ABUSE OF AUTHORITY IS A CULTURAL BLEMISH

“Abuse of authority is the improper use of a position of influence, power or authority against another person.”

There is extensive information on the hurt perpetrated in churches, by church folk, on church folk. It plagues both hierarchical and congregational polities. Church leaders (clergy & lay) have authority by position and/or respect.

Our legislation is clear when abuse of authority has a sexual element. It is less identifiable in other forms. Before listing a few, let’s acknowledge the difficulty of dealing with a highly nuanced situation like religious organizational work. Every bible genius is not suitable for preaching or pastoral care. An administrative savant may not command moral and spiritual prerequisites to lead a lay ministry or episcopal district. Discerning truly called and gifted leaders is not easy. Monitoring and policing the exercise of authority and respect challenges structures with the best intentions.

Look at some ways abuse of authority and respect manifest in our culture. Silencing critics. Hiding and withholding information. Manipulation of judicial process to ignore facts, evidence, common sense, and imposition of prejudice and political bias. Appointments (at every level by clergy & lay) which ignore qualification; with malicious intent; for personal gain; with favoritism; and, against the best interests of either congregation/group to be served or the effected person.

Most of our elections are hardly an improvement to the presence of consent. When respected and/or authority figures direct delegates in voting, the masses surrender consent to the powerful. Instead of the democratic process checking/correcting injury, a presumably “free” process reinforces the culture of abuse. Surprised? Hardly. The system is time tested and true to infamous design.

Control who is elected delegate. Use delegate status as the carrot to secure loyalty. Threaten the disloyal with denial of the elevated delegate status. Reward those who will be manipulated with position. A few rise to the top. The cycle/system perpetuates itself.

Respect for authority is an important feature of civilized society and effective organizations. The proper use of power is a virtue. Irrational rejection of structure and proper discernment of gifts and graces is not the way toward a better church. We have to care of what and how we resist. Silence and neglect of amended ways is complicity with the assault.

We groom the faithful from the cradle roll. We indoctrinate them with The AME Way through Lay, WMS, Boards of Examiners. The results are mixed. We have The Unsuspecting Sheep, The Knowingly-Quietly Abused, The Frustrated, The Angry, The Successfully In Charge, and The Used to Be… to name a few.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can/must do better – REFORM THE CULTURE! We need a few laws, but we need a lot of change of heart. Not easy! Not impossible!

65% is Not Acceptable – Funding Not Complicated

The 65% Restoration proposed by the Commission on Retirement Services is not acceptable. It borders insulting of justice and intelligence. The Commission on Statistics and Finance and AME, Inc. should not slow walk and overthink the obvious necessities for a just resolution to the AMEC Retirement crisis. The fix will be large, painful, and not loved by anyone. Let’s gird up our loins and DO IT!

Failure to consider the overpayment of benefits for the last 3 or more years was cavalier and irresponsible on the part of the Commission. It was shortsighted and regrettable on the part of the General Board as a whole seeming to go along. If the Fund was overvalued by as much as 70% for 3 or more years, those who retired or withdrew funds in that period received up to 70% more than than they were entitled. (70% of $4m times 3 is $8,400,000…do you not wonder what the actual figure is?) More egregious, those of us still in the program have lost some of “our” money in what was paid to the earlier groups of former participants. This looks to me like good, old fashioned mismanagement and negligence!

If the Commission wants a simple way to figure out how much the current participants are owed, I have one. Give us 100% of our June 2021 value. That puts us on par with the earlier withdrawals before we go into the new plan. That will avoid the costly, detailed calculations of loss and equity. Gather, the funds and commit to full restoration. Recover, Liquidate, and Re-allocate. Hard to swallow, not so difficult to figure.

Some questions to follow over the next few weeks:

Why 100% is the moral conclusion? How can the church gather the funds? Why should everyone share in the pain or restoration? How can we pay without raising assessments? Why is local church property not at risk? Why resorting to the legal system should be a last resort? What does it say about “our” church if “we” have to go to court to be heard, informed and justly restored? Can we avoid the tragedy of selling and/or the travesty of borrowing? Can the legacy pivot with both real estate and program? Can we really lose it all if we do not approach each other with love and reason?

