Commentary: Disproportionate budget cut will hurt church’s ministry

Editor's note: This is an adaptation of the response provided by United Methodist Communications to the Connectional Table’s budget allocations team. The original document can be read here.

We recognize that the Connectional Table has a complex job. Cuts must occur in order to sustain the ministry of The United Methodist Church, and deciding where those should occur is a difficult task.

We anticipated that United Methodist Communications would take the largest budget cut of all of the agencies because of our reserves. However, we were not anticipating such a wide difference between United Methodist Communications’ share of the budget cut proposed by the Connectional Table on Jan. 29 and that of the other agencies.

The proposed budget has UMCom taking a 37 percent cut, while all other agencies are at 20 percent or less, regardless of their reserve levels. UMCom’s seemingly arbitrary reduction is 17 percentage points more than that for any other peer agency.

We affirm that general church expenses must be reduced. In the past two years, United Methodist Communications has been aggressively managing for a new future. We have reduced our administrative expenses from 25 percent to 15 percent, for a savings of about $2 million — funds that we could instead refocus on better serving local churches and the global voices of the denomination.

We also reduced reserves by $11.2 million in 2018. That is an 18 percent decrease in reserves from what was stated in the Connectional Table’s allocation letter — and the letter used a 12-month-old figure.

We agree that duplication across the church must be addressed. We have discontinued functions such as health programming, producing calendars and developing sermon starters, recognizing that this work was happening in other agencies as well. With the calendar, we discontinued a profitable item to focus on our core mandates and eliminate redundancy in the church.

In addition to reinvesting in our support for local church communications and the build-out of multilingual communications for the global church, we have invested in 21st century communication platforms and technology for the entire denomination. We’ve made marketing databases and websites free to all agencies, to avoid duplication in significant expenses. To date, there has been little adoption of such efforts.

The Connectional Table allocations letter notes that agencies and funds consider seriously the greater use of shared services including communications; yet there are 13 agency communications departments, as well as communicators for the Connectional Table and Council of Bishops, despite a reduced budget. We stand ready to be in conversation on streamlining communications, which would be more cost-effective than parallel communication structures.

We affirm the opportunity for consolidation and have been proactive in working with other agencies. We started the dialogue on possible Nashville property consolidation, and we stand ready for back-office function consolidation such as finance, HR and IT. We also invite revisiting an exploration of agency consolidation.

As noted in the Connectional Table’s letter, we also affirm “that the smaller commissions have more limited revenue sources and reserve capacity.” Because of this, we have sought to be good communication partners in absorbing many of their communication-related costs this quadrennium, so their budgets can be spent on advancing their core missional work, while enabling us to do ours.

While we affirm our willingness to use a portion of our reserves to fund our budget in the next quadrennium, we are following the reserve policy put in place by the General Commission on Communication. The Connectional Table’s letter seems to imply that having reserves is undesirable, or that UMCom is not practicing good stewardship because our reserves are higher than some others. Not only have we been following accepted accounting principles and standards and complying with the guidelines as set forth by our board, we have been following precedents set forth in the Bible, which illustrates the need for managing resources prudently. It appears that we are being penalized for being good financial managers.

Having reserves allows us to respond to the unexpected on behalf of the church. Reserves are meant as a safety net for emergency and one-time expenses, not ongoing costs. If we must use reserves to fund a significant portion of the operating budget, we will have no way to fund our essential responsibilities once the reserves are depleted.

Additionally, we will limit our ability to respond to emergency needs. For example, we have provided funding for the 2019 General Conference to alleviate the necessity for registration fees so anyone may attend without charge. Similarly, we have supported smaller agencies and subsidized communicators. We have used reserves for disaster communications following terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, and typhoons across the globe when the message of Christ is needed most.

The very heart of making disciples — our core mission as a denomination — is sharing the Good News. Communication has been essential to the church since the earliest days of Christianity. The earliest thing we know about the church is from communication: Paul’s epistles helped to shape the church and record its history. Paul wrote letters for the same reasons that we at UMCom communicate on behalf of the church today: to inform, encourage, motivate, inspire, and engage followers of Christ.

