Per Capita: Why Do We Do This?
At the pastors’ retreat in mid-February, the Synod Executive handed me a check for funeral expenses from my fellow Presbyters. When I told my recently widowed brother, I loved watching his puzzled face awaken with understanding. Your love for me—and really, our love for each other—took specific shape. It was a financial reminder of a spiritual covenant.
That reminder is a microcosm of the PC(USA). Some of you have recently asked about our per capita. Your questions have included ones like these:
Why do we do this?
How does it work?
How do we decide how much to charge?
What does it pay for?
And, perhaps most pointedly:
Why do we let non-paying congregations send voting commissioners to Presbytery meetings?
As confusing as it may be, per capita embodies the covenant in which all ten thousand PC(USA) congregations participate.
How did per capita originate?
Per capita began in the 1850s to help Westerners attend the annual meeting. It took its cue from the half-shekel offering Moses commanded in Exodus 30:12-16. Just as all Israelites paid a flat rate for the tent of meeting, so did 19th-century Presbyterians contribute to ensure nationwide participation.
Gradually the practice expanded to pay for certain other costs of the General Assembly (GA) and then synods and presbyteries. Presbyteries are the fulcrum. They pay the per capita to their respective synods and to GA, and they may assess sessions in turn. Los Ranchos specifies its practice in the Standing Rules.
Where does the money go (Synod and General Assembly)?
Per capita for our Synod is small: $2.85 for 2017. But the Synod’s costs are also small. A three-person office staff oversees all judicial and administrative functions. Endowment income pays for mission projects when multiple presbyteries join in an endeavor.
The national assessment ($7.50 for 2017), by contrast, funds significant infrastructure: national meetings; judicial oversight; leadership training; support of call searches and preparation for ministry; ecumenical efforts; legal counsel; and historical archives.
But GA’s per capita does not underwrite everything. Medical benefits; church endowment management; building loans; any publications except the Constitution; and most of missions, education, curriculum, disaster assistance, youth programs, political and social advocacy, worship materials, evangelism, or development of new worshiping communities—all these come from separate funding streams.
What about Presbytery per capita?
Decades ago, each presbytery distinguished between its “ecclesiastical” costs and its “mission” costs. Per capita paid for the ecclesiastical costs. Mission giving paid for the rest.
But the two-budget approach began to break down in the 1990s. Many presbyteries, including Los Ranchos, created a unified budget. They continued to receive mission giving and per capita, but did not specify where each dollar went. Per capita became defined as “what we still need”—the difference between our expected expenses and our income from investments and congregational donations.
Our annual decision about per capita, then, comes partly from history, partly from internal politics, and partly from mission need. Any dramatic change would need a compelling argument. Congregations continue to face financial stressors. At the same time, it won’t help to cut the Presbytery’s infrastructure out of existence. Too many important ministries happen because Los Ranchos provides coordinating and administrative help.
What about withholding?
But some congregations regularly refuse to pay what their presbyteries assess. That action is theologically ill-informed and ecclesiastically pointless. But it does not justify taking away their commissioners’ votes.
Withholding rejects the covenantal quality of per capita. Per capita acknowledges that we are not ten thousand independent churches. We are, rather, one Church in ten thousand interdependent congregations. We need each other—large and small; poor and rich; old and new; residents of North America for millennia or centuries or less than a decade. The financial covenant reflects our common bond.
And withholding fails to hit its intended target. A presbytery will forward the proper amount to the Synod and GA whether its congregations fulfill their obligations or not. Even more, per capita supports the mundane, necessary aspects of our common work, not the controversial parts. Imagine refusing to pay your electric bill because your cable provider made some outrageous choices. You’ll have a sense of what withholding per capita accomplishes.
But if a congregation shows poor theology and bad judgment, can we suspend its commissioners’ vote? No. Per capita is not the same as membership dues. Even the hand that says, “I have no need of you” is still a part of the body. Our mutual membership continues.
Somewhere along the Way—
 “Each church in the presbytery is expected to pay to the Treasurer of presbytery, on or before February 1 of each year, its per member apportionment (Per Capita) in an amount approved by presbytery” (Standing Rules of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Revised May 28, 2015, ll. 289-90. Note that the Trustees regularly allow congregations to pay in installments throughout the year).
 The Los Ranchos assessment has not changed since 2013.
 See I Cor. 12:21.
Photos by Erin Dunigan