Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Parish Share: time for change

On Saturday we had a meeting of the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod. For the last few years Synod has been a bit of a ‘trial by ordeal’ of dull presentations. This time, however, we had what I must say was the best presidential address I have heard in many years, by our new bishop Stephen Cottrell — full of vigour and challenge. Amongst the notable things he said, incidentally, was that we need more stipendiary clergy, not fewer. Hurrah for that idea!
Unfortunately, the following items then had a depressing sense of déjà vu, not least when it came to finance.
Once again, we are in the red, but this time the number of ‘defaulting’ parishes has doubled from previous years, despite an overall increase in giving levels and strenuous efforts by the diocesan finance team to improve matters.
There are a number of possible reasons why this is so: lack of effort, lack of commitment, lack of awareness of our ‘mutual responsibility’ — all of these are things that have been identified and addressed.
There is, however, another possibility, which is simply that the whole system of parish share, on which our diocesan finances depend, is wrong. Given that it has never actually worked satisfactorily in all the almost thirty years I’ve been in the diocese, there is something to be said for this view.
In The Road to Growth : towards a thriving church (London: Church House, 2005), Bob Jackson is fiercely critical of the share system and is worth quoting at length:
A parish share system is a subsidy arrangement. [...] Most churches, however, have come to believe that what is actually a benign subsidy system to them is in reality a wicked taxation system upon them. [...] It drives a damaging wedge between parish and diocese. The diocese, the operator of the subsidy system, gets bitten by the mouths it is feeding because the owners of the mouths believe, wrongly, that the diocese is taking their food from them. ‘Bringing in the share’ has become the major point of contact between many parishes and their dioceses. Often, when church hears from its diocese, it is in connection with a demand for money. Diocesan leaders often appear to assess local clergy and churches not on the basis of their effectiveness for the kingdom of heaven but on whether or not they are paying their parish share. (157-8)
The last point is particularly apposite. In 2008, Chelmsford introduced an official ‘award’ scheme for parishes, based entirely on their contribution to ‘parish share’, with ‘Platinum’ at the top, followed by ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, ‘Bronze’ and ‘Won’t Pay’. Parishes are actually told which bracket they come into, and those in the ‘Won’t Pay’ category are subject to sanctions (and a visit from the finance team). Surely nothing could drive home more unhelpfully the idea that ‘the diocese’ is only interested in financial performance?
Intense and detailed attention has been given to this issue, yet the scheme never works! Indeed, as was admitted at the Synod, last year was worse than normal.
Is it not, therefore, time to risk trying something else? The obvious approach would be to shorten the ‘supply lines’ between costs and payments — in other words, to get parishes to pay their direct costs as directly as possible.
(As it happens, this would be quite straightforward to initiate, with PCCs paying the minister a proportion of stipend which is then declared on the minister’s annual return of income and credited to the PCC against ‘share’. The computers will take care of the rest.)
It is deeply frustrating to hear the same debate every couple of years, and yet it was greatly refreshing to hear the bishop speaking convincingly about growth. So I will close with a quote from the ‘blurb’ on Jackson’s book:
Bob Jackson’s The Road to Growth confronts us with some truths about ourselves. Sometimes uncomfortable, always provocative, and ultimately helpful, this is a book that helps us imagine a new future.
The author of this commendation? Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading. There is hope for us yet!
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  1. The article is an interesting one for me and hopefully for all Christians, no matter what the denomination is. I tend to be a critical person of 'The Institution' and especially when some of them are a protected species... Here is an example of a protected species very slowly coming to the realisation that the 'Them and Us' mentality is very real and very justified. I come from a none church background but have been an Ordained Elder (Minister/Priest/Pastor for other denominations to understand) in the Church of the Nazarene since 2009. Within our small denomination (which has both advantages and disadvantages) we have church budgets which make up the District Budget (the equivalent of a Diocese). These are set on the church tithes and offerings from the previous year and increase/decrease accordingly. Here is my problem.... a churches life is measured wrongly by the amount of finances it raises and it seems to many people that they are doing something that the local church shouldn't..... being involved in purely maintaining things instead of investing in people and therefore the kingdom of God.

    I also find it interesting even more so because the churches have a reward system for their giving (very un-theological in my view, to do something to get a reward or even worse to avoid punishment). Mutual responsibility is a phrase used and that is very true, but it comes from a very top-down mentality and is therefore resented. Wouldn't it be a much better way to come from a mutuality that is genuine by coming from the ground-up instead? The contrast is legalism or being fruitful in giving happily and joyfully... God prefers a happy giver as opposed to legalism.

