Financial State of the Church
General Secretary and Treasurer
General Council on Finance and Administration
April 29, 2004
Greetings, bishops, delegates, colleague general secretaries and guests. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.
Before I start, I want to say a word about the offering plate I have with me. Some of you have seen my small, brown, old wooden plate that I frequently travel with and, in January, when some of us were here in Pittsburgh, I had that plate with me. Bishop Kammerer told me my plate was too small. So, Neil Alexander loaned me a Cokesbury plate.
But, for me, it’s not so much the size of the plate, but the reminder of what it represents: the reminder that this plate is a sacred vessel entrusted to receive the gifts to God that every person, in every pew, in every United Methodist church has given to God.
As the person whose agency is charged with the awesome responsibility for that trust, this plate serves as a constant reminder to me that our decisions are not just about dollars, but are about these gifts, not given to the church, but to God.
It is in this context, that I want to talk with you about making disciples of Christ in challenging financial times.
For months now you have heard–in delegations, in your annual conferences, and in the press–reports that our denomination’s financial foundation is in need of repair. That’s a fact.
Yesterday, Bishop Blake spoke so compellingly to one aspect of that need for repair. Stewardship, spiritually centered giving. Thank you, Bishop Blake.
I would like to talk with you about another aspect of that foundation.
Let me tell you what we know as reported by your local churches, and from our jurisdictional conference treasurers.
- Fact: We are closing churches. 216 fewer churches were given apportionments in 2004 than in 2003.
- Fact: We are consolidating districts.
- Fact: We are merging conferences.
- Fact: We are losing members. In 2002, almost 41 percent of our local churches
reported that they did not receive a new member by baptism or confession of faith.
Fact: There are two realities in our local church financial foundation:
The first reality is that our jurisdictional annual conferences apportion to 34,780 local churches in our jurisdictional annual conferences–that is the budget you will vote on at this General Conference.
Our second reality is that we have a very narrow base of financial support. 3,655 of those 34,780 local churches are apportioned one half of our jurisdictional annual conference and general church apportionments. Only 3,655 churches of those 34,780!
Let me give you an example:
If we consider the budget proposal before you for the next four years, $585 million, those 3,655 churches will be apportioned almost 300 million of those dollars — a very narrow base of support.
One conclusion that can be drawn from these facts is that there are fewer people in fewer churches putting money in this offering plate. Fewer people in fewer churches to pay for the budget that your conference treasurers will vote at this General Conference.
My friends, not only do we have stewardship/spiritual challenges, the financial support base is also shrinking.
However, this is only part of the story, and we are, after all, a people of hope. There are a number of encouraging facts:
Here are a few:
- Fact: Nearly seven out of 10 churches–that’s almost 24,000 churches–paid 100 percent or more of their apportionments in 2003. Close to 70 percent of our churches!
- Fact: Our investment in national advertising and welcoming has put a “fresh face” on our church and persons are responding to open hears, open minds and open doors.
- Fact: Despite turmoil in Zimbabwe and much of the rest of the continent, Africa University is producing strong Christian leadership.
- Fact: Our theological seminaries have worked to renew and strengthen their relationships to annual conferences, districts and congregations.
- Fact: Since 1995, giving in our local churches has gone up more than family income. And we could add $1 million to our general church receipts in 2004 if we, as a denomination, could enable 44 churches in the group that had the largest dollar shortfall in 2003 to give at 100 percent in 2004. Forty-four churches — $1 million for mission and ministry! And imagine, my friends, the difference it would mean in your annual conferences if those 44 churches paid 100 percent.
So what does this mean? How can knowing these facts lead us to making informed financial decisions at this General Conference?
Thirty years ago, while studying under Kennon Callahan — before Ken became a big name in church growth and consulting — he told a story of his work as a local church pastor.
Late one night, Ken received a call from a distraught wife and mother. The woman said her husband had a gun, and she feared for her life and the lives of their three children. Ken drove quickly to the house.
The front door was slightly ajar, and he followed the noise coming from the family room. When he entered, the man holding the gun turned and pointed it in Ken’s direction. In a split second, Ken said, his life passed before him.
What do you say when there may be only a second to say it? What Ken said was: “John, where are you headed? What kind of future are you building?”
Where are you headed? What kind of future are you building? WHY did Ken ask these questions?
Did he ask them because he wanted to distract the man who held the power of life or death over him?
Did Ken ask them because he was able to move beyond concern over his own self-preservation to find the only important question the man with the gun had to answer?
Where are you headed? What kind of future are you building?
Ken was concerned about the man, and he asked questions that were designed to save not Ken’s life, but the life of the man who held the gun.
In the midst of financial challenges, we need to ask some important questions, not to save our own lives, or even to save the church, but to ask what kind of future are we building for our families, our communities and our world.
We need to be concerned about the church, but the issue is not about preservation for ourselves as individuals and institutions; the issue is not preserving of our comfortable ways; the issue is not how we will invigorate the United Methodist Church.
Just as Ken’s concern was not for himself, but for the man he hoped to save, the family he hoped to save. The issue for all of us is how we will make disciples for Christ to be in mission in the world.
Can we fulfill Christ’s mission?
