Rev. Dr. John Simmons, Chair of the Conference Board of Trustees, presents the proposal to establish the Barnes Evaluation and Administration Team to the 2020 Annual Conference.
By Sybil Davidson
In August of 2020, the North Georgia Annual Conference approved a new committee with an important task: to distribute funds from the sale of closed church property in an equitable, accountable manner to fund ministry initiatives across all eight districts.
“This change has the propensity to be a major blessing for the Annual Conference,” said chair of the new Barnes Evaluation and Administrative Team (BEAT), Rev. Steven Usry. “It allows us to be far more intentional and targeted to offer vital grants through the whole of the conference. The creation of this team and the centralization of funds is both a structural and paradigmatic shift. It's a new way to provide missional funding within the Annual Conference.”
Nearly two decades ago, Rev. Parks Davis (now retired) cast a vision for a new and innovative way to fund new church development. From that vision, the Conference established the Barnes Fund for Church Development in 2005
Since then, net proceeds from the sales of virtually all closed church real estate assets were distributed 75% to the District in which the property was physically located and 25% deposited in the Barnes Fund. These Funds have helped plant churches and launch new ministries across our Conference.
Over time, however, it became clear to the Conference Board of Trustees that metro districts have more opportunity to financially benefit from closed church sales. For example, a sale in 2018 of a metro-Atlanta church property netted $2.3M for the district itself. The largest sale of a non-metro closed church property netted $550K for that district in February 2019.
Concurrently, the Conference Treasurer’s Office and the Conference Council of Finance and Administration began having conversations based on pragmatic reports that The United Methodist Church would face financial challenges as its aging membership passed away. Prominent clergyperson Rev. Lovett Weems called this the “Death Tsunami,” but he also suggested that there was a window to make sound long-term financial decisions that would benefit ministry long term.
“These conversations led to the formation of the DART Team (District Administrative Review Team), to the development of a robust property management system, and led the Conference to engage the services of property management firm The Norton Group,” explained Conference Treasurer Keith Cox. “Through this work, more and more we recognized that we are better stewards of our financial resources working as one unified Conference.”
With a goal of fulfilling our mission to make disciples and transform the world across our Annual Conference, the Conference Board of Trustees, Council on Finance and Administration, and Treasurer’s Office have been collaborating for many years in an effort to develop a more equitable and sustainable system--all with the counsel and support of our bishop.
The BEAT Team
At Annual Conference 2020, a process to provide an opportunity for all districts to be able to have equal access to the funds derived from the sales of closed church properties was proposed and approved. Rather than 25 percent of church sales going to the Barnes Fund, 100 percent of proceeds would go to the Barnes Fund.
The process called for a multidisciplinary committee to be established with authorization to oversee the use of the Fund. The Conference set the membership of the team to include, but not be limited to, the Executive Assistant to the Bishop, Chair of the Board of Church Development (Chair), Chair of Council on Finance and Administration, Chair of Conference Board of Trustees, Conference Lay Leader, Director of Connectional Ministries, Two Cabinet Representatives, and additional members added to achieve lay/clergy balance.
After Annual Conference, the Conference Nominations Committee met and named the members of the new committee. The Barnes Evaluation and Administration Team officially launched with its first meeting on September 24 and has since met monthly. The team members are:
Vision and Purpose
The benefits of the new system are first, that all 8 districts have equal opportunity to use the funds for district-specific missional needs. This system also offers improved accountability and oversight because Annual Conference financial books are audited. Additionally, pooled investments will help ensure funding for ministry growth for many years, regardless of budgetary pressures.
“We want to deploy the resources across the entirety of the Conference as well as cheer on each project. This is Kingdom work that we are engaged in,” said Bill Martin, Conference Lay Leader.
The challenge before the BEAT committee members is to chart a new way of funding mission with eyes on the whole conference.
“Our goal is to bless each geographical area where United Methodist churches are present,” said Usry. “We want to be creative and innovative, not rigid or risk-averse. We're working slowly so we can get it right.”
In its work so far, the team has paced itself to maximize effectiveness and action.
“Any high functioning team needs time to get to know one another, build trust, appreciate what each person brings to the team, so that’s how we started,” explained Usry. “We heard from our bishop who cast vision on a new way. We took time to voice our dreams. There was a lot of good work we did internally in 2020.”
As they moved into 2021, the team broke into subsets to work on different priorities including the creation of grant guidelines, creation of grant evaluation criteria, and putting the mission and vision on paper.
“We are now bringing the work back to the larger team,” explained Usry. “Our goal is to make our grant process available between March and May.”
“We are taking a ‘whole conference’ approach and trying to spur new opportunities to reach new people,” said Nate Abrams, a lay member of the team and chair of the Board of Discipleship and Advocacy. “Using criteria set by the Annual Conference, the team expects that these funds will bolster innovative ministry—ministry that envisions new uses for existing assets, that reaches new people, and that is transformative for those who are already connected with the church.”
When the funds begin to be distributed, the team’s intent is that they immediately further the mission and vision of the church.
“There are needs right now that, if funding is provided, can be met in a way that positively affects local churches, communities, even whole cities,” said Usry.
The first iteration of the grants is expected to be made available to District Strategic Growth Teams to apply. (Each district has a Strategic Growth Teams that comes alongside the District Superintendent to discuss and diagnose mission opportunities in their district.)
“The District Strategic Growth Teams are the units who can tell us precisely the most strategic investments in their area,” explained Usry. “Our goal is to make our first round of grant requests before Annual Conference 2021.” Then, as the team evolves in its work, and per the vote of our 2020 Annual Conference, grant applications will be received from and grants awarded to other North Georgia Conference groups as well.
The team will gather once again in February, faithful to the work entrusted to them by the Annual Conference, to forge a new way of funding ministry across our Connection.