Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

33 Days and Counting

Today marks day seven of Grace Church's 40-day discernment process, when parishioners are to talk about, study and pray about their future. The climax will be a May 20 vote, when parishioners will decide whether to ratify their vestry's decision to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America -- an organization linked with an Anglican province in Nigeria.

Bishop Martyn Minns, a leader of CANA, will speak to the church tonight. He's a powerful figure and, apparently, an old friend of the Rev. Donald Armstrong, Grace's longtime rector whose been haunted lately by allegations of financial wrongdoing.

It's the second significant meeting during this 40-day discernment process -- the first being the meeting held at Grace April 14. The meeting was the first time Armstrong addressed some of the allegations levied against him by the diocese. Predictably, Armstrong supporters thought he did quite well. His presentation didn't much to dampen criticism from his detractors.

The vibe of the meeting itself was pretty interesting. Most folks applauded Armstrong frequently, at one point giving him a standing ovation -- essentially to convey their support for Armstrong and his $143,000 salary (commensurate, he says, with what other Episcopal rectors of large churches make). But the congregation is deeply divided, and there were some testy exchanges between factions.

When former vestry member John Hermes said he didn’t yet have the information he needed to be convinced of Armstrong’s innocence and told Armstrong it was inappropriate to publicly call out his critics by name — something Armstrong did several times during the presentation — Armstrong reminded Hermes of an altercation Hermes had with a former parishioner.

“Inappropriate!” Someone called from the back of the church.

“Shut up!” another shouted.

Armstrong's financial presentation was interesting, but incomplete. Jon Wroblewski, senior warden for Grace CANA, said Armstrong was eyeing a potential showdown in court and needed to be cautious with what he said.

But it did clear up a few things: He never denied taking money for his children's education, saying the expenditures were approved by Grace's senior wardens and completely within bounds of what's legal and right. He even admitted the scholarships officially became extra pay in 2006.

One of the lingering questions I have, though, is whether the wardens had the right to authorize these expenses, or whether the vestry should've voted on them. Former vestry members tell me they weren't even aware of how much Armstrong made, even though the vestry is technically in charge of most operations of the church.

Canon law states that the vestry (of which the wardens and rector are members) "shall be agents andlegal representatives of the Parish in all matters concerning its corporate property and the relations of the Parish to its Clergy." I haven't yet found anything in canon law that expressly gives wardens the kind of authority they apparently weilded at Grace.

Armstrong, however, says this parish operates as many others do. I'm trying to get information from like-sized parishes around the country to find out whether that's accurate.

Is it typical? Is it not? Feel free to toss in your own two cents. I'd love to clear this up.


Anonymous James Newman said...

In my parish, if the Executive Committee approves an expendature, it must be reported to the Vestry & ratified at its next meeting.

My salary & benefits have always been printed in the parish's annual report. Why should it be a secret when it is the parishioners who are paying it?

As far as the amount of the salary, it is certainly more than I make, but G/SS is much larger.

3:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Parish expenditures should always be a part of the regular annual budget and for bookkeeping purposes attributable to one or another of the budget's categories. While that budget, in the Episcopal Church, is set and approved by the Vestry (not merely the Wardens) in every church I've served in the last 27 years, the annual budget is entirely public, and is presented as part of the Annual Meeting package of information for the entire congregation to comment on and question. Vestries get treasurer's reports each month on the expenditures of that month - and nothing is left out of that report: all expenditures are seen by the entire Vestry and categories of expenditure explained.
My pay and benefits package are open information for the entire parish. I've never known any parish, no matter what its size, that would cover the cost of clergy children's tuition and not consider that and report it as a taxable part of the benefits package. If Don Armstrong has had that benefit longer than since 2006 and he's just getting around to declaring it as income, then he's got some amended tax returns to file, or he'll be contacted by the IRS. He could claim - supposedly - that he didn't know. Since the Episcopal Church has tax experts who are ready and willing to take clergy through the arcane clergy tax process, ignorance would be a hard claim to justify in any diocese I've been in, for every one of those dioceses has had repeated classes for clergy, wardens and treasurers on how to do clergy compensation.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Paul (A.) said...

Canon 14, section 3 of the Diocese of Colorado (2000, possibly amended since) provides:

"Every parish in this diocese shall be governed by a vestry which shall act as the board of directors of the non-profit corporation. The rector of the parish shall be an officer thereof. The members of such corporation shall be the communicants in good standing of the parish. Each vestry shall consist of the rector of the parish, two wardens, and no fewer than three and no more than fifteen members who are adult communicants in good standing of the parish. The wardens and members of the vestry shall be elected by the members of the parish. The senior warden may be nominated by the rector. Each vestry shall elect a treasurer and a clerk from the communicants in good standing of the parish. Terms of wardens, vestry members, and the treasurer and clerk shall be as set forth in the by-laws of the parish."

Nothing in the diocesan canons appears to give the wardens any especial powers. National canons of The Episcopal Church generally only specify powers for wardens when a rectorship becomes vacant.

Fr. Armstrong has made several claims of practices in his parish that he characterizes as "normal" (e.g., "scholarships" for clergy children) that appear highly uncommon and unauthorized by general Episcopal Church rules. The authority he claims for his wardens appears to be similarly unauthorized by canon.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minns has been a highly regarded rector over the years, but I think he needs to explain how he is dealing with the smell of corruption on both sides of him (Nigeria is rife with it on the one hand and Armstrong on the other)

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former vestry member of another large Colorado parish ...

* The vestry discussed and approved all staff salary issues, in closed session (without the staff members, including the rector, present).

