One of the most well-known notions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is our connectionalism. In addition to our connection through our polity and through our commitment to the gospel and relationship with the Trinity, one of the other things that binds Presbyterians is per capita, that universal funding source drawn from the whole church in order to support the whole church.
It is the glue that unites us, allowing Presbyterians to connect with one another and govern ourselves for the good of the body. And in this current season there is perhaps no better example of per capita at work than the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), took place June 18–25 in Portland, Oregon.
Per capita—presently $7.12 per individual church member—literally pays for the biennial gathering. Travel, lodging, and meals for advisory delegates and assembly commissioners, half of whom are ruling elders, are covered by per capita dollars. That’s no small price tag.
Why place such importance on per capita and the way it is used? Because Presbyterians believe we discern best what God is calling us to do when we gather as mid councils, “seek[ing] together to find and represent the will of Christ” (Book of Order, F-3.0204). Per capita allows us to do that, to make the table more accessible so that all can join.
In fact, nearly everything the Office of the General Assembly does, from identifying and developing leadership for the PC(USA) to maintaining judicial and legislative services for the denomination, comes from per capita. Let us also not forget the critical work of partnering with presbyteries and synods in the work of the church.
In case you were wondering, per capita is not a new concept. In fact, apportionments like per capita date as far back in the denomination as the early 1800s, when it was collected so Presbyterians from the fringes of the emerging United States could easily attend corporate gatherings in the epicenter of the Presbyterian world at the time—Philadelphia. Did I also mention that per capita dollars now help fund the work of the Presbyterian Historical Society in “The City of Brotherly Love”?
The annual per capita amount is a combined request from a congregation’s presbytery, synod, and the General Assembly—based on their respective budgets for the coming year. A presbytery’s per capita rate depends on its geographical location and size, its mission needs, and the needs of the respective synod.
How can ruling elders take a more personal and intentional part in per capita? They can help communicate its importance at the congregational level, ultimately strengthening the whole system. Ruling elders, who often know first-hand the impact per capita can have, can and should be champions of this adhesive that so tightly binds us. I invite you to actively champion per capita today.
More information on per capita is available online.
The Reverend Gradye Parsons serves as the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has served pastorates in Newport and Bristol, Tenn., served as executive presbyter and stated clerk for the Presbytery of Holston, and as director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly.