By Aphrodite Kotrotsios
Publisher, Hellenic News of America
As the new treasurer for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Elaine Allen is working to regain the trust of parishioners challenged during the church’s recent financial crisis.
“It’s time for us to move past this chapter and for our Hierarchs and clergy to lead us into the future,” she said in a recent interview with the Hellenic News of America.
That means the Archdiocese will meet its financial commitments on a timely basis, be fully transparent when issues come up and act on what they said would do to implement financial reforms.
“This demonstration will come through in a variety of ways, not only in what we communicate but what people see, and the hard numbers demonstrate. We have a plan to accomplish this,” she said.
Allen was appointed treasurer at the October meeting of the Archdiocesan Council, replacing outgoing treasurer Michael Psaros. She will be responsible for providing balanced, detailed and “ground up” budgets, monitoring the finances against those budgets so the Archdiocese can be held accountable to the parishes.
“We are very grateful for the support of the parishes and recognize our responsibility to keep them informed.”
The Archdiocese ran into difficulty when financial and internal controls were not as strong as they should have been and there was insufficient transparency. The system put in place to govern the finances wasn’t operating the way it was designed to operate.
Solutions were discussed many times in 2017 and 2018 that included cost controls, implementing best practices, strengthening internal controls and inserting qualified and competent leadership in jobs they have been asked to perform.
“Most importantly, under the guidance of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, was the resolve to move the Archdiocese forward in a transparent, accountable and, I had to say, an honest and truthful manner. And to the non-believers, I assert that our actions should make you believers.”
Going forward, the Archdiocese will be vigilant about having auditors and third parties review its finances and operations.
“Lay leadership must have the expertise to carry out their responsibilities and should be subject to term limits to allow for a fresh perspective,” she said. “We must involve the Omogeneia in this process by affording them an opportunity to ask the hard questions and demanding that we produce financial information if we haven’t done so.”
The most important action, she feels, has been inserting leadership into the Archdiocese that could get the job done. That leadership included: George Tsandikos, Michael Psaros and Catherine Walsh. His Grace Bishop Andonios took over responsibilities for administration of the Archdiocese in addition to his other role as Chancellor. Chief Financial Officer Father Soterios Baroody was vigilant on cost control. Louis Kircos, chairman of the Finance Committee, made sure the budgets; financial reporting and cash management were in place.
“If you look back at the summer of 2017, the Archdiocese was in a cash strapped situation,” she said. Costs exceeded income. The Officers worked with His Grace Bishop Andonios and Fr. Soterios Baroody, devising a plan to stabilize the Archdiocese. Costs were significantly reduced by eliminating $6 million in operating costs, primarily in salaries and expense accounts.
“It wasn’t an easily executed action to reduce staff, many of whom had served the Archdiocese for a lengthy period, by approximately 26 percent,” she said.
“By implementing strong cash controls and eliminating the structural deficit, we were able to demonstrate to our bankers that financial stability had been achieved,” Allen said. New bank financing allowed them to fund their pre-existing obligations and service their debt. “Our objective is for the Archdiocese to have a ‘best in class’ finance function. We are not there yet, but we are on that journey,” Allen said.
When a financial issue arises at other not-for-profit groups, few organizations receive the “steadfast financial support” that the Archdiocese received, she said. “Financial stability was achieved because the Archdiocese received support from the parishes and the faithful,” she said.
In January 2018, 88 parishes from across the country prepaid all or a portion of their Total Commitment stewardship. Their support provided a much-needed cash infusion of $2.6 million. In February 2018, Leadership 100 demonstrated their confidence in the Archdiocese’s progress by funding their 2018 grants immediately. In June 2018, based on the demonstrated financial progress and the controls put in place, the Archdiocese was able to obtain a bank loan allowing it to fund its pre-existing obligations.
“None of this would have been possible without putting the right leadership in place, because with the right people, you can execute on the vision,” she said. “We really do have to be very appreciative to His Eminence for entrusting the individuals that he did with this responsibility, the leadership team.”
