Follow the money

As the COVID-19 crisis is causes massive and unprecedented financial upheaval throughout the world, can "following the money" show us where our priorities lie? Photo: Kristijan Zontar/Shutterstock
Published April 8, 2020

“Follow the money” became, during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, a catchphrase to describe a technique of investigative journalism. To find out what really happened, it is said, you need to “follow the money” to the source of the crime or the scandal.

David Harrison

The COVID-19 crisis is neither a crime nor a scandal. But it is a defining moment which is causing a massive and unprecedented financial upheaval throughout the world. Employees are losing their jobs, small business owners are struggling, tenants are worried about paying rent, homeowners are concerned about paying their mortgage, retirees are seeing their life savings depleted, not-for-profit organizations are anticipating a damaging fall-off in philanthropy. And the church, of course, is not immune to this financial upheaval. Congregations, parishes, dioceses are all struggling to come up with financial plans for the church to survive, retain its clergy and staff, and be ready for the time when everything returns to “normal.”

In Canada as a whole, if we are to “follow the money,” we see it flowing down from the top. The federal government has launched a series of unprecedented measures to replace lost income for employees and to assist employers who have lost revenue to retain staff. The cost of these emergency measures now exceeds $90 billion, which is more than one quarter of the amount the federal government would have spent this year in ordinary circumstances. These emergency funds are flowing from the federal treasury directly into the pockets of employees and employers who are impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Churches and dioceses may well be the beneficiary of some of this assistance.

If we are to “follow the money” in the church, it flows the other way. It flows up. The Anglican Church of Canada as an institution depends on thousands of individuals and families who, week by week, support their local parish church. These gifts pay clergy, musicians and other staff members. They support outreach programs, liturgical and pastoral ministry. They keep the buildings up to scratch and the lights on. From this income at the parish level, dioceses take a proportion set by an assessment rate on parish income. These funds, in turn, support episcopal ministry and other diocesan-wide programs. And then, in turn, each diocese makes a gift to the national church to support the ministry of the primate and other nationwide activities and initiatives. Whereas parish support of dioceses is compulsory (perhaps similar to a tax), diocesan support of the national church is voluntary. And, as the Council of General Synod was informed last month, the overall support from dioceses of the national church has declined by $800,000 since 2016.

The contrast between how money flows nationally and how it flows in the church makes a huge difference. In a sense, all of it comes from individuals. Governments collect taxes which it then spends on services to support its citizens. But in the church, individuals give money locally, some of which flows up to support dioceses and, eventually, the national church. Which means that in times such as ours where parish income is declining overall, the financial resources of dioceses and the national church are declining, and will continue to do so.

As people of faith, we deal (as much as we are able) with the currency of God’s kingdom: love, peace, gentleness, justice, redemption. But we are also of this world and must also deal with the primary currency of the world: money. It remains to be seen exactly what the church will look like when the COVID-19 crisis is over, but it already is certain that it will not look the same. Despite whatever ambitious and clever stewardship strategies we employ, or whatever extraordinary generosity some will be able to offer, there will be less money. People who have lost jobs or been laid off will not be able to give at the same level. Parishes which rely on daycares and independent schools as tenants will have lost income. Parishes which rely on investment income will have less. There are early signs in some places that this moment of international crisis is actually leading people to seek spiritual perspectives and may lead some to faith. This is fabulous and encouraging news. But still, we must face the reality that, from a financial point of view, the church post-COVID will be smaller than it was before this crisis hit.

“Following the money” also leads us to discover where priorities lie. What we spend our money on is a very good indication of what is important to us. A question before the church, at this time and in the future, will be where the financial resources are invested. What will our priorities be? What will we have to let go of in order to retain something else? It seems that this unexpected and unanticipated crisis is already propelling the Anglican Church of Canada into radical changes and adjustments that would have, absent the crisis, taken several years to unfold.

My own diocese of Toronto recently took a bold, courageous and visionary decision to shoulder the costs of parish clergy for two months (April and May), and to forgive parish contributions to the diocese for those two months. This comes at a cost of $3.5 million. Other dioceses (at the time of writing including New Westminster, Nova Scotia & PEI, and Eastern Newfoundland & Labrador) have taken similar initiatives. These dioceses have determined that their priority in this time of crisis is to do what they can with their financial resources, assets and credit facility to support “life on the ground” in parish communities. Some other dioceses may follow suit. But not every diocese will have the same capability of taking steps such as these. Indeed, almost one-third of Canadian dioceses are part of the Council of the North and rely extensively on funding from Canadian Anglicans through the national church.

This crisis is upending our ecclesiology (the way we understand the church), and that is likely to take shape in some difficult financial decisions ahead of us. In a smaller church with more limited resources, where will our priorities be? How will we best fund ministry “on the ground,” where it touches people’s lives and changes their hearts? In a diverse church with places of great wealth and others of considerable poverty, how we will, collectively as Anglicans in Canada, ensure that we are present where God lives, and moves and has God’s being? If we follow the money, we will find the answer.

The Rev. Canon David Harrison is rector of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.


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