By Kirk Petersen

Following up on a promise made in January, the Executive Council voted April 16 to make grants of up to $40,000 to each of the 109 dioceses of the Episcopal Church, in recognition of the widespread financial strains caused by the ongoing pandemic.

The new Diocesan Relief Grant program also recognizes the reality that while many dioceses and congregations have taken financial hits, the Church Center itself is operating at a surplus. The Church’s income from diocesan assessments and other sources has held steady, while expenses have plummeted because of canceled events and a moratorium on travel.

Treasurer N. Kurt Barnes told the council the Church ended 2020 with a surplus of $10.4 million compared to the tightened budget that was approved last July, although more than $1.2 million of that represents expenses that the Church is carrying forward and expects to spend in 2021.

The Rev. Mally Lloyd, chair of the council’s finance committee, said the grants of up to $40,000 will be given to every diocese that applies, with no strings attached.

“We hope, but don’t require, that [the leadership of] each diocese will go through some sort of discernment process … to really assess what their needs are in this time for relief,” she said. “Eventually dioceses will be invited, but not required, to share the stories of how these relief grants were used.”

The suggested discernment process asks the diocesan leaderships to consider what they need:

  • To be the church we are called to be in this time;
  • To strive for justice and peace, to respect dignity, and to fight racial injustice; and
  • To support the most vulnerable, the marginalized, and the under-served and under-resourced within our church and beyond.

Dioceses will have until November 30 next year to apply for the funds. Any undistributed funds will be reallocated by the Executive Council. A letter with information on how to apply will go out to all dioceses sometime the week of April 19, said Church spokeswoman Nancy Davidge.

The grant program grew out of discussions about the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), under which the Small Business Administration distributed forgivable loans to small businesses for the purpose of maintaining salaries and employment for a period of time. Many individual churches and some but not all dioceses received PPP funds.

Some dioceses had asked that forgiven loans be excluded from the income used to calculate annual diocesan assessments to the Church Center. Each diocese is assessed 15 percent of its annual income, with a waiver process available. Lloyd explained that doing so would be canonically impermissible, as only General Convention can make changes to the assessment structure.

The finance committee did not want to tie the grants to the PPP in any way, since participation in the federal program was not universal, and non-domestic dioceses were not eligible. Every diocese, domestic or international, will be eligible for the same grant of up to $40,000, which will provide greater benefit in percentage terms for small and struggling dioceses.

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry expressed high hopes for what might emerge from the discernment process. “What began as a problem to be solved actually has emerged as possibilities to be engaged,” he said. “How can we follow Jesus, now, in this moment? And maybe, use what was given for relief as the leaven that can leaven the whole lump.

“And if that happens, there’s going to be revival. Revival in the middle of a pandemic. Revival in the middle of a racial reckoning. Revival in a time when we’re all scared. Revival when it’s hard.”

Passage of the relief program was the major item on the agenda of the council, which met online for a single day, rather than the normal three- to four-day meeting. The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, was absent because of shoulder-replacement surgery, although she addressed the council by prerecorded video.