DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY (1)
A Two Part Analysis of the Meeting of General Synod
The meeting of General Synod last Thursday and Friday (October 22 and 23) sparked my imagination. In the beautiful sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, SC, we heard numerous delegates speak of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as “family.” Well, are we family because we are small (and, indeed, we are small and very scattered)? Are we family because so many of us are blood-related (and such was the case and much more when I became an Associate Reformed Presbyterian in 1972)? Are we family because so many of our ministers are graduates of Reformed Theological Seminary (but most of us who are RTS grads don’t know each other)? So, what kind of family are we? Perhaps, the cartoon above is an uncanny representation of who we are — like the Simpsons, we are a portrait of a dysfunctional family.
Retiring Moderator’s Address
Retiring Moderator Leslie Holmes’ sermon informed us we are a dying denomination, and he challenged us to evangelism (specifically to adult baptisms) and church planting. According to the statistical reports of our presbyteries for 2018 in the Minutes of General Synod: 2019, we are a denomination of 22,393, we had 146 adult professions of faith, and this means we are NOT doing adult baptisms because we are NOT leading non-believers to the Lord Jesus. Doing the math, it takes 15.34 of us to lead an unbeliever to the Lord Jesus. Frankly, our record is terrible — and it has been terrible for a long time. A closer examination of the statistics reveals the record is worse than what I report, for I was kind and allowed for the fudging of the numbers in the official reporting. The truth is we don’t lead unbelievers to the Lord Jesus. Frankly, I am not sure we can lead hungry cats to day-old tuna!
According to Former Moderator Holmes, our record of planting churches is even more dismal. In the last 10 years, we have attempted 98 church plants and only 14 have been “particularized” as self-sustaining congregations. Our batting average is .143 (and, according to Holmes, a careful examination of the records reveals the average is only 11%). In contrast, consider this from https://www.christianpost.com/news/study-reveals-state-of-u-s-church-planting.html, “Debunking claims that most new church starts fail within the first year, the study showed that survival and success are markedly greater than realized. The latest research suggested that 68 percent of the roughly 4,000 churches planted each year are still functioning four years later.”
As a Baptist minister friend once said to me, “The only way to join the average Baptist church is to be born-into-it or married-into-it.” Well, that describes us, doesn’t it?
The Report of the Blue Ribbon Committee
Because so many were shocked by its conclusions, the report of the Blue Ribbon Committee took Thursday afternoon, Thursday evening, and a good part of Friday morning. At this point, the dysfunctionality of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as a family showed up in technicolor.
When someone says to me, “I’m an Associate Reformed Presbyterian!” I ask, “What do you mean? (1) Do you mean you are a member of a congregation affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, (2) are you referring to one of our presbyteries, (3) are you speaking of one of our boards or agencies, (4) are you saying you enjoy vacationing at Bonclarken, or (5) do you mean you attended Erskine College and fond memories continue to linger in the pathways of your mind? Which Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for we are many?! On the General Synod level, our boards and agencies are independent kingdoms with each having its own 501c3, and they hold their resources as their own and zealously guard their independence. For many of us, it seems our boards and agencies think the General Synod exists for them, and they have forgotten they were created by and are servants of the General Synod.
The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is in the midst of an existential crisis, the which has not occurred since the aftermath of the Civil War. After years of mismanagement, our ministers’ retirement fund is greatly underwater at 13 to 14 million dollars. Presently, according to the actuary, the fund has about 56 million dollars and needs at least 70 million dollars to fund benefits in 2050. According to the actuary, we need an immediate infusion of 5.5 million dollars to recapitalize the fund (and that may not be enough to avoid significant reductions in retirement benefits in the years around 2050).
What are we going to do?
Well, one thing we are GOING TO DO is allocate 20% from the Denomination Ministry Fund to the Retirement Fund till kingdom come. And that’s not enough or long enough! Some are saying this action may cause congregations to refrain from giving to the DMF. Well, okay! One of the refrains I hear is how much Associate Reformed Presbyterians are a family and love their ministers. If congregations abandon the DMF because of General Synod’s action of taking 20% out of the DMF yearly in order to recapitalize the Retirement Fund, then I am forced to say all the pious rhetoric about family and “loving our ministers” is just hooey.
One thing we are going to do is IGNORE the recommendation of the actuary to reallocate 5.5 million dollars from our boards and agencies to the Retirement Fund as a onetime infusion of monies into the Fund. The motion was voted down. Our dysfunctionality became apparent. It was interesting to watch the advocates of Outreach North America circle their wagons to protect the assets of the Sovereign Kingdom of ONA in the byzantine realm of 918 South Pleasantburg Drive. It was as though the poor boys were protecting the Holy Grail. In an emotional tizzy (which was wondrous to behold), these champions of ONA (who were members of, or former members of, the board of ONA) asserted reallocation of funds by General Synod from ONA’s assets to the Retirement Fund was unethical and tantamount to breach of trust and misuse of funds. They demanded ONA’s resources are inviolate! But here’s the general principle in giving: if a gift is made to a church or an eleemosynary organization and the gift is used by the donor for a tax deduction, the gift cannot be restricted by the donor; however, if a gift is made to a church or an eleemosynary organization and the gift is not used for a tax deduction, the gift can be designated and cannot be used for any other purpose without the donor’s permission. Well, we are at a point of crisis. Remember gifts to ONA were also made to the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Sadly, the operating principle of many of the members of the board of ONA at this meeting of General Synod was self-interest and not the future of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. And let there be no misunderstanding: we are in an existential crisis — the future of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is at stake. Young ministers who are capable of being church planters are unsure of us, for they are unsure we can care for their futures. Without young ministers who are willing to take on the challenge of church planting, the future for both the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Sovereign Kingdom of ONA in the byzantine realm of 918 South Pleasantburg Drive are a footnote in a church history book. A friend once described his congregation in this manner: “We are old; a good flu season and we are out of business.” That describes us too, doesn’t it?
