Tough Times Leave Many Churches Strapped For Cash

News of layoffs, a struggling auto industry and a volatile Wall Street are all indicators of a suffering economy. But, the recent downturn is also being felt in houses of worship. The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd, III, is Dean of the Washington National Cathedral. Lloyd explains how his church is being forced to trim back and what advice he's giving to churchgoers.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host.

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop Guys take on the political scandal in Illinois and other news of the week. That's in just a few minutes. But first, our weekly Faith Matters conversation. The headlines have been filled with bad economic news; few areas of the economy seem to be immune. Companies and institutions across the country are laying off employees. But now, the effect is being felt by houses of worship. Here in the nation's capital, leaders of the Washington National Cathedral have also made the difficult choice to lay off employees. Joining me here in our Washington studio is the Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III. He is the dean of the Washington National Cathedral. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Reverend SAMUEL T. LLOYD, III (Dean, Washington National Cathedral): Thank you, Michel. It's wonderful to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, folks may not know that the institution that they're thinking of is the Washington National Cathedral, but most Americans will recognize the building because many of our important national worship services are held there. The funerals for many heads of state are held there. Could you just tell us a little bit of the history of the cathedral?

Rev. LLOYD: Sure, the cathedral is almost 100 years old, and it was built to be a church for the nation, built by the Episcopal Church but meant to be a house of prayer for all people. All faiths are welcome to come into our life. We have hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. But our main role is to be a sacred space at the heart of the nation's capital that the nation can turn to in really important times.

MARTIN: Do you have your own congregation, a group of worshipers who come on a regular basis?

Rev. LLOYD: We do. We've always had regular worshipers, but we never formally had a congregation until just about two years ago now. And so, we have a growing, very enthusiastic congregation becoming very much a part of everything that we do.

MARTIN: You recently made the decision to eliminate 30 jobs at the cathedral.

Rev. LLOYD: Yes, we did.

MARTIN: Why did you come to that decision?

Rev. LLOYD: We were facing the same economic storm everybody is facing these days and had to try to figure out how to keep the cathedral strong through what is going to be clearly a very tough stretch for some time. To do that, we had to make some painful choices, and they were done with a lot of study and a lot of agony, both for the mission of the cathedral but for the employees that we have there who have been absolutely wonderful.

MARTIN: This was not well-received, as I recall, from the local coverage. There was lot of anger and hurt expressed by some of the employees and also people in the surrounding community who have come to rely on some of these folks, particularly the greenhouse, I think. Is that one area that is…

Rev. LLOYD: Yeah, it's interesting.

MARTIN: Tell me about it.

Rev. LLOYD: We saw the storm beginning to roll our way back in the spring when - and we made some difficult decisions there, including closing a greenhouse. And there was a remarkable amount of reaction to that. People who love that place but also people in general surprised that this cathedral that looks so prosperous was making moves like this. You know, for example, people don't know that even though it's the national cathedral, it doesn't receive a penny of federal support at all or support from the National Episcopal Church. And because we are just now having a congregation, everything has depended either on endowment or on the annual gifts that visitors and contributors make to our life. And so, if a storm rolls through the economy, it has a very direct impact on us.

MARTIN: Can I just ask a question now? For example, I don't mean to be crass, but I think people do need to understand these things. So given that, say, former President Gerald Ford, former President Ronald Reagan both had worship services…

Rev. LLOYD: Yes.

MARTIN: At the cathedral upon their death.

Rev. LLOYD: Right.

MARTIN: The cathedral doesn't receive any money for that.

Rev. LLOYD: No, we - the federal government will pay us direct costs for putting on particular services like that, but none of that goes to keep the building going and the grounds going, to keep the staff going, all the things that are ready and waiting. And also, beyond that - beyond what we do at those particular key points in the nation's life, we have a very active program where we are trying to honor this privileged place we have in the nation's life, to address public issues and to have public dialogues and work on interfaith understanding and even respond to global issues around the world. So it's the nation's cathedral in those sacred moments, but in every other moment of the year, it is also trying to be faithful to that mission by doing important work. And all of that depends on the dollars that come in from people who either come in to our life or believe in what their nation's cathedral can be doing.

MARTIN: It's always painful when people lose jobs, especially jobs that they love. And many of the people who work at the cathedral, I have to assume, really weren't working there for the money because they just loved being there…

Rev. LLOYD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: In the environment and they love - do you think that there's an extra sense of pain or hurt when an institution that people see as a care-taking institution, one to which they look for comfort, then is in the position of having to inflict pain by laying people off? Is there some sense of, how could you do this to me?

Rev. LLOYD: There's a real sense of that. It's just as you say, people expect a church or cathedral to be first, a place of community and embrace and support and nurture, and don't want to think about the institutional side, the budget side, the financial side at all. So it can be quite jarring. I do have to say, though, that in the last few weeks, we had to take another step and some more layoffs, and the response was very different from the reactive response of the spring.

Now, people understand a lot more what every institution and every nonprofit and every church is going through. And so, there's been just about nothing but support and understanding, real sadness at our having to lose members of our staff once again, but a sense that, well, this is what everybody's going through now. So it's been a whole shift in tone in the last few months.

MARTIN: If I may, how many more employees have you had to lay off?

Rev. LLOYD: About 30.

MARTIN: Thirty more?

Rev. LLOYD: Yes.

MARTIN: So, it's actually double the number…

Rev. LLOYD: Yeah.

MARTIN: Of the earlier reports.

Rev. LLOYD: Well, yeah. A lot happened in September, October that forced us to do this in order to keep us strong. We're going forward.

