Church agencies cope with new realities

In July 2019, 50 young adults from 26 countries were commissioned in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to serve as Global Mission Fellows in 33 countries for The United Methodist Church.

This summer, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only seven fellows will serve in the U.S. There will be no international component.

The legacy of such short-term missionary service for young adults dates back to 1948 and can provide a path to future mission roles, social justice work or church leadership positions.

But the concern for the future, says Thomas Kemper — who helped nurture the program while leading the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries over the past decade — is that denominational budget constraints make it probable “that this program is not able to grow, as important as it is.”  

The combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty over what the denomination will look like in the future is affecting funding, staffing and programming for The United Methodist Church’s 13 general agencies.

Trying to negotiate this changing landscape has meant adjusting ongoing ministries, starting new grant programs to respond to current crises while cutting back on others, streamlining staff and looking for new revenue streams at a time when giving patterns have become less predictable.

“2021 is looking to be one of our most challenging financial years yet,” said the Rev. Junius Dotson, top executive of Discipleship Ministries. The agency’s leadership team is looking at all options to fulfill its mandate and mission of “supporting local church and annual conference leaders in our task of making disciples for the transformation of the world,” he added.

The United Methodist Church’s shrinking U.S. membership, combined with both the strong possibility of a denominational split over differences on LGBTQ inclusion and the financial stresses of a global pandemic, has resulted in long-term financial uncertainty for agencies.

Funding for the denomination’s seven general church funds comes from conferences, which in turn ask for apportionments — recommended giving — from local churches.

General church apportionments support the work of most general agencies as well as bishops, general administration, ministerial education and denomination-wide efforts such as the Black College Fund, ecumenical work and Africa University in Zimbabwe.

In 2019, collection rates dropped after the fractious special General Conference – the top legislative assembly of the church – and this year they have dropped further overall in the wake of church closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite an uptick in July, the U.S. collection rate is down overall compared with the same period last year — to the tune of about $10.3 million. Collections from central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — also are down overall this year by about $53,000. The U.S. church provides 99% of the funding for general church ministries.

Increased demand for services also is affecting budgets.

Growing attention to racial justice issues after weeks of protests in the U.S. against police shootings of unarmed Black residents has put a strain on the small staff of the Commission on Religion and Race. The agency currently is fielding 10 training requests per day from church entities, along with requests for anti-racism resources, said interim top executive M. Garlinda Burton.

“We are working hard to reorganize our work and expand our capacity,” Burton said, “however, a nearly 40% reduction in World Service funding requires us to think differently and to ask conference, districts and congregations to pay for services we once offered at no additional charge.”

Dawn Wiggins Hare, top executive for the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, expressed concern that decreased funding will limit the ability of all general agencies to resource and support local churches, annual conferences and, in particular, central conferences outside the U.S.

Without future grants from the World Service Contingency Fund, for example, her small agency would not be able to continue trainings in places such as Africa, the Philippines and Russia.

“This severely limits our hope of building upon the training and work that we have initiated in partnerships with annual conferences in our central conference areas,” she said. “The possibility of additionally reduced funding to our base budget means that crucial areas of our ministry are at risk.”

Here are snapshots from the 13 general agencies:

Board of Global Ministries

At the Board of Global Ministries, budget issues are not just affecting the Global Mission Fellows program, said Thomas Kemper, outgoing top executive, but other categories of missionary service.

Every full-time Global Missionary means a long-time financial commitment, he explained. So even though there are no layoffs of missionaries at this point, new missionaries must be carefully considered “even though there are requests for placements.”

Global Ministries also provides supplementary grants for key positions in the central conferences and partner churches under its Nationals in Mission program. “That program has to be cut as well because we just cannot keep it up to the same extent,” Kemper said.

For the denomination’s largest agency, it has been a challenge to slash the operating budget to cope with the reduction in World Service giving, particularly in relation to personnel, said Roland Fernandes, the top executive as of Sept. 1 and its former long-time treasurer. 

“Sixty-five to 70 percent of costs relate to people between missionaries and staff,” he noted. “Those are difficult decisions.”

Some 60 staff positions have been eliminated in recent years, Fernandes said. Some positions were unfilled, but about 40 people working for Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief were laid off between 2019 and the first half of 2020.

The current staff count is roughly 130 to 140 people, with about 115 in Atlanta and the rest at the Sager-Brown Depot in Baldwin, Louisiana.

Giving to the United Methodist Committee on Relief also is down significantly. While UMCOR’s COVID-19 relief fund to provide “Sheltering in Love” grants raised some $2 million, that amount “is not much in comparison to previous disasters,” Kemper noted.

Even last year, Fernandes said, U.S. disaster response giving fell several million dollars short of expectations. Undesignated giving also has slowed. Now, he added, UMCOR is careful not to give individual grants to conferences or partners exceeding $100,000 “because we don’t have that kind of funding coming in.”

Kemper and Fernandes said they believed the relocation of the headquarters for Global Ministries from New York to Atlanta in 2016 was beneficial, both in terms of the property investment in Atlanta and the related decision by the board of directors to establish a regional presence in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

That strategy helped contain staff costs and strengthened opportunities for collaborations in the regions, particularly in Korea and Vietnam. “Our presence in Asia is definitely much stronger than it was four or five years ago,” Kemper added.

Agency top executives Harriet J. Olson with United Methodist Women and Thomas Kemper (wrapped in a prayer shawl) with Global Ministries listen to speakers at the 2019 United Methodist General Conference. Both agencies are coping with decreases in denomination giving  File photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News. 

Agency top executives Harriett J. Olson with United Methodist Women and Thomas Kemper (wrapped in a prayer shawl) with Global Ministries listen to speakers at the 2019 United Methodist General Conference. File photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News.

United Methodist Women

United Methodist Women has been streamlining its operations, building upon a strategic plan adopted in 2016 and reducing the size of the national staff at its New York headquarters in 2018. The current staff of 62 is consistent with 2019.

One of the objectives in the strategic plan is to focus on relationships, said Harriett Olson, chief executive officer. That has led to several consultations with women outside the U.S., in the denomination’s central conferences.

United Methodist Women also has engaged in strategic thinking about how to reach women who normally would not participate in a seminar or engage in discussions on topics “that in the past may have been restricted to leadership.”

With an eye on the future, the board of directors is looking at how women whose congregations opt out of The United Methodist Church can continue their membership. “It’s always been the case that you don’t have to be a church member to be a member of UMW,” Olson explained.

Under its longtime structure, however, about 90 percent of UMW units are based in local churches. So the board of directors evaluated the bylaws and made provisions to allow units to exist outside of denominational entities, she said.

Decades of mission study and engagement, she pointed out, have demonstrated that women with different viewpoints on other matters “still want to work together for women, children and youth.”

United Methodist Publishing House

The United Methodist Publishing House gets no general church funds and depends on sales, which have been off more than 50 percent over a year ago.

The Rev. Brian Milford, president and publisher, said the halt of so many in-person church activities cut deeply into the Publishing House’s market of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School curriculum.

In late April, the Publishing House announced that about 70 of 296 employees would be laid off by summer, and recently Milford confirmed 12 more layoffs. As of early September, the agency had 159 full-time and 34 part-time employees.

“Our hearts break for all who are direct and indirect victims of the coronavirus, and we remain committed to providing congregations with quality resources for the Christian journey,” Milford said.

The Publishing House’s New House Commons campus in Nashville has been closed during the pandemic. Staff have worked remotely, and on July 31 the agency’s board approved a plan to transition to a permanent remote work arrangement, instructing management to evaluate options for the campus.

Milford said sale or lease of the property will be considered but stressed that it’s too early to say what will happen.

Board of Church and Society

The Board of Church and Society’s staff has been reduced by attrition. Full-time staff positions have dropped from 21 to 18 this year.

“We were pretty thin anyway,” said the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive. “We can’t let go of the work, and that has now put us in the position of realigning our work.”

Directors of the social action agency also have submitted legislation to the next General Conference to reduce the size of the board from 63 to 32, she said. “As much as it is nice to have 63 people on the board, it is not affordable,” she noted.

Henry-Crowe said the financial allocation for the next quadrennial budget is not available yet, but she is expecting at least a 30% reduction. The church will have to become innovative and forward thinking, she said.

The agency is looking forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of The United Methodist building on Capitol Hill in Washington at the next General Conference.

“The building has been one of the hearts of Methodism throughout history,” Henry-Crowe said.

United Methodist Communications

Since the pandemic began, more than 80% of the Nashville staff of United Methodist Communications has elected to work permanently from home.

That represents a significant cost reduction, said Dan Krause, top executive. The communications agency is exploring leasing some of its office space to outside vendors, which will result in revenue opportunities, he added.

Those savings, he hopes, will help prevent the need for any large-scale staff layoffs this year or next. “We have had a 15-20% reduction in staff due to natural attrition — retirements and changes in needs for some positions,” Krause said. The agency currently has 94 employees.

United Methodist Communications is still reaching its primary goals, he said, and is running $2 million ahead of budget through cost reductions and fiscal management.

“This gives us a bridge into the future,” Krause said. The agency is still projecting a need to draw $6 million from the reserves for 2021, furthering its effort to spend down reserves, he added.

General Council on Finance and Administration

The pandemic has affected everything for the denomination’s finance agency, including the budget, said Sharon Dean, who heads communication and marketing.

Last year, GCFA reduced nearly 30 staff positions in preparation for lower apportionment collections related to the pending General Conference and the proposed reduced base percentage for the upcoming quadrennium.

That brought the current staff to 53 persons. “To date in 2020, staff positions remain unchanged from those reductions,” she said. “The proceeds from the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan should enable us to maintain current staffing levels for the remainder of 2020.”

GCFA expects most of its cost reductions in 2020 related to meetings and travel to extend into 2021 as virtual meetings continue, Dean said.

Board directors are preparing a budget for GCFA assuming a 50% collection rate. “This contemplates some impact post-General Conference as well as lingering effects of connectional giving from the COVID-19 pandemic,” she noted.

L. Dale Patterson, the now-retired archivist-records administrator at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, examines film, one of thousands of carefully filed items at the agency housed on the campus of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. 2013 file photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News. 
L. Dale Patterson, the now-retired archivist-records administrator at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, examines film, one of thousands of carefully filed items at the agency housed on the campus of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. 2013 file photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News. 

Archives and History

To cope with a reduced budget, the Commission on Archives and History has opted not to hire a replacement for L. Dale Patterson, who retired at the end of 2019 after 26 years as the agency’s archivist-records administrator, said the Rev. Alfred T. Day III, the top executive.

The agency currently has four full-time and one part-time staff — a decrease of one part-time staffer. Patterson’s former archivist duties are being spread among current staff.  For example, the job of reference archivist is now full time to take up some of that work.

Day plans to retire by year’s end, and he said his successor as top executive will need to have demonstrated archivist credentials and skills neither he nor his two immediate predecessors needed to have.

He added: “I think the key word there is we tried to be opportunistic and positive about this change.”

The agency is anticipating 30% to 50% less income than in 2019. “We went into the year, because of denominational uncertainties related to General Conference, expecting income to be 70% of what it was the previous year, and now the pandemic has driven the 70% down to 50%,” Day said.

He said the agency is dipping into its reserves to cover a deficit that is currently running at $200,000.

Higher Education and Ministry

On Aug. 12, the Board of Higher Education and Ministry announced the results of a months-long process that will reshape it into three primary areas of focus.

The culture of the agency is shifting to be less hierarchical and more of a matrix model, said the Rev. Greg Bergquist, top executive. The matrix approach encourages staff members to collaborate as part of interdepartmental and cross-functional teams. The longstanding divisions of ordained ministry and higher education remain part of the governing design, according to the agency’s announcement.

“The shift in culture is to increase collaboration and creativity in our staff,” Bergquist said. “We’ve already begun to experiment with this in the current configuration, where staff from ordained ministry and higher education will be working creatively together for common initiatives.”

By looking more holistically at what needs to be accomplished, problems can be noted and fixed much earlier in the process.

“In the past what would happen is maybe something would develop in ordained ministry or higher education and get some traction, without a whole lot of thinking about how it might affect other parts of our constituencies or be useful to other parts of our constituencies.”

Since 2016, Higher Education and Ministry has had to leave at least 13 previous staff positions vacant due to declining funds. The agency has 56 total employees, 51 full-time and five part-time.

Cover art for the March-April 2020 The Upper Room devotional guide. Some print subscriptions were canceled after the pandemic started but digital subscriptions are up 18 percent. Graphic courtesy of The Upper Room/Discipleship Ministries. 
Cover art for the March-April 2020 The Upper Room devotional guide. Some print subscriptions were canceled after the pandemic started but digital subscriptions are up 18 percent. Graphic courtesy of The Upper Room/Discipleship Ministries.

Discipleship and Upper Room

As recently as 2016, Discipleship Ministries employed more than 150. As of late July, the agency had 114 people on staff, with 61 of those working for the self-supporting Upper Room division. Two positions have been eliminated during the pandemic, and some other employees have followed through with planned retirements, the agency reports.

Expenses are down about 10 percent in recent months, due mostly to dramatically reduced travel and building operation costs. The Paycheck Protection Program, enacted by Congress to deal with the pandemic, provided a $1.1 million loan to Discipleship Ministries on April 18, according to an agency financial statement.

The Upper Room is a financially self-sustaining and separately run part of Discipleship Ministries, best known for The Upper Room daily devotional guide. The pandemic has cut into The Upper Room’s revenues by about 5 percent, said the Rev. Stephen Bryant, publisher.

