By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008
These are tough times at Washington National Cathedral.
Facing financial difficulties, the 100-year-old institution recently laid off 33 people, including clergy -- its first layoff in decades -- as it struggles to balance its budget. It is suspending programs, asking some remaining staffers to double up on duties and closing its popular greenhouse, a move that has stirred community anger.
"We're in a phase of significant tightening," said the Very Rev. Samuel Lloyd III, who took the helm of the Episcopal cathedral as dean in 2005. He said the severity of the budget shortfall caught leaders by surprise. "We didn't expect that we would have to do what we have done."
Soon-to-be former employees say they are devastated. "It came out of nowhere," said greenhouse employee Patricia Downey, her voice wobbly with emotion. "It's been hard."
The nationally known landmark, whose Gothic towers can be seen for miles from its site in Northwest Washington, is a popular destination that is expected to attract about 500,000 visitors this fiscal year. It also has been the site of high-profile memorial services and funerals, such as those for three presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
Cathedral leaders say an ambitious expansion launched by Lloyd to broaden the cathedral's mission, funded mostly by a $7 million bequest that runs out next year, is forcing them to make some tough choices.
Donations, though increasing, have not climbed enough to make up for the loss of the bequest money. At the same time, the cathedral's endowment is declining because of the struggling financial markets. The cathedral uses proceeds from the endowment -- which sources say stood at $70 million before declining recently -- to fund a portion of its budget.
Laid-off employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their severance pay, are critical of the leadership of Lloyd and the cathedral's governing body. They say cathedral leaders ought to have seen the financial crunch coming.
"They should have seen the writing on the wall," said one former employee. "It's very disheartening to see some of the things happening."
But Lloyd defended his leadership, saying revenue did not climb as quickly as expected and the economic slowdown hurt the cathedral's investments.
"We knew that we were going to come off it," Lloyd said, referring to the bequest. "We had hoped that the economy would be doing robustly and we wouldn't have to have the kind of bump that we're having."
Under Lloyd's leadership, the cathedral's budget has increased 26 percent since 2006 to a projected $26 million for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Cathedral leaders say the increase was largely because of the bequest, which was spread out over three years. In the next fiscal year, however, the budget will drop to $24 million.
Lloyd has used bequest funds to help launch an array of new programs with international, national and local reach that have given the cathedral a more activist bent.
"We came to believe that because we are the nation's church . . . certainly at critical moments in our life, we're then granted an opportunity to be a big public voice -- a public megaphone -- for a thoughtful, generous, respectful Christian faith that has important things to say in the public conversations of the day," said Lloyd, who came from Boston's Trinity Church to the cathedral as its 10th dean.
As part of its new international outreach, the cathedral has opened the Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, which describes itself as focusing on poverty, social justice and peacemaking initiatives around the globe.
The cathedral has held interfaith conferences on global warming and started an effort to reach out to clerics in Iran. It raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in participants for an interfaith conference on women and global poverty in April that featured former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell and former Irish president Mary Robinson. Lloyd has also launched a Sunday forum that has brought in high-profile guests such as Rick Warren, a megachurch pastor and best-selling author, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Cathedral leaders say the series attracts an average of 400 to 500 people each session.
Locally, the cathedral has increased its involvement in the city and added a staff person for D.C. projects. Among other efforts, it has joined the Washington Interfaith Network, a consortium of 48 congregations involved with a variety of issues, and works with other Northwest Washington churches to increase affordable housing.
It also started its own congregation, which now has about 500 members.
Cathedral leaders say some of the recent cutbacks, announced last month, are the result of pruning to rid the cathedral of programs that do not fit its new strategic vision. But budget realities have also intruded on Lloyd's plans.
"I think that we're in a process of narrowing that focus," said Craig McGee, who sits on the cathedral's governing body, known as the cathedral chapter. "But I still think that it will be a broad mission going forward that will have some international elements, certainly some national elements and always local elements."
Cathedral leaders say donations -- which make up about 60 percent of the church's budget -- have climbed 12 percent in two years to a projected $14 million in the current fiscal year. Donations might have increased more, but the number of visitors to the cathedral plunged for two years during construction of its underground garage.
Further straining the budget are payments on the $18.5 million debt for the garage.
Cathedral leaders and some former fundraisers say the organization faces considerable challenges in its effort to increase donations. Although it has 30,000 donors across the country, most contribute only small amounts. They are also elderly: A 2006 survey found that the median age of a cathedral donor was 71.
Most of its big donors -- those who give $5,000 a year or more -- come from "old money" Washingtonians. Cathedral officials say they are ramping up efforts to reach out to Washington's younger, new-money elite, such as high-tech entrepreneurs, and expect that to bear fruit in the near future.
In the meantime, the recent cutbacks are rippling across the city. The cathedral suspended a field-trip program that brought 8,000 D.C. students there each year and halted its "Family Saturday" initiative, which offered tours and activities for about 2,000 families with young children each year.
Among those laid off from the 210-person workforce was the Rev. Christiana Olsen, who was in charge of building the local congregation.
Washington area gardeners are outraged over the closing of the greenhouse, which sells plants, pottery and other gardening items behind the cathedral. It is scheduled to shut down at the end of next month. More than 300 people have joined a new organization to keep the greenhouse open and have set up a Web site, http://savethegreenhouse.org.
The 58-year-old greenhouse is "congruent with the church's mission," said Sioban Farey, a Chevy Chase gardener and organizer of the effort. "It's almost like a lay ministry."
Felicia Graham, a 23-year resident of neighboring Woodley Park, said the greenhouse nursery "is just a wonderful community draw" and is wholly consistent with the cathedral's history of environmental stewardship.
But cathedral leaders say it has to go.
"It's no longer economically viable," said Margaret Bergan Davis, associate dean of the cathedral. "In the post-9/11 world, with the large divisions that we're trying to heal, does the cathedral belong running a greenhouse? We asked ourselves that question, and we thought it was a time for a change."
Staff writer Adrian Higgins contributed to this report.