarding Churchwide Special Offerings. They would essentially convert the One Great Hour of Sharing, Pentecost and Christmas Joy Offerings into general mission revenue for “ministries,” with the GAMC determining the definition and allocation of each, while still calling them Special Offerings. The Peacemaking Offering on World Communion Sunday would be replaced by a Global Mission offering, and “peacemaking” would be added to the “ministries” funded by GAMC through the One Great Hour of Sharing receipts.

♦ Special Offerings have historically been understood as distinct from general mission giving in that the returns were designated by the donors for specific mission programs. To continue to call them Special Offerings when their use is determined by the GAMC and not the donors, is misleading and confusing. When the returns are no longer donor designated, we believe that giving will decrease.

♦ The current Special Offerings are not in trouble. In fact, Special Offering receipts increased between 2010 and 2011 while all other sources of congregational giving to the General Assembly decreased.

♦ The current Special Offerings enable an important part of the General Assembly mission program. In 2007, income from these offerings totaled approximately 21.3% of total income for the mission program of the church and 33.8% of the mission gifts from congregations,” as reported to the 2008 General Assembly. It seems capricious to put such an important source of mission support at risk.

♦ The GAMC recommendations would negate specific actions of previous General Assemblies to create specific mission programs and fund them through Special Offerings. The Hunger Program, the Peacemaking Program, and the Self-Development of People Program were each created in response to an urgent need after substantial advocacy from the church in the form of vvertures.

♦ The GAMC recommendations would apparently remove or reduce the expertise and commitment of advisory groups elected from the church-at-large to guide the important programs funded through the One Great Hour of Sharing. The knowledge that these programs are overseen by people chosen specifically for their competence and experience is a source of confidence for donors. 

♦ There is no need to replace the current Peacemaking Offering in order to have a Special Offering for Global Mission. The current guidelines permit up to five Special Offerings each year.

We believe that the GAMC Special Offerings Report should be replaced by a simple substitute that would continue the current four Special Offerings in their present form and authorize a fifth Special Offering for Global Mission. We hope that you will come to the same conclusion.

The eight former moderators who signed the letter include: The Rev. Herb Valentine (1991); the Rev. John Fife (1992); the Rev. Robert W. Bohl (1994); Ruling Elder Marj Carpenter (1995); the Rev.  Douglas Oldenburg (1998); the Rev. Syngman Rhee (2000); the Rev. Jack Rogers (2001); and the Rev.  Fahed Abu Akel (2002).

Former presbytery and synod executives who signed: the Rev. Jane Wick, Boston and Northern New England; Ruling Elder Barbara Campbell Davis, New Hope; Ruling Elder Gay Mothershed, West Virginia; the Rev. Ed Gehres, Philadelphia; the Rev. Donald K. Campbell II, South Louisiana; the Rev. Kent Organ, Western Reserve; the Rev. Richard Ploth, Northern New England and Long Island; the Rev. Jane Searjeant Watt, Southern New England; and the Rev. Carl Smith, Synod of Lincoln Trails.

Former PC(USA) national staff members: the Rev. J. Oscar McCloud; the Rev. Catherine G. Borchert; the Rev. Dean H. Lewis; the Rev. Eunice B. Poethig; the Rev. David Zuverink; Ms. June Ramage Rogers; and Ruling Elder Belle Miller McMaster.

Seminary affiliated signers: the Rev. Laird Stuart, former Interim President, San Francisco Theological Seminary; Kenneth Sawyer, associate professor of church history, McCormick Theological Seminary; and the Rev. Jim McDonald, president, San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Also pastors Gary Charles, Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta; Winston Lawson, Hillside Presbyterian Church, Decatur, Ga.; and Louise Westfall, Central Presbyterian Church, Denver, Colo.

And the Rev. Richard F. Dozier, former pastor, Northminster Presbyterian Church, Columbia, S.C.; the  Rev. Cecil Corbett, former president, Cook Christian Training School, Tempe, Az.; and the Rev.  Richard Poethig, former director of the Institute on the Church in Urban-Industrial Society, Chicago.