By Kirk Petersen

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council is developing plans to provide cash relief later this year to each of the 109 dioceses, recognizing the financial strain inflicted by the pandemic, and in response to requests for assistance.

The details of the plan have yet to be determined, as there are a lot of complicated considerations. The finance committee had two lengthy discussions at the regular thrice-yearly meeting of the Executive Council, held online from January 22-25. The full council will vote on a resolution to approve the concept at the final plenary session on Monday, January 25. Approval is virtually certain, as the finance committee and the Church’s senior officers favor it unanimously, and no opposition has been voiced.

Assuming the resolution passes [Ed. note: it did], a small team of finance committee members and staff will research and craft a specific proposal, to be voted on at the council’s next meeting, scheduled for April 15-17.

The amount of the financial relief has not been determined, but it is likely to be substantial. One idea that was discussed was to give each diocese back the equivalent of one month of their annual assessment to the Church Center. The assessment is 15 percent of diocesan operating income, unless a diocese applies for and receives a waiver. Diocesan assessments are by far the Church’s largest income source, roughly $30 million per year in recent years. The one-month plan implies about $2.5 million to be split among the dioceses.

But the committee discussed other alternatives, and reached no decision on any of the specifics. “What if we just took whatever pool of money we end up having and divide it by 109 and give every diocese the same amount, which would help the smaller dioceses more, which might be fairer, but I don’t know,” said the Rev. Mally Lloyd, a council member from Massachusetts who chairs the finance committee.

The discussion was prompted by a letter sent to the council and the senior officers from the bishops of Province IV, which includes 20 dioceses in nine southeastern states. Church Center staff declined TLC‘s request to see the letter, but committee discussion made clear the bishops were seeking money for dioceses that face an uncertain financial future.

The Church Center is in strong shape financially. Chief Financial Officer N. Kurt Barnes told the council that income and expenses are both close to budget, and diocesan payments have been more than 95 percent of assessments. The Church’s investment portfolio gained 19.7 percent in 2020, whereas the return would have been 13.9 percent if the portfolio was passively invested in index funds, he said.

One suggestion the Province IV bishops apparently made — allowing dioceses to exclude funds granted by the government through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) from the calculations for diocesan assessment — was firmly rejected. “I don’t believe Executive Council has any authority over redefining income for assessment purposes,” said the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies. She and others also expressed concern about setting a bad precedent, and about potential canonical violations.

“Whatever our process is, I think [the finance committee] needs to meet with some of the people who can articulate for themselves what their issues are,” said Anne Hodges-Copple, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of North Carolina.

“We need to respond effectively, so that we send a signal to those who have voiced it, and others who may have concerns, that we’re taking this seriously, and we’re committed to providing financial relief,” said Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry. “We’ve just got to figure out how to do that.”