Well, let me give you some “good news”: Synod voted to make a way for new ministers to opt out of the Retirement Fund and create and be in charge of the destinies of their retirements with options for defined contribution plans.
Now, let me give you some more “good news”: General Synod voted to create a committee to examine the assets of General Synod in order to find 3 million dollars for a one time allocation of funds to aid in recapitalizing the Retirement Fund. This doesn’t fix the problem, but, in good “ARP form,” it kicks-the-ball-down-the-road for others to find a solution. Also, a motion to begin a capital funds campaign for the recapitalization of the Retirement Fund was approved. This will help ministers who are many years invested in the Retirement Fund. Now, will we own the capital funds campaign? As I remember, our last capital funds campaign went thud!
How Did We Get Here?
The following motion was adopted: “That the moderator appoint a Select Committee composed of six members: (1) an active minister; (2) a retired minister; (3) two laypersons who are attorneys, and (4) two laypersons who are accountants; and from these six members appoint a chairman. The purpose of this Select Committee is to investigate all matters which contributed to and triggered the Retirement Fund Crisis. The select committee shall report back to the 2021 General Synod with its findings and recommendations. The Select Committee shall be given full authority to examine all documents necessary for this investigation.”
Over the years, when it came to our Retirement Plan, we acted in a paternalistic manner toward our ministers. The attitude was this: “As a theologian, you don’t know anything about financial programs; so, trust us to find experts who will take care of your retirement.” Why did our ministers buy such demeaning nonsense? A minister who has mastered Greek and Hebrew can master counting and the nomenclature of retirement planning.
What happened? The Board of Benefits failed our ministers. Be assured, no one pilfered funds, but grievous mistakes were made by the former actuary and others.
A minister said to me, “It’s the ministers fault!” He said he recommended an accountant from his congregation who was elected to the Board of Benefits. The accountant resigned in frustration, saying, “The ministers won’t listen to reason!” Really? In the last 30 years, was this accountant the only person to see a looming disaster on the horizon? I have gone back and read the minutes and recommendations of the Board of Benefits to General Synod for the last 30 years. There is not a word of warning from anyone until 2013, and then we were assured the problem was fixed. Where was a voice of warning? If I had been a member of the Board of Benefits in the last 30 years and had seen this disaster forming, General Synod would have heard me screaming at the top of my voice. So, how was General Synod to respond if there was no warning?
The above motion which launches an autopsy of the Retirement Fund crash is not made to punish, but it is made to give warning. Hopefully, unless we are dumber than a box of rocks, we will have enough sense to take heed to the findings of the Select Committee and avoid a second crash.
Now, for the sake of transparency, I want the reader to know that none of this impacts on me. I am 75, and I will not live long enough for this to be a problem for me. Someone asked me, “Why do you care so passionately?” It’s the right thing to do! The men who will be retiring in 2050 are young enough to be my sons. As I care for my son’s future, I also care for their futures. If you look, I think you will find this concept somewhere in the Bible.
The word “palpable” was used often at General Synod this year. I think it describes the level of DISTRUST among us. When the motion was made to continue the hiring freeze executed by the Executive Committee earlier this year until the report of the Committee on Restructuring has been presented to and acted on by General Synod, I am sure the folks who are deeply invested in the Kingdom of ONA were offended by it. It was the only vote where there was a call for division (and that means a standing count was taken). One of the people who voted against the motion for the freeze said to me, “I guess we spoke louder.” He was referring to the voice vote which seemed close and the Moderator upheld the “Yeas” for the freeze. The standing count was not close. He realized the call for a standing count was a mis-calculation by the ONA people and it revealed the lack of trust in General Synod for ONA. However, the vote for the freeze was not just a statement of distrust of ONA; rather, it was also a statement of distrust of ALL the Sovereign Kingdoms scattered throughout the byzantine realm of 918 South Pleasantburg Drive in the administrative maze of ARPdom.
As I said at the beginning, my analysis of the meeting of General Synod is in two parts, and I expect to have the second part available in a couple of days. I close part one with this observation: in a dysfunctional family, abuse, neglect, and failure are sanctioned; IT’S THE TALKING ABOUT THEM THAT IS FORBIDDEN. Hence, the eleventh commandment of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church: “Thou shalt not speak disparagingly of anything Associate Reformed Presbyterian.” QED: we are dysfunctional.
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson