By David Paulsen
Episcopal News Service
The 80th General Convention is set to consider a proposed $100 million churchwide budget for 2023-24 when it convenes July 8-11 in Baltimore, Maryland, after the convention’s budgetary committee made its final adjustments to the two-year spending plan in an online meeting June 30.
In its proposed budget, the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance included new spending for the creation of a racial equity coalition, research into the church’s historical ties to slavery and Indigenous boarding schools, increased support for dioceses with large Indigenous and Latino ministries, and the new position of director of women’s and LGBTQ+ ministries.
The proposed spending plan was tailored for a pandemic-shortened budget period – two years instead of the typical three – and that timeframe “severely limits the ability to do the work that needs to be accomplished between General Conventions,” the Rev. Mike Ehmer, committee chair, said to open the committee’s final meeting on Zoom. Interim bodies, for example, will have just gotten organized before facing deadlines to file their reports for the 81st General Convention in 2024.
The proposed budget also was shaped to respond to the financial uncertainties facing dioceses and congregations as the church looks to the post-pandemic future. The plan maintains a 15 percent assessment on diocesan revenues but increases the amount of revenue exempted from that assessment from $140,000 to $200,000.
“We want to acknowledge the pain that has been experienced in dioceses and congregations throughout our church,” said Ehmer, who serves as canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of Northwest Texas. He added that the proposed budget would draw on $5 million from a pandemic-related surplus, while saving additional surplus revenue for future needs.
“The future will hold many surprises for us, and we need to be able to handle them financially,” Ehmer said.
Some of that uncertainty is happening right now. Kurt Barnes, the church’s chief financial officer and treasurer of General Convention, said the church’s investment portfolio is down 15 percent so far this year, with stock markets rattled by a surge in inflation and rising interest rates.
The church’s annual returns determine how much money from investments can be applied to the churchwide budget, based on a five-year average. The draft budget approved in January by Executive Council estimated a $26 million draw on investments over the next two years, but Barnes now forecasts a modestly lower draw, depending on how the stock market ends the year.
The Program, Budget and Finance committee spent much of the of its June 30 meeting reviewing a series of funding requests tied to General Convention resolutions. Some of the largest new expenses are related to resolutions proposed by the Presiding Officers’ Working Group on Truth-Telling, Reckoning and Healing.
“We sensed a great deal of energy around the church in attempting to right the wrongs of the past and make sure they don’t happen again,” Ehmer said.
The working group identified forming a new Episcopal Coalition for Racial Equity and Justice as central to efforts to remedy the church’s uneven track record of prioritizing racial reconciliation. The working group had suggested $2 million a year to support this voluntary association of Episcopal dioceses, parishes, organizations and individuals, though the precise structure, scope and cost of the coalition remains to be determined.
After discussions with the working group and church staff members, the Program, Budget and Finance committee set aside $400,000 as coalition start-up funds for the next two years. Additional funding may be considered in 2024 at the 81st General Convention.
The proposed budget also includes $125,000 to study the church’s complicity in the federal Indigenous boarding school system, another recommendation of the presiding officers’ working group. An additional $150,000 would be spent on an audit of the church’s financial assets to identify ways the early church benefited from slave labor and other systems of racial oppression.
For years, The Episcopal Church’s block grant program has helped fund the ministries of three dioceses – Alaska, South Dakota and North Dakota – and an area mission, Navajoland, that have large serve Indigenous communities, as well as the ministries of Province IX dioceses in the Caribbean and Latin America. The budgetary committee increased support for those dioceses and the Navajoland mission by 5 percent for 2023-24 in response to requests from bishops in some of those dioceses, who said the grants hadn’t kept up with cost of living increases for the clergy tasked with leading those ministries.
And while Executive Council’s draft budget had recommended freezing churchwide staff positions at 152, the Program, Budget and Finance committee made one exception in its proposed spending plan, to add the position of women’s and LGBTQ+ ministries director. That addition was proposed by the Task Force to Study Sexism in The Episcopal Church.
“What’s encouraging is that we are looking to those places that we would consider are on the edge of what we would normally do” as a church, committee member Karen Davis-Lawson of the Diocese of Long Island said during the online meeting. And the new spending isn’t targeted toward administrative costs, she said, but rather on mission and ministry.
After a unanimous vote to recommend the proposed budget, Ehmer said he and Texas Bishop Suffragan Jeff Fisher, the committee’s vice chair, are scheduled to present it to a joint session of the House of Deputies and House of Bishops at 2:30 p.m. July 10 in Baltimore.