I am writing to update you on the activities and discussions and decisions of your Vestry over recent months. First, though, I want to extend warm greetings to every one of you, and to say that I hope you are and will continue to be well and happy, even in the midst of the seemingly endless pandemic. It was wonderful to be able finally to get together for a service on the St. James’ School field on August 30, and I hope to see even more parishioners at the next outdoor service that our miraculous and fabulous Mother Kate schedules.
As usual, much of the Vestry’s discussion has been focused on the church’s finances. Here are some of the most important points we have been concentrating on:
- Pledges: The amount we have received in pledges so far this year is higher than the amount we had received at this time last year. That appears to be better news than it is, however, because some parishioners, and in particular one large donor, accelerated their payments of their pledges this past spring, to help the church get through the pandemic. If we subtract the amount of the largest accelerated donation from the pledge amounts paid in thus far this year, we are about 7% behind where we were last year.
- PPP loan: You will recall that the church, along with St. James’ School, applied for a PPP loan, a potentially forgivable loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration that was intended to cover two months of payroll costs. We received that loan. The church’s share was $116,000. As the government rules required, we used it to pay our payroll and related costs. The school will have used all of its share of the loan by early October. At that point we will jointly apply for forgiveness of the entire loan, which apparently we have a very good chance of getting.
- Deficit: As you know, we anticipated that we would have a deficit this year. It appears right now, though, that we actually will instead have a small surplus. That happy fact is due, however, to our receipt of the $116,000 in PPP money, and to our receipt of a one-time, non-recurring anonymous gift of $100,000. We do not expect to receive either of those amounts next year. Without those funds, the deficit would be more than $100,000, just as it has been in many recent past years. This is thus still the primary problem that the Vestry is struggling to solve.
- Descriptions of our processes: Last week Mother Kate published three one-page descriptions of the ways we handle money at St. James’. If you missed them, they are attached here again. The Vestry reviewed these as well. We think that they demonstrate that the church is extremely careful in the ways that it receives and processes contributions, pays bills, and tracks finances.
- Yearly audit: One tool we use to ensure that our finances are in order is a yearly audit by an outside and independent accounting firm. In the last couple of meetings the Vestry has discussed whether we ought to commission a review of our finances instead of an audit. A review is a simplified examination of financial statements, and is less expensive than a full audit. After careful consideration, the Vestry decided that we should keep getting a full audit, despite the higher price tag. The full audit ensures that all our internal controls are examined and all our financial assertions tested by an outside expert every year.
- Miscellaneous: First, several weeks ago, the president of our outside accounting firm, Adam Jones, held an hour-and-a-half-long education session for Vestry members who do not work much with financial statements and needed help in brushing up their skills. Second, you may recall discussion in earlier letters about taking 4% from our endowment accounts as a matter of course. We have implemented that as to two of our endowment funds but not as to the others, so we still have some room to capture additional money from endowment interest (always leaving the principal intact). Finally, we have decided to start putting our audited financials online. We are not required by government regulations to do this, both because we are a church and because our budget is less than $2,000,000, but our superb treasurer, Spencer Hong, has learned that most large churches nevertheless do post that material. We hope that our doing that will be a help to interested parishioners.
Buildings and Grounds
We have reawakened an old custom of having our Junior Warden (currently the wonderful Jack Pitts) have the oversight of buildings and grounds as his primary task. He has been helping lead the following efforts.
- Maintenance: there is much maintenance and deferred maintenance to be done on the church’s property. Mother Kate has found a 2015 maintenance study that a facilities consultant did for us. We are in the process of figuring out how much of that report’s analysis might still apply. We are lucky to have received an amazing $200,000 anonymous gift to fund maintenance expenses. We soon will begin to use that fund for its intended purpose.
- Security: Jack Pitts and Mother Kate have reported on security issues at a number of past Vestry meetings. As you may know, a few months ago an intruder found a way to scale the fence on Wilshire Boulevard, came into the courtyard, and stole almost all of the turtles from the turtle pond. What a disturbing and heartbreaking loss! Kate responded by promptly having cameras installed and, with the help of the school, security staffing expanded. Nevertheless, another intruder got into the courtyard last month, and someone set a small fire near the main doors. We are now working on improving the lighting in the courtyard and adding signs that state that the area is under surveillance. We are also looking into issues of the security of the church and the parish hall buildings themselves.
The soup kitchen and the food pantry have remained open throughout the pandemic, though they have had to change their procedures quite a bit to comply with social distancing and other safety rules. As you know, last fall we added a third ministry, this one aimed particularly at our neighbors who are homeless: free showers, along with breakfast and clean clothes, every Saturday morning. We are told that our shower program is now the largest in the city. And in the spring we added a fourth program, Tuesday lunches. These consist of “grab and go” bagged lunches for all who come by. Among other outside sources, two United Way grants have supported our expansion of our food ministries. Father Jon Feuss continues to work a regular full-time job outside the church and also to serve many hours with us, including in the soup kitchen. Margaret Ecker oversees the soup kitchen and showers, and I am continuing to shepherd the food pantry.
One or another of the bishops of Los Angeles visits each parish at least once a year. Because St. James’ is closed for the pandemic, Bishop John Taylor could not visit with all of us in person this year. Instead, he celebrated with Kate and Jon at a livestreamed service in June 2020, and came via Zoom to the June Vestry meeting. At the meeting, he discussed the effects of the pandemic on the Diocese, talked about the Black Lives Matter protests, and explained the mission share requirement. That last was new to many of us. We learned that the Diocese’s budget depends quite heavily on churches giving 15% of their ordinary income as their mission share to support the work of the Diocese. St. James’ contributes less than half that amount (as do many churches), but is trying to move aggressively to give more.
At our July Vestry meeting, Vestry member Bob Williams, who is the communications officer of the Diocese and who heads St. James’s communication committee, reported on his committee’s work. With the particular help of the whiz-bang Justin Baker, St. James’ was one of the first churches in the Diocese to develop a full-blown online and digital presence. We have accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, as well as podcasts and links to many other offerings. Our past efforts have helped make our adjustment to livestreaming and other pandemic necessities easier and faster. Because of our livestreaming of services, interviews, and other events, hundreds of people a week now are visiting St. James’ virtually.
The committee that Mother Kate established to examine the question of when the church should reopen is continuing its work. We have now successfully tested the idea of an outdoor service. Though no decision has yet been reached about whether to make such a service permanent, we are tentatively planning to hold another outdoor service on September 27. The committee has not yet recommended a date on which the church can reopen. However, all the committee members are laboring mightily to plot the best course for us.
I could go on, but I will stop here (“at long last,” you could be pardoned for saying!). I hope to see all of you in person soon. Many thanks for your support of St. James’. We could not do it without you!
All the best,
Cathy Helm, Senior Warden