Mandatory – Voluntary – Process

One of the darkest days in AME history (for me) was when the General Conference rejected one of the most solid rulings of the Judicial Council. The church witnessed a unified episcopacy. (My apology for not researching the exact year/decision. It was in the 1990’s. Hopefully, an informed reader will supply the citation.) Many of the bishops strong armed annual conferences to reject the ruling before we even got to the General Conference for the final blow. The looming issues: mandatory vs voluntary assessments, the power to assess, and how to limit assessments. Without question, the existing legislation (then and now) was flawed and inadequate. The Judicial Council decided there was no proper authorization. The bishops argued (with some merit) we must have funds to administer the work. The people failed to use the opportunity to establish definitions, process, and the limitation of clearly abused power. Instead, the church affirmed, through inaction, the current state of oppression.

What constitutes mandatory versus voluntary? The Discipline unequivocally establishes the payment of general (connectional) budget as mandatory, along with the 12% annuity contribution for the pastor. There is good support for the required payment of the basic presiding elder support package. The bishops had a point on funds for administration of the episcopal district. Whether or not mandated by law, it made sense. A challenge: the interpretation of “administration” and the implementation of “assessment.”

Budgets. The first step toward a more just, transparent administration of church affairs is the requirement of administrative budgets for both episcopal districts and annual conferences. It costs money to run an office and support common expenditures to maintain leadership (such as housing, transportation, healthcare). These budgets must be written, publicly presented, and approved by secret vote in each annual conference. Even the episcopal district budget must be approved by the annual conference as it is the only equitably established forum. This is the vision, not the reality.

Mandatory. General Budget, Annuity Contributions, Presiding Elder Support, Episcopal District Administrative Support, Annual Conference (and Midyear, Planning Session AS BUDGETED) should be mandatory.

Voluntary. All other requests (under the current legislation) should be considered VOLUNTARY. This is where the disagreement begins. Districts/annual conferences which sponsor schools want to “assess” support. Additional life insurances are being “assessed.” Special projects often come with “assessments,” not to mention “events” like retreats, and various component conventions. “Offerings,” “roll call,” and the long list of items we put forward, should be voluntary if not part of the approved budget program of an entity. This is the “ought,” not the “is.”

Process. No assessment should be levied without a secret ballot vote of the general conference or the annual conference! Bishops, presiding elders, pastors and component leaders should not be authorized (de facto or de jure) to merely decree an assessment. Moreover, it is disturbing when a church official changes assessed values among churches without the knowledge and consent of the original body. In other words, a presiding elder should not be able to change the amount required for general budget after the close of an annual conference. If a church is in trouble, the presiding elder should make an appeal for the “voluntary” assistance of other churches on the district. More flies are caught with honey than vinegar.

Exceptions? Sure. Life is unpredictable. There will be unforeseen matters which require more than voluntary assistance. These should be few, infrequent, publicly discussed, and collaboratively addressed by both lay and clergy.

The current application of the power to assess is unjust, demeaning and choking the life out of the church. Until this blaze is extinguished, the house will continue to burn. Proposed legislation is on the way.

Transparency, Limitation, Accountability

The credibility, dignity, trust and effectiveness of the future episcopacy rests with reformation which brings transparency, limitation and accountability to the matter of episcopal compensation. The goal is not to make bishops poor. It is to reclaim the office as a calling rather than a lottery prize winning. There are a few basic steps which may get us there. Admittedly, I have been turning ideas on this subject for quite a few years. Sharing strategies with friends, I realized there is no neat solution…certainly none to which a majority of bishops would subscribe. If there are better ideas, please comment. Even if imperfect, WE MUST DO SOMETHING! The 1956 reforms failed. Some bishops rejected moderation in favor of choking life out of the goose which yielded the golden eggs. It is time for change.

Transparency. The process and sum of compensation must be clear, visible, and the result of general consensus. No more winking and grinning. Whether it be by way of offerings, fundraisers, or budgeted assessments, we must stop camouflaging compensation. Moreover, it should not be “as much as I can get,” or “whatever is left after expenses.” Meetings should be planned, budgeted and administered with a projected outcome which is reasonable, broadly known, and generally accepted.

Limited. Some bishops (and PEs/pastors) dread the idea of separating their compensation from “offerings.” Some pastors have gotten in on this regressive notion with a misappropriation of the practice of “class dues.” The very act of an “offering” represents a process without limit. In order to reveal and limit episcopal compensation, it must be funneled to a central point. In practical terms, all annual conference “gifts,” honoraria received from meetings, churches, or components must be paid to a single point. Even Christmas, birthday, and other seemingly personal gifts of love must be deposited to a common account. (The IRS says all of those gifts are taxable when coming from those whom bishops supervise–look it up!)

