Friday, January 27, 2012

Episcopal Church Faces Budget and Structural Challenges

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church (USA) opened its winter meeting today at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, Maryland. Immediately two widely differing plans for the next triennial budget of the Church were presented for its consideration.  (The Executive Council has to approve a draft budget at this meeting to hand off to the General Convention's Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance, which will finalize it between February and July for presentation at General Convention.)

The first version of the proposed budget came from the Presiding Bishop and her Chief Operating Officer, the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls.  It maintains the percentage which the Church will ask for in contributions from its member Dioceses at the current 19% for the next triennium (it had been reduced from 21% to 19% in the budget adopted in 2009 at Anaheim.)  It also projects a reduction of $5.9 million in income over the period 2013-2015, and calls for a corresponding reduction in outlays.

The second version of the proposed budget came from the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson.  It calls for a reduced asking of 15% from the Dioceses, and would result in a budget reduction of $19.3 million, which Finances for Mission Committee Chair Del Glover admitted would lead to (further) "personnel adjustments."

Both the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies made opening remarks to the Council, along with COO Bishop Sauls. (Bishop Jefferts Schori's remarks were not made from a prepared text, but are summarized in this ENS article.)  Reading between the lines of each, and translating the Presiding Bishop's earlier prepared remarks about coming changes in structure, which may be viewed here, it is clear that the heads of the Church are not of one mind about how to deal with the challenges which it faces in the twenty-first century.

And those challenges are significant and substantial. They are summarized graphically in a presentation to the Council (zip file download is at this link) by Kirk Hadaway, who is the church official in charge of congregational research, and by Matthew Price, of the Church Pension Fund. Among other facts shown, 72% of Episcopal congregations were in financial stress as of 2010 (compared to 58% of other denominations for the same year) -- the highest level in the past decade, by far.

It is clear that there is momentum gathering for a proposal for structural changes in the Church, either to be presented at General Convention itself, or referred to its Standing Committee on Structure for analysis and a report to the 2015 Convention. There have even been hints that the Church cannot wait that long, and that a Special Convention might have to be called in the interim to make the cost-saving changes necessary if the Church is to adapt to the decline in its membership and finances.  (Previously, I wrote about how the structure of the Episcopal Church as founded was not capable of carrying the modern superstructure which in recent times has been imposed upon it. Those observations are even more relevant now.)

The problem is that there are, as always, at least two conflicting constituencies striving for consensus on how best to make use of the Church's dwindling resources. The first constituency consists roughly of the Church's clergy, but its political power is wielded chiefly by the Bishops, through whom all constitutional and canonical changes must pass. The second constituency is made up of the active laity, along with many clergy, who do not have the time for the national politics of a socially activist church, and who want to see more resources remain with the Dioceses and congregations, for their mission efforts and local programs.

There is a third constituency as well, but its influence is waning. It may be said to consist of those clergy, bishop and lay activists who use the triennial General Convention as their springboard to launch ever more programs, Commissions, Committees, Agencies and Boards, and who then populate their creations in the interim between Conventions.  This has resulted over time in a structure so top-heavy and convoluted that even Bishop Sauls complained he was having difficulty tracking all of them down when he began in his current position as COO. The interests of that constituency are unsustainable in a declining church.

The Presiding Bishop appears to float above the contesting factions, mouthing reassuring platitudes about the mission of the Church in a modern age, but then confers privately with her staff and her Council of Advice to map out the moves that will actually determine the future of the Church. The resulting tension between her and President Anderson is sometimes palpable, as may be seen in the presentation to the Executive Council of the dueling budgets.

These are indeed interesting times for the leadership of the Episcopal Church (USA). To this observer, who has been very critical of the quality of that leadership, the current deliberations at Lithicum Heights appear to signal that word has finally reached the bridge that the ship of the Church has struck some kind of floating object, perhaps an iceberg, and may be taking on water.

I say "perhaps" an iceberg, because there does not yet appear to be any open recognition, whether on the Executive Council or at 815, of just how much the disastrous policy of "sue first and worry about the costs afterward" has split the Church from its basic mission, has alienated thousands of churchgoers, and has certainly contributed to the severe decline in funds available for mission. The refusal to acknowledge facts extends through the entire House of Bishops -- as witness the remarks by Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia at his most recent Diocesan Council meeting (H/T: BabyBlue):
As all of you know, the matter of our size, resources and abilities has been–over the past five years–under worldwide scrutiny. Our diocese is navigating a complex set of circumstances regarding our effort to return Episcopal properties to the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia. It would be a big mistake to characterize this simply as a “legal” battle. Rather, at its core, this is (make no mistake about it) about theology, meaning who we are as a Church in relationship with Christ and the world. At stake is our polity, that is, our ancient and defining order of our being the Church. Thus, it is altogether a matter of nothing less than our very faithfulness. It will therefore take more than the courts to settle things. . . .
It certainly will, Bishop Johnston, it certainly will. And you may eventually have to eat your next words, which I have emboldened for your benefit:
Despite the recent court ruling in our favor, we simply don’t know now what the future holds. Nonetheless, we have reason to be more confident than ever that our properties will be returned. For nearly two years, we have considered and discussed such a positive outcome, and now we must move to put contingency plans in place. We will be fully prepared for any eventuality... I strongly believe that we will be able to do what it takes over the next months and years to be faithful to the Church’s mission with respect to each one of the properties involved. . . . 
Bishop Johnston? You may want to review pages 11 and 12 of that presentation made to the Executive Council mentioned earlier. They show two maps depicting the changes in Average Sunday Attendance in each Diocese between 1995-2000, and 2005-2009. The first map shows the Diocese of Virginia among the group reporting growth between 5-10%. But the second map shows the Diocese of Virginia in the group of dioceses which lost between 10 to 25% in ASA.  With what people, I ask again, are you going to fill the churches whose properties you just took back in your lawsuits, and thereby "be faithful to the Church's mission" for them?

