- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

The Episcopal Diocese of Washington has drastically revised its 2009 budget, largely because of paltry giving from the bulk of its congregations plus a drop in its investment income.

In an approximately $3.9 million budget approved in May by its diocesan council, the diocese made a series of staff and budget cuts to make up for a shortfall of more than $400,000 from initial revenue projections. The income projections included $357,800 less in pledges than the diocese anticipated from its 93 churches, plus an estimated $26,400 the diocese could lose in investment and interest income.

The 40,000-member Washington Diocese will undergo “an aggressive and rapid reduction in staff, across all levels,” according to Paul Cooney, canon to the ordinary for the diocese. Three staff members were let go in February.

The diocese also chopped off a $126,000 gift to denominational headquarters in New York by eliminating an annual contribution from the $21 million Ruth Gregory Soper Trust fund; overall, it plans to give $649,230 to the national church.

Part of the problem is that less than a quarter of the diocese’s 93 congregations tithe - or give 10 percent of their money to the diocese - according to diocesan spokesman Jim Naughton. The diocese does not mandate a set amount churches must give.

The remaining congregations appear to be strapped for money, and two or three clusters of churches may combine. Although some of the diocese’s fastest-growing congregations are Hispanic, the Spanish-speaking congregations do not tend to tithe.

The diocese is heir to numerous churches in several eastern Maryland counties that are small, expensive historic chapels that must stay open because of their designation or are attached to cemeteries that are historic. The resources to keep each of these chapels open and staffed would otherwise go to a larger church, Mr. Naughton said.

“More people are looking for full-service churches with at least part-time children’s ministry or music director,” he said.

The Washington Diocese’s cuts mirror the majority of other Episcopal dioceses around the country, 68 percent of which are reporting serious financial difficulties, according to a “State of the Church” report released by the denomination in March.

The rapidly aging Episcopal Church is experiencing 19,000 more deaths than births per year, which roughly equals the loss of a diocese annually.

The 2.1 million-member denomination has been losing members for year. In 2007, it had an average Sunday attendance of 727,822 people, a drop from 765,326 people in 2006.

“We asked what would inspire Episcopalians to fund the Episcopal Church,” the report said. “What would heighten the understanding that, ‘We are in this all together. We are interconnected. We have a common mission. We are not our divisions.’ ”

Four dioceses have seceded from the denomination because of the 2003 consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, as have chunks of members of other dioceses, including Virginia, the denomination’s largest.

The departure of 11 Northern Virginia churches in 2006 and 2007 - plus an unsuccessful lawsuit the Virginia Diocese subsequently filed to retain its property - greatly affected its finances. But the diocese has no need for cuts in its $4.8 million 2009 budget, a spokesman said.

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