The Retirement Program Crisis

Many grieve the situation with our retirement program. Down the road we may address the anxiety, fear, disgust, hope, and opportunity presented by the current predicament. The presentation at the General Board disappointed not because federal authorities limited the information that could be shared about what happened, but because of the attitudes, commitments, and priorities expressed for the way forward. We are hopeful that new information shared over the next few weeks will prove leadership commitment to do the right thing, no matter how difficult. Moreover, we pray for an entirely new structure with prompt resolve of this matter (at least with a fair plan) so the church can move on. Following are my offering of some general Goals and a Proposal. Let us not only discuss and refine strategies, but we must also help decision makers know our passion and thinking so we do not waste time pursuing unacceptable resolutions. No plan will be perfect. Let us lift wisdom, creativity and some compromise to help the best design become visible.

GOALS

  1. Make program participants whole based on the presumed value as of the 30 June 2021 statements.
  2. Create an environment that will encourage resolution without litigation. Let us show we can do right without going to court.
  3. Reform/Restructure the Retirement System

PROPOSAL for RESTORATION (explanations and arguments in footnotes)

  • Dissolution of current plan in favor of a denominationally negotiated plan where individual participants manage their investments with the assistance of the designated company.[1] The people want more control of THEIR investment.
  • Current program funds should be liquidated with proportional shares deposited to the accounts of individuals in the new program.[2]
  • A Restoration Plan be constructed to restore to individual accounts funds lost. Time preferred consideration according to age of participants must be afforded to assure wholeness by the time of scheduled retirement.  The oldest will be restored fully before the youngest to allow for pending retirement payouts and payouts to those whose retirement is imminent. All will be restored within 10 years.[3]
  • Restoration will be at a rate of 90% – 70% of stated value as of 30 June 2021.[4] In other words, participants will accept a loss of 10%-30% of 30 June 2021 value.[5]
  • Restoration will include up to $40m in asset liquidation[6] and immediate deposit of funds by the denomination.[7] The remainder of up to $40m will be deposited with annual payments of $3m – $4m by the denomination.[8]

There are many with over $100,000 of pending loss who are within a decade of retirement. Few can afford such loss. It is not reasonable, or acceptable, that new leadership can invest existing funds to make this right. As cooperative and peace loving as we can be, the masses must register an unwillingness to just “suck it up” and return to the old truck with a new driver and route. The people must affirm that they will not morally fail those who trusted an underperforming system for decades and now see the evaporation of poor returns.


[1] Central administration of “individual” accounts is outmoded.  Current workers are accustomed to having access and investment control over such funds.  Moreover, there is NO trust in a program where investment decisions are made for all participants.  It is ill advised for all participants to be invested without regard to their individual particulars.

[2] All participants are entitled to a proportional share of the liquid funds available in the current program.  Each should be given their share based on the proportional value of their share of the combined value as reported in June 2021.

[3] There must be a negotiated establishment as to what constitutes wholeness for participants.  Once this amount is determined, each participant should see a steady addition to their “new” account until the amount required for wholeness has been deposited.  Current retirees awaiting payment should be given priority along with those who will age out of the system within the next five years.  This will require the immediate infusion of “new” funds designated specifically for Restoration. All current participants must be made whole by 2032.

[4] Any loss more than 30% will be an open invitation to individual or class action litigation. While sidewalk pundits affirm that legal fees will be added to any judgement, there is no guarantee.  Litigation may result in a loss of more than 30%, but it will not result in a loss equal to or greater than the 70% loss currently projected.  Any Restoration must assure participants that they will not lose more than 30% of the funds they were told was in their account. The relevant question for a potential litigant is not “can we win,” but “what can I collect if we win.” The assets are not what many presume. We can do better with a fair blueprint than a court with an uncollectable judgement. Others should not be enriched by our disaster. Let’s start on high ground.

[5] The easiest loss would be 0%.  AME’s are faithful and would rather settle than litigate.  10% as a “tithe” contribution/loss on their part is palatable.  The amount of loss that will be endured without litigation is strained but certainly caps at 30%.  While it may be difficult for successful litigants to collect more than 50% of the $91m, anything will be viewed as better than nothing.  The folk must see an incentive to compromise rather than litigate.

[6] I do not see a fair settlement without the liquidation of some assets (cash and real). If we allow this matter to be litigated, not only could an adverse decision cause the loss of all, it may also bind the denomination with obligations that will crush us. We will not waste time, money and reputation on a bitter legal battle(s) if we just stand up and start walking the difficult road toward justice. Recovered funds will reduce the liability to church funds and help to preserve assets.

[7] The Retirement Services Commission and the General Board should demand that the Retirement Services Office move into the new building in Nashville.  The liquidation of the Memphis property would be a wise strategic move and signal to the church a serious commitment to doing that which is necessary.

[8] The COVID Budget expense approach be used to produce $3-4m per annum. This will yield $30-40m over 10 years to be used in the Restoration of individual accounts following the initial deposits made from asset liquidation.

