The final plenary at the Mid Council Leaders Gathering in Baltimore focused on some frank conversation around per capita, the primary funding source for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).
In a presentation to the group, OGA leaders outlined the financial constraints facing the agency now and the need to increase per capita as the demand for services grows.
“What once were strictly questions that stayed at the presbytery or synod level are now being pushed up to the national level on a regular basis. We spend a good bit of time resourcing congregations directly, not just presbyteries and synods,” said the Rev. Jihyun Oh, OGA’s Director of Mid Council Ministries. “While membership in the denomination has been decreasing, the amount of support which OGA provides directly has increased — in part due to the shrinking of mid councils’ capacity to resource congregations.”
In the past, OGA has been reluctant to increase per capita apportionment rates to keep up with the annual increase of costs and the demand for increased services. Kerry Rice, Deputy Stated Clerk of the OGA, said that since 2012, the increase of per capita funds going to the national structures for support, including the Office of the General Assembly, was the equivalent of an annual increase of less than 4 percent per year, while actual per capita income was lower due to loss of membership. Rice said that the difference between per capita income and the expense budget has been covered by the use of reserve funds. By the end of next year, Rice says all available reserves will have been exhausted to supplement previous OGA budgets.
“Because of the demands on the budgets of congregations and mid councils, the amount of uncollectible per capita payments from presbyteries has increased,” he said. “In fact, some presbyteries do not collect per capita per se. Instead, they might ask for unified support from congregations that are then split between mission and per capita. The result is an increasing amount of unpaid per capita, resulting in some presbyteries bearing a disproportionate amount of the support for synods and the General Assembly.”
Oh told the group that as resources have become scarce, the demand for work from OGA staff has increased. “Instead of providing the answer when questions come to us, we must actually spend more time understanding your call and context, and your manual of operation,” she said. “Our role is changing to one of coaching and consulting.”
Mid council attendees met in groups and were given the opportunity to comment and ask questions. One attendee asked for clarity, transparency, completeness and concrete answers on how per capita dollars are spent. Others sought understanding on per capita collections when some presbyteries don’t pay.
Staff of the OGA pointed out that 70 percent of presbyteries do pay their per capita apportionment, but for those churches that do not participate, the burden to pay is still on the presbyteries themselves.
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), told the group that there is urgency about the budget.
“The doors won’t close, but we are clear that if we continue down this path, it will become difficult,” he said.
Rice said a final budget proposal would be presented to the joint meeting of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board next February.
“Even if we build a flat budget, despite the demands for increased services, it is likely that OGA and PMA will be requesting a significant increase in per capita funds,” said Rice. “If we didn’t believe that the work represented by the budget numbers wasn’t necessary to support your work and the witness of Jesus Christ in the world, we wouldn’t send it to the assembly.”