[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal leaders publicly discussed for the first time on June 7 the anticipated cost of moving to a shorter, smaller 80th General Convention. The increased expense of scaling down the gathering in Baltimore, Maryland, will more than offset any savings, they said, leaving the church with a net additional cost of about $1.1 million.
The discussion of the financial impact of the 80th General Convention occurred during a meeting of Executive Council, one of the day’s two online meetings to finalize proposed changes put forth by the Presiding Officers’ General Convention Design Group. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, House of Deputies president, formed the group in response to lingering concerns about COVID-19 transmission at the large, churchwide gathering.
During the first meeting, Bryan Krislock, the House of Deputies’ parliamentarian and co-chair of the design group, presented the group’s recommendations to the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements. Key recommendations included reducing the convention from eight to four days, July 8-11, limiting attendees and expanding public health precautions, such as requiring daily negative coronavirus tests.
“We had to select a period of time where we could be good stewards of the church’s resources,” Krislock said in explaining the choice of dates. A four-day conference also helps minimize the threat of “cycles of infections,” and it follows the suggestion of a public health expert previously hired by Jennings with Executive Council’s authorization.
The Planning and Arrangements committee voted to accept the design group’s recommendations as well as an updated schedule. Executive Council, though not required to approve the full plan, signed off specifically on the date changes in its early afternoon meeting. Curry and Jennings now may put the new plan into action while the design group finalizes remaining details for the in-person gathering, such as setting a worship schedule and prioritizing resolutions for the shorter legislative session.
The design group recommended a June 6 deadline for new resolutions, and legislative committees, while continuing to meet online this month, have been asked to conclude their work by June 25 so that the House of Bishops and House of Deputies can devote their four days in Baltimore to legislative sessions.
Diane Pollard, an Executive Council member from the Diocese of New York, praised the General Convention Office and other church leaders for acting so quickly to reshape the gathering in Baltimore in response to concerns raised over the continued threat of COVID-19 infection. The move to a shorter convention has been executed “pretty flawlessly,” Pollard said. “An outstanding job has been done here.”
The Rev. Michael Barlowe, secretary of General Convention, presided June 7 over the Planning and Arrangements committee meeting as chair, and he opened the subsequent meeting of Executive Council with a summary of the ways the changes to the 80th General Convention are expected to affect revenue and expenses.
The 80th General Convention initially had been forecast to draw 10,000 people to Baltimore when it was scheduled for July 2021, before the pandemic forced a postponement, Barlowe said. Now that it has been rescheduled for July 2022, only bishops and deputies and essential staff members and volunteers are expected to attend in person. Dioceses will be asked to send only two alternate deputies, and inactive bishops will be asked to stay home.
Barlowe’s office estimates that revenue from fees paid by attendees will total $700,000 less than the $1.35 million originally budgeted, partly because exhibitors will no longer be invited. The cost of enhanced COVID-19 precautions could reach $100,000, including face masks and daily rapid tests for all attendees.
Reduced hotel stays are another liability for the church, if not dioceses, though, Barlowe said the dioceses should be able to reduce the duration of their deputations’ reservations without any additional financial burden. The Episcopal Church, however, guarantees a certain number of stays at hotels in the host city even if those rooms aren’t needed, so with a shorter convention, the church likely will incur a penalty cost.
“Our best estimate at this time is that will be between a half million and three quarters of a million dollars,” Barlowe said.
In addition to those hotel costs, The Episcopal Church anticipates about $200,000 in other unforeseen expenses related to the shorter convention, including some that would have been offset by $120,000 in incentives from Baltimore if the conference had spanned nearly two weeks as originally planned.
At the same time, it hopes to realize about $100,000 in savings from not needing to host as many people. And Kurt Barnes, the church’s chief financial officer, told Executive Council that he estimates about $500,000 in additional savings related to reductions in in-person churchwide staff presence.
Combining those expense and revenue adjustments produces an estimated net loss of about $1.1 million related to the new proposal for gathering in Baltimore.
Executive Council previously had budgeted about $3 million for 2022 in General Convention Office expenses related to the meeting in Baltimore, which was to be partly offset by $1.35 million in income.
Some members of Planning and Arrangements and Executive Council raised concerns about how the changes could diminish the economic boost that Baltimore was counting on from the 80th General Convention, particularly as it would benefits service workers.
Krislock alluded to those concerns in outlining a meal plan still under discussion. Under the tentative plan, the General Convention Office would work with local vendors to provide breakfast and boxed lunches – a way of supporting the local food industry while also reducing the need to dine with others inside restaurants, where the risk of COVID-19 could be higher.
“This is not a normal convention,” Krislock said, acknowledging that the family reunion atmosphere that many Episcopalians expect at the triennial meetings of General Convention isn’t possible this year.
“It’s not a normal convention, and we’re not treating it as a normal convention in our recommendations,” Krislock said. The focus will be on key priorities over four days, he said, and additional legislation that is deemed noncritical may be deferred until 2024, when the 81st General Convention is scheduled to meet in Louisville, Kentucky.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.