Double Dipping

February 2021 seems so long ago. Nonetheless, since I committed to the next post on Double Dipping, let me say very little to fulfil my commitment in anticipation of a much more important matter on tomorrow.

Double dipping is like when you receive funds/reimbursement for the same expense from multiple sources. An example: you are reimbursed for travel expenses to the same meeting by more than one entity. Of course, the cure I find most convenient is to take the one reimbursement and give it to the other reimbursing entity and receive actual reimbursement from just one source.

Those who know what I am saying, know. Those who do not follow are not missing much for the moment.

The bottom line for our denomination is that we raise money for institutions in our General Budget, and these entities are then the beneficiaries of assessments and fundraising from essentially the same source. In lean, changed times, we cannot afford to raise funds for entities which are capable of funding themselves by various means. Failure to change will only hasten our decline.

Tomorrow, some ideas on the Retirement Program crisis.

1956 Budget to the Next Level

The Brotherhood fought hard in 1956 for a much-needed reform/innovation: The General Budget administered by The General Board.  Combining the various financial requirements (appeals) in one budgetary instrument to effect accountability and efficiency made a lot of sense.  While the policy may not have achieved all that was intended relative to episcopal oversight, it briefly reined in some systemic abuses.  There are major flaws to this approach which now call for revision.  We need to decentralize the budget.

For over a decade we waved the banner of a “zero based budget.” The concept is going nowhere as we have created sacred cows in the budget.  Moreover, the older thinking about “everyone getting something” is unsustainable in the current funding environment.  People want to support those projects that are most important to them.  The support of a “general” budget is anathema in a post denominational era.  The church can no longer provide major funding to subsidiary instutions beyond the strategic control of the central body.

Failure to decentralize will bring doom to both some of our important initiatives as well as the basic structure of the denomination. The General Budget should focus on the core administrative needs of the denomination with a different approach to the support of various ministries.  Ultimately, we must decide on the mission on which we can concentrate and adequately fund.  Most of our benevolence and ancillary groups can generate their own funding stream and relieve some responsibility from the General Budget.

Our most compelling projects, such as education, SADA, components and various district initiatives have the capacity to engage in major fundraising beyond the central denominational budget.  Most, in fact, do raise significant sums beyond the annual allocations.  If they did/do not, their mission and existence rightly come under scrutiny.

We need to retain the 25% reduction to the General Budget for the remainder of the 2020-2024 Quadrennium.  The proposed budget should reflect the same.  Two areas which should have funds restored to the 2016-2020 levels are the educational institutions in Districts 14-20 and the ecumenical relations section.  The impact of the reduction in school allocations has been far more negative among our global institutions.  Realistically, we cannot maintain leadership and influence in the ecumenical community if we are not going to take seriously the financial support of those entities to which we belong.  We cannot assert our “greatness” and cry broke at the same time.  We should Represent.

Another perspective to be addressed in the next post is Double Dipping.

Immediate Action – Authorizing Motions

Those who have held virtual annual conferences can attest to a universal lesson:  Virtual Meetings Require More Extensive and Efficient Preparation than In Person Business Sessions.  Although discussions may drag at a slower pace in virtual meetings, the business agenda often moves at lightning speed.  Matters that were deferred to “overnight” consideration in former times needed to be resolved in hours as the clock governing the meeting ticked away.  This will be even more important in a shortened, segregated or hybrid (if we develop a genuine one) session of the 51st Session of the General Conference.

Fewer sessions mean WE MUST ADJUST THE WAY WE DO BUSINESS, not just try to do the same old things in a way that compromises justice and democracy in an abbreviated process.  There are two important steps we should pursue immediately:  activation of key committees and open discussion on the most controversial matters in more transparent forums.

Two of the more important committees for an efficient general conference are The Rules Committee and The Revisions Committee.  We cannot wait until days before an Orlando gathering to convene these committees.  The 51st Session will require a totally fresh look at how we govern our meeting. If these committees do not organize and begin work before the end of January, we will be exposed to political abuse and administrative inadequacies.  There will be no time to wade through a mountain of legislation, and virtual (or safe distanced) meetings of these committees will require time for research and deliberation.  Even our process of “readings” requires review.

