By Mark Michael
The Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown, Bishop of Vermont, said in a July 21 pastoral letter that her diocese is facing serious financial shortfalls in the near future. Despite relatively healthy budgets in recent years, the diocese is considering various options to ensure future financial sustainability in the face of declining revenue from shrinking congregations.
“The challenges to the financial sustainability of our ministry were decades in the making, and we will not solve them overnight,” MacVean-Brown said. She also quoted the 2018 profile for Vermont’s bishop search that claimed that in deciding to call a full-time bishop, the diocese was “taking a leap of faith ‘in the hopes that s/he would help us continue to discern and explore how God is speaking to us in the changes we anticipate.’”
A financial assessment of the diocese conducted by Stephen Burnett, a former partner at Deloitte, she said, “revealed that a financial cliff is on the horizon.” Burnett’s report, which was shared with MacVean Brown and Vermont’s Diocesan Council on June 16, stated “The Bishop envisioned financial shorfalls early on in her ministry, and we can reaffirm that there is, in fact, trouble ahead, likely in the first quarter of 2023, where, without intervention, expenditures will far exceed revenues.”
MacVean-Brown said that diocesan spending would be immediately restricted, and that one vacant position on the diocese’s six person staff would remain unfilled. The diocese also plans to repurpose some restricted funds for operations and to seek relief from paying its full assessment to the Episcopal Church.
She also is working to create a single diocesan finance committee to replace what Burnett’s report called “a staggering number of finance-related committees and subcommittees” that “cloud the financial picture and lead to confusion … and stymie decision making.”
These measures, she stressed, will not be enough to deal with financial challenges the diocese is facing. “If we were to cut expenditures enough to survive on current revenues, which are declining as our congregations grow smaller and older, we would have virtually no capacity for congregational support, social justice ministry, care of creation programs, or participation in the wider Episcopal Church—all things that the people of the diocese treasure and that are essential to God’s mission in Vermont.”
Between 2009-2019, average Sunday attendance in the Diocese of Vermont declined from 2,537 to 1,866, a decline of 26.4%, only slightly worse than the churchwide average of 24.4%. In the last five years for which we have complete statistics, the average pledge in the diocese rose by 10%, to $2083. The diocese has 46 congregations, which is not that small by Episcopal Church standards, but the average church only has a weekly attendance of 40. The diocese is, by far, the smallest in New England, and is, by attendance, about 56% the size of New Hampshire, its neighbor to the east, and 53% the size of Maine and Western Massachusetts, its neighbors to the east and south.
The diocese adopted a balanced budget of $993,450 for 2021 at its October 2020 convention, only a slightly smaller budget than in recent years. The 2020 budget included $195,000 in investment income, a little less than 20% of total revenue, a likely sign of the substantial endowments that are common in historic East Coast dioceses.
Founded in 1832, Vermont is among the Episcopal Church’s older dioceses. The diocese is headquartered at Rock Point, a 130-acre complex on the shores of Lake Champlain in Burlington. The site hosts the diocesan camp and conference center; the Rock Point School, an independent boarding school; and a rambling 1895 bishop’s house, originally designed by Vermont’s third bishop to serve as a small monastery.
MacVean-Brown said that she is pursuing conversations with the bishops of Maine and New Hampshire about sharing resources for ministry and administration. She pointed to examples of such collaboration across the Episcopal Church, which presently include shared bishops between Fond du Lac and Eau Claire, Eastern and Western Michigan, Northwest Texas and Fort Worth, and Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York. Maine’s bishop, Thomas J. Brown, was just consecrated in 2019 and New Hampshire’s bishop, Robert Hirschfeld, is only 60, so sharing a bishop doesn’t seem a likely possibility in the short term.
A task force led by 17 diocesan leaders will explore collaboration and other possibilities, in MacVean-Brown’s words, “to address these issues proactively and to create a strong, sustainable future by drawing on the rich stores of creativity, ingenuity, and faithfulness that God has given the people of our diocese.”