“And then what?” A reflection on the proposed resolution to reduce the central Church assessment to $50.00

— Archpriest Andrew Jarmus, OCA Director of Ministries and Communications

One of the hot topics of discussion in the OCA as we approach our 15th All-American Council is the proposed resolution submitted by the Diocese of Western Pennsylvania that would “fix the fair share amount of each of the participating dioceses at an amount not to exceed $50.00 per capita of the 2009 census of the participating dioceses for the next triennium.” The principle that motivates this proposed assessment reduction is a simple one: “less central Church and more diocesan Church.” At least the first part of this principle would certainly be fulfilled if the resolution passes since a reduction in diocesan assessments this radical would effectively shut down the OCA chancery, leaving a skeleton staff working on only the most basic of tasks required of a Church’s central administrative office.

“Less central Church and more diocesan Church.” After one of the Town Hall meetings this past summer a priest said to me, “Think of how much more our diocese could do if our financial obligation to the central administration was not so high.” Reduce the amount you fund the central Church so that you can better fund the diocese. Sounds good so far, but there is an important implication here that we need to recognize as we consider the above resolution.

The other day, I asked a priest this hypothetical question: “If the AAC reduced the assessment to the central Church by $30.00 what would the result be on the assessment invoice that your parish received from the diocese in 2009?” His response was that the invoice would be $30.00 less than 2008. I pointed out to him that this is not necessarily correct.

Remember, the premise behind the $50.00 assessment resolution is to support the central Church less so that you can support the diocese more: “less central Church and more diocesan Church.” Yes, a reduction in the fair share assessment to the central Church would mean that the dioceses would have more income for their own initiatives. However, it would still be up to the parishes in the dioceses to provide that income. When you take work away from the central Church so that the dioceses can do it you are also handing the diocese the expenses associated with getting that work done. Regardless of who is paying those expenses, the central administration or the dioceses, the source of the money to cover them is the same — the parishes.

To cut the assessment to the central administration to $50.00 per person would mean a reduction of about $52.00 from its current level. I wonder what the reaction of parishes would be when they discovered that their central Church assessment had been reduced by $52.00… and their diocesan assessment had increased by $52.00. A diocese could opt not to ask for the full $52.00 from its parishes. But the less income that the diocese has, the less work it can get done. If a diocese were to choose to leave the full $52.00 with the parishes, the premise that drives the resolution, “less central Church and more diocesan Church” is lost — if the diocese does not have the resources to do the work that the central Church can no longer do you are left with less central Church and no more diocesan Church than you started off with.

Another issue would be whether or not a diocesan chancery had the authority to ask for more money in the first place. Have any diocesan assemblies this year passed a 2009 diocesan assessment with a provision allowing the diocese’s administration to raise it if the above resolution passes, in order to cover the extra costs that would result? If not, I wonder how long it would be before a parish informed its diocesan chancery that it refused to pay anything extra because this increase had not been approved by a diocesan assembly.

The question of reducing assessments to the OCA chancery is not about parishes paying out less money; it is about reallocating where that money would go: “less central church and more diocesan church.” This has to be made clear. With this proposed assessment reduction there is no change in the parish’s “bottom line” and if there is it would be at the expense of ministry and support services. This is a very important point to consider because it has a bearing on how this resolution would play out if it passed. And it is better to understand possible outcomes and implications now than to get blind-sided later.

Obviously I am not impartial in this discussion, but that does not mean that what I am saying isn’t worthy of consideration. It is easy to come up with an idea to change something. But with the proposed change we also have to ask the question, “And then what?” To make an informed decision, one needs to understand as many aspects of that decision as possible… especially potential consequences. That’s the difference between looking back and recognizing that we have chosen a well-thought-out course of action, and looking back only to find that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner.

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5 Comments

Filed under Orthodox Church in America 15th AAC, Preparing for the 15th All-American Council

5 responses to ““And then what?” A reflection on the proposed resolution to reduce the central Church assessment to $50.00

  1. Rebecca Matovic

    Coming from someone who has been rather loud over the past couple of years, it may be surprising that I agree with you, Fr. Andrew, and oppose the reduction to $50.

    I’ve been thinking about the budget a lot lately. I printed out the six month report, looked at the figures and tried different ways of making a greatly reduced assessment work. There is simply no way to do it without completely gutting the central administration. Such a gutting may not be a bad idea, but personally I’m not ready to go there yet, not given the changes that might be possible.

    If Metropolitan Herman were still in power, then I’d whole-heartedly support the $50 as a punitive measure, and would also be encouraging widespread withholding if the AAC passed without his resignation. But he’s gone. Was he the whole problem? Not by a long shot. But the folks who were the problems are all scattered — maybe not punished to anywhere near the degree that would be emotionally satisfying, maybe not held accountable to the degree that would bode best for the future of the organization, but still, not in power.

    Who we have in power is a promising administrative group – far form perfect, but men of integrity and good heart. We have an Metropolitan Council that has shown real heart for playing its proper role going forward, with a very encouraging crop of new members elected. We have a Holy Synod that has shown some signs of shifting at least in tone in the wake of +H’s departure, and that will inevitably undergo an almost complete change in composition over the next 3 – 6 years.

    I’m willing to give this group a chance to make things better, and I don’t believe that a consistently antagonistic attitude or a total gutting of the budget will allow them a proper shot at things.

    I don’t think it should stay at $102 because we do need to be clear that business as usual is unacceptable. But I would favor a reasonable intermediate amount that would allow the central administration to function, while forcing some reordering of priorities.

  2. Fr Basil Biberdorf

    Fr Andrew, what you say about the possibility of a zero-sum game in this matter is true with regard to parishes in dioceses that themselves issue fixed assessments to parishes. However, in those dioceses where parishes tithe (based on a percentage of giving) to the diocese, a reduction in the OCA assessment would have a direct impact on the parishes.

