Monday, May 23, 2011

Scaled-back Capital Campaign

The rector and Vestry presented their scaled-back capital campaign proposal at yesterday’s adult forum. The main presentation was done by treasurer Bob Johnston. Bob claimed that parish leaders listened to what parishioners said about Fulfilling the Vision, and there was evidence that that was true. The scope of the coming campaign is more restricted, and the amount of money the parish seeks to raise is substantially smaller than that of the overreaching Fulfilling the Vision. In fact, the campaign is so scaled back, it isn’t even clear that it has a name. The title slide of yesterday’s PowerPoint presentation contained the slogan “Celebrating Our Heritage/Securing Our Future,” but that was juxtaposed to “175th Anniversary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1836–2011.” In case that slogan was meant to be a name for the campaign, it should be said at the outset that it’s too long. (“Conserving Our Heritage” wouldn’t be such a bad title.)


Bob Johnston articulated a number of principles for the capital campaign:
  1. The parish will take on no new debt.
  2. Projects will be undertaken on a pay-as-you-go basis.
  3. Costs will be kept as low as possible.
  4. Annual stewardship will remain the parish’s first priority.
These precepts require some explanation and comment. Items (1) and (2) are closely related. In our most recent capital campaigns, we did not quite raise the amount of money we needed to do the work we undertook, and we were required to use loans to complete the projects. (I think our outstanding loan may in part be needed to pay for our organ, which is more than a decade old. It is also paying for parking lot paving, for which we did not even try to raise extra funds.) Whereas some financial people would argue that paying of a $60,000 loan at 3% interest is not a high priority, there is a symbolic value in getting rid of existing debt and reassuring the parish that additional debt will not be assumed. Retiring debt was universally applauded in the Fulfilling the Vision plan.

The pay-as-you-go idea would not be practical for a large, complex project, but this campaign will be funding many relatively small, unconnected projects, so it probably is practical to say that we will fund each activity only after all the funds for it are available.

I find item (3) worrisome. We expect our leaders to be good stewards of the buildings, grounds, and money entrusted to them. We would be upset if the church were to install gold-plated telephones or telephones from the dollar store. On the other hand, I think that few would complain about the purchase of a sterling silver chalice, rather than a silver-plate chalice. A 175-year-old church that expects to be around for a long time can afford neither extravagance nor penny-pinching. I worry that there is penny-pinching going on here in order to assure that this plan comes to fruition. I think that many parishioners would agree that doing the most needed repairs and enhancements well is preferable to doing more work just adequately.

In particular, I am not encouraged by the recently complete (or nearly complete) repair of the steps at the Mayfair Drive entrance to the narthex. I thought the steps should be limestone, not concrete, so they would match the steps at the front of the building and at the lower Mayfair Drive entrance. (See “Construction Progress?”) I’m sure the concrete steps, which I think look awful, were cheaper. We will be living with them for a long time.

Principle (4) has to do with timing. Preliminary work in organizing the capital campaign will begin soon, but actual pledges to the campaign will not be solicited until the fall, at the same time as the annual stewardship campaign. I think Bob was saying that he doesn’t want people to decrease their pledges to fund the capital campaign. The priorities of the Vestry, however, may not be the priorities of parishioners, and running the two campaigns in parallel will necessarily cause people to consider how they want to allocate their contributions to St. Paul’s.


The only handout at the presentation was this one:

May 22 handout
Bob’s presentation was accompanied by a slide show that, it must be said, added little to what he had to say. (It was telling that the slide show was clearly derived from the PowerPoint presentation used for Fulfilling the Vision. Both presentations pictured the deteriorated steps to the narthex and show the audio equipment in the library to illustrate the church sound system, which is actually behind the high altar. I guess this is an illustration of keeping costs as low as possible.)

As I understand it, the projects identified on the handout are to be funded in the order listed. Thus, for example, no work will be done on the physical plant until the existing debt is paid off. One could quibble both about this procedure and about the ordering of projects, but the overall cost of the proposed projects, $775,000, is only 42% of what Fulfilling the Vision was projected to cost. Raising $775,000 should certainly be possible for St. Paul’s, although the amount is more than the Episcopal Church Foundation estimated that the ambitious Fulfilling the Vision could have raised. I think that parishioners saw Fulfilling the Vision as simply ridiculous, however. The current proposal, though hardly perfect, is both reasonable and practical.


