Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Challenging Times

January 28, 2009

Our vestry and finance committee are in the middle of a substantial conversation about how to respond carefully and faithfully as we share in the challenges of economic recession.

This is a year in which most parishes believe that a ‘flat’ canvass is a victory and we look as though we will come close to that thanks to the extraordinary generosity and fidelity of those who have made commitments to support God’s work through the ministries of our parish in 2009. The vast majority of us have increased our giving slightly or swallowed and kept our pledge the same even when we are not sure whether or how we will meet it. Others have had to make significant reductions in giving. We project that we will end up somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 short of what we budgeted for 2008, and even closer to what we actually received against pledges. In the climate of the day, this is wonderful news. Obviously it still poses a number of challenges given that costs keep going up and the gap between what it would really take to support our ministries and what we can hope to receive is significant.

Balancing a budget is not complicated. We can cut staff, mission, program and giving and end up with a balanced budget. In fact this is more or less what we do each year when our aspirations are greater than the gifts released. We call whatever we can a ‘capital improvement’ or a ‘start up program’ and make requests to spend undesignated endowment income (which we do not and by our own choice may not use for ongoing operating costs). We shave giving, including failing to meet our moral obligations to give one percent of our budget to the support of Episcopal seminaries and another to support of the Millennium Development Goals. We have not increased our gifts in support of Covenant Community or the Midtown Assistance Center or our own allocations to other agencies with which we share common cause fop a number of years. We can make such decisions again if we want although it will be more painful than in the past. We can join the great throng of churches and businesses and agencies who are all hunkering down, cutting back, laying off staff, reducing services and hoping against hope that something will stimulate a change in the economy. Alternatively we can try and turn in a new direction, (ideally without preempting the ongoing work of our strategic thinking group.)

So here is what we are thinking: We must cut what ever we can cut toward a balanced budget this year and carry a small deficit. We have a plan in place that will bring the budget into balance without deficit within three years. We expect that this recession will be long and deep and that we should not plan for great increases in giving by our current members in the next couple of years. At So we will cut programs and expenses, some of which are very visible. We are talking about ending evensong, ending cafĂ© nights, and letting go of the award winning Saints Alive magazine. We are discussing a slight reduction in the number of professional singers who support our morning worship. We are cutting some less visible things such as reducing subsidies for some of our retreats and gatherings. At this point we are preserving our support of the newcomer and enquirers’ process and keeping costs of Wednesday night gatherings stable. We expect we will need to have another look at those programs next year. None of our full time staff will receive raises although some benefit costs have increased again, but all will keep their jobs. We expect to lose one clergy position and one other program position through attrition within the next two years which will necessitate some changes in how we are organized and how we support our ministries. Our real estate group is meeting to pursue finding additional tenants for the third floor of the Pritchett Center and the North Avenue front of Tate Hall generating additional income for the support of our properties pending longer term plans from our strategic thinking group and a change in the development climate.

All manageable. Not fun. Bit here’s where I am really proud of our leadership. We are looking at how to increase our giving for those in immediate need by increasing giving for mission one or two percent each of the next three years if possible. We are discussing setting aside money in 2009 for support for the unemployed in our parish, for those on the margins through our core ministries (Covenant Community, Threads, Refugees and Midtown Assistance), for those on the streets through a dedicated fund called the Sterne Fund and for those most vulnerable further afield through giving in support of the Millennium Development goals, probably through our companion relationships in global mission. There are many details of such a plan to be worked out and none of this has been approved as yet, but I am proud of the way our leadership is grasping the nettle, turning again to ask what is of real and ultimate worth and allowing our answers and intuitions, those promptings of the Holy Spirit, to shape our response. Please keep our vestry and finance committee in your prayers.

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