So who is the leadership leading the Archdiocese into its future? The Archdiocesan Council is the advisory body to the Archbishop and the Eparchial Synod. New members were elected in October to serve a two-year term by their Metropolises or by appointment of the Archbishop.
The Executive Committee appointed in October consists of the Eparchial Synod and three lay officers, George Tsandikos, vice president; Catherine Walsh, secretary; and Elaine Allen, treasurer. There are also six other lay members, including Louis Kircos, chairman of the Finance Committee.
New chairmen for an Administration Committee and an Audit Committee were added to the Executive Committee based on amendments to the regulations passed at the Clergy Laity Congress in July. They are Constantine Caras (Administration) and Maria Stefanis (Audit).
The biggest difficulty has been getting the financial reform message out to the 540 parishes in the country. “It is difficult to communicate with them and to the faithful about what we have accomplished,” Allen said. “I want to be clear that we fully understand our responsibility to be transparent and accountable,” she said.
As the Archdiocese looks toward the future, it is also ready to initiate fund-raising to complete the rebuilding of the St. Nicholas Church National Shrine. The Special Investigative Committee has finished its study of the finances and construction costs for the Shrine. The investigation found no fraud and no kickbacks. All money is accounted for. Details of how much were contributed and spent to date are available in the PricewaterhouseCoopers reports on the Archdiocese website.
St. Nicholas Parish, an independent entity of the Archdiocese, will have responsibility for the completion of construction of the Church. The Parish board consists of seven appointees from His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios and seven board members that were members of the St. Nicholas Parish destroyed on 9/11. There are also ex-officio members; representatives from National Philoptochos, Archdiocese Presbyters Council, Leadership 100, Archons, AHEPA and FAITH.
A separate organization, Friends of St. Nicholas, will be the fundraising arm, maintaining separate bank accounts where contributions will be deposited.
Trustees of the Friends of St. Nicholas have initially been appointed and more will be added from across the country. They will fundraise and ensure that contributions are being spent according to the donors’ wishes.
“There will be checks and balances between those responsible for building and those responsible for raising the funds,” Allen said.
It is estimated $20 million will be needed to complete the exterior and another $18 million for the interior. Timetable for completion depends on the success of fundraising. Construction will begin once a substantial amount of contributions are collected. “We do not want to repeat the experiences of the past. We all need to pull together as a community to get this Church and National Shrine built,” Allen said.
Allen is a CPA specializing in accounting, auditing, risk management and governance. She’s a retired partner of Ernst & Young and now works for Mitchell & Titus. She has served national and international not-for-profit organizations for 40 years.
Her service to the Archdiocese began many years ago at her home parish, Church of Our Saviour in Rye, New York. She supported youth ministries and contributed to Philoptochos. Then the presiding priest, Father Elias Villis, suggested she should use her financial expertise working with not-for-profit organizations to benefit the Archdiocese. She joined the Direct Archdiocesan District Finance Committee, the first woman to serve. Her service continued with the national Church last November 2017 when she was appointed the new Audit Committee chairman by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios.
“The point that I’d like to stress is that we all have talents, and stewardship is not only about treasure, but it’s also about time and talent. It is so vital to the life of our Church that we offer not only treasure but also time and talent for our parishes, faith and community to flourish.”
She encourages the parishes to have more involvement with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Attend the bi-annual Clergy Laity Congress. (The last one was in July in Boston.) The Congress gives parishes a chance to learn more about the ministries of the Archdiocese and participate in decision-making coming from places like the Finance and Administration Committees.
Metropolis assemblies are another opportunity for parishes of a particular Metropolis to be involved with similar issues on a more regional level.
Currently, an outside research firm is working with the Archdiocese on a survey of all parishes, clergy and lay leaders in the country about the services of the Archdiocese. The survey will see if those services are useful in the delivery of ministries at the local parish level. That will help the Archdiocese decide where its service emphasis should be. “When we are at the next budgeting cycle and decide where to spend our resources, we will have this information to inform our proposed budgets,” Allen said. “This is one example of where the Archdiocese is acting, and not simply speaking, about being accountable to the parishes for the resources they entrust to us.”