Rethinking Synodical Mission Funding

Bishop Michael Rinehart

Bishop MikeIn 2013, our newly elected Presiding Bishop asked me to sit on a mission funding task force. This group was asked to take a look at the way we fund mission in this church.

One of the ideas that this group came up with was a series of pilot projects, experiments to help us imagine new ways of doing things. One experiment might involve the congregations of some pilot synods writing two checks: one to their synod and one to churchwide. One pilot is exploring other income streams. Another of the experiments involves not receiving partnership grants from churchwide. Let me explain.

The way we fund mission in the church is something like this: the individual gives to the congregation. The congregation gives an average of 5% of their budget to the synod. Our synod gives 50% to churchwide. Churchwide then sends missionaries and does lots of other cool stuff, including giving grants back to synods in order to start congregations. So follow the new start dollars: Individual > Congregation > Synod > Churchwide > Synod > New congregation. Moving money around costs money. Could there be another way of doing this?

Here ‘s another challenge. Mission support has been declining. Congregations used to give 16% to the work of the wider church, yet now it’s more like 5%. There are lots of reasons. We’ve felt the pinch of healthcare. Worship attendance in the U.S. has declined. Also, the way people give has changed. They want to know exactly where their money is going. They’re not as eager to give to an institution and trust. Our presiding bishop asked us to consider other ecclesiastical economies. It’s time to consider efficiencies and new possibilities.

Now let’s talk about mission.

The primary way we start new congregations in the ELCA is by applying for a grant from the churchwide organization to start the new church. We must then match that grant. The person who often makes that grant application is a Director of Evangelical Mission (DEM) — a staff person that churchwide pays and deploys in our synod, to sit on our staff. So we receive a DEM, a $15,000 grant to support that DEM’s office space, administrative support and travel, grants to start new congregations, and grants to help redevelop struggling congregations. That’s how it works.

This year we will give 50% of congregational mission support to churchwide, which is about $685,000. Fifty percent is good. It’s higher than any other denominational national office receives from its judicatories. In our synod we will receive back somewhere around $280,000 from churchwide in the form of a DEM and all the various grants. Some of those grants we will have to match.

We are one of six synods that will be considering the last of the pilot projects I described above. This would be a three-year experiment. For those three years, we would not receive partnership grants or a DEM from churchwide. We would not get the $280,000, but, we would not send it either. Instead we would adjust our mission support by that amount. In other words, it would be a revenue neutral proposal. We would adjust mission support by the amount we were going to receive back anyway.

What does this accomplish? First, it moves money around less: less accounting, less grant writing, less paperwork. Second, it loosens up a longstanding system and allows for change and adaptive capacity. Third, it gives us a bit more local control of our mission dollars. If we want to shift money from one mission that doesn’t need it to another that does, we could do so without the arduous re-application process and waiting for the next mission table meeting in Chicago to approve it. Fourth, I believe, people will have more local control and visibility of exciting ministry opportunities; they will give more. Finally, I think it will foster creativity in mission planning as opposed to a boilerplate approach. After three years we would look at the mission activity in the six synods participating in this pilot and see if it had a positive effect on mission.

How would it work? We would then hire or call our own DEM. This DEM would still work with churchwide, receive training, and meet with colleagues. The DEM, however, would be called by the synod and paid by the synod, rather than by churchwide. For the time being, I have asked Chris Markert to serve as our Interim DEM. This will keep the work going and provide us some time to think through how we want to staff for a new, more aggressive season of mission development in our synod.

One question I get when I roll this out is if it would hurt other, less affluent synods. I really appreciate this question. Because we are only backing out what we would have received back anyway; this in no way reduces new mission support. Resources that support other, smaller synods like the Alaska Synod and the Caribbean Synod do not come out of money that would be sent back to us to start new congregations or cover a DEM. This is a revenue neutral proposal.

Since this is a shift in the way mission support dollars have flowed from our synod to the churchwide organization, (not the net amount) Synod Council is asking you to vote on this at assembly. The budget will be presented on Friday. We will vote on it on Saturday. First, we will approve a normal budget that reflects our priorities as in prior years. Once that is decided, we will take up the question of the three-year pilot project.

I ask you to pray about this. Think it through. Ask questions. Get answers. Talk to your voting members. Let’s work through the details before it comes to the floor so that people aren’t surprised, and then trying to get their minds around it for the first time on Saturday of assembly.

I’m in favor. Council is too. It gives us freedom and flexibility. We want you to feel right about it too. Call me if you have questions.

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