By Ed Thompson
The memory stands out clearly, although the circumstances remain rather murky. For some reason, I found myself at the last session of a mission study at one of the churches in the presbytery where I served. (OK, it was in Northern Kansas.) The interim pastor was doing a good job summing up the findings of their previous meetings and asking questions that got people thinking about the future of the church and that generated good conversation among the members present. She divided them into small groups and assigned each one a particular area of church life to address.
As the groups reported back, it was striking how many of them suggested that the church hire additional staff to support the ministry that they had been thinking about. At the end of the day, they would have had to hire 5 or 6 or maybe it was 7 additional staff members to do everything that they felt the church should be doing.
Although it was a larger church that had some significant reserves, they weren’t really at a point where they could afford to hire any additional staff, and it was going to be difficult enough for them to maintain the staff positions they already had. Perhaps to be fair, probably 20 years before that, this church had had 3 or maybe 4 additional staff working in the areas that these groups felt needed to be addressed now.
It was about when the third group reported the idea of hiring additional staff that the interim pastor and I happened to glance at each other. We both rolled our eyes. Not my most pastoral moment, nor hers. But we were on the same page. What are these people thinking? Yes, it’s good to dream. It’s good to be honest. There may well have been enough work to do to justify hiring additional staff. But what could the church realistically afford?
I thought about that experience in reflecting on the work of the Financial Sustainability Task Force. Some have felt that we should have started with reflecting theologically about what it means to be a presbytery and what should be the priorities for our work together. Maybe we should have. At the end of the day, however, we’re still going to have to address the question of what we can realistically afford.
My sense is that the Financial Sustainability Task Force did that work, setting broad parameters about where we need to go moving forward. Within those parameters, we will need to make some choices about our priorities and what we want our staff to do.
Occasionally, I hear people talk about the quadrant ministers and how important they were to the life of this presbytery. Since I was a quadrant minister during my first tour of duty in West Virginia, I appreciate those sentiments. I think the quadrant ministers did good work, and we strived to strengthen the connection between the churches and the presbytery. However, by the time I left in 2007, I could clearly see the handwriting on the wall. The presbytery wasn’t going to be able to afford to keep those staff positions and still do everything else for much longer. Over the next five years or so, those positions were eliminated. I have figured out that we could still have quadrant ministers today, although doing so would mean eliminating all of our other staff positions. But it could be done.
Obviously, we still have work to do. The Financial Sustainability Task Force was asked to look at three main areas: 1) medical coverage for staff, 2) staffing and the future of the presbytery office, and 3) the future of Bluestone.
Their recommendation was that we provide medical insurance only for each staff person and not their family members as we had been doing. (That applies to our lay employees and not to those who are ministers who receive coverage through the Pastor’s Participation Plan.) The Administration Committee accepted that – which was something they had been wrestling with for the past several years – with the provision that any additional costs for providing coverage for additional family members, which would be paid for by the staff member, be phased in over 5 years. The presbytery approved that by approving the 2022 budget at our August presbytery meeting.
Also to the Administration Committee, the Leadership Team assigned the task of working out how to implement the recommendation that staff work from home and that the office building be sold. How to implement the recommendation to close the Resource Center when the office is sold was originally given to the Administration Committee but has now been transferred to the Nurture Committee. The Leadership Team has also created a Bluestone Working Group to figure out how to implement the recommendation to “disentangle” Bluestone Inc., which holds the lease with the Army Corps of Engineers, from the Presbytery of West Virginia so that it becomes an independent organization.
Hopefully we will be able to bring specific ideas to the May 2022 presbytery meeting for a vote, although it may take the Bluestone Working Group longer than that to come up with a workable plan.
Once all that happens, we will need to start thinking about thinking theologically about what it means to be a presbytery and what should be the priorities of our work together. Another way to say that is that we need to engage in another mission study or process of self-reflection. By that time, it will have been 10 years since the Jeremiah 29:11 report was adopted. It will be time. When that time comes, we will have a better sense of what we can realistically afford so that we won’t be getting our hopes up about what we’d like to do, only to be disappointed when we find out that we can’t afford that.