MARTIN: Including clergy?

Rev. LLOYD: Yes, we have. We have. Well, let me just say we're working with a much smaller clergy staff, but there were several that were retirements, people who are moving on in other ways, and what we really decided to do is not to replace clergy who have left. So we're operating with five clergy instead of eight clergy, for example.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with the Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III, he's the dean of the Washington National Cathedral, about how the cathedral itself is coping with the current recession. You're in the business as a faith leader of counseling people in times of - in their deepest pain. Yeah, you know…

Rev. LLOYD: Right, yeah.

MARTIN: Deaths, divorces, other hurts, health, sort of, crises. But I wonder, has it been hard for you - and I know that the focus - your focus generally has been on the other folks. But I would like to ask what it's like for you to have to be the bearer of that news. It's one thing, I think, to come to people and offer them…

Rev. LLOYD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Comfort when someone else is hurting them. But when it's you who's the person who has to be the agent of the decision or the decision maker, to make a decision which you know is going to cause pain. I'm just wondering if I could ask what it's like for you.

Rev. LLOYD: It's terrifically difficult. People come in to the work of ministry to try to enhance and deepen and enrich people's lives and enhance the world around them. And to be the leader in a time of contraction, a time of stepping back and paring away, is enormously difficult, to recognize the impact our decisions necessarily have on people's own lives and their families' lives. So, we and - I have entered into this with great thoughtfulness and as much care as possible.

We've tried to be as sensitive as we can be to our staff, letting them know well ahead of time that big questions like this are coming, been involved in a lot of meetings with our staff and, in fact, with our congregation and other supporters, lots of individual meetings. I made a point myself of going around to meet with each one of the people we were laying off to talk to them about what this is like and how sorry we are to lose them, because these were not decisions based on performance in any way. These are people who are valued parts of our life, but positions had to be pared back in order to make it through this very tough time.

MARTIN: There are some different dynamics at work here, but also the fact that the Episcopal Church is viewed as wealthy and the grounds are quite, lavish isn't quite the word, but it's a very imposing…

Rev. LLOYD: Yes.

MARTIN: Property.

Rev. LLOYD: Yeah.

MARTIN: I wonder if that adds to a certain dynamic.

Rev. LLOYD: It does. It does, and one of the things we keep asking ourselves is, what are the mixed signals we're sending here? Because we are a place that needs to be beautiful for the sake of the nation and for the sake of it as a sacred space at the heart of a city. Nevertheless, we are looking for fresh ways to make sure people know that the only way this place can stay beautiful and lovely and a prayerful, meditative place at the heart of a very frenetic city is by people contributing to support it. So, often the signals of that majestic building and those lovely grounds imply things that aren't accurate. And one of our challenges is to help people to understand that if they want this holy place to be at the heart of the city, we need them to help us.

MARTIN: Well, I think the other dynamic that might be at play here is that there are people to whom you might appeal for support who might say, well, you know, that's fine, this is a nice place for people to visit and it's beautiful and majestic, but there are other houses of worship that are directly involved in caring for the least of these. There are many churches, particularly in low-income areas, that provide services in the community that no one else does, like drug treatment, child care, soup kitchens. How do you make the case at a time like this, when so many people are out of work, being thrown out of their homes, don't have medical care?

Rev. LLOYD: One thing we want to make sure is that they know that we are involved in hands-on and direct ministries as well as advocacy ministries. We are - we bring a whole group of young people from the city to the cathedral every summer for six weeks of academic enrichment and training and are succeeding in getting them into first-rate colleges when that is done. We are involved in an array of prison ministries, direct service ministries, soup kitchens, as well as being very involved in advocacy work in the city, especially dealing with public education and the real worry we have these days about maintaining low-cost housing for people. So the cathedral is here for the nation. It actually has an important international dimension, but we know this is our city, and we are called to live out Christ's love right here in the midst of the city, and we are very active doing that. Our congregation is involved in an array of activities.

MARTIN: In fact, I think one of the things you said in your initial letter announcing the layoffs is that part of the reason you were doing that is that you wanted to try to preserve as much of your ministry, direct ministry as you could, and this was the only way that you could do that.

Rev. LLOYD: That's right. And those ministries have not been cut in this time.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask, is there a scripture, is there a faith message that you are - is there something you're drawing on for comfort? Is there a spiritual lesson in all this?

Rev. LLOYD: Just about every Sunday in one way or another, I've been preaching about this crisis and what it means for us as a people together and how we get through it spiritually. When I preached about it the first Sunday back after the market dropped precipitously in October, I closed my sermon by asking everyone to tear out of their leaflet a version of the 23rd Psalm and put it in their wallet or in their pocketbook and take it with them and read it at least once a day to remind them that the Lord is my shepherd. We are not in this alone. God will go with us through this whole thing. There is someone we can trust, even when the storms are blasting. And one way or another, every Sunday as I've come at this from many angles, what I've tried to say is God is at the heart of this, and however tough it is, we can come together, and we can trust on God in it.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking, but has this been a testing time for you?

Rev. LLOYD: Not for my faith. In fact, you know, one of the surprises is, and I've talked about this, is when life isn't working so well, you become aware of what really sustains you. And my sense, both for me and for my community, there's a powerful silver lining in this, that we become more aware of how present and powerful God can be in our lives and more aware of how much we need each other as we trust God in it. So, I'm seeing this so far as a time of real strengthening in our community and in our ministry.

MARTIN: The very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III is the dean of the Washington National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C., and he was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. Reverend Lloyd, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Reverend LLOYD: It's a pleasure being with you, Michel. Thank you.

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