It is unfortunately all too rare that we have something positive to report in the Episcopal Church. But we are pleasantly surprised at the information and decisions coming from the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont’s THRIVE program. Our hope is that the initiative might serve as a example to other dioceses, parishes, and Episcopal organizations.
In August 2021, the Diocese of Vermont (DioVT) announced that it was facing a looming financial cliff. Not only was a major shortfall anticipated in 2023, but future prospects were dim, indeed.
The news was hardly unexpected, as the Episcopal Church in Vermont is small in and faces the usual litany of woes confronting the denomination, including aging demographics, declining membership, and lower levels of giving. Additionally, clunky oversight, a reluctance to look challenges in the eye, and dislike of change had created a situation decades in the making.
That said, DioVT did something few dioceses do, which is to take meaningful action. Not the usual tweak here and pinch there, followed by a declaration of “peace with honor,” but rather a prayerful, professional effort to effect change.
Following the announcement, which Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown properly shared publicly, the diocese initiated a number of stop-gap measures to head off financial disaster:
- Freezing expenditures.
- Leaving a diocesan position vacant.
- Drawing on unrestricted endowment funds to cover operating expenses.
- Seeking a near-term reduction in assessments to the national church.
- Obtaining grant money from the national church to assist with efforts to deal with the financial crisis.
Wisely, MacVean-Brown’s pastoral letter made clear that cost-cutting and streamlining would not be sufficient to solve the underlying issues caused by aging congregations, declining attendance, and old church buildings. Indeed, with an average Sunday attendance of just 40 in the diocese’s parishes, many are teetering financially. And the pastoral letter wisely referenced the possibility of collaboration with the nearby dioceses of Maine and New Hampshire, which share many of the challenges confronting DioVT.
Taskforce for Hope, Revitalization, Innovation, Vitality, and Efficiency (THRIVE)
In conjunction with stop-gap measures, MacVean-Brown and the diocese announced a Taskforce for Hope, Revitalization, Innovation, Vitality, and Efficiency (THRIVE). THRIVE includes three subgroups:
- Missional Vitality Group
- Governance and Collaboration Group
- Financial Sustainability Recommendations
One of the first THRIVE initiatives was a review of diocesan financial and budgetary lines of authority. Led by a former partner with Deloitte, the review identified a staggering number of entities and persons with budgetary authority — a situation more the norm than the exception at every level of the Episcopal Church. This, in turn, made it difficult for diocesan officials to understand all the moving parts and properly anticipate budgetary issues.
As a result, and based on recommendations from the Governance and Collaboration Group, the diocesan convention, which will be meeting this weekend, will be considering canonical changes to conduct a three-year trial of several governance measures, including expanding the Standing Committee and creating a Commission on Finance, tasked with providing oversight and guidance for all diocesan financial matters.
Other changes include:
- Establishing a Commission on Diocesan Organizations (CoDO) made up of the leaders of each of the four such organizations: Rock Point School, Brookhaven Treatment and Learning Center, Rock Point Commons, and Mission Farm — recognizing that all four represent major components of the diocesan mission. The goal is to explore possible opportunities for collaboration among these entities.
- Creating a Commission on Missional Vitality to include two parts:
- Committee on Ministry to perform the duties of the current Commission on
Ministry, adding oversight of lay discernment processes.
- Committee on Congregational Development and Formation – to provide
supports to the congregations in their missional work, and to coordinate the
Bishop’s Select Committee on Racial Justice and Healing,
- Committee on Ministry to perform the duties of the current Commission on
- Establishing a Bishop’s Select Committee on Creation Care, and other programs for
congregations and ministries in the areas of mission, growth and stewardship.
- Expanding the Diocesan Convention Nominating Committee (renamed “The Pre-Convention Nominating Committee”) to begin work this summer (2022). The goals will be to find able and willing clergy and lay members to fill all the roles that are vacant, and to redeploy the talents of members whose committees or councils are changed in the new structure, keeping in mind geographical distribution, skills, and diversity.
- Setting up a Board of Trustees with responsibility for holding diocesan assets in trust.
The Missional Vitality group made the following statement and recommendations:
We do not recommend an approach that would encourage us to become a better version of our past, but rather to join and revitalize the movement that Jesus started more than 2000 years ago:
- Renew our identity as people of the way.
- Focus on engagement beyond Sunday mornings and the doors of the churches.
- Create and support new church communities and new ways of what it is to be church.
- Build and encourage connections and collaboration among diocesan congregation.
- Offer many opportunities for learning/formation.
- Offer resources that support local ministry.
This is reassuring, as Anglican Watch has repeatedly said the church cannot survive if it continues down its current path. And far too many churches think that engagement beyond their doors involves their food pantry, assisting refugees, or some other ministry to care for neighbors. But engagement is far more and includes things at which TEC is really bad, including owning up to past failings and responding to critics.
