Get rid of the episcopacy? Not my vote, and it would be a feat of legislation and lobbying to enact it. However, the fact is that the Episcopal Fund is in dire straits. Only twenty-one conferences remitted 100% of their Episcopal Fund apportionments in 2005. That’s only one-third of the whole Connection.
The good news is that twenty-two conferences remitted 100% of their Episcopal Fund apportionment in 2006. The bad news? According to the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCF&A), the Episcopal Fund may experience an increase of at least 30% for 2009-2012. Reasons for this include:
• economics of health insurance for active and retired bishops
• impact of early retirements
• salaries and benefits of the bishops
• the fact that no jurisdiction reduced the number of episcopal areas
What this means is other funds will necessarily have to be reduced, even our World Service funding. And if the Côte d’Ivoire and other global members of our Connection join us in 2012 - increasing our role as a truly global church - we will face even greater budgetary challenges. Complicating this is the fact that we have decreasing membership and attendance.
As they say, this is not good.
Where I think we are challenged is to show faithful United Methodists that our bishops are worth the funds. I think what that means is that the Study on the Episcopacy is going to have to make a very strong case for bishops AND define their role, both theologically and practically.
In summary, the Episcopal Fund:
• Pays bishops' salaries
• Pays episcopal office expenses, subject to approval by the General Council on Finance and Administration
• Reimburses 67 percent of the costs for episcopal residences
• Provides pension and health benefit coverage for bishops and their families and disability coverage for bishops
• Covers the cost of episcopal travel
• Defrays moving expenses
• Provides pensions for retired bishops and surviving spouses, and minor children of deceased bishops
It’s an old fable: the donkey in the well. A donkey falls down into a well. Everyone tries to figure out what to do. It’s decided that the donkey is old, the well needs to be covered up anyway, it just isn't worth it to retrieve the donkey. Everyone grabs a shovel and shovels dirt into the well.
The donkey figures out what’s happening, shakes off the dirt with each shovel load, and take a step up. Pretty soon, there is enough dirt for the donkey to step up over the edge of the well, and the donkey trots off.
When I heard the fable the first time, I heard the pithy moral afterwards: “Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a stepping stone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up. Shake it off, and take a step up.”
But I heard a different take on the moral of the story the other day. It’s this one: When you try to cover your ass, it always comes back to get you.
I heard Sandra Lackore, GCF&A treasurer, say at the last General Conference: “We have a structure that we can no longer afford.” She warned us. Where the Episcopal Fund was concerned, we were advised to cut one Episcopal Area. No one did. And the Church continued to add off-line expenses and increase budgets. We covered ourselves by saying “We don’t want to cut ministry.” But in essence, we are cutting ministry if we are spending less on evangelism and mission and more on ourselves.
We need to give our leadership the ability to lead. We need to elect our very best to be our episcopal leaders. Not the ones who have paid their dues and bided their time. Not the ones who will satisfy whatever caucus needs to be represented. And not the ones who are elected from a sense of entitlement. We need our best and brightest. And we need them soon.