What Should our Denomination Provide?
Here is my response to the recent release of the proposed budget for 2013-2015: The majority of churches in our diocese (Pittsburgh) do not have paid children or youth staff and have far more limited funds for curriculum and programming. Also, given that their programs are primarily volunteer-driven, it is likely that even though they stand to be disproportionately affected, there are simply fewer individuals with even less time to raise any sort of cohesive protest. The local congregation DOES depend on the structure of The Episcopal Church (Church Center) in providing easy-to-use and free resources.
Diminishing funds at the church-wide level will trickle down to adversely impact diocesan level funding (if that even exists at all). Churches already struggling to keep their formation programs afloat will be even more heavily dependent on volunteer efforts to develop their own curriculum and program ideas. Financially fragile parishes will be offered even less in the way of free curriculum and programming. Small parishes will have fewer opportunities for their youth to join with other youth in national or diocesan-wide efforts designed to bring youth together. Larger and more financially stable parishes – such as ours – will face a heavier burden of supporting not only their own ministries but those of less capable churches in the Diocese. Finally, in the long term, even large parishes with thriving, self-sustaining children and youth programs, will become more and more of anomaly, their youth essentially orphaned by the greater Episcopal church.
These are the areas I feel we will be missing:
(1) Identity as Episcopalians and members of the Anglican Communion Common formation materials and programming, large gathering opportunities such as EYE, youth representation at national conventions, training conferences for children’s ministers and educators… all of these help shape our identity as Episcopalians and should be cultivated by The Episcopal Church. So many people are not born into the Episcopal tradition. If we don’t help our youngest members form a strong Episcopal identity, when faced with the inevitable transitions of modern life as adults, these individuals will feel no particular compulsion to seek an Episcopal church to meet their spiritual needs. They will be far more likely to church shop, regardless of denomination, based on factors of proximity and general impression. Episcopal allegiance will not be a priority, thus ultimately our membership will suffer.
(2) Advocacy in the Media and General Public Again considering that many individuals are not born into the Episcopal tradition, The Episcopal Church has an essential role in ‘branding’ our denomination in the eyes of the public. While the budget to support a public ad campaign, for example, would not fall under the heading of ‘formation’, cutting formation will lessen the ability of our youth to act as successful witnesses – or spokesmen, to put it in advertising parlance – for our faith. Unfortunately, Christianity in general is often depicted in the media in a way that is counter to who we are as Episcopalians. We need a strongly shared Episcopal identity – and we need to develop it in our children and youth – to enable them to differentiate our denomination and all that it stands for from other less tolerant, more extremist sects. Most people can’t spell the word ‘Episcopal’ yet alone define the kind of Christian an Episcopalian might be.
(3) Economies of Scale The loss of any service or materials currently funded at the church-wide level disproportionately increases the cost of that service or material when funded at the local level for two simple reasons – redundancy and economies of scale. The efforts (and corresponding expense) of a staff person developing a shared resource at the church-wide level will now be redundantly duplicated at every local congregation that requires such a resource. And while volunteer hours-worked may be ‘free’ (as opposed to paid staff hours), volunteer hours are not finite. Most volunteers are already stretched to capacity in the amount of time they are able to give to their ministry. Thus, there will be activities that simply will no longer occur. A church that previously relied on centrally developed formation curriculum or VBS programming may simply elect not to offer formation or VBS rather than develop their own materials. Furthermore, by reducing the Episcopal Church’s budget for formation, thus Church Center staff focusing on that area, there will be fewer individuals to negotiate reduced-rate group purchasing programs – something that currently should occur far more often than it does.
(4) Acknowledgement of Existing Children & Youth Staff and Volunteers I recognize that I am both fortunate and atypical in that I am actually paid for my role in providing Children’s Ministry. The work that I do is accomplished by volunteers in most other congregations. That being said, quite frankly, the wages I receive are ridiculously paltry considering my educational background, abilities and the other opportunities I chose to forgo. I entered this ministry knowing that my annual salary will most likely never reach the level of being a living wage – and ministry volunteers act according to motivations that are even more altruistic. Given that no one gives themselves to children or youth ministry with any expectation of financial reward, I would at least expect The Episcopal Church to show some expression of support and acknowledgement of the importance of this ministry. By disproportionately cutting the formation budget, the message to me and similar employees and volunteers is quite clear. Our services, our sacrifices, our commitment is not valued by society – NOR BY THE CHURCH. This is appalling and discouraging. There will be staff and volunteers who decide their efforts would be better appreciated elsewhere.
Although I certainly have a vested interest in children and youth formation, the decisions made by Program & Budget of The Episcopal Church will not affect me personally to a great extent. I have a strong Episcopal identity; I will continue to help young people develop theirs. My fear, as mentioned above, is that all I will be doing is raising orphans – young people who have merely an allegiance to this congregation, to the people whom they currently know and love… but no connection to the Episcopal tradition. Are we something more than a congregational denomination? Aren’t we a communion of saints, the Episcopal Church, the Anglican communion, the body of Christ? Don’t we want our youth to know it and celebrate it… and most importantly, continue it? If so, we cannot afford to cut our formation budget in the manner proposed.
Lisa C. Brown is a full-time lay employee of a large suburban Episcopal Church, comprised of approximately 600 mostly middle and upper-middle class households near Pittsburgh, PA.