Sticker Shock

Often I am asked about the “big issues” in the Episcopal school world, namely, the emerging topics and themes that seem to be popping up with some regularity and intensity throughout the country. If I were to review this past school year and come up with one such issue, it would have to do with finances.

That comes as no surprise, I am sure. However, it is the nature of the issue surrounding finances that is both complex and unique. So many of our schools exist in relationship with another institution—a parish, a diocese, a cathedral—and indeed it is the fact that our schools exist in relationship with institutions beyond themselves that is one of the distinctive features of being an Episcopal school. When I speak of finances as being one of those key issues, it is within the context of that relationship that the story behind this issue reveals its peculiar plot.

A growing number of our Episcopal parishes throughout the country have experienced mounting financial pressures over the past two years. While schools have hardly been exempt from these pressures, their relative financial shape as compared with parishes has been, for the most part, better. Many of our schools possess reserves that parishes simply do not have; furthermore, parishioners can get the impression that families who attend the school are—again, relatively speaking—wealthy and prosperous (just see some of the automobiles in the car pool each day!). With much larger budgets, or staff who have received salary increases while the salaries of church employees have been frozen or even lowered, schools appear to be in a much more enviable position.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving. A good many of our schools operate within narrow financial parameters, and financial cuts in program and personnel have been a reality for a great many of our schools since 2008. Many of the so-called wealthy families also have been struggling with making ends meet. Virtually every school has had to increase its financial aid budget, given the pressures so many families are facing. These are not nearly as obvious and striking to the outsider looking in, but they are realities just the same for schools. Still, compared with many parishes with diminishing pledge units and income, the school appears to be prospering.

The scenario has led, in many cases, to reviewing space agreements, renegotiating fee structures paid to the host parish, and seeking to merge staff positions (such as business officers) in order for the church to stay afloat financially. These have created no small number of tensions in the past year. The school can find itself both surprised by the revised expectations of the parish as well as wondering what will be expected of them from the parish in the future. Many, indeed, have experienced “sticker shock” when it comes to financial arrangements with parishes.

A good relationship of any kind is a mixture of togetherness and autonomy, of true partnership and distinctive identities. Right now it appears that many parishes want more from schools, in the way of increased financial support, and that comes to many schools as a threat to the other end of the pendulum, the autonomous side. Parishes may argue that they founded the school in the first place, in many cases kept it going financially in its early and vulnerable stages; now is the time for the school to return some of that support. Schools reply that their financial margins are not only different in nature than that of the parish but a lot narrower than what might be seen at first glance. The nature of planning in many schools is also less accommodating for surprises; will parishes, they ask, be coming back to us with more unexpected requests of this type?

What will be the outcome in this frequent and growing pressure on this relationship? It is hard to say, and, like any tension in a relationship, it is tempting but important not to over-identify with one side or the other. However, there are a couple of questions that schools and parishes need to be considering as they plan together for the future:

  • What different scenarios can we anticipate for this relationship in the future? What will happen if things grow more difficult for the parish in the years ahead? What burdens will that put on schools? What are the worse case, best case scenarios that we should not sidestep considering?
  • What are the obligations schools have to parishes, and parishes have to schools, when one or both encounter financial hardship? Does the nature of this relationship call for one type of response or another?

As we move further into uncertain financial futures, there is at least one hopeful reminder for us all: times of stress can actually strengthen relationships, not just put additional burdens on them. This can be a time when the movement between connection and autonomy can grow more graceful, compassionate, and indelible.