Bylaw Changes Wreak Havoc
  • Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Executive Committee of the Episcopal Church has hired a new staff member to oversee the United Thank Offering (UTO), and the church’s Executive Council has not yet acted on proposed changes to bylaws affecting the UTO.

The UTO’s ministry continues and misappropriation of funds is not an issue. Nevertheless, a task force charged with reorganizing the UTO has concluded its work in public acrimony. Three of four UTO board members resigned in September in order to prevent any impression that they supported the proposed bylaw changes.

Barbara Tinder, former president of the UTO board, Robin Sumners, former communications convener, and Georgie White, who was in charge of internal compliance, were three of four UTO board members appointed to a task force by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. The fourth UTO task force member, Dena Lee, is not expected to resign. Renee Haney, the board’s former secretary, joined the three task-force members in resigning.

Bylaws call for an 11-member board: one for each of the nine regional provinces in the Episcopal Church and two at-large members. UTO is an affiliate of Episcopal Church Women. The UTO board’s vice president, Barbara Schafer, assumed the executive office upon Tinder’s resignation.

The proposed bylaws, which the Rev. Ann Fontaine made public in a blog post, make clear that UTO is subject to General Convention and Executive Council. It eliminates the UTO board position of finance officer and makes all future board actions, grant policies, and decisions subject to approval by the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls in his role as the chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church.

The issue is complicated by history and accounting.

Episcopal Church Women (ECW) created the UTO, which best known at the parish level for its annual Blue Box fundraising drive. ECW and UTO were both created when women were excluded from ordained and lay leadership in the church. The UTO board makes annual grant requests, but after more than 100 years, the surplus, which is held in trust, has become an impressive sum. Total funds under management amount to more than $14 million.

In recent years the IRS has increased scrutiny of 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, especially those with affiliates. UTO has used the tax-exempt number of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (the incorporated name of the Episcopal Church). No one has said there is anything wrong with the current business practices of the UTO board, but they do differ from the business practices of the DFMS.

“Certain obligations [must] be fulfilled by the DFMS rather than the Board because the Board is not a corporation and cannot assume any legal responsibility or liability,” Episcopal News Service reported. “That is borne entirely by DFMS, its officers, and its Board, the Executive Council.”

UTO could seek its own tax-exempt number, similar to the way the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief became Episcopal Relief and Development, but one former board member said UTO did not want to become separate from the Episcopal Church.

The proposed changes are the culmination of a multi-year process. In 2007 the UTO board agreed to a request from Executive Council not to make further changes to its bylaws until new ones had been approved. The former board member who spoke with TLC said the four resigning members wanted to ensure that the proposed changes would circulate widely before formal approval.

They achieved that goal. The resignations were discussed on several church-focused beginning after Labor Day weekend. The resignations were confirmed in a document released by the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs on Sept. 4. Private correspondence was subsequently made public, prompting Bishop Jefferts Schori on Sept. 6 to dispute any intent to divest UTO of its funds. She described the resignations as “the result of grave suspicion and the attribution of inappropriate and unhelpful motives.”

Staff salaries are usually considered administrative expenses for accounting purposes. “Administrative expenses of the UTO and the UTO Board are paid for by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), the Church’s corporate name, from three trust funds established for this purpose and given to DFMS to administer,” ENS reported. “None of these funds were ever entrusted to the UTO Board or the committee that preceded it.”

Neva Rae Fox, public affairs officer for the Episcopal Church, said “there is new leadership on the board, and the DFMS will continue working with this leadership.” She directed further UTO questions to Bishop Sauls, who was unavailable for further comment.

Executive Council expects to discuss the proposed bylaws when it meets Oct. 15-17 in Chicago.

Steve Waring

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