General Assembly Council wrapped up their spring meeting last week. It was a mixture of bad news and good news.
The bad news is that there is $10 million shortfall (out of $110 million) in income anticipated for 2009. Through a variety of efforts, approximately $6 million in income was found and $4 million dollars is cost savings were realized. Since last September, 14 occupied positions have been eliminated and another 14 were eliminated on Friday. Another 28 vacant positions have also been eliminated. (A few new positions were also created.) Other measures have been taken to reduce costs across all operations like a one week mandatory furlough, decreases in postal and travel expenditures, and a reduced number of hours the Presbyterian Center will be open.
There is nothing joyful in eliminating positions. Neither is it desirable to reduce folks’ pay through furloughs. That is the bad news and prayers are lifted for those who have lost their employment.
The good news is that in the midst of this bad economy we are talking about less than 4% decrease in our budget. The really good news is the basis on which positions were eliminated. The changes over recent weeks and months are really the result of events set in motion three years ago. The cuts were made on a highly strategic basis.
In the spring of 2006, there was an unexpected $10 million shortfall. Dozens of staff positions were eliminated. Attempts were made to be strategic but there were many challenges that made that process difficult. It was also during this time that the board adopted a new streamlined governance model. All the senior staff resigned and made way for new Executive Director who would create a new staffing design.
Linda Valentine became the Executive Director in July of 2006. She formulated a high level staff structure, which the board approved. She went to work over the next few months recruiting and hiring senior level staff. In 2007, the board went to work on developing its 2009-2012 Mission Work Plan. As the plan was finalized in early 2008, the new senior staff had time to come to grips with what GAC work was being done. They began work on organizing staff and ministry units in ways that would most effectively carry out the objectives of the Mission Work Plan. That has meant eliminating duplication, filling gaps, aligning complementary ministries with each, making changes in personnel, and occasionally creating new positions.
Pieces of this change have been evident in recent months in redesigns of the Media Services, Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministry areas, Church Financial Campaign Services, and in Information Technology. The recent economic crisis accelerated the rate at which other planned changes needed to be made, resulting in the changes that were announced on Friday.
Unlike anytime in the past, we are closer than ever to having a well-developed staffing strategy that is shaped by the goals and objectives of a mission work plan. There is more work to be done but these changes have made a significant contribution toward moving us toward that goal. That is something to be celebrated! Effectiveness and accountability have been greatly enhanced.
Future challenges remain. Now that we have begun to get our arms around all the pieces and see how they relate to each other, and the larger vision of the mission work plan, we must develop priority setting practices that will help guide future decision. We continue to wrestle with how the GAC should interrelate with other facets of the denomination. From a more adaptive standpoint, we have to find better models for discerning what things we should be doing that we are not presently doing.
The predicted collapse of denominations and their ministry is, I believe, premature. Yet I don’t believe any of us know exactly what the nature of this ministry will look like in the future. I suspect there is going to be some radical redefinition. I don’t know when and I don’t know how but it seems to be that in the meantime we must be highly intentional about understanding our rationale for what we are presently doing and taking a generative posture as we look to the future.
I’ll confess that last weeks meeting of the General Assembly Council meeting was difficult for me. I’ve been through the closing of two urban congregations. Long time congregational loyalists didn’t want the church to die but could not bring themselves to make the adaptive leap needed for the church to die unto a rebirth. A desperate attempt was made to find technical fixes when only substantial adaptation would do. Only when it was too late would the remaining remnant embrace real change. Too often GAC meetings feel a little too familiar.
Some members seem to me to be anxious about protecting programming and persons they highly value. Others want to live in a regulatory mode, tightly directing staff programming and staffing decisions. Still, others are looking for the technical fix like better communications or maybe a new fundraising strategy. It’s not that anyone of these may play some legitimate role but absent an appreciation for the adaptive challenge in front of us they are death to the institution.
While I’ve been encouraged at the trajectory of change over the five years I’ve been on the General Assembly Council I will say that I found last week’s meeting disappointing in some ways. It just felt too much like we were slipping back into those old fearful dying church behaviors at times. Maybe it was just the anxiety of knowing we would have to make hard budget decision that would cost jobs. Institutional change is always an ebb and flow. I just want to believe that the tide is coming in.