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Bishop John Harvey Taylor, speaking at the June 11 digital meeting of Diocesan Council, invited Southland Episcopalians to become “co-visionaries” of a restructured, more just and prophetic church.

Such restructuring would address the systemic inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent murders of George Floyd and other unarmed African Americans by white police officers and vigilantes. It would also reframe as a justice issue the current diocesan shortfall of more than half a million dollars in unpaid congregational pledges.

“The world needs our church,” Taylor said. “We need to make sure that the church that emerges from this crisis … is a financially stronger church so that it can last, so we can keep doing the work the world needs and (become) a fairer, more just, more inclusive church.”

“Dust off every idea you’ve ever had about how we can run this thing better … about how we can talk to one another prophetically and pastorally, about money and our obligations to one another,” Taylor said. “We can’t continue to give $1 million a year to our mission congregations if wealthier churches don’t pay their mission share fund.

“The only way we’ll do that is if we use this moment to completely rethink how we’re structured and to fix whatever in our structure holds people at bay.”

Returning to church; bases of connection

As congregations contemplate the June 20 – 21 proposed dates for returning to in-person worship, they are wrestling with “some scary things,” Taylor said.

“We wonder if everyone’s going to come back when we return to physical presence. Or, if more casual folks who’ve been parts of our community might be lost to us,” he said. “And there’s some who may drift away because they don’t feel safe coming back to church and, for whatever reason, don’t engage as well digitally. We can’t see the future.”

Bishop Suffragan Diane M. Jardine Bruce told council members that ‘building bases of connection” is essential both for financial stewardship and for the shape of future worship—online, in-person, a hybrid of both, or a combination of all three.

Bruce and Davey Gerhard, executive director of TENS, the Episcopal Network for Stewardship, hosted a June 6 workshop, the first of three designed to aid congregational stewardship in the age of COVID-19. About one hundred attended the online workshop, offered in both Spanish and English.

“What emerged is that people are hungry to learn how to hold online galas, silent auctions, and other fundraising,” she said. The webinar included “why you need to have those relationships in order to have people pledge” and information about online pledge platforms. The presentations will be made available to the diocesan community. Future workshops are slated for July 11 and August 1, 2020.

Mission share fund pledges. a justice conversation

Treasurer Andy Tomat’s report — that the diocese is running about $700,000 below the mission share fund (MSF) pledged amounts for 2020 — sparked a spirited conversation about appropriate ways to collect the unpaid funds. At least four parishes — including two of the diocese’s largest — account for about one-half of the shortfall, he said.

“Collecting mission share fund pledges is incredibly crucial to our financial well-being, so that we can continue doing the work that we are called to do,” said the Rev. Michele Racusin, chief financial officer. The shortfall would drop to about $50,000, if the pledges were paid, she said.

Sometimes congregational leaders misunderstand the MSF’s purpose, believing, Tomat said, that “it is a tax that goes downtown and pays for the bishop’s salary and building” instead of aiding under-resourced mission congregations.

Suggestions for collecting the funds ranged from holding pastoral conversations with clergy, vestries, and even letter-writing. Bob Williams, canon for Common Life, said that perhaps some congregations are continuing to address mail to a former diocesan post office box that has been discontinued.

Because the funds aid under-resourced congregations, the lack of payment becomes “a justice conversation,” Taylor said.

“We all have to take care of each other, and we need … a just structure to make sure that the least of these are at the top of the heap in the Diocese of Los Angeles,” he said. The diocesan capital campaign, “Means of Grace,” which aims to raise $65 million over three years, intends to help reform those structures, Taylor said.

Otherwise, poorer and smaller churches and those on the margins are sacrificed “unless we build a structure based on how not to do it,” Taylor said.

The bishop’s task force on budget and finance is also involved in conversations about collecting unpaid MSF, said Dan Valdez, chair of the board of the Episcopal Community Federal Credit Union, an economic justice ministry of the diocese.

A task force committee is drafting a policy to govern future endowments to the diocese that will dovetail with the capital campaign. The group is also focused on next year’s budget process.