John Wesley understood the importance of communication. After all, the world was his parish. He wrote numerous books, sermons and pamphlets and used a printing press to make them as widely available as possible. He equipped his circuit riders with resources much as we seek to equip church leaders and local churches today. No doubt, he would have been elated by the availability and diversity of communication channels and tools available to us today. We believe that he would encourage the bold use of communications to reach new people, not reduce the capacity to communicate at a disproportionate level.

UMCom has recognized that now is the time to make investments in communications that pay big dividends in terms of sharing the Good News — especially as we are commanded to share the teachings of Jesus Christ with all nations. New technologies make this more possible than at any time in history, yet at the same time, targeting audiences is more challenging than ever.

Because we already have taken steps to spend responsibly and frugally, such a large cut becomes more difficult.

We support local churches in the form of grants and communications resourcing, including outreach strategies, social media, advertising, website hosting, site development and materials for evangelism. These services will have to be eliminated or significantly reduced. Creation of resources and training that relate to the leadership development area of focus are also at risk.

Storytelling that captures the life of the church will be compromised, impeding ministry with communities that are already marginalized. We’ve been expanding how we communicate in the languages and contexts of the church, but now Hispanic, French, Korean and Native American communications stand to be affected by the cuts. We will also have to scale back our growing coverage of stories in Africa, Europe and Asia, limiting our ability to support an expanding global church. Our ability to cover denominational body meetings will also be affected.

Our advertising campaigns have helped to keep our denominational awareness levels up and top of mind for people when they consider a church. Reductions in evangelism outreach through communication and advertising will potentially have a negative impact on church growth as well as churchwide giving.

The future of communications within the denomination will also be affected. For example, the continued development of infrastructure in the central conferences and Internet connectivity for episcopal offices will have to be significantly curtailed. The lack of same-day communication solutions in developing countries is an issue of fairness and justice. Funding for digital, radio and television evangelism in areas where United Methodism is growing will not be available. Such development of communication infrastructure is funded by a board-designated reserve that the Connectional Table is proposing be used instead for UMCom’s general operating budget.

Contrary to the direction taken by some other agencies, UMCom has in recent years moved from a fee-for-service model with other church agencies and groups to absorbing costs within our budget, offering free training, making grants to other agencies, providing website hosting, subsidizing communication staff and making investments in technology that benefit other agencies.

With reduced funding, we are forced to look at revenue models both within and outside the denomination by charging for services, which will have an impact on other agencies and church entities. In addition, searching for revenue from sources external to the denomination could detract from the staff’s focus on missional priorities.

As we move beyond the special session and General Conference 2020, sharing a new vision of the future for the denomination becomes more important than ever. In a time of anxiety and uncertainty for the foreseeable future, communication becomes more critical, but a reduced budget for 2021 and beyond will make that difficult.

Over the years, we have made extensive efforts to support the Four Areas of Focus, developing stories and resources to increase awareness and move people to action. Both the Imagine No Malaria and the Abundant Health campaigns are prime examples of successful, significant campaigns that we have developed and supported in partnership with our colleagues at Global Ministries. A severely reduced budget will provide no money for extensive campaigns.

Finally, we believe the Connectional Table’s recommendations may be based on numbers that are not presenting a current and complete picture for UMCom. It’s difficult to determine how some of the allocation recommendations have been made and whether they are consistent from one agency to the next. We perceive this as being inequitable and without transparency.

The UMCom Foundation is a separate legal entity over which the Connectional Table has no disciplinary authority to determine how funds are used. Therefore, including Foundation funds in our calculation of reserves that may be used as a replacement for UMCom’s agency World Service funding is an overreach of responsibility.

UMCom cannot sustain our mission with a cut this egregious and disproportionate. We request that the 37 percent cut be revisited. We propose a 25 percent reduction, which is still well above that for other agencies but more sustainable for our continued mission. That could happen by giving up $9 million from the contingency fund and other allocations. We also ask that the World Service fixed charge be reduced by the same final percentage.

We also ask that the Connectional Table drive dialogue on reducing redundancies across the general church and agencies. Particularly in the area of communications, there is significant waste across the denomination. We believe if everyone “lived in their lane,” there would be significant reductions in the church budget.

We look forward to the continued work of bringing the message of God’s transforming love to a broken world.

Krause is chief executive and Mai is chief operating officer of United Methodist Communications. Evans is president of the General Commission on Communication, the governing board of the agency. UM News is a unit of United Methodist Communications.

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