    Many churches are struggling, and it's probably one of the few things they have in common with the context of where they are geographically, and with the people who live in that context. Many churches are shrinking and resemble a hospice waiting for God instead of a life pointing to Christ and transformation. Church has just got it wrong... badly wrong!

    What is my suggestion? Well it is this.... we occasionally use the word 'Jubilee' and then jump to Jesus' return. I think we should be practising it as intended in the here and now. Let's make the yoke, and the burden lighter by declaring and living a year of jubilee. It has to have one condition though.... the happy giver gives so that it is invested in people who do good deeds of compassion and are active in reconciliation. The money should go on those people instead of new windows, a new roof, heating bills for archaic structures etc. Wouldn't that be much better? Wouldn't that be reflecting Jesus where we are..... not in ivory towers?

  2. John,

    Well said, as usual. It's been obvious for many years that Anglican finance is going the way of most other churches, where the pastor is supported by the congregation. As for Bishops, Deans and Cathedrals, who needs them? Fortunately, we don't have to afford them as well, as they do in the Episcopalian church.

    However, the implication is that non-viable units close down, and the universal parish system is at an end. In many places, it mostly is already, as pastoral support is limited to a flying visit to preside at communion once a month.

    Our Deanery has a Deanery Vision. Possibly others do as well. Good stuff, you say, until you read it and realise that our Vision is a vision for managing decline, and nothing remotely to do with growth. All our current bishops have spent their working lives managing decline, and appear to have no idea how to do anything else. How about firing all the accountants who advise the Bishop, for a start, and see where we go from there?

  3. The great thing about Bishop Stephen Cottrell is that he stands up for the Bible and wants us all to read it. When he said at Thaxted on 3rd February "Do you want a Bishop who can speak Latin or a Bishop who knows the scriptures? - and I know the scriptures" I was hugely impressed. Let's start from scripture, consciously and practically.

    David Brock

  4. We pay our cost of ministry in parish share plus about 15 percent to cover legal services, financial advice, training of ordinands etc. Parish share is a system of VOLUNTARY giving, and when the diocesan powers-that-be tried to impose a different system of calculating our parish share, they soon changed it back to the system WE said we would operate. We prefer to support parishes within the diocese directly, eg we fund an assistant minister in a rural parish within the diocese. Giving directly is much more enthusiastically contributed to by congregation-members than pouring money down a diocesan centralised bureaucracy plughole, after which the money gets redistributed they know not where

    Jon Kingsman
    Cambridge, UK

    I've tried posting this comment once already but it seemed to disappear into the ether. Apologies if this ends up as a double post

  5. As Vicar of a parish I struggled, along with my PCC, to pay a Diocesan Share which I maintained was wrongly calculated. Nobody would take a blind bit of notice until, in sheer desperation, I phoned the Area Dean and challenged him to drive round my parish and see for himself the area in which we were situated. He agreed to do so and was very surprised to find that the houses were in many instance let properties (council & private) with people coming and going fairly rapidly. It than emerged that a number of large detached houses were considered to be in my parish and in fact were not. For years it had been wrong and, all credit to him, the Share was revised. But I had had to live with the constant phone calls telling me that the parish wasn't pulling its weight etc.etc.etc. At no time was there an apology (nor a refund for the overpayment!!!!!)

    The result was that for my last few years we managed to pay the Share in full. The system of awarding Gold, silver etc. is childish.At one stage the parish did consider paying my stipend rather than the Share - it would have been considerbaly cheaper.

  6. Bishop Dominic Stockford (Evangelical Connexion)11 March 2011 at 14:56

    In the Evangelical Connexion of the FCE each congregation pays its own way. They also pay a massive £600pa to central funds - most of which goes on the expenses of the bi-Annual conference and on clergy training. As Bishop I receive a £600 honoraria for my trouble, but then I have to run my own congregation as well...

    That might suit many in the CofE!

  7. To give you a different perspective, the Diocese of Melbourne, Australia, has a system similar to the one you propose, John (as I think do most of the Australian dioceses). Each parish pays its ministry staff and ministry costs directly. Our "diocesan assessment" goes towards paying for the Diocesan office (bishops, staff, insurance, etc). Last time I checked, the rate was around 18% of parish income. It still seems to us like a tax, and there are still many parishes who don't pay it. However, it does give parishes freedom to employ however many staff (ordained or not) they want, and encourages a bit more risk-taking and an entrepreneurial spirit. It does mean that non-financially viable parishes tend to get shut down sooner than they might under your system. However, the rules for the assessment are very complex, with all sorts of deductions, exceptions, which means parish treasurers do their level best to minimise their payment. There have been recommendations to make the assessment more growth focussed or ministry focussed, but no consensus on how to do it.