Once income is sent through a common point, it can be documented and limited. While a bishop who currently presides over a small district (1-13) may realize $75-100k of income above the church budgeted $63k, the average bishop is receiving $150k-$250k of additional compensation. Those who know, don’t tell. The rest of us make “experienced” guesses. The best paid bishops receive from $350k to a sum no one can number.

Where do we draw the line and establish the limit? That is a struggle. Too high, and we will miss the point. Too low, and there is no chance of implementation. The correct figure is somewhere between $350k and $500k. The rationale. Major pastors of other denominations in New York City (for example) are known to receive packages of $425-450k. National religious leaders of nonprofits have documented salaries of $400k or so. Psychologically, anything above $500k would be frowned upon both within and from outside the denomination. The standard is not to reach par with the multi-million dollar per year mega, media preachers. If our bishops want that kind of money, because they command such gifts and appeal, they should resign their office and take to the airways/revival circuits.

Accountability. Bishops should receive 1099s/W-2s for all of their official income. This is possible and verifiable by directing all income through a single point. The people will know the extent of their generosity. The environment of service will change. Attitudes should improve. We will shatter the image that leadership takes everything. We can heal the blemish. We can rise above the distraction to engage in more excellent service.

An Example of how it would work: 1. You establish an Episcopal Compensation Account. 2. Annual Conference, meeting, event “gifts” are paid by check/electronic transfer into the account. 3. If the bishop preaches at a church (in district), or appears at a function where there is an honorarium, the funds are paid by check/transfer to the fund. 4. Christmas, birthday and personal milestone celebratory gifts from persons in the district (IRS essentially says these are more obligatory than love) are deposited to the Account. 5. Disbursements from the account to the bishop are by check/transfer with proper tax accounting. 6. Funds received which exceed the established ceiling are diverted to the Episcopal District to cover the costs of housing, travel, and benevolence on behalf of the bishop. 7. Any remaining funds above the limit revert to the Episcopal District for projects/programming.

I may add some comments on other models considered. This one, though, could be the most easily implemented and transparent. Let’s talk about it!

Unspoken – Not Really a Secret

Episcopal compensation is a quirky topic among AMEs. We have an official salary for bishops which is unrealistically low. Then, there is the “other” compensation. I went through much of my ministry oblivious to both the magnitude and the process of the “other.” Colleagues continue to act as though no one knows. The truth is: most know…hardly anyone knows “how much.”

So, let’s outline the package. The official budget salary is $63,067. There are travel funds ($21,022) also budgeted. A district may provide housing, a car, and other normal amenities, including office/staff. The Ecumenical Officer receives a housing allowance ($16,404) and an assigned administrative budget ($74,705). Now, the unspoken-not really a secret items:

1. Gifts from the Annual Conferences

2. Gifts from Planning Meeting, Midyear Meeting, and Christian Education Meeting

3. Honoraria from preaching within the assigned episcopal district.

4. Special Occasion Gifts: Christmas, Birthday, Wedding Anniversary, Preaching Anniversary, etc.

5. Miscellaneous gratuities and occasions like shopping outings (not as common these days, but I can remember key pastors taking shoes, suits and other items to their bishop).

In most cases, the Annual Conference gift is the heavy piece of the package. Historically, Bishops Richard Allen and Morris Brown received a set amount when they presided over an annual conference. This practice continued for a while before matters got out of hand. Culturally, many bishops considered the annual conference gifts like “class dues.” Presiding Elders jumped on that train, and we allowed “meeting income” to become compensation/gifts. (Let’s not digress.) For the sake of the future of our Zion, we must get a handle on the matter of compensation.

The 1956 reformers thought they had the solution. One bishop was quoted as saying after 1956, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” It soon became clear that the power of appointment and co-conspiracy of clergy/lay leaders would nullify the intended reforms. The code of secrecy and nondisclosure has made the actual amount received by a bishop a mystery, with the exception (maybe) of a predecessor/successor.

As the demographics of our Zion shifted, so too, did the compensation gap between bishops of larger/smaller districts. The result is fierce competition among bishops to serve in a specific district where the rewards are greatest. It is an honor to be a bishop in our church, presiding over any district. If they all are the same, why the strife? This is not a critique of the respect for leadership, or the generosity of the AME Family. It is a commentary on a malicious feature of our church which detracts from our gospel proclamation, loving service and liberating activities. Remove (minimize) the dollar factor, and we will see a very different environment around episcopal assignment and episcopal ministries.

Can we equalize the compensation? Not easily, though we can lessen the gap a bit by allowing one bishop to serve two smaller districts. Can we limit the abuse? Absolutely! Next blog post.