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?


Blogger regressivepresby said...

Trust and trustworthiness are the missing ingredients. A lack of transparency and 'spin' only add to the that. Sad is an apt description... and I don't mean that gleefully, but as something truly lamentable. Lord have mercy on us.

6:09 AM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Nav said...

I have a question I have asked various higher-ups and other "watch dogs". It seems that much of the money "raised" by the campaign is designated as still being under the control of presbyteries. I am wondering if that money is really new money that was raised by this campaign OR was it money the presbyteries already had and simply lodged it under this national campaign in order to get better return rates for the investment. By lodging it with the national campaign, it makes the campaign look better than it is while the presbyteries keep control of the money.
Is this what we have going on with the money "raised" by the campaign but still under control of the various presbyteries?

7:37 AM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Al Sandalow said...

The previous notes is right. Most of the big “pledges” that I can see were a part of Presbytery church planting projects or other mission giving that was already planned. These funds will be raised, administered, and spent locally. Including them under this fund is a “smoke and mirrors” kind of accounting, simply designed to make the campaign look like less of a failure.

Even at a lower level, we have been told to direct the support we have been giving some missionaries through this fund, instead of simply using the old system to designating who get the money through the normal GA accounting system. Another way to make it look like this project is doing better then it really is.

You’re right Jim, this project is raising very little money that would not already have been given and very little that will fund new projects or mission personnel. Anyone foolish enough to give undesignated gifts at this point will certainly see their money used solely for overhead.

Can you say “Bicentennial Fund”? Anyone else remember that debacle?

9:32 AM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Renee Guth said...

Jim, thanks for getting the truth out!

9:40 AM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...


I wish you had signed your name, because I don't know whom I am addressing, and you ask good questions.

If you go to the Mission Initiative web site's Frequently Asked Questions ( you may get some answers. I know that previous Presbyterian Layman news stories by Jack Adams have raised the same questions as you.

If the presbyteries were already in the midst of or planning capital campaigns of their own to fund new church development, is it okay to claim their income as a "result" of the Mission Initiative, or do such amounts artificially inflate the Mission Initiative total?

Here's how the FAQ statement talks about partnerships with presbyteries:

"How will partnerships with middle governing bodies and congregations going to work? [sic]

"The specifics of these relationships will be worked out by the Mission Initiative Steering Committee, which will include representatives from governing bodies. The relationship may be different in each presbytery and congregation because relationships will be tailored to meet the needs of each situation. We know in today's world that one size doesn't fit all."

That doesn't explain much, does it?

In papers handed out at General Assembly Council in March, I see that only seven of 173 presbyteries have entered into such relationships:
Los Ranchos, $4.5 million
Santa Fe, $1.8 million
Peace River, $6.5 million
Santa Barbara, $3.5 million
North Central Iowa, $168,000
Mid Kentucky, $1 million
West Jersey, $1.5 million

Let me give you an assignment: Contact these seven presbyteries and see if they:
a) were ALREADY in the midst of a capital campaign for new church development and merely lodged their campaign under the Mission Initiative umbrella to be loyal Presbyterians,
b) were PLANNING to do a campaign anyway, and the Mission Initiative was an easy way to get more publicity or to be loyal Presbyterians, or
c) were actually stimulated and ENABLED to do their campaigh through the good work of the Mission Initiative and wouldn't have done the campaign without that impetus.

If the presbyteries fall into category "c", then it's new money made possible by the Mission Initiative. If the presbyteries fall into categories "a" or "b", however, that money is merely being labeled as Mission Initiative income, but it wasn't actually a product of the national campaign and in a way distorts the reporting of the campaign's "success."

Nav, your finding this out could help further clarify the situation.

Jim Berkley

10:03 AM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger PastorJohn said...

You said the truly sad part of the MI is that "Roughly $3.6 million was spent on....a passing parade of fund-raisers, travel and entertainment, literature, and other overhead."

Are you determining that figure from freely available records? How many salaries does it include? Does the denomination acknowledge such a grim ratio between MI's overhead expenses and the actual money that can be spent for missionaries?

11:04 PM, May 10, 2007  
Blogger Nav said...

I rarely blog so I don't always remember to sign my name to a post. Matt Ferguson here.

Al, I not only remember the Bicentennial Fund but I served on a committee at GA when we were closing the books on it. From what I can read and understand on our current campaign, I think this one is worse than what occured with the Bicentennial campaign.

Jim, I don't know if those presbyteries you list would tell someone outside their presbytery the low-down on how those funds came to be contributed or lodged with this current campaign. I think our best hope is if some folks from within those presbteries who are curious about the truth in this area would do the digging and let us know. If Southeastern Illinois Presbytery was on the list I know I could find out.

You do good and necessary work for the Church, Jim. Keep it up. May God bless you for it.

Matt Ferguson

6:35 AM, May 11, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...

Thanks, Matt. Okay, is anyone in the listed presbyteries willing to answer the question of timing and origin of his or her presbytery's capital campaign in relation to the Mission Initiative? We're all ears!

Pastor John: You must not have clicked on the links I provided. The financial score is readily available for anyone to see here: It appears to me that it will be updated quarterly now. The campaign was originally slated to END in December 2007.

The public accounting doesn't break down the expenses in terms of salaries, printing, travel and entertainment, publicity, etc. You would need to get that detail directly from Shared Services in the Louisville offices.

I do know that several people have come and gone as paid directors and staff, and several staffing and campaign schemes have been tried in order to make things work. The committee chairpersons have shifted over the years, as well. There appears to be a strong effort to make the thing fly, but it keeps sputtering and not getting airborne.

To my knowledge, the denomination has not acknowledged the obvious fact that it is costing a whole lot of money to scare up a pretty meager return. There seems to be the attitude of keeping a stiff upper lip, plowing ahead, and hoping something FINALLY breaks through. The failure to talk seriously about the campaign and its advisability is why I referred to it as the rhinoceros in the living room.

Jim Berkley

10:09 AM, May 11, 2007  

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