* Overall staff salary and any other compensation (not broken out by individual) was open information to the parish as part of the budget.

* I don't recall any special expenditures either approved or showing up in the budget for things like kids' education, cell phones, parking tickets, or tipping the cable guy.

* Any financial actions taken by the rector, or by the wardens, related to spending were always reviewed at each vestry meeting.

We spent a *lot* of time on budget issues, reviewing items on a monthly basis, and whenever there was *any* question of what was proper from a fiduciary or canonical basis, we had the question researched and then acted accordingly.

I'm only familiar with our own parish's practices, but they do not seem to correspond to Rev. Armstrong's descriptions of "common practice."

Of course, we also considered it "common practice" to do what we could to meet our commitment to our regional and diocesan pledges ...

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm confused, I thought you discern something before you decided. What I've read Armstrong already joined CANA now they're doing 40 Days of Discernment. Is this to see if they made the correct decision?

5:29 AM  
Blogger Weiwen Ng said...

For a rector of a parish of 2500, $140k a year is par for the course. I assume that $140k isn't his take-home pay; that should include his FICA taxes, health/dental insurance, pension fund contributions, etc. He's probably taking home $90-100k.

However, someone else posted on Fr Jake's board that he was earning $140k, plus the parish had bought him a fairly nice rectory. if that were the case, his salary would be suspiciously high. I haven't been able to actually see Grace's financial statements.

in my church (Diocese of Michigan), rector's salary is available to all as part of the budget as well; we should probably put it on our website, but it is published in the newsletter that everyone gets. Canterbury House is fairly small but has a decent endowment. we pay our priest $92k, and he takes home about $60k.

6:36 AM  
Blogger The Patriarch of the West said...

Our SOP is to have vestry authorisation for any unbudgeted expenditure over $500. While we have occasionally done a round robin by e mail to approve an expenditure in an emeergency (a leaning tree after a hurricane, replacing a dead air conditioning unit in mid summer) we reserve this for extreme situations.

Our budget ($500k or so) lists everything, including all salaries and reserve funds, and, while not published for the congregation except at the annual meeting, has a full cash flow report at every vestry meeting, and these reports are available if a parishioner wants to examine them.

I have to wonder when Grace and St. Stephen's last full audit took place. While D.A. may make try to make a case for extras for his family being usual and customary (though they are unique in my experience) I can't imagine a CPA with any experience of church or tax law letting this sort of thing slide.

7:23 AM  
Blogger -frank said...

Has anybody asked the question or gotten a satisfactory answer to the reason WHY no audits were performed for the years 2004, 2005 and 2006?

Jon Wroblewski, the senior warden, has stated that it was 'difficult or impossible'.

The question remains, WHY?

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It appears that +Armstrong in consultation with certain members of his vestry, and in violation of his inhibition at the time, decided to take the Church to CANA to avoid his troubles at home. In the weeks before the vestry’s vote, some members of the vestry were approaching certain members of the congregation and telling them that they were “no longer welcome at Grace”—culling the flock as it were. The upcoming vote is a sham for a number of reasons, but it is especially bogus because much of the congregation of Grace was run off, making those that are left +Armstrong’s chosen few.

I say, best of luck to them. With +Armstrong’s legal troubles, it is going to be all they can do to pay the rent and his mounting legal fees.

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Don Armstrong is a thief and should be turned over to the police and face charges. His 'normal' package of salary and benefits is not typical of any clergy I have had as colleagues over the past 20 years! There are more discrepencies also.

8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, let's take people to jail because we don't approve of their salary! I make $23,000 per year, and anyone who makes more than me should go to jail, because that is an irregular and corrupt type salary.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am lifelong Anglican, who grew up in the Close of Winchester Cathedral. I lived in Colorado Springs for more than 30 years, though left the city about 3 years ago. I am absolutely appalled at all that has been going on at Grace Church. I was a member of the congregation before Don Armstrong arrived, but soon left for another parish following a sermon Don Armstrong preached which I found offensive and demeaning to women.

I am a Certified Fund Raising Executive with 20 years of experience as a non-profit employee and have also sat on many NP boards. I am amazed that the Vestry of Grace Church has not understood their legal responsibility to exercise fiduciary oversight with all due diligence. As canon law explicitly states, the Vestry is in effect the board of directors of a not-for-profit organization. Every NP board I have staffed or served on -- including small community NPs with far fewer resources that the Vestry -- has clearly understood that financial oversight is their primary responsibility. Most NP boards review financial statements on a monthly basis, require annual audits by independent auditors, and are very familiar with the financial structure and expenditures of their organzation.

What on earth happened here? Either the Vestry has been deliberately misled and uninformed, or they have not taken seriously their obligations and responsibility to the parish, the diocese, and indeed -- to the IRS.

For shame!

11:30 AM  
Anonymous BobinWash PA said...

What I think is most telling is this statement

"When former vestry member John Hermes said he didn’t yet have the information he needed to be convinced of Armstrong’s innocence and told Armstrong it was inappropriate to publicly call out his critics by name — something Armstrong did several times during the presentation — Armstrong reminded Hermes of an altercation Hermes had with a former parishioner.

“Inappropriate!” Someone called from the back of the church.

“Shut up!” another shouted."

I can't imagine my rector dislcosing any altercation between parishoners, private or public. I certainly couldn't respect or trust a man who breaks confidentiality. I thought Christs life was about change and reconciliation. Father Armstrong I'm very dissappointed.

This all is inappropriate.
From the disfunctional diocese of Pittsburgh

2:13 PM  

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