By Kirk Petersen

The Executive Council concluded its four-day virtual meeting October 12 without announcing further plans for the 80th General Convention, which is still officially scheduled for June 30 to July 9, 2021, in Baltimore.

On a different matter, the council also approved a pandemic-related version of the annual parochial report, to be used after the end of the year in reporting 2020 statistics.

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings announced in early June that because of the pandemic, the Church “must plan as if our traditional 10-day gathering of 10,000 people or more will not be possible in 2021.”

In late July, they announced that if the physical meeting is not possible in 2021 it will be held at a date to be determined in 2022, still in Baltimore. They said they hoped to be able to decide the issue at the scheduled October virtual meeting of the Executive Council.

But in the closing plenary session, the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, executive officer of the General Convention, announced that a decision is now expected in November. Reading from a statement, he said because of the many complexities involved, any changes “require meticulous investigation, negotiation, confidentiality, and a lot of work, always protecting the health, safety and interests of the Church and its members.”

Budget discussions

The lack of clarity about timing is having a crippling effect on planning, both for the Church Center and for many dioceses and churches.

In normal times, the Executive Council would be well into the process of preparing a budget for the 2022-2024 triennium, to be approved by the 2021 General Convention. Instead, the finance committee has been working overtime since April making adjustments to the budget that was approved in 2018 for this year and next.

That intensive effort now has largely been completed, and the committee needs to make up for lost time. But they won’t know whether they need to create a three-year budget or a one-year budget (for 2022) until a decision is made on whether to meet in Baltimore in 2021.

“We could wait for that decision,” said the Rev. Mally Ewing Lloyd, chair of the finance committee, “but at some point we have to start,” because some budget deadlines are specified in the canons. For example, if the meeting is to be held on schedule in the summer of 2021, a preliminary budget will have to be submitted by March 1.

If General Convention is postponed, terms of office that were scheduled to end in 2021 will be continued until the General Convention actually occurs. The appointments are “good until canceled,” Treasurer N. Kurt Barnes told a committee meeting.

Disagreement over staff salaries

Despite concerns earlier in the year, the Church is operating from a position of financial strength. Staff was warned at the Executive Council’s June meeting to brace for the possibility of layoffs, and the council made $2 million in cuts to the $46 million budget for 2021, without affecting headcount.

Four months later, it’s clear there are no layoffs on the horizon. In fact, the council approved a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for staff of up to 3 percent – which led to some pushback from council members concerned about “optics” at a time when some dioceses are struggling financially.

“I’m still struggling with the cost of living” adjustment, said council member Lou “Coach” Glosson of the Diocese of San Diego. “How do I vote to pass this when others are suffering?”

The Rt. Rev. Ed Konieczny, who recently retired as Bishop of Oklahoma, said he knew of dioceses and congregations that were freezing salaries, laying people off, or taking salary cuts to retain jobs.

The council’s leadership spoke in favor of the COLA, citing the wide-spread agreement that staff is performing well in difficult circumstances. Curry noted that the budget also includes up to an additional $1 million in assessment waivers for struggling dioceses. Lloyd emphasized that the COLA is not a flat 3 percent raise, but rather a provision for raises up to that amount, to be determined near the end of this year based on financial realities at the time.

After a brief executive session to discuss the matter without staff present, the council reconvened and passed the budget. Like other votes, the vote on the budget was conducted through an online app, and no vote total was announced.

Governance of the Church

General Convention is more than just a huge family reunion for the Church, it’s the governing body, which must approve a three-year budget and ratify all major decisions about doctrine and church governance. The most recent convention was in July 2018 in Austin, Texas.

Between triennial General Convention meetings, the Church is governed by the Executive Council, which includes 40 people elected from throughout the Church, a mixture of bishops, clergy and lay people. The council serves without compensation (aside from expenses), and normally holds three meetings annually of three or four days each.

Each council member serves on one of four standing committees, and by universal agreement, the hardest-working committee is finance. Lloyd said her committee had met online eight times since the full council met in June, reviewing more than 500 lines of the 2021 budget. Lloyd is from the Diocese of Massachusetts; other members and their dioceses are:

  • Diane Pollard, vice chair, New York;
  • Holli Powell Strum, vice chair, Lexington;
  • The Rev. Patty Downing, Delaware;
  • The Rev. Canon Cornelia Eaton, Navajoland;
  • The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, Suffragan Bishop of North Carolina;
  • The Rev. Anne Kitch, Newark;
  • Alexizendria Link, Western Massachusetts; and
  • Andrea McKellar, South Carolina.

Reassurance of financial strength

Treasurer N. Kurt Barnes reviewed a variety of favorable metrics based on 2020 results through the end of August, representing two-thirds (66 percent) of the year:

  • Collection of diocesan commitments are ahead of budget at 69 percent. This is the 15 percent of income that dioceses are supposed to pass on to the Church Center, accounting for well over half of the annual budget.
  • Meanwhile, expenses through August are well below budget, largely attributed to the suspension of virtually all travel.
  • Long-term debt obligations specify that the Church must maintain a liquidity ratio of 1.25, meaning the Church’s unrestricted assets must remain at least 125 percent of total debt. The ratio now stands at 8.0 – more than six times the minimum.
  • The Church has a revolving credit line of $15 million that it can tap for sudden spending needs. The current balance on that account is zero.

Parochial Report

Executive Council approved a special 2020 pandemic version of the parochial report – the annual report from every congregation that captures data on members, attendance, baptisms, weddings and more.

Average Sunday attendance (ASA) is perhaps the most closely watched metric that emerges from the parochial reports. It’s the single most important indication of vitality, both for an individual congregation and for the Church at large.

In normal times, ASA is based on a straightforward count of how many people are in the church during services. Of course, physical attendance has cratered everywhere in the face of the pandemic.

The Rev. Chris Rankin-Williams, chair of a subcommittee that has been studying the problem, recommended that for 2020, churches should be asked to report physical attendance only from January 1 to March 1, just before lockdowns began rippling across the country and the world.

“Membership” statistics are much more amorphous than ASA, requiring a local priest to decide on a person-by-person basis who is and is not an “active baptized member.” That term is not canonically defined, but is generally understood to mean a baptized person who participates in any way in the life of a congregation.

Each church also reports the number of “communicants in good standing,” a more restrictive term. It is defined by Canon I.17.2 as members who “have received Holy Communion in this Church at least three times during the preceding year… [and] who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.”

Rankin-Williams, who is rector of St. John’s in Ross, California, said that even in his own congregation, “I don’t know who’s praying for the church. I don’t necessarily know who is logging in to our services,” but there are a lot of active members who have not been able to receive Holy Communion during the pandemic.

After considering the subcommittee’s proposal to set “communicants” equal to “members” for 2020, the Governance & Operations Committee decided instead to have churches calculate the two measures as best they can under the circumstances, while waiving the requirement for a communicant to have taken communion three times.

The report will involve more narrative than in previous years, as churches will be asked to describe how they are responding to the challenges of the pandemic.

These changes affect 2020 only; the same subcommittee is undertaking a broader review of the parochial report for future years.