Loans received through the Payroll Protection Act have been extended from 8 to 24 weeks, he said. The task force is supporting the finance department’s goals to ensure congregations receive forgiveness of those loans, he said.

In response to questions, Taylor confirmed that receipt of the PPP funds is contingent upon congregations contributing to the MSF.

The bishops, along with the Rev. Melissa McCarthy, canon to the ordinary, held a June 9 online meeting with mission congregation lay and clergy leaders. The discussion included navigating finances and returning to in-person worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the Rev. Kelli Grace Kurtz, chair of the program group on mission congregations.

The PGMC has changed its regular meeting date to the first Thursday of each month via Zoom. Mission congregations will only need to resubmit the current year’s financial statements, along with a proposed 2021 budget, as part of next year’s mission development grant application, she said.

A call to be more prophetic

The May 25 murder of George Floyd, “was the moment I think we began to hear, okay, now’s the time to stop worrying quite as much as we are about how we’re going to keep this thing going and to get back to Jesus Christ’s work to save the world,” Taylor told council members.

Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed African American man, died while in the custody of Minneapolis police. His death sparked weeks of worldwide protests and demands for racial justice. Four officers have been charged in connection with Floyd’s death.

That, along with the recent deaths of others, and the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 virus on Latinx, African Americans and nursing home residents, call the church to be more prophetic, Taylor said.

“We are models, first of all about accountability, for our own sense of white supremacy, the way we have continued to keep the ‘move along, there’s nothing for you here’ on a sign attached to our doors.”

“We are working on that, and we will keep working on that. Owning our failure is half the battle. And then we’ve got to find our voice and keep proclaiming hope and peace and justice, as Jesus wants us to do.”

In other council actions:

  • Bloy House interim dean: Bishop Taylor praised the ministry of the Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney, who will retire as dean of Bloy House (ETSC) on August 1. He welcomed the Very Rev. Canon Gary Hall, a former dean of the Seabury Western Theological Seminary, as interim dean. Hall said he will serve in the post for one year (see related story here). A search committee, chaired by Canon Steve Nishibayashi, secretary of convention and vice chair of the Bloy House board, is seeking a new dean.
  • New Community: Bishop Suffragan Diane M. Jardine Bruce said she has hosted weekly online meetings with Latino and Hispanic clergy and that the Program Group on Black Ministries has added a co-chair, the Rev. John Limo, rector of St. Timothy’s in Apple Valley. Canon Suzanne Edwards-Acton of St. Stephen’s, Hollywood, will continue as co-chair.
  • The Compensation Committee has developed a survey in Spanish and English to be mailed to congregations, requesting information about clergy compensation and benefits and the COVID-19 virus’s economic impact on those matters. Chaired by Bishop Bruce, the committee is examining inequities among lay and clergy leadership compensation.
  • ECW, DOK: Episcopal Church Women has awarded four emergency medical grants to those facing hardships, according to President Christine Budzowski. Clergy may apply for the grants, up to $500, on behalf of parishioners. If approved, the funds are administered through clergy discretionary accounts. The annual provincial meetings of both the ECW meeting, planned for August 8, and the Aug. 28 meeting of the Daughters of the King, will be held online.
  • Diocesan, General Convention Updates: Canon Steve Nishibayashi, Secretary of Convention, said the format for the 126th annual diocesan convention is still being finalized. “The dates (Nov. 13 – 14) will be the same, but how those days are configured remains to be revealed,” he said. The meeting was originally planned for the Riverside Convention Center, but may be held partly or wholly online.
  • Similarly, the Episcopal Church is considering whether to postpone or to meet virtually for the 80th General Convention, planned for June 30-July 9, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland, according to Los Angeles Deputy Kathryn Nishibayashi.
  • Communication — Digital resources available to congregations: Bob Williams said digital resources are available to assist congregations in leading online worship. Resources may be accessed by emailing him at bobwilliams@ladiocese.org.
  • Interfaith COVID-19 relief: Tthe diocese, through its many interfaith partnerships, has assisted in providing meals to the disabled in Los Angeles, Williams reported. The diocese also was gifted 2,000 cloth masks by the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation of San Dimas.

The next meeting of Diocesan Council is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 9.