    At present, my parish in the Diocese of the South, sends 10% of tithing income to the diocese each month, plus 1/12 of our OCA assessment. (To clarify, we submit an OCA assessment on top of our diocesan tithe.) In a typical month, that means 14% of our parish income is sent “upstream”. A larger parish with greater income, and larger number of assessed individuals, would see a slightly lower percentage. Reducing the assessment by half would result in sending 11 to 12% “upstream,” again depending on precise numbers of assessed families and giving levels. These figures must not be understood as a grudging fulfillment of parish obligations, but rather a simple statement of what we are, in fact, paying.

    The central church administration, with the help of the Holy Synod and Metropolitan Council that establish it, must now make a clear defense of its necessary responsibilities and their cost. Which “ministry and support services” along with obligations related to being an autocephalous church MUST the central church administration provide? Do they really cost $105 per adult member annually to provide? The answer to this question must be justified.

  3. Fr. Ted

    “if the resolution passes since a reduction in diocesan assessments this radical would effectively shut down the OCA chancery, leaving a skeleton staff working on only the most basic of tasks required of a Church’s central administrative office.”

    The comment by Fr. Jarmus is interesting because it implies that in fact despite all of the changes at Syosset the central church has not gotten down to the most basic tasks required of the central church.

    Perhaps the very point of the assessment reduction to $50 is to demand that the central church articulate exactly what its basic function is or what its absolute basic purpose is. Getting down to that level would enable the OCA to begin the task of rebuilding itself on a firm foundation rather than trying to do what it did for the last 20 years but on a smaller scale.

    We don’t need a scaling down, we need a total new building.

    Fr. Ted Bobosh

  4. Priest Matthew Jackson

    Another thought worthy of consideration: In some diocese, that $52 reduction in assessment would remain in the hands of the parishes – allowing bills to paid and the Gospel to be preached, and $52 per person less to flow out of the local parish to anyone. (In the DOS we have a flat 10% tithe to the diocese, and we pay the actual assessment amount on top of that, so the reduction would remain with the parish.)

  5. John Lickwar

    Both Fr. Andrew and Ms. Matovic make good case in points. However, I would disagree with the latter’s last statement, “I don’t think it should stay at $102 because we do need to be clear that business as usual is unacceptable.” For your consideration, I would like to reflect further:

    Does $102 automatically mean business as usual? Is there another way to be clear that business as usual is unacceptable other than reducing the central church assessment?

    I think a reduction in this figure is inspired by fear and is the easy way out of answering the hard but fundamental questions related to the healthy functioning of a central adminstration in an Autocephalous Church. We must work through our issues without threatening the Church of withholding the tithe. As everyone knows, doing the right thing requires taking the hard road. It is simply not time to cheap out!

    While the day of failed leadership is done, we should not retire the cart, (i.e the central administration,) with the horse. Rather we could pick up capably the collective and awesome responsibility to reaffirm at his up-coming election the function of Metropolitan, central administration, and metropolitan council. Let us do so.

    Let us take the couragous stand, and establish from the teachings of the Church the necessary perimiters to safeguard the resposibility not to fund any kind of unrighteousness! Let us do so.

    We have a golden opportunity to close the gap and end the disparity between the central administration and the diocese. It is not time to abandon one for the other. Rather it is time to restore clarity, precision, and dignity to the functioning of both. Let us do so.

    I feel the movement to reduct the central church assessment places absolutely no trust in the process we have embarked upon of cleaning house, and no trust in the righteousness we should expect from our leaders and ourselves.
    Yes, all of us expected more of our leaders. But this expectation holds us equally liable. According to the talent given to us, we have a share in facing the task of reaffirming with collective theological reflection, struggle, humility, and prayer what is the sound work of a healthy central Church administration, do we not? Whatever measure of that talent each of us possesses, let no one bury the talent!

    In conclusion, now more than ever the time has come to bind ourselves one to another in the epiclesis of the liturgy , in an oral not silent proclamation. That the Holy Spirit descends upon us and the gifts offered is more than a reminder that we are corporately united. We are sanctified in the task of supporting the Church and building her up as Christ’s body. Our sacramental mandate is clear. We are not sanctified to tear her apart through failed leadership and fear.

    As a footnote to my closing comment, I referenced praying out loud the epiclesis of the Divine Liturgy. Many of our churches do not do that. Praying most of the so-called silent prayers out loud neither diminishes the mystery of the liturgy, nor violate God’s mysterious way of working in the secret heart of man. When most of these prayers are said out loud they inform us of this mysterious work, of the sacramental reality within the human heart. We need this awareness. I hope that the next Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America would continue this admirable practice of praying most of these prayers out loud and that he and his brother bishops would instruct the priests and faithful in this practice. Only good for the Church can come of it. Many clergy today still feel the secret or private prayers of the liturgy are theirs alone and not for the hearing of the people. Many know Fr. Schmemann wrote of the clerical problems arising from this posture, the fruit of which is our failed leadership. I find it strange that we condemn outside Orthodox liturgical practice, the idea of secret societies,
    memberships, events, and readings in questionable religious organizations, but want to maintain the function of our clergy partially within the realm of secretly praying for the people or for himself in the context of a service which necestates at least the presence of two or three gathered together in the Lord’s name. If the Orthodox Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth,” then why are half of the liturgy’s prayers held in the secrecy we condemn sectarianism for?

    Enough of the day of failed leadership, fear, depriving the tithe, and secret prayers. Let us open ourselves to the Liturgy, and the Liturgy to us. Let strive to speak the truth in love.

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