Proposal

  1. The Council of Bishops should agree to convene the Rules Committee and the Revisions Committee to form a “temporary organization.”
  2. Those committees should begin their work with an eye to the modified meeting before us.  Their results should be open and public.  We do not need secret results revealed at the last minute to discourage reflection and amendment.  Can’t we reason together?
  3. The Council of Bishops (President of the Council) should “officially” convene these committees at the time indicated by Discipline.  The committees could then pass motions to adopt and authorize the work done in the preceding months.
  4. Conduct thorough discussions of key legislation and business so we can have limited debate and a definitive, quick vote in the general conference session.
  5. There is no reason why we cannot have personal general conference guides (produced by various parties) that will help us to know the candidates and issues in plenty of time to pray, reflect and ask Holy Spirit guidance on an official, final vote.

If the Council of Bishops, with the political will of the broader church, does not allow such bold, innovative action, we are heading for unnecessary trouble in July.  Anyone woke?

Dollar over Safety/Regressive over Progressive Leadership

Out of respect for the General Conference Commission, I will not give the details of sanctioned GC 2021 session plans before a formal release of information. It is a creative, safety sensitive, in-person plan. It satisfies legal concerns I expressed in July 2020 about convening the meeting in a convention setting with an in-person quorum.

I pray everyone who wants to show up in Florida in July 2021 will do so in safety. With the proposed plan every delegate from any place will have a seat at a table.

What about those who will not feel safe in a crowd come July? What about those who fail to satisfy visa requirements that may prevail in July?

To dismiss a VOLUNTARY virtual option is wrong at this juncture. The masses need to say so. The current plan is less than acceptable as

  1. It ignores the safety of ALL our constituency. The experts can tell us what is unsafe, but each person will weigh personal risks and advice to determine “their” reasonable security. We look forward to hearing our Health Commission’s response to the approved strategy.
  2. Technological aversions should not disenfranchise delegates or leave bishops and general officers without options. Bishops and general officers are required to appear. Why must delegates at personal risk forfeit their seat when we have the tools available to include them? I would like to think they are wise, experienced AMEs whose gifts make them an asset in our quadrennial meeting.
  3. There is no such thing as a safety bubble from your door to the door of the meeting site. We may take all of the known precautions at the hotels and convention center. We cannot travel without risk, and there is no guarantee the bubble will not be breached amid so many secular temptations.
  4. Are we disciplined enough to follow the COVID rules? Watching our gatherings, we see the masks resting beneath the nose. The good intentioned opening arms for hugs; extending hands for a shake; gobbling chicken and rolling on the floor in laughter in response to the latest joke. Will will come out of 15 months of separation with the requisite discipline?
  5. Leadership seems not to be keeping up with the times and not getting some fresh, progressive ideas. Using the “old” clickers; thinking that just because we don’t stream that our meetings are private and secure; glossing over important matters; rushing critical decisions with insufficient information; and shutting our loyal members out of sessions that once were public, are clear indications of addressable problems.

Clearly, money is important. The current plan will get a bunch of folks to Orlando, staying in hotels and eating Food & Beverage satisfying meals. Is it so important that we overlook the importance of both health and participation by many committed disciples?

Most Districts, if not all, have prepaid for the rooms. I am sure the paid reservations will be used by delegates, alternate delegates or observers. Those funds are already in the bank. You have that money already.

The offering is pre-paid in most instances. There are those faithful who will buy a ticket to the breakfast or dinner and let you send the meal to feed the hungry or sponsor an attendee.

Put the money facts on the table? Let the people tell you how we can/will respond, as we always have. Stop living in a former decade when we first used remote voting devices. Step into the virtual age with a voluntary, virtual option. That would be a true “Hybrid” meeting, not the approved “Segregated” we now expect.

Virtual, Yes! Anarchy, No!

I am elated at the overwhelming response of bishops, and persons at every level, to the notion of a virtual General Conference.  I argued for the same months ago.  I am concerned, though, that the move toward a virtual meeting will become the occasion for the abrogation of rights through the creation of rules by unauthorized and unethical individuals.  We cannot brazenly disregard the laws of the church…even in a pandemic.

Critics of a virtual General Conference raised some months ago, two primary concerns:

  1. A virtual general conference is illegal because the Discipline requires that it meet in a specific kind of facility (therefore only “in person”).  A convention hall type building is always to be used, and the General Conference is not to be held in large athletic arenas. (Discipline, page 260, Kindle Locations 5917-5919).
  2. Overseas delegates should not be dealt with differently than anyone else.

With that in mind, we should should demand of the process that

  • A physical majority of delegates gather in a convention hall to establish a quorum and to adopt rules for the convention.
  • The Rules must include authorization for virtual participation of ANY delegate regardless to the annual conference they represent.
  • All sessions must be projected through a digital format for both delegates “in the room” and those who participate remotely.  ALL delegates should be watching through a device, so there is no less advantage to remote participants.
  • All voting must be done through the same application, whether the person is on location or remote.
  • All Committees must have digital/remote access for members.