Nevertheless, the devil, as they say, is in the details. The most distressing part of yesterday’s presentation was the lack of important details. The three items labeled “Property Maintenance” are black boxes that the Vestry itself hasn’t yet filled in. These projects simply represent stuff that needs to be done, and someone will figure out just what that stuff is at some unspecified time. I believe that, before anyone is asked to contribute to the new campaign, the contents of those black boxes need to be determined and disclosed. As things now stand, $250,000 (32% of the entire campaign goal) is a blank check. How are parishioners to evaluate priorities when they do not know just what all the projects are? Is there really $175,000 of repairs to the church that are more important than saving our stained glass windows?

I was perhaps most pleased by one item that does not figure into the revised project list—the reconfiguration of the undercroft. I never thought this was a good idea—see “A Proposal for a Capital Campaign”—and spending $100,000 on it was not good stewardship. On the other hand, are we sure this project has been dumped? We need to know what our $250,000 in “property maintenance” is actually going to buy.

I have very mixed feelings about item (3) on the project list. This seems to have made it from Fulfilling the Vision without modification. Some or all of the exterior doors are to be replaced, and electric door openers are to be installed on the exterior door nearest the elevator and, apparently, on one of the front doors. Moreover, the paving in front of the building is to be sloped from the sidewalk to the level of the narthex floor, eliminating the front steps. Parishioners have yet to be shown an elevation of the “improved” church façade, but I think it will look horrible without being very useful. (I say more about this irredeemably bad idea in “A Proposal for a Capital Campaign.” In that same post, I also offer other accessibility projects that no one else seems to have thought of.)

I asked a question about the fact that the projected cost for a new sound system has dropped $25,000 from what was proposed in Fulfilling the Vision. Vestry member Paul Barker gave an explanation that seemed to suggest that the new proposal involves first-rate equipment without “custom” nameplates. He also indicated that some desired functions “can be added later.” St. Paul’s tends not to get around to such enhancements, however, and I fear that the apparent cost savings is part of our keeping costs as low as possible. On the other hand, it is not clear that we need even a $75,000 sound system. It worries me that Paul, who plays in our 8:45 band, answered my question. A sound system to support speech and the choir and one to support a band can be quite different. Does St. Paul’s want to commit to alternative worship styles for the foreseeable future?

I am frankly a bit offended that no one asked me about our audio needs. I am a member of the choir and, for more than 15 years, was Audio-Visual Coördinator at St. Paul’s. Moreover, I was on two committees that studied (and priced) a new sound system. I have concerns both about the audio equipment we actually need and the aesthetic impact new speakers might have on the church. A more general concern is that our parish leadership seems to feel no need to ask parishioners what they want. Nor do our leaders seem inclined to take advantage of the expertise that may exist in our rather talented congregation.

I also asked about the $60,000 for our stained glass. Apparently, we are pinching pennies here as well. I wanted to know if $60,000 was really enough to conserve our windows for the future. Jack Foster, who was not part of the presentation but who had consulted with experts about our windows, indicated that $60,000 would only fund the first phase of a three-phase program to conserve our precious windows. In particular, it would only fund urgent repairs. How soon will we need another capital campaign to make the urgent repairs on the windows we are going to ignore for the present?

I am pleased that we are going to do something about our signage. The slide show was illustrated with our large sign near Washington Road and the brass plaque on the front of the building. Nothing was said about how the signs are to be changed, however. Inquiring minds want to know. Moreover, the overview calls for improvements in both external and internal signage. What signs do we really need to change inside? Are we planning to replace all the signs that say “Undercroft” with signs that say “Parish Hall” or—God forbid!—“Parish Hall/Undercroft”? Again, I suspect that parishioners want to know what they are being asked to pay for. They also want to know that what they are being asked to pay for is reasonable.

Finally, I should say something about the campaign costs. Bob explained that we have already spent $14,000 on the feasibility study that shot down the last capital campaign proposal. The Vestry is suggesting that we restore that money to the Property Fund and pay another $30,000 to the Episcopal Church Foundation for assistance with the campaign. Another $6,000 is to be spent on miscellaneous items such as a grand celebration when we’re done. In other words, we really are putting $264,000 into property maintenance and improvement. In any case, capital campaign costs are listed ninth in the campaign overview. This may be unrealistic. I suspect that the Episcopal Church Foundation will expect to be paid even if we only raise $650,000.


Our scaled-back capital campaign is clearly an improvement over the ill-considered Fulfilling the Vision, but parishioners need to know more than they know now about what the plan really is. (Actually, even the Vestry needs to know more than they know now.) If our own leaders do not recognize the requirement for more information, perhaps our adviser from the Episcopal Church Foundation will bring it up.

Having said that, I must say that I am not yet on board with Son of Fulfilling the Vision. The plan is half-baked, ignores many needs of the parish, and, I expect, will not solicit parishioner opinion in any sincere or effective way. For another take on what a capital fund might support, see my previous post “A Proposal for a Capital Campaign.”

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