The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, heading home after services. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A tall and skinny former comedy writer and fierce progressive, Gary Hall made news almost as soon as he showed up in Washington three years ago to take the helm of the Washington National Cathedral, calling the massive church “stodgy,” and opening it to same-sex weddings, a Muslim prayer service and yoga.

Hall made news again Tuesday by announcing he will step down as dean on Dec. 31 – two years early — saying the prominent Episcopal cathedral needs major financial and programmatic changes, changes requiring a good 10-year commitment from a leader. The Episcopal Church requires clergy to step down at age 72 and Hall is 66.

Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, will serve as interim dean, the cathedral’s governing board voted Tuesday morning.

While Hall had only been at the cathedral for three years, he elevated the profile of the financially-strapped church at lightning speed through his outspoken activism on topics like gay rights and gun control. The attention the patrician-looking Californian drew prompted debate about how political clergy should be, particularly at a unique house of worship often seen as “America’s church” because it hosts president’s funerals and communal spiritual services for national events like Sept. 11. Some also questioned whether the institution was becoming too New Agey in recent years, narrowing its scope.

[Related: Hall became a familiar public figure around D.C. quickly] 

The cold reality that the cathedral needs to raise tens of millions to survive embodies how much has changed since the iconic house of worship was first approved in the 1890s, a time when mainline Protestantism was America’s public religion, the faith of the elite, a group no one could conceive would eventually have trouble paying its bills.

But in the last few decades, mainline Protestantism has shrunk in size and stature, as has institutional religion overall – and few places represent that more than the soaring Gothic cathedral. The culture of American fundraising has also changed and the cathedral’s core donors are in their 80s, Hall said.

The cathedral has a nearly-unique structure — a small congregation (about 1,400 members), a smaller group of attendees, often tourists (about 1,100) and a reliance on a handful of major donors, tourists and grants for its budget. Of its annual budget of around $13-15 million, only $1 million comes from members, Hall said. Its place in American religious life is unique as well.  The second-largest cathedral in the country, it is the seat of the Episcopal Church — a small but prominent Protestant denomination — and was chartered by Congress.

Cathedral leaders say this past year was one of the institution’s best for fund-raising and that Hall has charted out a future game plan that is widely agreed upon. But his exit leaves D.C. with one less colorful character and exemplifies that institutional American religion is not totally stable.

 “How do you keep the thing that everyone loves going, the beautiful established thing, but also build a programmatic institution that’s worthy of major philanthropy? And that’s more art than science,” Hall said. “The cathedral is facing [a version of] what every congregation in America is facing.”

Budde, a close ally of Hall’s, said the cathedral was accustomed to financial instability.

When construction began in the early 1900s – and through many of the 83 years of its construction – “this was an era when the Mainline really felt they were part of the civic and spiritual underpinning of the entire nation,” said Budde.  They didn’t expect to have to innovate to bring in money; it would just come. Even until the late 2000s, she said, cathedral donors and leaders didn’t buckle down on a sustainable financial plan to support the place. “Money was flowing in readily and there were huge bequests. All of it was, as best I can tell, spent as lavishly as it came in.”

It has an endowment of about $75 million, but Hall said an institution of its size needs a much bigger one.

The last decade has been rough for the cathedral. It cut about half its staff, half its budget and closed key programs, including a clergy-training college, a popular greenhouse and various music endeavors.

The National Cathedral is one of the world’s largest cathedrals and the seat of the Episcopal Church. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The most brutal blow came with a major earthquake in 2011 that toppled spires from the cathedral, which sits on one of the city’s highest hills, and caused damage through the inside as well. Initially experts said the damage required $25 million but now it appears to be more like $34 million – of which $11 million has been raised, said David Kautter, chair of the Cathedral Chapter, its governing board.

 The quake forced a massive slow wake-up about the cathedral’s unstable financial structure. “I think the quake was an unexpected tipping point,” Kautter said this week.

Because the cathedral is so visible around Washington, the continued, incomplete repairs are as well.

 Hall is proposing some ways to put the cathedral on more solid footing, but says what’s needed is a new, younger leader to change everything from revenue streams to its music. It will take 10 years, Hall predicts.

Critics of the Episcopal establishment say a solid path forward isn’t yet clear. Jeff Walton, who directs the program on Anglicanism — the larger global faith community of which Episcopalians are a part — for the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, said the cathedral is becoming too narrow with programs focused on contemplative spirituality and left-leaning politics. He noted that while it is accustomed to prominent attention, its regular congregation doesn’t even qualify as a megachurch.

“If they are only projecting that they are for white, upper-class liberals who live in  Northwest (D.C.), that’s the only audience they will reach,” Walton said. The financial model of the past — wealthy givers around the country who were committed to regular institutional giving — can’t be relied upon. “If it can’t be supported by the local community it will continue to struggle.”

David King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University, said the dramatic rise of unaffiliated Americans and the decline in worship attendance is impacting funding for all faith communities across the political and theological spectrum. More and more faith-based giving, King said, is going to non-profits, money that used to go to houses of worship.

Part of the reason, he said, is the clarity of vision expressed by non-profits. Some say churches need to be less “political,” but King said clarity of mission is becoming more and more important for people when they give money or time.

Congregations “across the board have to consider new economic models for support,” King said.

Hall was known as a fix-up man when he was hired three years ago from a prominent Michigan church and private school attended by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and other members of Romney’s family. While he was inspired to become a priest by the civil rights movement and sees himself as a liberal activist, Hall has often been seen first as an institution-fixer through his career.

He became the point man in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in the 1990s to deal with nearly two dozen major sex abuse and misconduct cases. He was brought in to radically shrink and overhaul the Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Illinois when its financial problems became clear and he was among a small group of Episcopal leaders picked many years ago to help build support for LGBT equality when it became more and more divisive.

When he came in, cathedral leaders said they needed to raise $50 million for quake damage and long-term financially stability. That number has crept up and Hall said Monday that the cathedral needs to raise $50 million a decade over the next 30 years to be sustainable. It hasn’t had a capital campaign since the 1990’s.

It became clear while Hall was here that “we need a dean who can lead the culture change that has to happen.” He rebuilt the development office and had a very strong fundraising year last year — $15 million, he said – but the cathedral needs a deeper donating bench. “I didn’t realize that calling a 63-year-old person wasn’t a long enough trajectory to do this work.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: The Very Rev. Gary Hall, new dean of Washington National Cathedral during services Sunday, January 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) The Very Rev. Gary Hall,  dean of Washington National Cathedral during services in 2013.
(Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Hall raised the cathedral’s profile with his outspoken and steady public comments on things like race, transgender rights and gun control, but he said the place needs more in order to pay its large regular bills. He is proposing eventually reopening the college that’s on the cathedral’s grounds as a kind of think tank for 21st Century progressive religion. And to find ways to make programming relevant.

Cathedral-watchers disagree about whether the type of programs Hall brought in helped give the place energy and relevance or went too far from tradition and instead watered down its brand.

Mainline Christianity has been shrinking in recent decades, but all of institutional religion is struggling to deal with the lack of commitment by young Americans – including financially. Massive Episcopal and Catholic cathedrals are uniquely facing questions about how you fund buildings at a time when it’s trendy for religious communities to ditch buildings altogether, and when our most popular spiritual figure –Pope Francis – gets accolades primarily for his talk about simplicity.

How do you stand for “America’s church” when America isn’t sure what it wants in a church? How do you promote civic religion when the entire relationship between church and state is being renegotiated?

“Amid all these demographic changes, the church needs to really make itself a kind of place where people under 50 will want to pursue their religious and spiritual questions,” he said.

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