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Financial cliff on the horizon. ASA, Baptized membership, congregations, communicants all down

By David W. Virtue, DD
August 3, 2021

In what might become the inevitable story of most dioceses in The Episcopal Church, the bishop of Vermont, Shannon MacVean-Brown, wrote in a letter to the diocese, that after three years in the job, an independent financial assessment of the diocese revealed a "financial cliff is on the horizon."

"The bishop envisioned financial shortfalls 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," said the auditor.

"The elected leaders of the diocese and I are taking immediate steps to restrict spending. We are leaving a vacant staff position unfilled, seeking assessment relief from the Episcopal Church, and repurposing previously restricted funds for operating expenses," said Shannon.

"We are also working actively to create a single diocesan finance committee that will seek to overcome the barriers created by what the financial assessment called a "staggering number of finance-related committees and subcommittees" that "cloud the financial picture and lead to confusion for the stakeholders ... and stymie decision making."

Shannon opined that it was not just cost-cutting and streamlining alone, but cutting expenditures would not be enough to survive on current revenues, "which are declining as our congregations grow smaller and older. We 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."

Cost-cutting is only a short-term survival strategy that will help us build a bridge to our new future, she said. "Vacant staff positions would be left unfilled, seeking assessment relief from the Episcopal Church, and repurposing previously restricted funds for operating expenses."

"I have also begun conversations with my colleagues in the Dioceses of New Hampshire and Maine about how our three dioceses might work together collaboratively, building shared capacity for both ministry and administration. Across the church, dioceses are realizing significant cost savings by sharing bishops and staff while retaining independent identities and governance."

Here are the facts about the diocese.

The number of congregations has dropped from 49 to 45 since 2001. Baptized membership has dropped from 8624 to 5674 a loss of 2,950 or 34.2%. Communicants have dropped from 9,620 to 4,511 in 2019 a loss of 43.8%. Average Sunday Attendance dropped precipitously from 3,331 in 2002 to 1,866 in 2019, a loss of 1,464 or 44%. Church school pupils declined by over 60% from 879 to 348 with baptisms declining by 76.7% from 206 to 48. Children dropped from 175 to 39 a decline of 77.7%. Weddings declined from 115 in 2001 to 29 in 2019 a drop of 74.8%.

Finances in 2018 were $3,719,784. By 2019 they were $3,698,985, a decrease of $20,799.

Shannon inherited the mess from Bishop Thomas Ely (X Vermont), who was consecrated bishop in 2001 and retired in 2019.

The other two New England dioceses seem headed for the same ecclesiastical night and will need propping up by the national church.

In the diocese of Maine, now under the leadership of Thomas Brown, an openly homosexual bishop, the diocese is not faring much better.

They have lost 7 parishes, dropping from 66 to 59. Baptized membership and communicants are both down. ASA has dropped from 4,804 to 3,537, a loss of 26%. Counted together, plate and pledge in 2018 was $7,281,826, by 2019 it had dropped to $7,122,917, a loss of $159,909. Over the last five years, finances dropped by $254,573.

From the diocese of New Hampshire where Robert Hirschfeld (X New Hampshire) was consecrated coadjutor bishop in August 2012 and became bishop ordinary in January 2013 when +Vicky Gene Robinson (IX New Hampshire) retired, the situation is dire.

They have lost two parishes, baptized membership has declined by nearly 11%, communicants have dropped by 21% with ASA dropping from 4,027 to 3,338 in 2019 a decline of 17.1% or 679. The one bright note was plate and pledge, which in 2018 was $7,050,276 and by 2019 was $7,301,539 an increase of $251,263 or 3.6%.

The 2020 stats are not yet out and when they are revealed this fall, they will be skewered because they will be COVID pandemic stats.


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