A UMNS Report
By Linda Green and Elizabeth Guye*
The recession cast a shadow over United Methodist annual conference sessions in May and June.
At least 35 of the 62 U.S. annual conferences reported financial deficits, which resulted in flat or decreased budgets, frozen salaries, reduced insurance benefits and decreased apportionment payments.
The recent bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors, for example, as well as Michigan’s high unemployment, led to decreased giving to churches in the Detroit Conference. The conference was unable to pay 100 percent of its apportionments to the general church for the first time in eight years.
United Methodists used the economic situation as a stimulus for action and several annual conferences celebrated 100 percent payment of apportionments for churchwide ministries.
“God has called us to claim every child for God’s Kingdom,” said Tennessee Conference Bishop Richard J. Wills. “Times are tough. We could rest on our laurels, but that will ultimately lead to decline. Local churches and individuals need to step forward a little more.”
Church members found a variety of ways to save money in order to continue ministries. Some conferences sold property, while others limited salaries and insurance coverage.
Wisconsin approved the sale of two camps, and Iowa voted to sell two of its five camps and direct the proceeds for improvements at the remaining camps and retreat centers.
The winter flooding of the Red River in the Dakotas made United Methodist campsites inhabitable and unsafe, so the Dakotas conference decided that $100,000 of the proceeds of the Bismarck parsonage will be earmarked for the camp improvement line item. Baltimore-Washington sold its Annapolis District parsonage to develop a new faith community and to support Hispanic ministries in the district.
Eight conferences closed at least 17 churches, sometimes as new faith communities were being developed. Oklahoma voted to close seven, yet the closing opens at least one facility to new possibilities as it was deeded to the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.
North Carolina decided to freeze the minimum salary of clergy at the 2009 figure of $40,319 and $26,207 for student pastors. Indiana introduced a $3.9 million Lilly Endowment-funded Well-Lived Life program to assist pastors with debt and congregations with financial planning.
Insurance and health issues were a top concern for 21 annual conferences, with many moving to directly billing churches for health insurance and pension costs or approving increases of health benefit premiums for active and retired members. Minnesota rejected a proposal that clergy contribute 15 percent rather than 10 percent toward their health insurance.
The United Methodist Church in the United States has been losing members for decades. Of the 58 U.S conferences that reported membership statistics, 51 saw a decrease over their 2007 figures.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung serves Holy Communion during the Northern Illinois Annual Conference meeting July 7-9 in St. Charles, Ill. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference.
However, seven conferences swam against the tide, reporting membership growth. North Georgia had an increase of 4,007 people for a membership of 354,094 and Central Texas grew by 1,282 to 163,793.
Among conferences with the highest membership declines, Florida lost 8,710 to 302,001, West Ohio lost 6,681 to 212,113, East Ohio lost 5,180 to 168,775, Central Pennsylvania lost 4,416 to 136,626 and Baltimore-Washington lost 3,678 to 188,739.
Of the 55 annual conferences reporting such ordination statistics, 526 clergy retired this year, 603 others were ordained and 452 commissioned.
The United Methodist General Conference on Finance and Administration normally releases the church’s official membership statistics in late winter.
The financial news was not all bad. Nearly 20 annual conferences reported on ministry partnerships across the globe, which often involve generous donations by church members.
Missouri celebrated 10 years of covenant relationships with the two annual conferences of Mozambique. During the conference session, $83,386 was given to complete unfinished church building projects in Mozambique.
The California-Nevada conference generated $24,346 toward the purchase of a tractor and other equipment for a sustainable agriculture project in the West Angola Conference. More than 30 clergy pledged to give 1 percent of their salaries to help fund clergy salaries and pensions in West Angola.
In addition, North Texas had a successful campaign to raise $1 million to build a health center and provide health science scholarships for Africa University.
Nothing But Nets, the church’s anti-malaria campaign, was a cause for which 10 conferences reported raising money, totaling more than $192,000. Southwest Texas had a live auction where a signed San Antonio Spurs basketball, as well as a WNBA Silver Stars basketball, were sold for $2,500 then donated back to be auctioned again.
Two conferences raised $14,438 for the Global HIV/AIDS Fund and two more raised $78,804 for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
Central Conference pensions
Last fall, the United Methodist Publishing House announced that, unlike in previous years, the 62 U.S. annual conferences would not be able to redistribute their allocation from a total of $1 million from Cokesbury revenue sales to retired clergy and surviving spouses in the church’s central conferences, especially in Africa.
Earlier this year, however, the office of central conference pensions at the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits encouraged each annual conference to consider a gift or matching grant from their coffers that is the equivalent of last year’s Cokesbury gift for the Central Conference Pension Initiative.
At least 16 conferences contributed more than $655,000 to the initiative during conference sessions. In addition, the Eastern Pennsylvania conference encouraged appointed clergy to support the initiative with $60 per year and a donor in Georgia pledged $500,000 with another possible donation if churches in South and North Georgia match the initial gift.
Conferences took to heart the denomination’s campaign to “Rethink Church.” Fifteen annual conferences emphasized the campaign in planned events, sermons and presentations and at least 18 conferences will start new churches within the coming year.
“We must arise and shine and rethink church. … We are called to make complex and difficult decisions to be faithful, dynamic disciples of Jesus Christ who are committed to being relevant, passionate and life changing churches,” New Mexico Bishop Max Whitfield said.
The Mississippi Conference illustrated their 10,000 Doors campaign as local churches brought doors of all types decorated to embody their ministry. Two hundred doors formed a circle around the conference and the stage area was transformed by doors, including a communion table made of doors. The invitation to members: Open the doors of their hearts to God and the doors of their churches to mission and ministry.
Across the Desert Southwest Conference, members participated in a special collection to start new churches by making offerings wrapped as birthday presents, for a conference-wide total of $80,989.
Detroit introduced the planting pastor for the new Faithway Church, the first new church start in the conference since 1997. Eastern Pennsylvania celebrated the start of four new churches in 2009 and Florida expects to create 17 in 2009, with 14 launching as Hispanic, Haitian, Korean and Russian-Slavic congregations.
Northern Illinois approved the launch of more than 20 new faith communities, with financing from apportionments, closed church funds, national plans, partner churches and individual donors.
The Pacific Northwest plans to begin 20 new faith communities, and Holston will start 15 new churches, all within the next five years.
Despite the concerns over the economy and other pressing issues, annual conference participants managed to have some fun along the way.
During “United Methodist Night at the Ballpark” in Arlington, Texas, Central Texas Conference Bishop Michael Lowry threw out the ceremonial first ball for the Texas Rangers vs. Toronto Blue Jays baseball game.
The Rangers lost, but conference members reported a winning evening.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Guye was a 2009 summer intern for United Methodist News Service and the Media Group at United Methodist Communications.