By Rev. Scott Lumsden, Executive Presbyter
Over the past few months, there have been a number questions about how the presbytery manages its properties and finances. I want to give some background so that the presbytery better understands where we've been and where we're going.
I began in April of 2008, and among other challenges in the presbytery at the time, I was made aware that the presbytery owned about 3 properties that were not being actively managed by the presbytery: Buck Creek (Camp & Conference Center), Beacon Hill (containing presbytery offices, one church, and one fellowship), and Brighton (Vietnamese Good News Fellowship, and a few other churches not related to the presbytery). It was also reported that the pastor of Black Diamond PC left the area and abandoned the building.
In none of these 4 properties were there valid leases or agreements with any entity in any of these buildings (and keep in mind that fellowships have no official legal or ecclesiastic standing in relationship to the presbytery). In addition, the presbytery paid for most of the costs of these properties—had all the liability—and received almost no income from any of the tenants.
The presbytery incurred about $100,000 a year in operation/upkeep costs related to these properties from 1996-2008, a total loss of about $1.2M on property management.
Relating to day-to-day financial management, the situation was worse. On the day before I started, our bookkeeper resigned—the third bookkeeper to resign in the previous year. Her reason was something along the lines of "I cannot be responsible for what happened here." And the committee whose job it was to oversee our finances had resigned as a committee in 2007 after it was stated publicly (by then-moderator Madeleine Brenner) in a presbytery meeting that our finances were not reliable. Sadly, this was true, but now on top of not having a committee, we did not have a bookkeeper either.
Enter the guy (me) who previously had never balanced his checkbook and you have what could have been an unmitigated disaster.
What happened was exactly the opposite—we rallied as a presbytery, formed a Property and Finance committee, reviewed our books, got our financial house in order, and began the slow, difficult process of learning how to manage vacant church buildings.
Let me share just a little about the financial picture in 2008. In 2008, we had a $40 per capita, a $500,000 personnel budget (that supported a staff focused primarily on administrative work, not on field work with congregations), supposedly about $1M in the bank (which turned out only to be about $400,000), and two sources of income: per capita (operations) AND mission giving (additional freewill giving from our churches for mission causes).
Despite giving the impression that mission giving from our congregations went to presbytery mission efforts, all the income received from our churches was subsumed into Operations. I know that this is not how people wanted it, or thought we were doing it, but it's how things were. And since mission giving was beginning to dry up, the only way to resolve the operations shortfall was to increase per capita (and do less "mission"). In the meantime, the financial realities for our congregations was getting worse in the light of decades of decline and now a bona fide global recession.
To address the presbytery shortfall, there was a plan to raise per capita in 2009. However, with the backing of the newly formed Property and Finance committee, we continued to tighten our belts and steward our resources toward healthier practices—meaning we chose not to raise per capita in 2009 and have been able to keep it at $40 for the past 10 years.
This also meant that we had to deal with the "mission giving" problem. We did this by utilizing our properties as mission assets and using the additional revenue from property management for mission through what is now called the grant program. Thus not only have we kept costs contained for our per capita (operations) budget, we've also addressed the mission funding question by changing the way we managed our properties.
In short, our churches have been able to receive the same, if not better services from the presbytery (without any increase in per capita for 10 years) AND financial help for capital improvements, mission projects, or even operational expenses without having to raise this money from other churches.
This means that now when we talk about doing something new or different for our churches or as a presbytery, we don't have to raise the money from our churches (which is what we used to do, e.g. the capital campaign to "save" Buck Creek, or the old fundraising efforts for new church development). Now we allocate money from our grant program.
A New Approach
It's important to know that a critical reason we have gone from financial crisis to financial health is because we not only dealt head-on with our financial challenges, we also addressed the cause of much of our chronic financial distress: property.
Instead of seeing vacant church properties as just old church buildings that could only be used for congregational purposes, we began to look at them as buildings that could be employed for the ministry of the larger presbytery. In other words, since we had no congregations of our own in the buildings (except one at Beacon Hill, who then found another location at Wallingford), we were open to pursuing leases with other entities.
This change, however, took years to manage and many thousands of hours of working with the fellowships that were in our buildings—working with them to find other churches they could nest in or even other locations with money pledged to help the transition, including support with rent. We even offered one of our fellowships a share in the proceeds from a lease. (These offers were all flatly turned down).
In the meantime, a number of churches have closed: Duwamish, New Hope, First Renton, White River, and Bethel. Each new property had its own history and story, as well as its own challenges and opportunities.
It was during this period that the P&F committee was most busy. One by one, each property was appraised and evaluated in light of the larger mission of the presbytery: White River was sold to Pyung An (a predominantly Korean-speaking congregation nested at Steel Lake and who later was dismissed to ECO), Duwamish was sold to the congregation that shared space with the Presbyterian church when it was there; New Hope (in South Park) was sold to a Slavic speaking Russian Orthodox Congregation; First Renton was sold to the Children's Institute for Learning Differences; Bethel was leased and then sold to Seattle Area German Academy; Black Diamond is in a lease with an option to purchase to Grace Road Church; and Beacon Hill is being leased to the Torah Day School (which expires in 5 years).
And recently Kent and Capitol Hill have closed, and Seattle Presbytery is managing Seattle First on the AC's behalf. (More on these properties another time).
Why Are We Managing Property?
From time to time people ask, why is "the presbytery" or "Scott" managing property? Shouldn't we/he be doing something else? Great question. We are managing property because just as buildings and property are a part of the ministry of a local congregation, they become just as much a part of the ministry of the presbytery when a church closes.
And for the same reasons an active church doesn't hire out the management of its facilities to an outside entity, neither do we -- it's cost-prohibitive; the decisions about the use of the facilities should be made by the church/presbytery without having to go through an outside party; and in the end, property is for the mission of a church/presbytery and thus even if it is leased, the decisions about leases have to make sense for the church/presbytery and thus not be handed over to other entities to make for us.
There's more to this story, of course, and more decisions to be made ahead relating to Kent, and Capitol Hill, but I wanted to share some background information as you consider the presbytery’s stewardship of our collective resources for mission.
—Rev. Scott Lumsden, Executive Presbyter
Read also: FPCS AC/Session FAQs 10-8-18