Deciding what budget cuts mean for ministry

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Most United Methodist general agencies are facing substantial budget cuts starting in 2021. That means agency leaders are now making hard choices about what ministries to curtail or drop altogether.

In the past two months, these leaders have met with representatives of the Connectional Table to discuss what reductions would mean for their ministries. The Connectional Table is the leadership body responsible for coordinating the work of agencies and proposing most of the denomination’s budget allocations.

“We heard not only about their prudent work to protect their capacity for mission and ministry but also their concerns about the upcoming cuts,” said the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, the Connectional Table’s chief connectional ministries officer. “We have been very aware, particularly in light of significant cuts, of the complexity of our budget allocation task, of the ministries that could be lost, the lives that could be upended and the anxiety this process is causing.”

The Connectional Table Allocations Team on Jan. 11 sent to agency executives preliminary recommendations on budget allocations. The team will meet with top agency executives Jan. 16 in Atlanta to discuss the team’s recommendations in detail.

While the Connectional Table can recommend how to slice the financial pie, its budget partner — the board of the denomination’s finance agency — has already set the pie’s size.

In November, despite a request from the Connectional Table to reconsider, the General Council on Finance and Administration board pressed ahead with plans to reduce requested church giving from annual conferences.

The goal is to keep more money in local churches, but that’s not guaranteed because each conference sets its own formula for the apportionments it requests of its congregations.

General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, will have final say on the size and allocation of the denominational budget at its 2020 session.

Based on current estimates, the 2020 General Conference is looking at a proposed general church budget of $498.65 million for the years 2021-2024. Of that amount, the Connectional Table is responsible for allocating about $361.6 million — about a 23 percent decrease from the current budget.

The Connectional Table must divide that total among five general church funds. They include the Ministerial Education Fund, which supports United Methodist seminaries and seminary students; the Black College Fund, which supports historically black church-affiliated schools; the Africa University Fund; and the Interdenominational Cooperation Fund, which supports ecumenical work. The Connectional Table has held listening sessions with administrators of each of these funds.

The largest allocation the Connectional Table deals with is the World Service Fund, which supports the work of eight general church agencies.

Those agencies are wrestling with what the cuts could mean for their work, their employees and the people they serve. The church has a total of 13 agencies. Most are already engaged in cost-saving measures.

Throughout the budget process, Bigham-Tsai said, the Connectional Table has been guided by specific values such as fairness and justice, stewardship and core mission sustainability. The leadership body is looking at agency reserve levels and additional sources of revenue, and it is using its evaluation data from each agency only as instructive of each agency’s mission.

The church budget also could reflect the impact of the special General Conference on Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.

Each agency has its own board, as well as different staffing levels, budgets and mandates from General Conference. Some receive significant revenue from grants and other sources beyond the World Service Fund; others depend on the fund for the bulk of their budgets.

Nevertheless, these agencies share a commitment to providing resources and services that individual churches and even conferences cannot do on their own.

One of the smallest agencies — the Commission on the Status and Role of Women — is responsible for monitoring women’s representation at all levels of the church, providing leadership development and addressing sexual misconduct. The agency says it already works on a shoestring budget and any cuts will affect all its ministries.

The agency “is providing guidance, training, and resources to the entire connection with a staff of six dedicated persons,” said Dawn Wiggins Hare, its top executive. “Having six people doing this important work for the denomination is already happening on an underfunded budget. If we were to experience these significant budget cuts, we would be unable to provide crucial resources and services to The United Methodist Church.”

United Methodist Men, which coordinates men’s ministries and Scouting across the denomination, receives the fewest dollars from general church funds. The Book of Discipline, the church’s governing document, requires each church to have a United Methodist Men’s charter, which costs $85 a year. The agency also receives gifts from individuals.

Since 2010, the agency has reduced its staff from 10 full-time positions to seven full-time and one part-time position. The agency, which typically covers the cost of staff and volunteers to assist churches, districts and conferences in men’s ministries, also has been using video conferencing as a cost-saving measure. In addition, the agency is researching ways to move the quarterly UM Men magazine to a digital format.

A reduction in funding from World Service will impede United Methodist Men’s ability to raise additional funds, said top executive Gil Hanke. Cuts to staff could hamper the agency’s ability to maintain donor records and relationships.

United Methodist Communications already has been working to determine what it considers its essential functions. The possibility remains that the agency may have to make difficult decisions about what ministries to end. These could be denominational-level evangelism and outreach to seekers, communication and grant support for local churches and conferences, or the possibility of exiting one of the denomination’s channels of communication, such as United Methodist News Service is one of the agency’s ministries.

Both Discipleship Ministries and the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry are already streamlining their work to focus on what they see as their core missions.

In Higher Education and Ministries’ case, that means focusing on its goal of preparing global leaders for a global church by increasing access to education and training for lay and clergy leaders.

“The need for principled, Christian leaders will continue regardless of any decisions made about funding,” said the Rev. Kim Cape, Higher Education and Ministry’s top executive. “While our purpose is steady, how we achieve our mandate is flexible.”

Still, she added, her agency told the Connectional Table that the church takes a risk in cutting the agency’s budget with the natural consequence of ending some of its work.

“A budget is the vehicle to carry the freight of ministry,” Cape said.

Discipleship Ministries in October embarked on a major reorganization to focus on serving as brokers of knowledge and conveners of strategic conversations and partners with annual conferences. The agency says the new structure, which will fold church-planting, young people’s ministries and leadership ministries into one programming area, will allow it to accomplish more with fewer financial resources.

The Board of Global Ministries, the denomination’s mission agency, also regularly looks at budget projections that anticipate possible reductions in funding. The agency expects to continue modeling its budget in future years based on a variety of anticipated scenarios so that it can continue serving the church.

The Board of Church and Society and Commission on Religion and Race both receive funding through the World Service Fund, but they did not answer questions related to the budget process.

The Connectional Table plans to present its final budget allocation proposal during a joint meeting with the General Council on Finance and Administration board in April.

“We celebrate that most of our agencies maintain significant financial reserves, and all of our agencies and funds are debt-free,” Bigham-Tsai said. “Because of their prudent work, the coming changes will be challenging but not devastating to the work necessary to maintain each agency’s core mission. Even in a time of declining resources, we have opportunities for ministry ahead of us.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her 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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