[Episcopal News Service] The Bishop’s message landed in the inboxes of Episcopalians in Vermont last month with a hopeful subject, “Building a bridge to the future”. But the main thing was disastrous: the diocese of Vermont is heading towards a “financial cliff,” one expert concluded, and budget cuts alone will not prevent the fall.
“Cutting costs is just a short-term survival strategy that will help us build a bridge to our new future,” Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown said in his July 21 message. She also announced a new working group that will examine long-term strategies to support congregations and ministries in the diocese, and she raised the prospect of greater collaboration and resource sharing with New Dioceses. Hampshire and Maine. “While I know this news may surprise some of you, the challenges to the financial sustainability of our ministry have been in the works for decades, and we will not solve them overnight,” she wrote. .
Bishop of Vermont Shannon MacVean-Brown. Photo: Diocese of Vermont
MacVean-Brown later said in a telephone interview with the Episcopal News Service that there was no question of merging with any other diocese, but she felt compelled by the assessment of her diocese’s finances to speak candidly about the urgent need of a different way. The challenges facing her diocese are similar throughout the Episcopal Church, she said, and she remains hopeful.
“This is the mission of Jesus. What would Jesus want us to do right now, and how can we use all of our resources to do this work? MacVean-Brown told ENS. “I don’t know the result. … I just know that we are going to talk about the realities and do something new, and that we are going to trust God to be with us.
The new Vermont Task Force for Hope, Revitalization, Innovation, Vitality and Effectiveness, or THRIVE, will study organizational models being tested by other episcopal dioceses. In particular, MacVean-Brown highlighted the ongoing partnership between the Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and West New York. Bishop Sean Rowe, who oversees these two dioceses, addressed the new Diocese of Vermont task force at its first meeting on July 26. MacVean-Brown began discussing options with the Bishops of New Hampshire and Maine.
MacVean-Brown has led the Diocese of Burlington since September 2019. His predecessor, Rt. The Rev. Thomas Ely, was bishop for 18 years, following what the diocese described as a model of a “bishop in partnership” who sought to empower local leaders.
“It’s more than just the money,” MacVean-Brown said. “It’s much bigger than that. It goes back decades.
The diocese of Vermont is one of the smallest in the Episcopal Church, with approximately 5,700 members baptized in 2019, according to the most recently published church data. It has 10 full-time clergy and 45 congregations. Diocesan records indicate that most congregations operate without full-time clergy, and all but three report an average Sunday attendance of less than 100 faithful.
The predominantly rural state has a population of 624,000, fewer than all other states except Wyoming, and 94% of Vermonters are white, according to the US Census Bureau. Residents aged 65 and over make up 20% of Vermont’s population, and MacVean-Brown, the diocese’s first black bishop, noted to the ENS that many church members are older adults.
Vermont’s membership trend mirrors that of the region and the wider Episcopal Church, which saw an 8% drop in membership from 2014 to 2019. Vermont is part of the Church’s Province I, which encompasses the seven dioceses of New England, and these dioceses recorded an average decline of 12%. members over the past five years. Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and western Massachusetts have seen plate and income pledge decline from 3% to 7% in those five years, while Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island recorded five-year increases of 4% to 8%.
Financial hardship is always an uncomfortable topic in the Episcopal Church, MacVean-Brown said, and Church policy is not a reliable guide. “It doesn’t say anything about what happens when a diocese cannot support itself financially, so there is this expectation that it will not happen,” she said. “And I think that because we haven’t talked about it; it is indisputable.
The Diocese of Vermont’s membership has declined by about 13% in the five years ending 2019. While its budget has hovered around $ 1 million in recent years, its income from Plate and Promise donations have gradually declined by more than 3% since 2014, creating a long, unsustainable period. long-term budget deficit, according to the financial adviser that the diocese hired this year to take a closer look at its financial outlook. For now, the diocese says it is keeping its finances stable thanks to federal pandemic assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program, but the financial consultant has concluded that by the first quarter of 2023 , “diocesan expenses will far exceed income”.