Some of the thousands of churches that closed their buildings due to COVID-19 have cancelled their print subscriptions to the daily devotional guide. For those willing to continue, The Upper Room has been providing a PDF of the guide and permitting distribution to everyone in the congregation. In development is a plan for bulk digital sales to churches.

The in-person programs put on or supported by The Upper Room, including Walk to Emmaus three-day events, have been interrupted by the pandemic, but online events have picked up in number and been well-attended, Bryant said.

Book sales have declined, but digital subscriptions to The Upper Room are up 18 percent, and donations have increased as well.

 “Six months from now we may be singing the blues, but we do feel like we’ve been faithful in the midst of this,” Bryant said. “Our staff has been very creative and compassionate in how to serve our customers.”

Commission on the Status and Role of Women

The Commission on the Status and Role of Women has been assessing how to continue its mission regardless of how the church may choose to restructure.

So far, top executive Dawn Wiggins Hare does not anticipate projected budget cuts will affect staffing at the agency, which has six full-time staff.

“Since 2016, we have not had any layoffs and don’t foresee any this calendar year. All job descriptions are being re-evaluated to determine future needs and capacity,” she said.

One vacancy — a position for an administrative specialist in the area of sexual ethics and advocacy — was left unfilled due to budget concerns.

A grant from the World Service Contingency Fund provided money for training to areas of Africa, the Philippines and Russia, but Hare does not expect to receive those grant funds in the future.

Religion and Race

The anticipated schism has not affected the mission of the Commission on Religion and Race, but anticipations of a severe reduction in the World Service Fund for 2020 and 2021 will lead to laying off three staff persons by year’s end. At the beginning of 2020, there were nine staff members.

As its budget is shrinking, requests for the commission’s help have tripled since the beginning of 2020, according to interim top executive M. Garlinda Burton. She took on that role Sept. 1 following the departure of Erin Hawkins, who had led the agency since 2007.

“Church leaders, clergy and laity realize that The United Methodist Church needs more faith-based tools to recognize, confront and dismantle institutional racism in church structures and in their communities,” Burton said. “At the same time we are, as always, working at our maximum capacity.”

The reduction in World Service funding requires new strategies, Burton said. The agency is creating fee-for-service training and resources competitive with non-United Methodist resources that some United Methodist groups may consider using.

United Methodist Men

Gil Hanke, top executive for United Methodist Men, acknowledges that the projections for World Service funding are not positive.

About 25 percent of the agency’s budget comes from those apportioned funds, so that is a stress factor. However, “above 70% of our funding comes from churches and individuals and other sources that are not apportionments,” he explained.

“Last year we offered some new ways ... for people to give, and we’re continuing that and working with those new ways of making it easier for folks to give,” Hanke said.

The agency has eight people on staff.

United Methodist Men’s program initiatives have included partnering with AMEND Together to create an eight-week group series in which men will learn to recognize, respond to and prevent violence against women.

However, the main goal is to get more men involved with The United Methodist Church, he pointed out. “If you look at who’s missing in church, it’s men. If you look at who really needs to work on being a disciple and not just going through the motions, it’s men.”

Wespath Benefits and Investments

Wespath Benefits and Investments, the denomination’s pension agency, does not receive funds from giving to the general church. Instead, its budget comes from the investment returns on the funds the agency manages for its participants and other investors. The agency invests over $24 billion in assets on behalf of more than 100,000 participants and over 100 United Methodist-affiliated institutions.

As the crisis deepened and financial markets fell dramatically, Wespath leadership responded to reduce the impact. The agency has reduced its annual budget by 10%, frozen all open staff positions, and developed contingency plans for a prolonged period of stress. In 2019, there were 259 on staff.

At this point, Wespath is operating about 15% below the budget its board initially approved for this year.

The agency continues to prepare for a possible split among its pension plans if the postponed General Conference approves a plan of separation. Wespath also is proposing a new clergy retirement plan, called Compass, that remaining United Methodists will use starting in 2023. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the General Conference was postponed from last spring to Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021.

The current economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 has not changed Wespath’s commitment for promoting sustainable business practices. Earlier this year, Wespath became the second U.S. signatory to the UN-convened Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance, committing to position its investment funds to align with the Paris Accords with net zero exposure to greenhouse gases by 2050.

This story was reported by the following UM News reporters: Linda Bloom, Joey Butler, Kathy L. Gilbert, Heather Hahn, Sam Hodges and Jim Patterson.

Contact UM News at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free daily or weekly digests.

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