Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I am very glad to present to you the 2015-2016 financial report of the Diocese of Lincoln.
God has blessed our diocese with faithful families, joyful religious, and generous priests. By God’s grace, and through the leadership of my predecessors, we have extraordinary parishes and schools, an excellent seminary, a thriving Newman Center, the charity of Catholic Social Services, and the blessings of many other apostolates and projects. Our history is a witness to trust in God’s Providence and to the Lord’s blessings.
However, the Diocese of Lincoln, and many of its parishes and schools, are also facing very serious financial challenges. I would like to take the occasion of this report to give you an important update regarding the overall financial situation of our diocese.
Shortly after my arrival in the Diocese of Lincoln, I commissioned a comprehensive expert review of our financial policies, systems, and practices, including consultation with pastors, and lay financial experts, from across the diocese.
The results of this review revealed several long-standing financial issues in the Diocese of Lincoln, and the need for a paradigm shift—a systematically new and different approach to financial administration in the Diocese of Lincoln.
For most of the last two decades, the diocese utilized our cash reserves to support Catholic education and vocations costs, to cover the rising cost of administering parish support programs for insurance and benefits, to support important capital projects, to confer loans to parishes and schools which have not always been repaid, to provide interest to parish depositors in the Diocesan Investment and Loan Program, and to supplement deficit budgets in the diocesan central offices.
At the same time, parish assessments in the Diocese of Lincoln have been maintained at rates well below the national average. This practice has allowed more funds to remain at the parish level. However, as expenses outpaced revenues, our cash reserves dwindled. As a result, the Diocese of Lincoln has very limited unrestricted cash reserves to support emergency needs.
The Joy of the Gospel campaign helped to address several serious financial challenges in the Diocese of Lincoln. The campaign alleviated large unfunded priest pension liabilities, provided necessary immediate funding to support vocations and Catholic schools, and provided the opportunity to invest in long-term approaches to stewardship and sustainability.
In addition to the Joy of the Gospel, the Diocese of Lincoln has begun introducing systemic changes to our financial and administrative practices.
I am committed to achieving balanced budgets, fiscal solvency, and long-term sustainability in the ministries, parishes, and schools of the Diocese of Lincoln.
Over the past three years, I have begun implementing processes and policies—“best practices” of accounting and financial governance—to restore the Diocese of Lincoln to fiscal solvency, and to stabilize our financial health in the future.
We have built a finance council led by lay experts from across the diocese, and developed a process for more regular consultation with them on budgeting and financial planning, parish savings and lending, investments, and financial reporting.
We have begun working with parishes in financial difficulties, and those with substantial debts, to help them address those problems as soon as possible.
We have developed clearer processes of consultation and decision-making. We continue to develop and implement prudent financial, fundraising, and construction policies for parishes and schools. In some cases, this has caused hardship or frustration, or seemed to stall important initiatives. But more consistent processes and policies helps to secure the financial future of every parish and school.
In order to be responsible to you, the pastoral and administrative offices of the Diocese of Lincoln have to do more with less. To end deficit spending, the curial departments of the Diocese of Lincoln have been required to make substantial budget cuts. And, regrettably, we have reduced and eliminated some staff positions.
We have also restructured the assessments paid by parishes to the central offices of the diocese. In many cases, this has raised the assessment cost. To avoid unfunded liabilities in the future, we have begun annually assessing retirement fees for each priest, which is a standard practice in dioceses across the United States. At the same time, we have introduced new fees for Catholic school and religious education students to help fund our education and catechesis offices. And we have required that seminarians share in the cost of their education.
These changes will be fully implemented in the Diocese of Lincoln over the next three years. Although our assessment rates and other costs remain much lower than the national average, these changes ask for more support from you and your parish than has been asked in the past.
Shared Services, Shared Blessings
Some have asked whether supporting the central offices of the Diocese of Lincoln provides substantial benefits to parishes. The question is fair.
The central offices of the diocese exist to animate and support the ministry of parishes, schools, and other Catholic organizations.
As bishop, I am charged to exercise the ministry of leadership for the lay faithful, priests, and parishes across the diocese, and the diocesan offices support and assist me in that sacred obligation. In addition, many of our administrative offices provide the cost-saving benefit to parishes and schools of shared services. Compliance with legal regulations, health insurance and payroll norms, risk management policies, and other administrative obligations is expensive—for smaller parishes, such costs are often unaffordable. By sharing those services—through the administrative offices of the curia—parishes are able to spend more resources on their ministries and mission.
The work of the Catholic schools, vocations, religious education, and other ministry offices help to ensure that our faith is taught, and lived, faithfully and truthfully. The Lord has blessed us with priests, faithful families, and thriving schools through those offices, and the administrative offices which support their work.
I am committed to achieving clear and demonstrable financial stability in the Diocese of Lincoln by the year 2020. The plan we have developed, and the changes we have implemented, will help us to achieve that goal.
As your bishop, I ask for your help.
In the first place, I ask you to continue tithing to your parish, and to consider increasing your level of giving. I also ask you to continue your pledge payments to the Joy of the Gospel, to the Charity and Stewardship Appeal, and to the Bishop’s Appeal for Vocations. We absolutely depend on those commitments to support vital and critical aspects of the Church’s ministry; without them, we will face serious crises.
I challenge you to examine whether you can increase your level of regular, sacrificial support to the ministry of the Church, and to consider how the Lord might be calling you to deeper levels of stewardship, with your time, your expertise, and your resources.
I am committed to transparency about our financial situation—openness and candor about our needs and circumstances. At the same time, I want to consider and understand your viewpoints. I encourage you to share opinions or questions with your pastor, or to write to me directly. I would be very grateful to hear from you—and to hear the Lord speak through you.
The Church is the Body of Christ, in which we are all members, by God’s grace. I have asked that you support the Church sacrificially, and I promise to honor your generosity, and be accountable to you.
I also encourage you to increase your commitment to the Church’s mission of evangelization. God wants every human heart to experience real intimacy with him through the ministry of the Church—and he depends upon you to reveal the Gospel. And whenever the Church is strong—when it is filled with active, joyful, faithful disciples of the Lord—financial problems are more easily resolved.
Finally, I ask for your prayers. Our financial situation is serious, but it is not dire. And your prayers make a difference. Please pray for our diocese, for our mission, and for our stewardship of God’s gifts. Please pray especially for your pastors, who work extremely hard, with very limited resources, because they love the Lord, and because they love you.
I have entrusted these intentions to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. I ask you to bring these needs before Christ in the Eucharist as well.
I am grateful for you and for the blessings the Lord has given us. The Church depends on your stewardship, discipleship, and commitment, in order to proclaim Christ, teach the Gospel, and sanctify the world. Thank you responding to the Lord’s call!
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Bishop James Conley
Bishop of Lincoln