Thursday, January 16, 2014

A response to inquiries about the current status of UTO

A response to inquiries about the current status of UTO

I can only tell you my truth; there are perhaps even more than two sides to this story, but the two sides that do exist are clear on the fact that each is telling the truth.  So again, this is my truth.  I resigned, not retired, from the United Thank Offering Board in early September, in protest against the position of the leadership at the Church Center at 815 in New York believing that the operations of the United Thank Offering should be turned over to the Church Center, under the supervision of the Episcopal Church Executive Council.  Four of us, who were the leaders of the 2012-2015 Board, all life-time Episcopalians, elected by our Provinces, resigned together in a protest statement against the decisions being proposed by the executive officers of the Episcopal Church—the Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies and the Chief Operating Officer of the Church.

Those of us who resigned, protested the positions of those in charge at the church center who stated that the women of the church who have for 125 years given money in an offering of thanksgiving and then have supervised, managed, directed and dispersed these funds in support of mission for the Episcopal Church, were not capable of making these decisions independently from control by the church center.  The bottom line is who gets the money.  We on the board believed that the money was given in trust to the women of the church; the leadership of the Episcopal Church believes the money belongs to them.  This includes all money, that collected through the process of in gatherings and the money held in trust funds named as restricted for the use of mission by the women of the church and the United Thank Offering.  The church center has developed a “clear” legal opinion that uses the requirements of the IRS to define that all the money belongs to the church defined as DFMS —the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.  We disagreed with this position, which has not been defined as legal by any court of law.  It is the legal opinion of the legal counsels to the Episcopal Church and is only an opinion. 

The legal counsel of the church rewrote the bylaws of the United Thank Offering Board to reflect that the women who serve on the UTO board were only an advisory body to Executive Council; those of us who had participated in the discussion leading to these bylaws being developed felt betrayed by the leadership of 815, as all of the strategic issues we requested be included were deleted from their proposed documents.  The United Thank Offering Board has always been an independent, autonomous body within the Episcopal Church, adhering to the legal requirements of working with the church, but able to make all decisions regarding the work of UTO without control from the church itself.  The control lay with the women duly elected to carry out these responsibilities.  

The United Thank Offering has been one of the most profoundly successful grassroots lay ministries the church has ever known.
The proposed bylaws presented by the church center effectively wiped out the historic structure of the United Thank Offering and its contribution to the church as a lay ministry.  The proposed bylaws relegated the United Thank Offering Board to the place of what is known as a CCAB—a Committee, Commission, Agency or Board—under the supervision of the Episcopal Church Executive Council, who by definition, controls and manages all money related to each of these CCAB’s.  This move put all the funds belonging to the United Thank Offering in the coffers of Executive Council, with Executive Council now having the ability to control all United Thank Offering funds, including approval of all grants to be funded by UTO.

After the furor over our resignations, and much publicity regarding our significant differences, a new joint committee was formed with representation from the remaining UTO board and from Executive Council to try to resolve the conflicts.  That committee has met; they have apparently created a new set of documents, which I think includes new bylaws; these documents wcill be presented to Executive Council for approval at the February E.C. meeting, if they have been approved by the full UTO Board in January. Ultimately, these documents should be made public so we can all read and discern what actual final decisions have been made.

The current United Thank Offering Board includes three clergy members who are representatives of Executive Council, appointed to the Board by the officers of Executive Council. There are also four new members, who have been either appointed or elected by the Provinces represented, Province I, VI and VII, and one member-at-large, to replace those of us who resigned.

Those of us who resigned in protest believed that the core values of the United Thank Offering movement would not be sustained in the new understanding of the governance of UTO. The church is looking for fundraising opportunities, and the United Thank Offering is perceived by the church center as a fundraising organization. The UTO Four, as we have been dubbed, feared that the core value of the United Thank Offering—a spiritual discipline of thankful giving, of "our change changes lives," would be lost as the focus on fundraising came to the forefront. We chose to make this discussion somewhat public.

The perception is that the UTO board does not have a choice in terms of accepting the role of CCAB, as the UTO has no power. We, the UTO Four, did not believe that UTO was powerless, as the Women of the Church are capable of being a formidable force, should they choose such a route. This process is not easy, and sustaining a protest over time requires a level of energy difficult to maintain when other life needs require attention. We believe that at least the discussion got out there; people, like you, know there was something going on that might not be a good idea. We had no idea how to measure the success of our actions; our actions were taken knowing there would be a high personal cost to each of us and that the work we loved, the sustaining force of the United Thank Offering would be something lost to us.

It is important to note that the leadership at the church center also believes it has the best future for the United Thank Offering in mind. That is why I started by saying both sides have their own truth.

The church center is sufficiently angry at the UTO Four that we are not mentioned by name or role, and the current Board members are urged to have little contact with us. We all grieve that there was no offer of discussion with us from those with whom we disagreed, so for us there is not a face to face pathway of reconciliation; we each prayed separately about our individual choices and each made our independent decisions; with prayer and faith we have each reached our own reconciliation.

We, the UTO Four, grew up with Blue Boxes. We do understand that the world has changed; understanding the power of change is an ageless challenge. We were not protesting change; we were protesting being absorbed by a larger body that did not seem to embrace the core values of the organization it was incorporating.

It will be up to the Episcopal Church, and primarily the women who sustain the hope and promise of the church in the world, to be vigilant in going forward. I believe this battle was lost from the very beginning, as the need for money and the control of money is in the hands of those in perceived legitimate power. But at the same time, the need for the work of the United Thank Offering at the grassroots level is one thing that will not change. The other thing that will not change is the true power of the Women of the Church to step up to service when asked for help.

There are many references on line that tell the story. You will find most of the written documents created by both parties to the controversy on this blog site, presented without judgments.

Robin Woods Sumners
January, 2014

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