MacVean-Brown anticipated the verdict. When she applied for this position in 2018, the diocese says in his bishop research profile he planned to maintain his existing model of leadership, but also hinted at financial difficulties and suggested that high expectations would be placed on the new bishop of Vermont. “We are inevitably on the verge of some important and intimidating acts of faith that will require special attention, creative ideas and the willingness to bond with one another in love,” the diocese said in the introduction to his research profile.
In the “Bishop We Seeking” section of the profile, diocesan leaders said they had considered other leadership options, such as a part-time or provisional bishop or sharing a bishop with another diocese, but they eventually chose to recruit another full-time bishop. .
“We recognize that our next bishop must have an innovative spirit, ready-made energy and, as one person so aptly called it, a sense of holiness,” said the diocese. “We don’t know what finances will look like in the future, and what other creative bishopric structure might turn out in the future.”
In her interview with the ENS, MacVean-Brown said such cautionary language caught her attention, and although she took the opportunity to lead the diocese, she felt it was important to face tough financial realities with honesty and openness.
“I’m no money genius,” she said, but about a year ago she took a closer look at diocesan finances and saw a point of crisis looming. Until then, she said, the dire financial outlook had been obscured by layers of the diocesan bureaucracy, including many finance-related committees. To get an expert’s opinion, she signed a contract in early 2021 with Stephen Burnett, a former partner of the professional services company Deloitte who had chaired the finance committee of the Diocese of Atlanta for 27 years.
“I didn’t want to be right,” MacVean-Brown said. “I don’t want to be right, but I need to know.”
Burnett’s assessment confirmed “problems ahead” for the diocese. Following his recommendations, the bishop and other diocesan leaders decided to cut spending as a preliminary measure, including refusing to fill a vacant position.
In the past, the diocese has made cuts to balance the budget, to continue to deal with the need for further cuts, MacVean-Brown told ENS. She had to seek new ways to support the clergy, develop lay leadership, and develop episcopal ministries while rethinking the organizational and financial strategies of the past. Merely “managing the decline” will not work, she said. “It significantly decreases our ability to be present in our communities. “
The partnership between the Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York is a model of innovation. Since 2018, they share a bishop, combine administrative functions and pursue joint ministries. The Dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan established a similar partnership in 2019, and in Wisconsin, the Dioceses of Eau Claire and Fond du Lac are in the early stages of expanding their outreach efforts. collaboration while sharing a bishop. Another example is the Diocese of Western Kansas, where Rt. Reverend Mark Cowell has served as Bishop since December 2018, while retaining some of his pastoral duties.
MacVean-Brown began speaking regularly with the Bishop of New Hampshire, Robert Hirschfeld, and the Bishop of Maine, Thomas Brown, about how their dioceses can work together more closely. Options she cited include staff sharing and collaboration in ministries across the region while allowing each diocese to maintain its own identity. Although New Hampshire and Maine Demographically resemble Vermont, each state has twice as many inhabitants as Vermont and twice as many Episcopalians – about 11,000 in each of the two dioceses.
At the same time, the Diocese of Vermont is proud of his recent achievementssaid the bishop. At the start of the pandemic, a few dozen Episcopalians who met regularly to pray on Zoom established a new online congregation they call the Green Mountain Row Abbey. In addition, about 40 people registered for a secular preaching course offered by the diocese this year. The diocese recently received a grant from the Episcopal Church to support a ministry in Killington that works with a local Indigenous community. And MacVean-Brown commended members of the diocese for facing the uncomfortable subject of the pro-slavery views of the first bishop of the diocese, the right. Reverend John Henry Hopkins.
She takes history to heart by Matthew 14 of Jesus calling Peter from the boat to walk towards him on the water, despite the probability that he would drown. “He had to make a conscious effort to get out of the boat in the storm,” MacVean-Brown said, suggesting that faith would move the church forward as well.
“Instead of staying in that boat out of fear, he went out to go to Jesus, so that’s what we’re going to do. “
– David Paulsen is editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Egan Millard contributed to this story.