The Parochial Report and the Pension Fund: Deputy Committee Studies How We Measure, What We Pay

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It’s the time of year when just two words—parochial report—can drive many parish leaders into fits of frustration. This annual report, which summarizes each parish’s membership, attendance, and budget, was due to the Episcopal Church’s offices in New York by March 1.

The format of the report, which is authorized by Executive Council and approved by the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, isn’t frustrating because it is complicated. Rather, says Deputy Eric Metoyer, a member of this triennium’s State of the Church committee, the parochial report raises the ire of parish leaders because it doesn’t ask for data that reflects the ministry of many congregations.

“This is a particular issue for multi-cultural congregations, says Metoyer, associate for congregational ministries in the Diocese of California. “They tend to be places with decline or facing gentrification, and places that are doing urban ministry. If you have a congregation with an ASA [average Sunday attendance] of 50, but they’re seeing 300 to 400 people through the doors each month because of feeding programs, after-school programs and yoga, there’s no way to capture that on the parochial report.”

The parochial report’s format is just one of the issues under consideration by the State of the Church committee between now and 2018. This triennium, President Gay Clark Jennings gave the committee a more specific charge than it has had in recent years.

“The State of the Church committee is canonically mandated to prepare a report on the state of the Episcopal Church for the House of Deputies, which we send to the House of Bishops after we have approved it,” says Jennings. “Based on the concerns I’ve heard raised in my conversations with deputies and other leaders at General Convention and as I travel around the church, I asked the group to focus on the state of the church in three specific areas:  multicultural ministries, justice and advocacy ministries, and the Church Pension Fund.”

Deputy Winnie Varghese of the Diocese of New York, who also served as the House of Deputies voting secretary at General Convention in 2009 and 2012, is chairing the State of the Church committee, which includes sixteen deputies from across the church. The committee, which has met twice, has organized itself into three working groups.

Metoyer is part of the group looking at the Episcopal Church’s multicultural ministries. Its early work has centered on how to document and assess the ministry of multicultural congregations that isn’t currently being recorded at a churchwide level.

“One way we want to do this work is to speak with the ethnic desks at 815 and allied groups, like the Union of Black Episcopalians, the Consultation, and the Episcopal Urban Caucus,” he says, referring to three long-standing social justice advocacy groups in the church. “We want to pick up stories and more stories.”

But some multicultural ministry, Metoyer is discovering, isn’t connected to any churchwide office or advocacy group. “When we connect to diocesan networks, we learn about local groups that are networked in small areas like the South Bronx and Harlem, but they’re doing stuff I never heard about on the West Coast.”

Likewise, says Metoyer, multicultural ministry is happening among young people who may worship in or partner with Episcopal congregations but are not formally affiliated with the institutional church. “When black church leaders gathered for the consecration of Bishop Rob Wright in 2012, there was a beautiful moment when Bishop Barbara Harris sang freedom songs with young people from Occupy Atlanta. But despite those moments of connection and some meaningful partnerships, young activists often say, ‘we don’t need your permission, we’re not going to sit on your board.’ So how do we document and assess the power of our relationships with them?

Another State of the Church committee working group is also working to assess social justice ministry—another kind of ministry that, according to Deputy Laura Russell, isn’t being recorded on the parochial report or in any other coordinated way.

“What is the church doing to advance social justice?” says Russell, a two-time deputy from the Diocese of Newark. “We get up there [at General Convention] every three years and talk about what a fabulous church we are, but I don’t see much in data collection.”

To remedy the lack of data, Russell hopes that the State of the Church committee both recommends changes to the parochial report and helps establish a more complete reporting system for money in the General Convention budget that is granted to congregations, dioceses, and church organizations doing social justice ministry.

“I hope we can start asking a question about what exactly your parish is doing for social justice,” she says. “Are you writing a check, volunteering, taking movers and shakers to the state capitol to advocate?”

As for the churchwide granting process, says Russell, “we are trying to figure out what happened to the money, how is it effective? What’s going on at the grassroots level, and how is 815 money helping?”

In gathering data about churchwide grants, Russell and her group hope to understand how the Episcopal Church allocates money for both charity and social justice, and how the church distinguishes between the two. “Is the Episcopal Church a charity organization that occasionally does justice, or are we willing to invest in justice and advocacy? There’s a lot of money in the budget for social justice,” she says, “and we need transparency in whether the way it’s given away is effective. Not just vignettes, but full data. How is it trickling down to the dioceses, and what effect does it have there?”

While Metoyer and Russell’s working groups are documenting the state of rapidly changing ministries in the Episcopal Church, the State of the Church committee’s third working group is trying to assess whether or not a cornerstone of the institutional church—the Church Pension Fund—is keeping pace with that change.

Deputy Evan Garner, a two-time deputy from the Diocese of Alabama, says that Jennings has asked his group to investigate a simple, but not easy, question: “To what extent does the Church Pension Fund meet the needs of the contemporary church?

“I don’t think anyone knew what we were getting ourselves into by signing on to this,” says Garner. “We all took a deep breath and thought, “Okay, this is a pretty big deal.”

Garner says that his group is pursuing two lines of investigation. The first, he says, is whether or not the Denominational Health Plan is doing what it is supposed to do.

Resolution A177, passed by General Convention in 2009, sought to ensure parity between the health insurance benefits offered to the church’s clergy and lay employees who work three-quarter time or more. But the requirement that health insurance be purchased from the Pension Group’s Episcopal Medical Trust rather than directly from insurance providers has meant that dioceses in some regions of the country have seen their costs for insurance increase dramatically.

In addition, says Garner, the advent of the federal Affordable Care Act, known informally as Obamacare, means that the Episcopal Medical Trust’s rates are considerably higher than some dioceses would be able to command on the new government-run health insurance exchanges.

The second question under consideration by Garner’s working group is whether or not the defined benefit retirement plan offered to full-time clergy by the Church Pension Fund is sustainable.

“We are working on an old model of providing retirement benefits,” says Garner. “Does that really work in the 21st century? Can parishes really be expected to sustain an 18% calculation?” he asks, referring to the percentage of a full-time clergy salaries that congregations are required to contribute to the pension fund.

“I think part of Gay’s charge to us is, ‘What about part-time clergy? What about deacons? What about lay employees? What might the opportunity be for us to take care of them?” he says.

Because part-time and under-compensated clergy are disproportionately minorities, says Garner, part of the group’s plan is “to talk to part-time clergy who, of course, can’t come to General Convention,” often because they have other jobs outside the church. “So part of the work is to talk not just to ‘typical’ parish clergy, but also to voices typically underrepresented in those conversations.”

“These are tough questions that some people don’t really want to ask, at least until they are retired and having their benefits,” says Garner. “But we’re asking if this retirement system is intended to take care of the people of the church, does it really do that?”

Although the committee, whose report to the House of Deputies will be due late in 2017, is taking on controversial issues, Garner says they are game.

“The people in that room, probably to a person, are not interested in treading water or putting a rubber stamp on a report. There was a moment when Gay Jennings gave us our charge when we all looked at each other and said, ‘this is exciting.’”

By the time the triennium comes to an end, says Metoyer, he hopes that the committee has begun to answer a question that he believes is central to the Episcopal Church’s future. “How do we live as God’s Beloved Community in the beloved world if there’s only 1.8 million of us now? We know we’re doing it, so how do we quantify it?”

The State of the Church committee’s next meeting is a teleconference scheduled for May 5.