by Eric Bonetti
An elderly friend of mine, wife of a prominent banker, used to say with a twinkle in her eye that there are just two problems with money: You either have too much, or not enough. A good observation, and one that I suspect is very relevant to The Episcopal Church.
Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable we are with the topic? Money truly makes us fidget.
Perhaps it’s a legacy of our former role as the quasi-state church, when we suffered an embarrassment of riches. Maybe it is discomfort with our diminished role in the world. Or it may be a fear that we are “selling faith.” But the discomfort clearly is there. And we’ve probably all sat through far too many sermons during this, the pledge season, in which the priest waxes on interminably about God’s grace, generosity and love. It’s clear she really is saying, “Please make a pledge,” and yet she never comes right out and gets to the point. (More than once, my mind has wandered during these sermons, and I’ve imagined myself caught in a trap, forced to gnaw my own arm off to get away.)
That discomfort also surfaces when our vestries and other governance structures talk about money. All too often, discussions about money and budget are an 11th-hour thing, done almost apologetically, as if somehow distasteful.
Part of the problem is that our dioceses and the national church do far too little to provide training to clergy and vestries about money, budgeting, and a healthy, affirming approach to finances. We pump hundreds of millions of dollars into our hierarchical infrastructure, yet how often do we see training materials to help our community manage money effectively? The fact the we typically lack even these basic materials speaks volumes about our stewardship, and what it says is not good. As a a result, we have far too many vestry members and clergy who don’t understand basic issues like how to read a financial statement, financial forecasting, or the importance of saving for capital expenditures.
We have a real reluctance, too, to cross the Rubicon when it comes to budget issues. All too few parishes and dioceses start from a zero-based budget, which typically preempts tough questions like, “Do we really need or want this ministry? Has it outlived its usefulness?” And many neuter their decision-makers, by controlling too closely financial detail and aggregating salary and other data. Doing so results in a lack of buy-in and accountability, and leaves our organizations vulnerable to breakdowns in financial control.
Speaking of, does anyone really believe that people in parishes and dioceses that, for example, obfuscate salary information, don’t eventually figure out the details? Or imagine the reality to be worse than it really is? One parish I know aggregates its salary and compensation data, with the result that there is endless criticism that the rector is one of the highest-paid priests in the country. Not true, but it just goes to show how wrongheaded it is to be “clever” when it comes to finances.
We also send some powerful messages in how we spend and manage our money. On the one hand, it was encouraging to see signs of increased collaboration within the organization as we worked toward our last triennial budget. On the other hand, the scars of our historic infighting about the budget remain, and overhead at the national level remains shockingly high. Indeed, if the national church were a charity, it would get a dismal governance rating, given that almost 40 percent of revenue goes to overhead. Per Charity Navigator: “We believe that those [charities] spending less than a third of their budget on program expenses are simply not living up to their missions. Charities demonstrating such gross inefficiency receive a 0-star rating for their Financial Health.” And yet we still have not sold 815.
Similarly, a great many Episcopalians probably fell out of their chairs when the National Cathedral reported that it needs $200 million to stabilize its finances. That’s right—roughly as much money as the national church will pull in over the next six years. Yet, the ink was hardly dry on this announcement when the Cathedral announced plans to replace two stained glass windows depicting images related to the Confederacy—a move that would be costly indeed. And while I strongly support efforts to end racism, this is neither the highest nor best use of the money in a city where far too many lack food, shelter and medical care. A well-intended announcement, to be sure, but tone-deaf in the extreme.
What does the future hold? I’m optimistic that our beloved Episcopal Church will grow and prosper, particularly since we are on the right side of diversity and inclusion, albeit too often late to the game. But adopting a healthy approach to money and finances, and professionalizing our business operations, is going to be essential if we want to earn the trust of future generations.
What do you think? Is your parish, diocese, or other Episcopal entity well run? Are you comfortable discussing financial issues?
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor