Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mr. Edgar Goes to Washington

I see that Bob Edgar is stepping down from his position as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. It appears to be an excellent decision for the unique guerilla conversationalist and rain maker for the progressive lobbying outfit doing business as the NCC. Edgar is off to head the Washington-based advocacy group called Common Cause.

But I’ve been thinking. Wouldn’t you consider it only fair if the guy who finished converting an erstwhile Christian ecumenical council into a politicized advocacy group for all things left of center would somehow turn around and convert a liberal political advocacy group into a genuine religious organization instead? I mean, balance is balance! Some day when the Reverend Congressman Edgar departs this planet, he could leave behind a convert-neutral footprint, if only he’d transform Common Cause into a Christian ecumenical council!

Actually, Edgar’s new position seems a good fit. Politics is what Bob Edgar does best--well, it’s actually what he does exclusively, when I think about it. And he can do politics ‘til the cows come home as head of Common Cause, a bona fide lobbying group.

Maybe he’ll even take with him some of the secular money and political influences that have been distorting the National Council of Churches, perhaps freeing the NCC once again to actually do the witness for Christ and efforts for Christian unity that its charter specifies as its purpose.

In a recent Common Cause press release, Edgar made a claim I could almost agree with--maybe even something I might say, myself: “With devastating consequences, powerful special interests distort and disrupt the democratic process in ways that shift political power away from the American people.”

The problem is, however, that I’m certain Edgar and I would list nearly mutually exclusive sets of special interests busily at work distorting and disrupting the democratic process. And he’s more interested in secular politics, and I’d be thinking about church governance. He’d be beating the dead-horse conspiracy theories about some vast right-wing conspiracy, and I’d be referring to secularizing, worldly influences hijacking the faith and ministry of mainline churches to take them to unbiblical places.

Since I would list Bob Edgar and the National Council of Churches among the “powerful special interests” who “distort and disrupt the democratic process” in churches, with the effect of making the churches handmaidens to secular politics, truly he and I would not agree on that count. But it does seem rather amusing to me that he’d probably register the Institute on Religion and Democracy and me on his list of distorters and disrupters of democratic processes. Oh well.

At any rate, I wish Bob Edgar well. I wish the National Council of Churches a speedy recovery of its original purposes. I wish Common Cause great effectiveness in promoting open government and ethics reforms. I wish a lot.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Really Crass "Religious" Coalition

On May 22 the pro-choice group that calls itself the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) issued a press release. This is a group that hasn't yet found an abortion it couldn't support, and it shamelessly speaks as if its political pronouncements were established Christian doctrine with broad popular support, which they most certainly aren't!

There's one sentence in the press release that pretty well highlights the RCRC's central failure to propound essentially Christian belief rather than growing-stale secular opinion. Here is what the Reverend Carlton W. Veazey, president and CEO of the RCRC, claimed:
...the continuous political attacks on abortion have obscured the single most important concern for the woman with an unwelcome pregnancy: making a decision that is right for her and her family.
Shouldn't it instead be the case that in distinctively Christian reckoning, the single most important concern ought to be making a decision that is right with God?

Totally depraved as we are, there is no end to the ways we can rationalize and justify doing things that supposedly are "right for us," but are instead both harmful to us and others and an affront against the moral will of God.

God wants what is right for us and our families, and what is right cannot be the killing of unborn babies created in God's image.

There is no excuse for Presbyterian entities--Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options, Women's Ministries, and the Washington Office--continuing to financially support and lend our once-good name to a crassly political, morally bankrupt, abortion-at-any-cost outfit like the RCRC.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Mission Initiative error is the least of our problems

Today, a Presbyterian News Service story tells of an accounting error that had overstated the total pledged or raised by the five-year-old Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts & Hands by about $1.4 million in previous reports. Okay, that’s not a big problem. Accounting errors happen.

The error was found and it has been corrected. Yes, it’s good not to incur such errors in the first place, but the system is sound that detects, announces, and fixes such inevitable mistakes.

That could be the end of the story, except for a larger story that is set up but never explored. The greater item of unspoken news is that the Mission Initiative continues to show discouragingly weak results.

At a point when the Mission Initiative ought to be really rolling, when it should be gliding toward the grand conclusion of a $40 million goal, it is falling far short. In the first three months of the year, the Mission Initiative managed to eke out only about $174,000 in new pledges or contributions.

That’s nationally. In three whole months. At the height--supposedly--of the campaign. While spending $81,000 on the effort.

To put that in perspective, my home congregation received $6.6 million in the first year of its own current capital/missions campaign. That’s at a rate nine times greater than the denomination's rate--more than $1.6 million every three months, compared to $174,000 for our 2.3-million-member denomination’s campaign.

At the denomination’s present rate of pledging and/or giving, it will take another 19.65 years to raise the remaining $13,668,193 required to conclude the campaign!

But it gets worse. Pledging, weak as it is, is running far ahead of actual giving. Between 2002 and March 31, 2007, a total of $4.5 million had been actually received at the national level.

At the same time, presbyteries and churches participating in the Mission Initiative had directly received another nearly $3.9 million. (A good part of that money might have been raised locally anyway for new church development, even if there had never been a national campaign.)

In total, the campaign thus claims roughly $8.4 million in actual receipts.

That means that in the first five years of the campaign, only about one-fifth of the $40 million goal has been received. At that rate it would take about 20 more years to reach the desired goal.

And it gets even worse. The costs of operating the campaign since 2002 have totaled $3,556,955. Thus, it has cost the denomination approximately 42 cents for every dollar raised thus far. In other words, for every $42 we spent to raise money, we grossed $100 and netted $58. So far, we have netted just over $4.8 million.

And now it gets sad. The whole campaign was fueled by dismay over budget cuts necessitating the termination of dozens of career missionaries in 2002. Earnest General Assembly commissioners bought the pitch for the $40 million campaign, which they were told would produce $20 million to fund more missionaries.

However, as of March 31, nearly five years later, only a little over $700,000 had been disbursed for mission personnel. Remember, in that same time frame, roughly $3.6 million was spent on the campaign. That means that so far we are behind about $2.9 million that might have been spent for missionaries but instead funded a passing parade of fund-raisers, travel and entertainment, literature, and other overhead.

That’s the truly sad part.

There is one mitigating factor, however: As of this point, another $17.8 million has been pledged but not given. Financial campaigns do have front-loaded costs. You spend a lot up front and then reap the benefits down the road. It takes money to make money.

But even the mitigating factor has a downside, unfortunately: Of the $17.8 million pledged but not paid, only about $1.4 million is earmarked for missionaries. Another $12.8 million will go to church growth, and $3.6 million in undesignated funds will probably be chewed up as overhead.

With a potential outlay to missionaries of only about $2.1 million ($700,000 already spent and another $1.4 million pledged), at this point we would be $1.5 million ahead in missions spending if we had simply spent the $3.6 million campaign overhead on missionaries instead of a campaign!

In October 2006, former Princeton Seminary President Tom Gillespie warned the General Assembly Council that the one imperative for institutional fund-raising is this: “Never ever have an unsuccessful campaign." Friends, it appears that despite the best efforts of some dedicated people, and despite the good intentions driving the Mission Initiative, we pretty much have an unsuccessful campaign on our hands at this point.

I often wonder why the Presbyterian News Service leaves unraised such obvious and major implications as this. Isn’t it time that someone with responsibility--say, the General Assembly Council--talks about this enormous rhinoceros in our living room?