Despite economy, church panel finds reasons for optimism

Even with some tough decisions to face, "this is a good time" for the United Methodist Church to adopt a budget, according to an economist who tracks the denomination's financial health.

Though “we are in critical times because we have been through a recession … there is a smaller chance of recession” in the near future, notedDon House, who heads the lay delegation of the denomination’s Texas Annual (regional) Conference.

House also cited research showing that giving per member is growing faster than national family incomes. "There is lots of money in the denomination," he noted.

House spoke to a group gathered for a Pre-General Conference News Briefing held by United Methodist Communications Jan. 29-31. He was a member of a panel on financial stewardship that addressed about 280 church communicators, first-elected delegates and others preparing for the denomination's top legislative assembly, which meets this spring.

The panel also included top executives Sandra Kelley Lackore, General Council on Finance and Administration; Barbara Boigegrain, Board of Pension and Health Benefits; and the Rev. R. Randy Day, Board of Global Ministries.

The General Council on Finance and Administration will ask delegates to approve a $585.7 million churchwide budget for the 2005-08 period, reflecting a 7.3 percent increase over the $545.7 million for 2001-04. Delegates also will consider requests for about $80 million to support ministries that aren't included in the regular budget.

Local United Methodist churches and regional and churchwide agencies were dealt hard blows during the 2000-04 quadrennium. Local churches have had difficulty living up to their commitments to support the mission and ministry of the denomination for a variety of reasons, including the effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the condition of the world economy, the decline in investment value along with stock market instability, diminishing reserves and rising health-care costs.

Lackore reminded participants that the denomination's mission - "making disciples of Jesus Christ" - is foremost in efforts to finance the work of the church. "To live out the mission statement, we need to budget to go forward," she said.

"Only when persons are there to put gifts into the plate can we go forward with our mission," she said. "The good news is that, last year, two additional annual conferences paid 100 percent of their apportionments."

Income for the churchwide budget is supplied through seven "apportioned" funds - funds supported by each annual conference in amounts set by a formula based on local church expenditures.

The church's mission agency, led by Day, has experienced the effects of the economic downturn and decreased giving through program and staff reductions, he said. "The Board of Global Ministries and others have a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of God's family … (and) a shattered presumption of security."

Noting the widening gap between the world's rich and poor, Day said, "Poverty is another form of violence … a weapon of mass destruction. We must work together to stop the transfer of resources from the poor and marginalized."

He added, "Money itself is not the issue that motivates the United Methodist Church, but the gospel and the United Methodist response to it."

Boigegrain emphasized the commitment of the pension and health benefits agency "to keep our current and future promises … to provide support to those in ministry so they can lead."

A churchwide task force convened after the 2000 General Conference recommended major changes to the pension plans for United Methodist lay and clergy employees. Boigegrain noted that the proposed changes being submitted to General Conference by the agency reflect an effort to balance the supply of adequate, appropriate and secure benefits with the cost of doing so.

Demographics of clergy and lay employees of the United Methodist Church show that the average employee is 10 years older than the average mainstream worker, Boigegrain pointed out. Rising health care costs are compounded by the fact that clergy have moved from being one of the longest-lived groups of employees to the topmost group with heart disease, she added.

"The world and the church are changing," she said. "We must make sure we can keep up."

The $80 million in requests above the $585.7 million budget include a total of $38.9 million to continue and expand the denomination's Igniting Ministry media campaign and add a local church-based youth expression, and $2.3 million for a communications initiative for the church's central conferences - regional units in Africa, Asia and Europe. All three requests are being submitted by United Methodist Communications.

Additional requests also call for funds to support Africa University, a new Board of Discipleship Division on Ministries with Young People, and ethnic ministries efforts.

A report of the proposed churchwide budget for 2005-08 is available at the Web site of the General Council on Finance and Administration, www.gcfa.org; a summary of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits proposals is available at www.gbophb.org.

*Willis is editor for the Public Information Team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

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