By Kirk Petersen
The Episcopal Church will take a financial hit currently estimated at $1.1 million for the decision, on very short notice, to cut the length of the General Convention in half, the Executive Council learned June 7.
The Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, who is the executive officer of the General Convention, told the council by Zoom that the impact is a combination of lost revenue from closing the exhibit hall, and from reduced registration fees; the cost of daily testing and other safety measures; and “attrition” fees paid to hotels because the number of hotel room nights will fall below the levels the church guaranteed in negotiations that began years ago with Baltimore hotels.
The $1.1 million estimate reflects offsetting savings the Church Center will realize by sharply reducing the number of staff and others who would have attended. Barlowe cautioned that the true costs will not be known until after the event is over.
On May 11, the presiding officers of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies informed the council that because of the resurging pandemic, the 80th General Convention would be cut back sharply from the planned July 7-14. Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings appointed a 15-member General Convention Design Group to hash out the details. That work continues, but the dates were quickly locked in for July 8-11.
The Church Center can easily absorb the impact of the changes, as it ended last year with a surplus of $6.5 million, largely due to decreased travel during the pandemic. But council members sought assurances that the dioceses, some of which are struggling financially, would not face financial hardship. Each diocese pays its own expenses for sending up to four clergy deputies and four lay deputies, plus a couple of alternates and the bishop or bishops.
Barlowe explained that while the Church Center will pay a financial penalty for reducing the number of hotel nights, the dioceses will not, and thus will save money on hotel expenses. Some dioceses may face penalties for changing airline reservations, but Barlowe said the airlines, with some exceptions, are more flexible about changes and cancellations than they were before the pandemic.
The Design Group has studied ways to reduce the negative impact on the low-wage workers who will lose days of work because of the shortened schedule. Bryan Krislock, co-chair of the group, told the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements (JSCPA) earlier in the day that the church is negotiating a meal package that would provide breakfast and a boxed lunch to all of the bishops and deputies, thereby generating income for the service workers.
Byron Rushing, the outgoing vice president of the House of Deputies, urged the JSCPA to consider also making a donation on behalf of the workers. The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the bishop of the host Diocese of Maryland, said “It would be a very, very lovely thing for the City of Baltimore to know that the Episcopal Church made a donation to the workers of their city.”
Maryland may be the only diocese that loses money rather than saves it as a result of the convention changes. The diocese had been hard at work for months preparing a robust array of tours and events for convention-goers, and Sutton said in May the diocese would forfeit an estimated $25,000, and might seek support from the broader church.
The JSCPA also was told that decisions on which resolutions will be entertained at General Convention will be made by June 25, and in the meantime, additional online hearings are being scheduled. The deadline for submitting resolutions was June 6, and 280 had been submitted prior to the deadline. Spokesperson Amanda Skofstad told TLC she did not know the total number that had been submitted on June 6, but said there were “many” of them. Only a fraction of the resolutions will be debated at General Convention. Most will either be deferred to the 81st General Convention in 2024, or approved in a bulk vote on the consent calendar.
Under the canons of the church, both the Executive Council and the JSCPA must approve any changes to the dates of the convention, and both bodies gave their approval at their June 7 meetings. But as a practical matter, the dates had been set in stone nearly a month earlier, and any vote to disapprove would have touched off a canonical crisis. The Executive Council vote was not announced at the time, but Skofstad later said there was one negative vote.
During the discussion of the resolution, Sarah Stonesifer Boylan, Executive Council member from the Diocese of Washington, politely asked why the plans had been announced before the council had a chance to vote, calling it “a dangerous precedent.”
“The reality was that we were acting under exigency of the moment. People had airline tickets and were going to need potentially to change those tickets,” Curry said, after acknowledging that it was a fair question. “We were clear in all communications that it was subject to the advice and consent of the Executive Council.”
Council members praised the General Convention Office and the Design Group for working through a complex project under intense time pressure. “An outstanding job has been done here,” said Diane Pollard, council member from the Diocese of New York. “Doing it in less than a month is a spectacular timeline,” said Julia Ayala Harris, Diocese of Oklahoma.