Chaos In DioVA Budget Deliberations Suggests Further Problems For TEC

By | November 23, 2020

In a move unprecedented in modern history, delegates to the annual meeting of the Diocese of Virginia yesterday rejected the budget proposal from the standing committee. As a result, the standing committee will have to redraft the budget proposal.

The rejection, which occurred both among clergy and lay delegates, spells bad news, both for the diocese itself and the national church.

At its most basic, the news reflects on Bishop Goff’s listening sessions and the overall state of the diocese. Yes, the pandemic is rattling cages on all fronts, but almost a year into the outbreak, COVID-19 is hardly latebreaking news. Thus, one wonders not only how effective Goff’s listening sessions are, but if she has heard anything at all over the past year as she encourages clergy to engage in self-care, all the while proving oblivious to larger issues in the diocese.

Moreover, one of the basic purposes of a standing committee is to serve as a counsel of advice for the bishop. That begs the question: With 12 members from all over the diocese, the budget offered by the standing committee reflects a serious disconnect from the realities confronting most parishes. (I say that with full respect to Anne Turner and others I know on the committee.) In other words, what on earth were the standing committee and bishops thinking when the put together the budget? Does the phrase “trial balloon” mean anything?

The fact that the diocese can’t even pass a budget speaks to an appalling level of dysfunction within the church, and should be considered a shameful reflection on the overall health of the diocese.

In fairness, the budget reflects an anticipated 15 percent drop in revenue, largely due to the pandemic. In that sense, everyone’s ox was gored, so it may be that the real issue is that diocesan officials didn’t appropriately pre-frame the conversation. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that the budget proposal was very fair in light of circumstances, for it left few areas unscathed. But a wholesale rejection of the budget coming this late in the seventh inning signifies nothing but a hot mess, regardless of the reasons behind the rejection,

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that even with the recent staff cuts and budget reductions, Mayo House remains bloated and ineffectual. Indeed, I will never forget when, in 2014, I naively asked staff there if they had a template for a parish-level stewardship campaign. After a long and puzzled silence, the answer was no.

That was a shocker. The diocese depends on its constituent parishes for its income, so why wouldn’t it have high-end, professionally prepared, effective stewardship materials at the ready? Indeed, such materials should be on the website, ready for anyone who needs them. Having resources of this sort certainly would make sense, even if just for the well-being of the diocese.

And while some of the past perks of the bishopric are gone, like a driver (helpful for avoiding speeding tickets showing up under your name as you motor through the remote regions of the diocese in your Volvo), life amidst the decaying neoclassic splendor of Mayo House continues its quiet, tranquil hum, even as the antebellum heap serves as a monument to inefficiency and the vestiges of wealth and power, not to mention slavery.

In short, it’s time for Mayo House to lead by example, and slash and burn the waste and inefficiency at the diocesan level. The diocese just needs to get its act together.

Speaking of, a major issue is organizational narcissism. Time and again, we have seen the diocese ignore the canons and the best interests of church members in favor of protecting itself from legal liability. That was the excuse Bishop Shannon gave when members of St. Thomas’ in McLean confronted him about the lack of a pastoral response following the removal of the rector in a Title IV matter. Specifically, he apologized and said that “the lawyers” told him not to get too involved to protect against legal liability. Small consolation if you were a parishioner hurt by the whole Title IV debacle. And to make matters worse, Canon Mary Thorpe allegedly told parishioners as the church struggled to find its next rector, “You’re damaged goods.”

Well, yeah.

Thanks to the diocese’s conduct, that was spot on. But the diocese’s handling of the Title IV case at St. Thomas’ has not done much for budget or attendance at the parish, which in turn impacts the diocese. And forget the pastoral needs of parish staff — to this day the diocese has never even considered that issue. I can say that from first-hand experience, having been the parish administrator at the time.

But most narcissistic of all was the suggestion that emerged at the annual meeting to ask the national church for a hardship waiver of dues, in order to reallocate funds to campus ministry and other perceived priorities.

Even in a diocese in which organizational narcissism is the norm, and ethical considerations nonexistent, the suggestion that the diocese ask for a bailout is a shocker.

Why?

The answer is simple. If DioVA, as the largest domestic diocese, qualifies for a bailout from the national church, every diocese out there can and should get one. And it’s not like DioVA has tried tackling the issue on other fronts. For example, although the Shrine Mont got some COVID relief funds, there’s no sign the diocese ever even applied. Perhaps JP Causey should spend a little less time protecting the diocese from potential legal liability at the expense of its members and a little more time working toward improving the health of the diocese. As in helping apply for stimulus funds.

So having sat on its hands, why should the diocese now get help from the national church?

That’s not to say that the national church doesn’t have its share of stupid, un-Christian behavior and bloated bureaucracy. Offloading 815, the costly and outdated denominational headquarters in Manhattan, is long overdue, for starters. But playing along with the diocese helps neither side, and I hope that the diocese has the common sense to not pursue a waiver of its fair share contribution.

Moreover, there’s a related issue at play, which is lack of communication from the diocese. The quarterly magazine has ceased publication, the diocesan blog stops with the demonstrations at Charlottesville, and there is very little about budget in the bishop’s clergy conference calls. That is hardly reassuring, and deprives the diocese of its ace in the hole, which is its members.

Were the diocese to communicate more effectively, there are many who would step up and try to help. Certainly, when I was a member of TEC, that would have been the case. But to sit in splendid silence and ask the national church for assistance is just silly and wrongheaded. And after all the money the diocese spent on litigation over a bunch of fusty old churches, surely it has the funds for things like campus outreach, even without a bailout from the national church.

Meanwhile, I am going to offer a suggestion for the diocese, which it will ignore, just as it has with other suggestions from me. Specifically, it is time to sit down with those it perceives as enemies, and ask them to share their thoughts.

Yup, that would include the ACNA crowd, me, and the thousands of members who have left the diocese over the past ten years. We’re leaving for a reason, and while the diocese thinks it know what those reasons, in reality it has no clue. Instead, it slaps labels on folks, while ignoring the root causes of its problems.

And while I am no great fan of Shannon Johnston, given the blind eye he turns to sexual harassment and other misconduct by clergy, as well as his autocratic tendencies and propensity to tell people what they want to hear, he was spot on when it came to Truro and the need to, if not reconcile, at least be on good terms with those who have left.

Of course, at its most basic, the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference. And there are many of us who have come to dislike much of the conduct we see in the church, but we neither hate the church nor are indifferent. In short, there are vast swaths of opportunity for the church to learn from its mistakes, to grow, and to heal.

But if the past is any indicator, the church will be like recent news stories of some dying COVID patients: Their last words were: “I can’t believe this is happening. COVID is fake.”

Yes, DioVA, you are dying.

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