Church risks losing priest in fee dispute
The future of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Lynn remains uncertain as church leaders and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America continue to spar over the yearly allocation that each member church pays to the archdiocese.
In 2010, $88,000 was due and St. George paid $68,000. The remaining $20,000 is still in dispute, as is the allocation for 2011.
If the conflict continues, sanctions placed upon the church may culminate in the removal of the Rev. George Tsoukalas, who has led the church since 1997. The sanctions are affecting church members, including Andrea and Ryan Walsh of Peabody, parents of 8-month-old Ella, who is due to be baptized in June.
“In January, Father Tsoukalas was at my dad’s bedside just after he passed, and he also performed the funeral services,’’ said Andrea Walsh. “Because of the ties we have with Father Tsoukalas and St. George’s church, I would never consider having Ella’s baptism elsewhere.’’
At the forefront of the resistance to paying the full allocation is John Meklis, the president of the church’s Parish Council. “We simply cannot afford to pay the full amount,’’ said Meklis, 39, a lifelong church member and resident of Lynn. “Also, the formula that the archdiocese uses to calculate our allocation does not work, and we fear continued increases. Where does it end?’’
Although the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston, which administers churches in New England, recently posted a 2010 financial overview on its website, boston.goarch.org, Meklis doesn’t think it’s enough. He wants more transparency and accountability from the regional office.
“We would like to know exactly how our allocation is spent,’’ Meklis said. “There needs to be more transparency all around, including salaries and rents.’’
St. George’s allocation covers a portion of the administration and activities costs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, including its regional offices and programs. Expenditures include the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and Hellenic College in Brookline; educational materials; summer camp programs; and regional charitable efforts.
The allocation is based on the expenses of a particular church, with certain deductions. According to the Metropolis’s financial documents, St. George has the highest expenditures of the 63 churches in New England.
“This is not an issue of money. The Lynn church has the ability to pay, but they refuse because some of them disagree with the formula used to calculate their allocation,’’ said Chancellor Theodore Barbas, speaking on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston.
According to Barbas, each of the 540 churches in the archdiocese can send one clergy member and three lay people as delegates to a national congress that occurs every two years. In 2006, delegates approved an allocation formula based on a church’s expenses. Barbas said St. George has not sent delegates to congress for a number of years.
“We were not aware that a change in the allocation formula was on the agenda in 2006,’’ said Tsoukalas, of St. George. “We are not privy to that information and we did not attend the recent national meetings because we can’t afford the fees.’’
According to Tsoukalas, the cost for each person can reach $3,000, including transportation and lodging. The 2006 congress was held in Nashville.
One of the flaws of an expense-based allocation formula is that it does not recognize the donations made by members of specific churches to the archdiocese, according to St. George’s leaders.
“We have a small group of parish members that contribute $10,000 or more every year to the archdiocese, in addition to what the church gives for its allocation,’’ said Tsoukalas. “Because of our generous benefactors, our church is good for at least a half-million dollars a year to the archdiocese. However, an expense-based formula does not recognize the generosity of our members.’’
Church member Georgia Katsoulomitis of Boston said most parishioners are not well off and an “increase in annual stewardship payments would pose a financial burden on them in these tough economic times.’’
Members of St. George pay a $365 annual fee for family membership, $250 for singles. Allowances are made for the elderly, who are not denied membership if they cannot pay.
The controversy over St. George’s allocation began in 2007, when the requested allocation was $81,948 and the Metropolis agreed to reduce the amount to $66,500. Financial relief continued in 2008 and 2009, with the Metropolis forgiving a total of $48,788 for the three years. Private donors also contributed funds directly in hopes of reaching a financial compromise. In 2010, the allocation rose to $88,000 and church leadership committed to paying $68,000 and no more. In 2011, the allocation was again $88,000 and the church again decided to pay $68,000, but the archdiocese has returned the monthly payments for this year due to the ongoing dispute.
Tensions escalated when the Metropolis discontinued financial relief and insisted that St. George follow the same regulations as the other 62 churches in the region. The first sanctions were placed upon the church last December, when Tsoukalas was directed not to participate in other parishes’ services or ceremonies, or receive service assistance at St. George without prior permission. In March, Tsoukalas was barred from performing certain sacraments, including weddings and baptisms.
The most recent round of negotiations between St. George and the Metropolis Finance Committee faltered again.
“We left our meeting [on May 16] with what we thought was an agreed upon deal, a financial compromise,’’ said Meklis. “But the archdiocese came back at the last minute, before our parish assembly meeting, with a different financial deal.’’
St. George is awaiting an official response from the archdiocese. As hostility and the erosion of trust continue, at least 12 families with religious ceremonies scheduled at St. George are caught in the crossfire.
“My family is going to wait out this controversy and hope that it is resolved soon,’’ said Donna Papadopoulos, grandmother to Ella Walsh. “We don’t want Ella’s baptism to be performed anywhere else or by a different priest. St. George’s and Father Tsoukalas are a part of our family history. I hope peace, truth, and understanding prevail, so that my granddaughter may be baptized in her own church.’’