Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Presbydigitation

You probably know the word prestidigitation already: fast (as in presto) fingers (as in digits), sleight of hand, legerdemain. It's the magician drawing your attention with one movement, while deftly removing your wallet with another. That's prestidigitation.

I think it is time to coin a new word: presbydigitation. This word would be defined as Presbyterian sleight of hand concerning numbers, as in reluctantly meting out some budget figures, but drawing attention away from or withholding equally significant numbers at the same time. That's presbydigitation, and presbydigitation appears to be happening again.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been trying to ferret out what went wrong with the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) budget (see here and here). For the second time in as many budget cycles, the Stated Clerk has needed to announce major budget cuts a mere three months into a two-year cycle. Just when the OGA was starting to use a budget approved only a few months earlier, it found the budget untenable and in need of drastic emergency cutting.

Hmmm. What's going on?

Rather than an answer to that question, I find that we've received presbydigitation.

Two years ago, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick proclaimed that "over 95 percent of per capita apportionments are being paid," as if it were a good thing. He was correct on the percentage, apparently, but he left the wrong impression that 95 percent was good or normal. It was not.

Traditionally more like 98 percent of per capita apportionments were being paid. That year, approximately twice as much per capita had been withheld, and that withholding was causing problems. Kirkpatrick, however, chose presbydigitation over a clear account of what was wrong.

Now this March, our new Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, a protégé of Kirkpatrick, has perhaps learned too much from his mentor. In announcing his need to slice his recently begun budget, Parsons fingered "the economic downturn," which "has undercut the value of OGA’s investment reserves."

What Parsons conveniently neglected to mention is that per capita receipts were down $1 million at year-end 2008, compared to the previous year. Nor did he mention that the General Assembly budget had been overspent by a cool half million dollars last June. Presbydigitation.

It's sad and disconcerting that apparently our Stated Clerk has either:

a) failed to personally pursue the money troubles to the source or relied on and passed on only incomplete information from others, or

(b) decided to tell a version of the "truth" that fails to leave the correct impression that the whole truth would have provided, a partial-truth version that masks damaging or difficult information the Stated Clerk might not want the public to know.

If (a) is the correct alternative, then we have an uninformed and careless Stated Clerk. If (b) is the case, then we have a deceptive and crafty Stated Clerk.

Personally, I don't care for either of those alternatives. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) deserves far better. And what's more, I think Gradye Parsons can do much better than either (a) or (b) would imply. Parsons is typically a good and conscientious leader, and this kind of behavior is not characteristic of such character.

It seems to me to be time for the OGA spokespersons to tell the full story of what is happening with per capita finances: the big drops in per capita pay-up, the GA cost overruns, the shrinking number of Presbyterian "heads" to pay per capita, and, yes, also the disastrous stock market that shrunk investments. Lay it all out. Chart the facts and trends. Come clean.

Then, I would wager that most Presbyterians would be happy to be fully informed, rather than vengeful or accusatory. Yes, San Jose was a costly place, so General Assembly going over budget isn't surprising. Yes, it is a distrustful time, when people don't easily cough up donations, so per capita pay-up being down is understandable. Yes, losing cash reserves in the stock market is all too real.

We Presbyterians can cope with the truth, and with the truth, we can start to devise appropriate remedies. What we cannot stand is being handled, being spun, being managed, being propagandized. What we will not abide is presbydigitation.

3 Comments:

Blogger Jim C said...

Jim, let me suggest that you consider a couple more numbers. The total apportionment for 2008 was $13,084,624 per the reports. The total amount collected was $10,978,715 according to the “Highlight of Activities” summary report that prefaced the OGA financial reports. That looks to me like $2,105,909 in uncollected per capita apportionment. $10,978,715 is 83.9% of $13,084,624, which matches the 84% number in their summary report.

Both of the GA Budgets are very complicated, with a lot of things that impact them, during and after the year. For example in this situation some of the $2M will be received in 2009. How will that be recorded? How was 2007 money received in 2008 recorded?

One of the things that makes the Per Capita reports particularly hard to decipher is that what appears to be a Cash Flow statement (Revenues vs Expenses) is in fact a comparison of the total allocated per capita amount vs actual Expenses. The actual revenue received apparently does not appear anywhere and must be calculated from several sources.

However, I would certainly affirm the overall point of your article, which is that there is a whole lot more wrong with the Per Capita Budget than poor investment results.

Jim Cahalan

6:02 PM, April 16, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

Jim Cahalan is from Edmond, Oklahoma. I know Jim well and have greatly appreciated his efforts at General Assembly to bring some sense to what per capita assessments actually fund. It has sometimes been lone Jim Cahalan versus the combined heads of OGA, the National Council of Churches, and various groups that feed off of per capita largesse

Jim has courageously held his own, and, as we can see from his comment, he continues to follow the money.

Jim was referring to the budget report given to General Assembly Council at its March meeting. I hyperlinked to the nine-page report in my "Presbydigitation" article above (click on "Parsons conveniently neglected to mention" in the article).

Take a wander through the numbers, yourselves. Know what your per capita funds. For numbers crunchers, it is both more and less information than you would want, all conveniently packaged in the most confusing manner possible.

Does OGA TRY to make it so inscrutible?

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

8:53 PM, April 16, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

Jim,

Excellent post!

By the way, I'm trying to get a hold of you regarding a speaking invitation. Could you email me?

Thanks,

Rev. Jim Deal
pastorjim@eastmontpc.org

10:58 PM, May 19, 2009  

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