Where's the Presbyterian beef?

grill steakPeter Smith is the veteran religion reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He gets to cover a bunch of interesting religions stories, including an ongoing battle over a Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse. He also does a great job of finding the local perspective on national religious stories. That was a lot easier this week with the news that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was cutting 75 staff positions in the face of budget cuts. The headquarters for the church body are in Louisville.

Smith has written several stories about the cuts, but each one left me asking questions. See if you have the same reaction. Here's Sunday's story:

The 2.4 million-member denomination has been losing members for decades, but church officials say donations to congregations are actually at record levels. But church officials say churches are sending less money to the denomination for its mission programs and are spending more of it on their own ministries.

Here's the Monday update:

In 2002 and 2003, the church cut 85 jobs through layoffs and attrition. Presbyterian officials say the denomination's 2.5 million members are giving at record levels to their congregations. But those congregations are sending less money to headquarters to fund national programs, church officials say, and are instead spending more on their own ministries.

And here's Tuesday's story:

[General Assembly Council Executive Director John] Detterick said Presbyterians are actually donating more money to their churches than they were a decade ago, but congregations are sending less to headquarters and spending more on direct ministry.

"Presbyterians today do not want to write a check and send that money off for somebody else to make a decision on where it goes," Detterick said. "More and more work is being done more directly by Presbyterians, and the need of the national (office) to do it is not as great."

Hmm. I wonder why local Presbyterians aren't giving money to headquarters. I wonder if there's any more to this story? I can understand not digging deeper if it were just one story, but at some point you have to wonder whether to accept headquarters' take on the problem. Also, Smith says the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) "has been losing members for decades." That's one way to put it. Hemorrhaging would be another:

Without a word of explanation, the number crunchers for the Presbyterian Church (USA) are projecting record-setting membership losses in 2005 and 2006.

The loss in 2005 was estimated at 65,000, followed by an 85,000 projected loss in 2006. The 2005 figures, which congregations are already reporting, tally membership as of Dec. 31, 2005.

If the Presbyterians are like other church bodies dealing with budget cuts, the reason for funds not reaching national headquarters could be deeper than both the HQ explanation and the dissatisfaction among laity. Yes, laypeople who are dissatisfied with church leaders and the direction of a church begin giving their funds directly to the causes they support. But regional church organizations are also developing expensive bureaucracies and choking off church funds that might go to national headquarters. Both stories are ripe for exploration.

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