In upcoming posts, I will suggest a few rules we should bend to make a “hybrid” general conference a greater success.  Nonetheless, I am afraid when we “overreach” choosing laws we keep and those we circumvent.  One of the great critiques we face is the way those who preside (clergy and lay) “rule” with bias rather than reason and without regard to the will of the body.

Let’s charge up those tablets and get ready for the 51st Session!

The Curse of Assessments

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  (1 Corinthians 9:7, ESV)

Mandatory assessments are a part of our AME administrative culture.  While many administrators may see this approach as a blessing for consistent, sustainable funding, in actuality, it is a curse?  Assessing authority is misunderstood, overused and undermines the foundation of healthy stewardship and wise program development.  It creates a temptation for those may be blinded by greed or the  opportunity for personal enrichment.  When poor, connectional habits become poor, local congregational practice, we see rancor among the rank and file and a root cause for the exodus.

Many posts could follow on this general topic.  Let me offer in a summary manner:

Assessments would be less oppressive if we:

  • Recognize limitations on when a mandatory “assessment” may be used
  • Make clear who has assessing authority
  • Make the assessing process inclusive of greater participation by those who are assessed
  • Provide thorough explanations/education on the necessity/validity of the assessments
  • Make assessments fairly apportioned

At present, many congregations are over-assessed because their past strength is not their present reality. There is often a lack of empathy by those who collect/receive assessments.  “Give until it hurts,” is a sad, regressive statement that suggests abuse more than charity.  But the greatest argument against the abuse of assessing authority is:  it robs the people of their blessing!

God loves the cheerful giver!  Not the fearful giver trying to avoid Ministerial Efficiency or be elected to an office.  Not the Pharisee trying to impress.  Not the politician climbing the ladder rather than carrying the cross.

Some believe AMEs will not give without being assessed.  This is not true!  We are generous, responsive Christians when we are informed and trust the cause for which we are called upon to contribute.  We need a culture shift! We resist when we are told to “check your brain and your wallet at the door.”

Have We Done Due Diligence? – Have We Done Our Job?

There has been much celebration and a few tears attached to the 2020-2021 Interim Budget.  More joy would flow, and drier eyes prevail, if there were more transparency in the presentation. With less than a week’s notice, and below 30 hours for review, our highest administrative body considered a $10 million budget without the customary peephole for the general AME public.  Even pre-pandemic, we increasingly ponder some of our most important decisions behind closed doors (and I do not mean the Council of Bishops). In the Board session, we heard a few questions.  We received incomplete answers.  It makes one wonder if we have done due diligence.

With a bit less pressure, and a little more time, some critical questions could have improved the outcome.  How many of these queries can the rank and file of the General Board answer, or even the Commission on Statistics and Finance?  The 25% reduction passed!  It’s done.  The masses will enjoy their loaf of bread and a parade, while a few kneel before an untouched vault.  Consider:

  1. How was the reduction amount of 25% reached? What makes 25% correct?  Do we have data from around the church that projects a 25% shortfall?

 

  1. Were schools, departmental and component heads consulted on the impact of a 25% reduction? Where is a written report on effect? What criteria was applied to the diverse budget to make the reductions equitable and strategic, not mostly the same?

 

  1. Has anyone done an analysis of our demographic and the capacity to give? Where is “our” research? Are we making just an emotional guess?

 

  1. How is the current crisis greater than the Great Recession for our membership? Where is the data?

 

  1. Was there an analysis of the impact of a 25% reduction on the development of Districts 14-20?

 

  1. How is the cash reserve GOAL calculated? How much is enough?

 

  1. Why does the Interim Budget not include a single dollar of contribution from the Reserve Funds? How much is in the Reserve/Endowment Reserve Fund (carryover from previous years)?  How much more emergency do we need to access at least “some” of the reserve funds?

 

  1. The PPP loan the CFO received. How much?  Why was Statistics & Finance seemingly not a part of the application process (at least informed)? Exactly when will the determination be made on the use of the funds?  Will Statistics & Finance participate in the decision?

 

  1. How much carry over of “Contingency” from 2016-2020? Why were none of these funds used to fill the gap?

 

  1. What are the cash assets managed by AME, Inc.? What are the net earnings, to date, of the AME Future Fund?

 

Did the Council of Bishops, General Board or The Commission on Statistics Finance exercise due diligence “before” the vote? Did they do their job?  Did they do it well?