Friday, March 30, 2007

Outside money buys Presbyterian constitutional change

The title of this posting is meant to grab your attention and get you thinking. I want you to discover that I’m referring to something different than what you probably expected. The title is true; it is just not referring to what you probably think it is.

For instance, critics of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the renewal group in which I serve, fall all over themselves imagining a vast right-wing political conspiracy that is buying its way into Presbyterian processes to destroy the denomination. This isn’t about that, mainly because “that” is a figment of an overcynical imagination.

Some people get positively unglued when they find out that member organizations are looking at denominational matters, seeking solutions to problems, writing them up as suggested resolutions, offering them to interested parties, and helping representatives present them cogently and effectively in meetings of governing bodies. Somehow this must break some code of holy ignorance, it appears.

The self-appointed whistle-blowers act as if:

(a) having knowledge of a subject and investing in preparation to present it is unholy (this is refuted by Presbyterian-polity expert, the late Marianne Wolfe [see booklet page 18, #2 and #3]);

(b) helping representatives speak knowledgeably on an issue has never been done before by the theological left; and

(c) exclusive license to provide information ought to be granted to the political and theological bias of denominational staff members and unrepresentative entities.

But the title above isn’t about that nonsense, either.

The title is about U.S. Presbyterian money being used to change the constitution of the Evangelical [Presbyterian] Churches in Syria and Lebanon. That’s right: American money and influence bought western-style policy changes in indigenous churches in the Middle East. You can read about it in a Presbyterian News Service article, full of congratulations to Presbyterian Women for making the $10,000 grant that oiled the constitutional changes.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am pleased with the constitutional changes for the Presbyterian churches in Syria and Lebanon. It is wonderful that finally women will be able to sit in as judges in cases that so greatly concern their own welfare--such as divorce and inheritance law. In a country where actual civil law is carried out by the church judicatories, women especially need to be represented. It only seems fair.

Thus, it is a good thing that Presbyterian Women made the grants and the churches’ constitution was able to be changed in this beneficial way.

Okay, so if Presbyterian Women, an outside organization, is doing a good thing by being beneficially involved in the life of another church in another country, does it not stand to reason that renewal groups such as Presbyterians Pro-Life, One By One, and Presbyterian Action also could be applauded rather than scorned for their intended beneficial influence on their own denomination?

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I look forward to the time when Presbyterian news sources equally laud the theological insight and necessary balance that Presbyterians Pro-Life brings to abortion considerations, for instance. Or the stories of hope and love that One By One offers those wanting to break the trap of immoral desires. And it would be great for the Presbyterian Action contributions to social-witness policy to be recognized as positive, rather than marginalized as unwanted. Such groups have much to offer, but not if they are systematically excluded or even vilified, as they have been by even such groups as Presbyterian Women!

The Lebanese and Syrian Presbyterians could have denounced Presbyterian Women and said, “Yankee, go home, and take your egalitarian values with you!” But instead, they had the wisdom and grace to welcome their help in this case, and the churches will be better off for it. Certainly the PCUSA could learn from the Evangelical Churches in Syria and Lebanon.

Just one final aside: I wondered why $10,000 was needed to effect a simple church constitutional amendment. Was it necessary for calling the constitutional assembly? For printing new constitutions? For promoting the excellent reasons why the amendments should be approved?

I e-mailed the Presbyterian Women office today, March 30, asking those questions. I’ll add an addendum when someone responds with a copy of the grant proposal. Watch with me for the response, but given my track record at getting any reply out of Louisville recently, don’t hold your breath.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

A "Baloney Detection Kit" for the spectacularly mistaken

These days, a stream of nonsense flows from a handful of keyboards connected to persons who ought to know better. Personages no less prominent than the President of the United Churches of Christ and the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches write and speak patent nonsense and outright mistruths about the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). I consider myself qualified to judge the utter folly of many of their accusations, since my own activities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are among those so sorely mischaracterized.

These prominent Christian leaders, who ought to show more responsibility if not simple integrity, get steaming hot material from Talk2Action, a seething hotbed of conspiratorial paranoia and mistruths lodged in a blog. There, breathless writers such as Frederick Clarkson and John Dorhauer wax slanderous about “a war of attrition” being fought “to disrupt and divide the NCC and its major member denominations.”

Why, we scoundrels at the IRD stoop to such scurrilous activities as openly attending public meetings or writing informative letters to churches. This must occur when we become distracted from our usual routine of torturing kittens or shaking down the White House for fresh bales of unmarked currency.

Today, however, my brilliant wife found on a co-worker’s office door the perfect tool for these writers, so mindlessly proud of their hypothesis of the IRD’s evil wrecking-ball dominion. The tool is Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit.”

