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December 7, 2009

Southeastern Synod may cut grants, staff


In many ELCA synods, the new year will bring new concerns for funding of vital ministries.

Take the Southeastern Synod, where Bishop H. Julian Gordy committed to keeping synod members "informed and to be transparent in all decision-making."

In January 2010, the synod's council will consider budget cuts for the rest of the 2010 fiscal year. The cuts, which could be effective as soon as Feb. 1., would reduce, but not eliminate grants (more than 12 percent of the synod's proposed $3.67 million 2010 budget) to Southern Seminary, Newberry College, social ministry organizations, and other ministries.

Layoffs 'inevitable'

The proposed cuts would also affect synod staff, whose salaries were reduced by an overall (but not across the board) 10 percent in September 2009. According to a Dec. 5 letter from Bishop H. Julian Gordy to synod leaders, "layoffs will be inevitable in the first part of the coming year."

Gordy wrote that annual unrestricted mission support from congregations was down more than five percent from 2008. While early 2009 looked promising, the months from July to November showed a 13 percent decline from those same months in the previous year. "This is the time of year when we would normally expect mission support to be increasing, as congregations seek to fulfill their pledges prior to year-end," Gordy wrote. "So far, we are seeing much the opposite, and the negative impact next year, unless the downward trend is reversed, will be profound."

In a Dec. 7 interview with The Lutheran, Gordy said he attributed some of the decline to the economy, and some to the actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. The assembly approved a social statement on human sexuality. It also acted to allow congregations, if they choose, to call ministers who are in committed same-gender relationships.

In synods across the ELCA, some congregations have reported withholding, but actual numbers are hard to come by. "We've heard from some congregations that are withholding or designating their giving," Gordy said. "We've also had some congregations make special gifts [beyond their regular mission support], or say they hope to do more than last year. But [the extra giving] hasn't made up the difference yet."

Synod staff have been in conversations with many congregations, Gordy said, "to talk about how people who disagree can still be the church together."

In the ELCA, unrestricted (as opposed to designated) mission support from congregations (part of what many congregations term ‘benevolence') is sent to synods. Synods then pass on a portion—in many cases, nearly half—to churchwide ministries. Because the funds are unrestricted, they can be used in "a way that best supports and serves the kinds of covenantal relationships our church has, and trusts the people who carry out those relationships," Gordy said. 

Not about what it does 'for us'

Worst-case scenario? "If we withhold money from a local congregation, synod or churchwide because we're not happy with one another, pretty soon those people who have the money to exercise that sort of clout would be the ones to make all the decisions," Gordy said. "And the sense of the body of Christ deliberating together gets lost. The church is not a voluntary organization of like-minded individuals. It is the body of Christ and that means we're called to be together with people we don't agree with."

Gordy hopes members address areas of disagreement, such as sexuality, in "more covenantal ways." Those ways include conversation and the ELCA's "constitutional, confessional and democratic" structure, he said. "We influence one another through conversations more than through the very blunt instrument of withholding."

Communicating this can be a struggle, Gordy said. "We live in such a highly individualistic, consumeristic culture," he said, adding: "I get asked a lot: ‘What does the synod do for us? What does the ELCA do for us? ...But we didn't come together for what it does ‘for us.' We came together because God's people come together to do more work in the world. Look at [Hurricane] Katrina. Especially here [in Southeastern Synod] we know that individuals and congregations—working through churchwide structures—did things that folks alone couldn't do."

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