As I say: big changes are coming, but no one seems to have a clue what has brought the need for them about.


  1. I wonder whether their revenue figures include the money from foundations and estimated sale price for buildings (to Moslems and office/condo developers, probably) they have stolen from the faithful in these lawsuits. I certainly hope so. It would be a shame if TEC had underestimated its financial morass. Psalm 94:2!

  2. Clueless in this situation refers to a blindness to the clues that scripture presents. The witness of the Bible presents all the information they need.

    I guess they must be reading their own expurgated version.

  3. sophy0075, the national Church's budget does include moneys transferred from trust funds, but they are classified according to the restrictions that are on how those funds may be spent (solely on scholarships to seminary, or for foreign missions, etc.).

    It does not include any revenues from sales of real estate other than that which is owned by the Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society itself. (And there is some talk about selling the headquarters property at 815 Second Avenue in NYC, because the activists in the Church have better uses for the money.)

    Sales of churches recovered in litigation (e.g., Good Shepherd in Binghamton, NY) are revenues for the individual dioceses, because when the lawsuit results in a recovery, the parish property and other assets are taken over by the diocese, not by the national Church. (As an unincorporated religious association, ECUSA itself is prohibited from holding any property in its name. That is why it has the incorporated DFMS to hold property and trust funds for it.)

  4. Right, UP -- and the version they are reading is not the one written on their hearts, but in their heads.

  5. Hi AS, do you know if this has caused any wider discussion on junctioning? Or is that matter seen as being unrelated to what happens at the national level? (I suspect they are related, but that's just me...)

  6. We were subjected to all this jibberish in 1962 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Corpus Christi, Texas. A wild man we named Father Englemarx ranted at us for a solid hour in a "discussion group" that we would learn that the arrogance of the Episcopal Church for "relishing" its place at the "pinnacle" of the social pyramid would soon be punished.
    This Episcopal priest had been sent to speak at our convention by the National Council of Churches. The priest went on to say that to-day is gone, and to-morrow you will have Negroes, homosexuals, atheists, and women in your pulpits and you will have a Book of Common Prayer that you will be able to understand. It will introduce you to the suffering, hunger, racism, and exploitation that smothers hope in the world.
    Red China, with one-fourth of the population in the world will finally be allowed into the United Nations, and America will have to take a smaller seat.
    At the next first-Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, my best buddy (crucifer) and this writer (priest's server) were treated to our parish's rector, Father Henry Clay Tompkins Puckett call attention to the fact that the problem with America and the Episcopal Church was generated by the "far-right".
    Great reforms were instituted to cleanse the Church of its wickedness. Now Saint John's in McAllen no longer suffers along with 250 or so at Communion. With all the improvements, now we have 55 on a wildly heavy participation day....including unconfirmed children.

    Thank the Lord for social progress.

  7. Abu Daoud, I'm not clear as to what you mean by "junctioning" -- are you referring to Episcopalians leaving to be in the Roman Catholic ordinariate? If so, then no -- the structural and budgetary problems of the national Church are not a factor in that shift. The factors are theological and ecclesial.

    Old Gringo, thank you for those recollections. Even before the time that you cite, Prof. J. Gresham Machen of the Princeton Theological Seminary made observations similar to yours, in "Christianity and Liberalism" (1923).

    Machen observed that the defining belief of modernity was its “supreme confidence in human goodness.” He wrote that “according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.” This absence of sin led Machen to wryly observe that the liberal church “is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task—she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance.”

    I think the absolute impossibility of that task accounts for much of the decline which we both are observing from the times we attended Episcopal churches in our younger days.

  8. I believe "junctioning" refers to yoking together one or more smaller dioceses into one to save money.

  9. If that is correct, Carolyn, then the answer would still be the same. However, it should be noted that from the ENS accounts of the Executive Council's meeting (linked in this and the next post), Bishop Sauls proposed that 815 make its administrative and bookkeeping services available to individual dioceses to help them save on their costs, and to earn 815 a little more revenue at the same time.