- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee said Friday that he will retire three months early, on Oct. 1, in a bid to save money for his financially-strapped diocese.

“My resignation will occur several months earlier that I had originally anticipated,” he said to 700 Episcopalians gathered at the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia’s annual council at the Reston Hyatt, “but I believe it is an appropriate and necessary response to the realities we face.”

His early resignation will save the diocese $63,000, one-quarter of his salary package that includes housing, travel and other benefits, according to diocesan treasurer Mike Kerr.

The loss of 11 conservative Northern Virginia churches in 2006 over issues of biblical authority and homosexuality, the ensuing lawsuit over church property that the diocese is appealing to the Virginia Supreme Court and an economic crisis that has dried up church contributions nationwide soured Bishop Lee’s recent tenure.

One of the Episcopal Church’s three most senior bishops, Bishop Lee, 70, has since 1984 ordained 235 deacons, 190 priests and confirmed 15,982 people. Under his leadership, Virginia became the country’s largest diocese at 95,000 members.

“I would like to finish this ministry with a sense of accomplishment and completion,” said the bishop, in a wistful speech sprinkled with words such as “incompleteness” and “unfinished.”

“The final months of our ministry together will not be a time of tidy endings … In our incompleteness, we wait for Christ’s victory and completion, not our own,” he said.

The bishop, who plans to move to Chapel Hill, N.C., was given a lengthy standing ovation. He will be replaced by Bishop Shannon S. Johnston, 50, who was elected in 2007 to succeed Bishop Lee.

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia — now at 80,000 members — is proposing an increase of $22,927 for a $4.8 million 2009 budget; a bare-bones amount, Bishop Lee said, because of lackluster contributions from 180 parishes and missions.

“We continue to live with the lowest level of parish giving to the diocese of any diocese in the Episcopal Church,” he said. “That is an unacceptable legacy as we prepare to support the transition to Bishop Johnston’s leadership,” Bishop Lee said.

Although the diocese operates on a “Virginia plan” of voluntary giving from its churches, the diocesan Web site suggests amounts ranging from 8 percent to 16 percent of a parish’s budget. The diocesan average, Mr. Kerr said, is 6 percent.

The diocese is also paying interest on a $2 million line of credit it took out a year ago to fund the lawsuit. Interest payments on the loan jumped from $70,000 in 2008 to $105,000 this year.

The Episcopal Fund, a diocesan endowment, is paying the interest. The diocese will pay back the fund, the bishop said, with sales of unused church property when the real estate market improves.

The council meeting will end Saturday at noon.