Diocese of Washington Budget Reflects Pandemic Pain

By | December 13, 2020

One of the things that is nice about the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (EDOW) is that, in the scheme of things, it’s relatively open about its budget and business operations. Indeed, it scores a C for financial transparency, publishing an online annual report that includes hard numbers. And Bishop Budde, although not as willing to address clergy misconduct as one would like, answers many of her emails herself — always a good sign in a church where far too many bishops operate like mini-monarchs.

The diocese has just released its annual report, and the financial results reflect the profound impact of the pandemic. And the grim news may not be over; one suspects that even with signs of careful planning, EDOW is overly optimistic about next year’s income.

When the 2020 budget was approved, the diocese was expecting $2.6 million in income from its parishes. And of course, like many dioceses, there are enough investments and trust funds floating out there to provide a decent cushion, which don’t appear to be reflected in the report.

As things stand, the diocese is expecting to end the year with just $2 million in parish-based revenue — a staggering 26 percent decrease.

Based on information in the annual report, EDOW appears to have done a good job of addressing the deficit. It pulled down a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program of $408,000 and slashed expenses by $200,000. At the same time, it obtained a Lilly Foundation grant of $1 million to revitalize and strengthen its congregations, while ramping up assistance to food pantries and other organizations serving the community.

In short, unlike the shambolic response of the Diocese of Virginia and many other dioceses, EDOW has had its act together during the pandemic.

But what is concerning is the larger message for the Episcopal Church and indeed all domestic non-profit organizations.

While EDOW certainly comprises pockets of profound poverty and social injustice/inequality, it also includes areas of tremendous wealth, including Georgetown, NW DC, and Bethesda MD. Indeed, the proximity to the federal government tends to stabilize the local economy, and many DC-area parishes include a high percentage of well-educated, senior federal employees.

Thus, if EDOW is facing a 26 percent decline in revenue due to the pandemic, it’s a surefire bet that many rural dioceses (including Northwest PA, where this author has close ties), are facing far greater pressure, particularly as the pandemic bursts onto the scene in areas where many once believed themselves to be largely exempt from the effects of the outbreak.

Looking forward, there also is reason for concern about the 2021 EDOW budget. While it appears that the diocesan finance committee built several models scenarios to consider when drafting the upcoming budget, even with steady annual revenue of $2 million in 2021, EDOW faces a $160,000 budget deficit, which it plans to cover from its investments.

But larger social issues call into question the prospect for $2 million in 2021 income from the parishes:

  • As the pandemic drags on, not attending church is becoming increasingly normative for members, at a time when society as a whole no longer considers church membership an integral part of living in community.
  • Congress still has not passed further pandemic relief, meaning that increasing numbers of Americans are at risk of losing their jobs and their homes. Both job loss and housing loss are issues that are not readily fixed; once they happen, the results may linger for months or years.
  • Vaccination, while hardly the panacea envisioned by some, will take a long time to reach the economically disadvantaged, including homeless persons, workers without permits, and more. Thus, it is illusory to conclude that EDOW’s pandemic-related challenges will be ending in 2021, or any time in the near future.,
  • Mass transit systems and other late twentieth century infrastructure is being decimated by a vicious cycle of declining funding during a public health emergency and reduced usage, thus making it difficult to return to pre-pandemic routines.
  • Many Episcopal liturgical practices and forms of piety, from taking communion in two kinds, to holy water, to congregational singing, to the laying on of hands at ordinations, to the adoration of the host, will remain problematic for the foreseeable future, even once we see widespread vaccination.
  • The demographics of the church, which comprise more persons at elevated risk of COVID due to age and other factors, provide an added disincentive to in—person church attendance, while resulting in higher membership loss due to persons aging out.
  • Pandemic weariness, in which people are simply becoming tired of the increased vigilance needed to ensure public safety and thus may be reluctant to leave the comfort of their homes in order to attend church services.
  • Church services that, for the foreseeable future, won’t feel like church, instead being very different from the worship experiences Episcopalians are used to.

Thus, a number of factors suggest that even the $2 million annual income figure for 2021 is optimistic. At the same time, the proposed 8 percent budget deficit for the coming year and the diocese’s comments about maintaining existing human capital make clear that there’s not a lot left to cut in the budget. And while the latter is a line one hears at many Episcopal organizations that indeed have found that they could, and had to, make further cuts, any further cuts at EDOW are likely to erode key organizational capabilities.

In other words EDOW, which is well-run by Episcopal standards, is really teetering. That spells bad news for DioVA and other more chaotic and poorly governed dioceses in the church.

 

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