Why I believe in Subsidiarity

Even though you have no idea what it means and neither did I.

On June 17, 2011, The Executive Council of The Episcopal Church finished up its summer meeting near Baltimore, Maryland.  During their time together, they heard a presentation from Becky Snow, chair of the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church, during which it was suggested that the church use “three lenses for looking at structural issues:” subsidiarity, structure and diversity.  According to Episcopal News Service reporter, Mary Frances Schjonberg, the thought behind this word, “subsidiarity” was a sense of interdependence and mutual responsibility.

Up until a few weeks ago, I had never heard this word, but it is a very old concept.  The ActionInstitute for the study of religion and liberty states that subsidiarity is “one of the key principles of [Roman] Catholic social thought,” and it means that “nothing should be done by a larger or more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller simpler organization.  Let’s use The Oxford English Dictionary definition to better understand this concept of “subsidiarity.”  The idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.

According to the draft budget of The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS, the formal, legal name of The Episcopal Church) published on March 1, 2012, several significant budget cuts are being suggested on the principle of subsidiarity (or veiled references thereto. Included in those cuts are:

  • The General Board of Examining Chaplains (lines 232-237)
  • Church Planting (lines 370-378)
  • Congregational Vitality (lines 393-398)
  • Stewardship Development (lines 402-410)
  • Diversity, Social and Environmental Ministries (lines 435-466)
  • Christian Formation (lines 480-554)
    • Older Adults
    • Youth
    • Lifelong Learning
    • Children’s Ministries
    • Young Adult and Campus Ministries

The total cuts run in the neighborhood of $3.7M or roughly 3% of the $104.9M Triennial Budget.  There are a lot of people up in arms about these cuts (see here and here), and rightfully so, but let me explain why the concept behind subsidiarity is sound even if the first draft of it is poorly executed.

The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, its nine Provinces and 110(ish) Dioceses are in no way equipped to actually do ministry effectively.  The problem, it seems to me, is that nobody inside the administration is ready to engage this conversation honestly.  So let’s ask the question, what can Corporate, Provincial, and Diocesan level systems do well?

The (Inter-)National Church seems well equipped to

  • Administrate the Pension Fund and health, life and property insurance
  • Coordinate High Level Best Practices and Share Stories
  • Develop curricula?
  • Run our ecclesiastical trial courts (though they have given this to Dioceses for some unknown reason)
  • Coordinate Deployment
  • And?

I’ll skip the Province level because, quite frankly, it gets little airtime.

The Diocesan level seems well equipped to

  • Coordinate Economies of Scale
  • Coordinate Best Practices and Share Stories
  • Run Camps, Conferences Centers and other Non-Proiftes
  • Administrate lay and clergy employee benefits
  • Offer the liturgical functions of the Episcopate
  • And?

I’d really like to hear your feedback on this.  What do you think the various levels are actually equipped to do that a lower level can not, effectively and efficiently, do instead?

The problem with subsidiarity is that once you break the principle, it is hard to restore.  This is the problem most people seem to be having with the DFMS Draft Budget.  Cutting $3.7M wouldn’t be a big deal if it was reflected on the bottom line, but instead their seems to a push toward that old communist principle of a large lower class and a few small “haves.”  The Government will someday go away, is the lie they tell, but as long as fat bureaucrats sit at the top, they’ll never go away.  The Draft Budget adds the the line items of elected and appointed officials who are already operating well outside of their canonical authority.  According the The Curate’s Desk, The Office of the Presiding Bishop is adding $364K and the President of the House of Deputies, $212K.  A whopping, $1.4M in additional salaries at an already bloated 815 2nd Ave., NY, NY is in there as well.

Subsidiarity makes sense.  Let the local level do what it does best and leave only that which is absolutely necessary to the higher ups.  The problem is that taking an existing structure with staffs and budgets and power players and politics toward Subsidiarity is hard.  Until we reach a crisis, which I would argue won’t happen until the bank forecloses on 815, the power players have no reason to change course.  It will be up to us, the local parish priest, the small church Sunday School volunteer, the underpaid youth minister, and faithful Episcopalians of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and colors.  We will have to be the ones who say, “No More!”  I’m glad to see it is already happening, with events like an UnConference scheduled for the week of General Convention.

Will the existing leadership inside The Episcopal Church embrace subsidiarity?  I hope so.  Until then, I’ll just keep poking, prodding, blogging, and asking questions.

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3 thoughts on “Why I believe in Subsidiarity

  1. So I agree with you, but sometimes I think the local parish wastes a lot of resources when the Diocese could better do the task (or if not the Diocese, a local cluster of churches). For example, I oversee our youth ministry and have a 10 hour/week youth assistant. Another Episcopal church 10 minutes away has a part-time youth minister. Another Episcopal church, also about 10 minutes away is looking for a new youth minister. And another three local Episcopal churches in the same city don’t have large youth programs or paid staff (but they have a handful of youth). So instead of each parish inventing the wheel and coming up with a youth program, why not do something together?

    I’d guess that all of the Greensboro Episcopal churches put about $80-90k/year into youth ministry, and on average, each church gets about a $2,500 budget with a quarter time youth minister. Seems like if we could get over having our “own” youth group and do some clustering, that we could provide 2 full time youth ministers for the area and we could do some sort of joint youth group. Perfect? No. Going to have naysayers? Yes.

    But the same applies to Christian Formation, why does every Episcopal parish in a 10 mile radius need to come up with own curriculum plan, do their own photocopies, buy all their supplies not in bulk, etc. I’m not advocating only having 1 church in each parish, or allowing parishes to have their own unique flavor/appeal/input, but there is just a lot of reduplication on the parish level.

    Not sure if this runs counter to your proposal or not, but it’s one that I think we need to explore.

    • Robert,
      I think your idea is spot on. When was the last time we took a look at every level of ministry and said, “could someone else do this better?” What if we took seriously the unity we share as Epsicopalians (or in small towns, Christians)? What if we shared not only youth ministers but secretaries or Office Depot Accounts or Sysco paper product accounts or high end full color copiers?

  2. Pingback: Why the Diocese? An #Acts8 BLOGFORCE Challenge | Draughting Theology

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