The shell game is a confidence scam often presented as a game of skill. A pea or small coin is placed under one of three walnut shells or cups. The shells are then moved around quickly. Those watching are challenged to follow and determine which shell has the pea.
As a tactic of structural racism, the shell game seeks to entrench privilege and undermine safeguards against inequity by hiding the movement of resources and funds behind complex or sloppy administrative practices. The shell game thrives on the laziness and blind trust of those charged with oversight.
Shell games will often seek to repurpose funds and other resources away from historic causes governed by written policy. Repurposed funds will often fall under the direct discretion of those in power. This year, such an attempt was made to repurpose the Legacy Fund supporting pensions and healthcare benefits for over 20 full time appointments serving former Rio Grande Conference Churches. The motive was to avoid placing new initiatives under ordinary structures for funding.
I experienced repurposing while serving a new church start to the U.S. Mexico border city of Laredo, Texas.
Soon after the work began a fund that was designated to purchase land for the new church was divided in half between the new project and an older mission, both serving Spanish-speaking populations. This division made it impractical for either group to actually purchase property.
Four years later, as the new church was struggling to grow due to patterns of relocation among Anglo members, the superintendent met privately with a group of long time residents that had transferred to the new church after a conflict with the pastor at their former church. An agreement was reached that the minister of the other church would be replaced in exchange for their return to that church and subsequent increase in its ministerial compensation.
Their departure from the new church dealt a lethal financial blow precipitating a mid-year reassignment for me and the closure of a new church that a only year earlier had received the “Inclusiveness Award” from the Annual Conference Commission on Religion and Race. Within weeks of the closure, a special district conference authorized the use of the the land money toward moving the district office.
Shell games concentrate privilege and exacerbate already severe patterns of economic inequity. Consider the case of a very affluent Anglo-dominant congregation opened a satellite campus. The ambitious project proved to be an expensive endeavor, complicated by other issues of over-extension. It became evident to the senior pastor that difficult choices were in order: lead the church to renege on apportionments for the first time ever, cut his exorbitant compensation, or lay off staff.
Structural White privilege quickly came to his rescue. A backroom deal was struck to allow him to save face inside his church and claim full payment of apportionments without paying them. The conference reclassified the resources going into the satellite campus as having been first sent to the conference then returned as a grant toward that work.
Since the amount consumed in the satellite church was identical to the deficit in apportionments, he could then claim to have paid apportionments in full. In effect, the arrearage would be passed from his budget to unfunded budget categories in the conference. This shell game directly undermined campus ministry, ethnic local church work, and equitable compensation, even as the policy for equitable comp prohibited grants to churches that had not paid apportionments in full.
The shell game can also be used to shelter wealth from taxation. Like their counterparts with off-short tax shelters in the secular world, large, wealthy and White churches have found creative ways to avoid apportionments.
With apportionments based upon local church spending patterns, some churches have set up non-profit corporations outside the church and paid expenses related to missions and staff through those entities, leaving them out of the apportionment formula.
Shell games also apply to clergy appointments. In order to select and keep their own pastors, free from episcopal authority, wealthy churches often hired lay staff who are seminary trained yet intentionally avoid the ordination process. In one new tactic, a church separated entirely from the denomination and then hired a series of UMC deacons as its pastoral staff, tasking them with the roles typically staffed by elders, and classifying their local church appointments as “ecumenical agency.”
Such tactics and the impunity with which they are used, are only available to the most privileged, even when they are corrosive to connectional ministries.
Shell games will often hide or misrepresent data necessary for making important decisions. Budgetary categories will become vague. Administrative and executive salaries will be distributed into differing categories under vague labels to diminish the appearance of hoarding. Opposing categories will be grouped together such as equitable compensation and moving expense, ministerial support and executive salaries, making inequity look like equity.
Losses evidencing a failure of leadership will also be hidden under the shell game. One glaring example is the omission from the chart of accounts of the net equity value of all conference church properties.
As a result of this omission, the mass depreciation of local church property is neither tracked nor reported in spite of widespread patterns of neglect and distress in these properties. The aggregate depreciation of our properties is so pervasive that it may exceed total annual revenue from apportionments.
The shell game will hide the racist motives for decisions under false data. Some years ago, at a district conference, the trustees president presented a motion to sell a campus ministry at a university with a predominantly Hispanic student population. He explained that “no more students” were attending the UMC ministry.
I asked, “Is enrollment down at the school? Is the University having a problem?”
He said, “No, enrollment is up.”
“So what changed?” I asked. He stared back at me. The school had transitioned to a predominantly Hispanic student body, and the facility was sold.
When the Southwest Texas Conference and Rio Grande Conference merged, an official Financial Advisory Consulting Team (FACT) pronounced the Southwest Texas Conference “demographically unsustainable,” citing patterns of membership decline. The decline was entirely in Anglo membership. Hispanic membership had been doubling every ten years for twenty years.
The same FACT team classified the following features of the Rio Grande Conference as “operationally unsustainable”:
- Reserves sufficient to cover 18 months of operations
- Endowments with income sufficient to provide for 50% of operating expenses
- 44% of budget dependent on apportionments
- Reliance on General Church funds
These are hardly features of instability. The only “unsustainable” aspect here was the assumed lack of commitment of the General Church for this cause, a commitment that was never tested by deliberation or vote at that level. When the 2016 General Conference learned of the merger, it simply repurposed the savings to other causes rather than reduce its budget.
After several years of hearing only of our net membership decline, I asked the former statistician to report growth rates broken down by demographic groups. He agreed, and shortly before leaving office, he shared that half of the losses had been offset by Hispanic growth.
Under his analysis, 10% of our constituency had erased half of the decline. Had Hispanics been 20%, there would have been no decline. At full representation, 55%, the conference would be seeing tremendous growth. So why all the tactics to undermine their inclusion?
The Report of the Conference Statistician has served a significant role in the annual conference agenda for generations. This report is critical for monitoring patterns of vitality, equity, and racial bias. The report is also necessary in the evaluation of changes, such as the radical structural changes enacted with the merger. In spite of this, the statisticians report has been completely excluded from the agenda of the Rio Texas Annual Conference since the merger.
An effective tactic, the shell game demonstrates the arbitrary nature of privilege and authority within a structurally racist organization. The prevalence of this conduct illustrates why policies of transparency, vigilance, and accountability are needed even when leadership appears benevolent.