And there are hints elsewhere in diocesan materials that reinforce the notion of positive change, including references to “not being tied down by church buildings.” We wholeheartedly endorse this approach — clinging to creaky, costly, under-utilized old buildings is a recipe for disaster at a time when so much of modern life is virtual. Young people simply are not interested in shelling out big bucks for these relics of the past; or clergy who live life large, with a month’s vacation every year, weekly stints at the golf course and more, when so many lay persons get little if any vacation.
Here THRIVE made a number of seemingly sensible recommendations, in addition to recommending creation of the Commission on Finance discussed previously:
- Budgeting carefully with increased revenues from endowed, unrestricted funds to achieve greater financial stability.
- Improving the diocese’s financial systems for greater efficiency and service to the congregations.
- Evaluating staffing and technology needs.
- Tasking the Commission on Finance to evaluate the current Grants and Loans structure
and practice, and issue guidelines for annual expenditures and awards.
- Initiating a new system of parish assessments to increase predictability for congregations and in projecting the diocese’s revenues.
- Repurposing income (up to $1.2 million) from unrestricted endowment funds to a new Diocesan Operating Fund. Based on the 5-year history, this would not interfere with awarding grants and loans adequately.
- Applying for grants to support diocesan expenses.
- Studying Unit Funds further so we know exactly which are unrestricted and may be redirected to vital purposes.
- Planning an endowment campaign of $2-3M to increase annual revenues to the diocese
In this regard, we note four things:
- The issues identified apply to virtually every Episcopal parish and diocese out there.
- The suggestion that the diocese doesn’t know which funds are restricted or unrestricted is typical of the sloppy financial management endemic in Episcopal dioceses. This failure to safeguard assets disincentives additional giving. After all, if a diocese can’t be trusted to be a faithful steward of past donations, why should we throw good money after bad? Thus, this issue should serve as a cautionary tale to other dioceses and parishes.
- The draws on the unrestricted endowments appear sustainable, coming in at 5 percent of value, per diocesan officials.
- The endowment goals are eminently doable, even in a small diocese like Vermont. Indeed, one decent-sized estate bequest may hit these goals.
THRIVE is candid about the challenges facing the diocese in the future, including the fact that the waiver of national assessments will gradually fall away over the next few years. Thus, we are optimistic about the future of the diocese.
At the same time, DioVT still faces an uphill battle:
- In recent years, it has shed members slightly faster than the denomination as a whole.
- There’s no avoiding one brutal fact, which is that the Episcopal Church is much older than the population as a whole.
- The denomination is doing a remarkably bad job of bringing in and keeping new members. Indeed, typically it doesn’t care if it does obtain new members—far too many priests try to push critics out the door so they can “find somewhere they can be happy.” Perhaps things are sufficiently dire in DioVT that this paradigm is ending, at least in that area.
- There is a trap implicit in some of the recommendations, including the emphasis on learning and formation. Both are important, but far too often these become transactional “solutions” that take the place of real change. In other words, if DioVT isn’t careful, these are the ticket to more of the same old, same old.
Nor does THRIVE articulate a vision beyond the next few years. But that’s not unreasonable, as some plans will depend on determining what works as the diocese works to reinvent itself.
We also note, with some discomfort, that the diocese makes no mention of reaching out to one of the most helpful inflection points, which is to contact former members. As we have said many times, our experience is that few leave the church absent good reasons. Hearing of their experiences could provide valuable insight into why the diocese is in decline. And yes, the conversations may not be pleasant. But they are conversations that need to happen. They are conversations Jesus would have.
At the same time, we are impressed by the lack of weasel-wording and infighting. These are far too often the closest the Episcopal Church comes to change. And rummaging around the diocesan website and that of the cathedral, both seem sincere about welcoming all people, versus the usual Episcopal game of claiming all are welcome — as long as they don’t rock the boat.
We also applaud the use of Canticle Communications by the diocese, which actually responds promptly to media inquiries.
Far too many dioceses, including Virginia, Alabama, EDOW, and Massachusetts, play a passive-aggressive game of sitting in silence when faced with questions. This approach is inconsistent with the transparency and accountability that the church needs. And we see worrisome signs that Mark Stevenson and other incoming bishops follow the same approach of ignoring perceived criticism. This does nothing to address the concerns of critics and is a recipe for long-term failure.
In short, THRIVE could serve as a role model for dioceses and parishes seeking to turn around their flagging fortunes. But far too many lack the introspection to look beyond efforts to return to the good old days of [fill in the blank].
Here’s hoping we will see more positive developments from DioVT.