As a public service, I commend the kit to anyone with a full-blown delusion such as Talk2Action’s. I’ll apportion it out line by line in italic, with my comments about Talk2Action (T2A) in Roman. Here goes:

The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts. Confirmation? What confirmation? T2A advances wild hypotheses about IRD’s purposes, motivations, and actions, but refuses to provide documentation from any source to confirm its bizarre accusations.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view. T2A allows people to comment on its blog only if they first sign a statement that they agree to the purposes of T2A. Only one point of view is allowed, in other words, and anyone else is considered a troll. “People who do not share the purposes of this site but join anyway, are trolls,” scold the site guidelines. “Trolls and trollish behavior will not be tolerated.” It’s a sweet set-up for an autocrat, but it tends to produce baloney.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities"). T2A writers play on the supposed authority of the extensive “research” they say they do. But their outlandish claims and wild conspiracies belie actual scholarly rigor and make Senator Joseph McCarthy appear to be a veritable fount of knowledge and fairness by comparison.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy. Hoo-boy! This is the big T2A problem. There is but one hypothesis with this crowd: Evil rightwing political outsiders are conspiring through the IRD to split and destroy unsuspecting churches, stealing their resources and silencing their voices. Any other hypothesis is further evidence of the evil conspiracy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. This would require a measure of humility for T2A writers. Don’t count on it.
  • Quantify, wherever possible. This would ential producing actual facts and documentation. That’s a no-can-do for T2A.
  • If there is a chain of arguments, every link in the chain must work. But what about T2A’s chain, where none of the links works?
  • "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well. choose the simpler. Perhaps there should be “Clarkson’s razor”: If there are two hypotheses that attempt to explain the data, one being openly and consistently propounded by IRD and one being maliciously assumed by T2A, choose suspicious speculation every time.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is it testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result? The case is that such groups as reputable members of the press and even fellow progressives scoff at the tinfoil-hat rantings of T2A. Most ignore T2A's wild claims. This perplexes and frustrates T2A writers, who usually chalk up how the “news media perpetually miss one of the biggest religion stories of our time” to the purported extraordinarily pervasive influence of the IRD.

I would certainly find it refreshing if Talk2Action and a couple of Christian “statesmen” would employ Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” before deploying their own baseless blather. It would spare them from committing the sin of bearing false witness. And it would spare the rest of us from being fed a constant diet of their baloney.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Losses twice as bad as feared

News arrived today from Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick that the Office of the General Assembly’s budget for 2008 needs to be cut 5 percent, and up to seven staff members need to volunteer to go elsewhere. Apparently the drastic budgeting and staff cuts that decimated the General Assembly Council offices in Louisville have found their way to the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) to semi-decimate its numbers.

Kirkpatrick had this to say:

“We have been good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, coming in under budget for the tenth straight year,” said Kirkpatrick, “and over 95 percent of per capita apportionments are being paid. We are deeply thankful for the faithfulness of congregations and presbyteries in their per capita giving, despite the financial crunch being experienced by many presbyteries and synods. That crunch, plus a decline in overall church membership, is having an impact on us.”

So, reading between and behind the lines, what is going on? First some facts:

  • The 2008 per capita expense budget approved by General Assembly in 2006 was $15,061,674.
  • A 5 percent reduction amounts to $753,084.
  • The 2008 budget had already taken into account an expected $350,000 in uncollectible per capita.
  • If, however, approximately 5 percent of the expected per capita apportionment has proved uncollectible, that amounts to $632,591, which is $282,591 worse than expected and an enormous jump in per capita withheld.
  • Likewise, the 2008 budget was already based on what was thought a rather pessimistic (but safe) estimate of a loss of 85,000 members in 2006. This was expected to follow an estimated loss of 65,000 members in 2005, compared to an average yearly loss of 43,430 members from 2002 to 2004.
  • Revenue already expected to be lost when 85,000 members are no longer present to pay $5.79 per capita equals $492,150. In other words, if you write off that many members, OGA loses nearly a half million dollars.
  • The heads to be counted and "taxed" in 2006 were expected to be 3.7 percent fewer than in 2005, but that was already factored into the 2008 budget. Losses much greater than 85,000 and far beyond 3.7 percent could be the case for 2006.
  • OGA has about 64 employees, as listed in the planning calendar directory. Reducing that number by 7 to 57 employees would be an 11 percent reduction.

All of this means that something worse than expected has happened. Apparently OGA is compiling 2006 membership statistics and total shortfalls in per capita collection that make an additional three-quarters of a million dollars of expected 2008 income disappear. A lot fewer members than expected are present to pay per capita, and/or a lot fewer presbyteries than expected are transmitting the full per capita apportionment.

In planning for the 2008 budget at General Assembly in June 2006, $350,000 was expected not to be collectible from presbyteries, and $492,150 was expected to be lost with the 85,000 net loss of members. That’s a planned $842,150 not to be received, and the budget took that fact into account.

Now in February 2007, only eight months later, the expected loss has nearly doubled, with an additional $753,084 needed to be cut from the budget! Apparently we are losing members and/or sessions are withholding per capita at nearly twice the rate expected eight months ago.

Individual members and church sessions are voting on the work of the denomination with their feet and their wallets. Obviously, change is required. Presbyterians as a whole simply do not want what they are presently receiving from Louisville. As painful as it must be to slash one’s employees by 11 percent, the church is sending our Stated Clerk a message by making that reduction necessary.

Further, OGA program expenses and personnel expenses each make up about half of the overall budget. So why not cut somewhere other than staff? Take out PCUSA contributions to the National Council of Churches ($300,000) and the World Council of Churches ($458,402), and the deficit is practically solved, without the loss of any employees!

Per capita budgets have grown to be enormous--over $15 million for 2008 for General Assembly--from one simple sentence in the Book of Order: “Each governing body above the session shall prepare a budget for its operating expenses, including administrative personnel, and may fund it with a per capita apportionment among the particular churches within its bounds (G-9.0404d).”

Perhaps our denominational structure is undergoing a “market correction,” much as the stock market seems to doing this week as well.