I am aware that some in the church do not feel comfortable with examples from the corporate world but God’s gifts are extended there as well, and there are some good models of how the corporate world responds in the face of challenging financial times.
The March 31 issue of the Wall Street Journal told that both Coke and Pepsi were coming out with slimmer colas. They are colas with fewer calories and carbohydrates than their traditional products.
A Coke spokesman said, “Innovation is at the heart of everything we are doing, and we are always looking for ways to strengthen and expand. …” Importantly, both companies halted business as usual to get their new product into consumers’ hands.
An industry representative said of the delay, “Both companies are refocusing on their core brands and trying to make sure that they are solid.”
Put these elements together and you have a recipe for coping with financial challenges:
Refocus on the core;
- Eliminate the excesses;
- Innovate, strengthen and expand.
- Not a bad action plan for the United Methodist Church.
How do we go about refocusing on the core in new ways–Christ’s mission in the world?
Let’s consider these questions:
- What are we going to do in this General Conference to shape the financial future of our denomination?
- Do we only have 1,000 personal agendas or a unified vision of the future of our denomination?
- What are we going to do about the financial challenges?
- What are we going to do in order to fulfill the promises we’ve made? [Bishop Blake] offered a model this morning — direct our efforts to the spiritual needs of our denomination.
- What are we going to do that says “yes” to our future?
These critical questions must be asked and answered.
We are not the only denomination that recognizes the need to refocus on what is core —
[The General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has announced its need to cut $9 million from its 2005-06 budget.]
[The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Council cut almost $3 million from its 2004 budget.]
[At year-end 2003 the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee adopted a report warning of a future financial “crisis” unless giving increases. The report disclosed a decades-old trend of a gradual decline in giving by individuals to churches and by churches to their “Cooperative Program,” which is analogous to our General Funds.]
[Certainly, the fact that the Presbyterians, the Evangelical Lutherans and the Southern Baptists are right there in the soup with us does not make it any easier to bear the heat. It simply puts our predicament in a more compelling perspective.]
What can we learn from the way they’ve responded?
Does it mean we back off of making disciples?
No. We cannot. Not and remain the church.
Does it mean we renege on our promises to clergy for health and pension requirements?
No. We cannot. Not and seek commitment from our next generation of clergy.
Does it mean that we turn our back on new initiatives as they come before you at this conference?
No. We cannot. Not and remain a vital church that innovates and expands in mission and ministry.
What it does mean is that, as you look at each dollar to be spent, each new initiative proposed, you will ask yourself: “Where are we headed? What are we, the people called United Methodists, going to do about our future?”
Before you in the days ahead will be many new opportunities for ministry. You may be tempted to pass them all without priority.
Before you in the days ahead will be impassioned speeches for new initiatives. You may feel their immediate need without recognizing the future financial implications.
Before you in the days ahead will be opportunities and challenges. You may be tempted to spend too little time sorting them out.
Yet, inherent in the opportunities, the initiatives and the challenges is the question: “What are we going to do about our financial future?”
GCFA struggled with this question when it invited representatives from each jurisdictional annual conference in November of 2002 to ask the question, “What will impact your local church and annual conference budgets in the years ahead?”
Your representatives overwhelmingly told us that health insurance for active and retired clergy, property and liability insurance and the increasing financial demands of “connectional ministry” have pushed the local church to make hard decisions.
The result of those local decisions is that the share of every dollar that goes into this church offering plate has grown at the local church level, and at the same time has shrunk at the annual conference and General Church levels. The local churches are sending less of that dollar to the annual conferences and the general church.
We are maintaining our local church, annual conference and general church infrastructures with a shrinking base of financial support!
Almost one-half of the dollars that go beyond the local church are paying for promises we made to clergy who have served our denomination faithfully. And, a quarter of what stays in the local church maintains property that, in many instances, no longer fulfills its original purpose.
It does not take a financial guru to point out that we are going to have to make hard decisions about what we value. We have greater demands to maintain infrastructure at every level, and greater demands to fulfill the missional priorities assigned by prior General Conferences. We must determine if indeed the financial priorities of yesterday are ours today.
The budget GCFA has offered for your consideration represents the “core” as defined by previous General Conferences. That is GCFA’s mandate — our JOB. However, this is not GCFA’s budget; we have given you your starting point! What you do with it will make it YOUR budget. YOUR budget will have to fund the United Methodist Church during some critical years. This is your opportunity to define what is core for our denomination’s financial and missional future.
Your vote on the budget will make that budget our denomination’s financial mission statement.
Your vote must represent what you believe are the missional and financial priorities—our values—not just for the next four years, but for future generations of United Methodists. Not only your children, but your grandchildren as well.
While it is true that one General Conference cannot bind another, we must remember: When you give birth to a ministry it is sometimes like the birth of a child; you agree to nurture it in its infancy, direct it in its growth and support it sometimes in its old age.
You have an awesome responsibility: You must decide the core missional and financial priorities. In a word, the values of our denomination for the next four years, and many years beyond.
Do not think of it as a budget of dollars; think of it as our many ways of making disciples for Christ.
When you leave here with a financial mission statement that will be apportioned to the annual
conferences of our jurisdictions over the next four years, you will have determined our core values.
Do you remember that list of positive items I mentioned to you a few minutes ago? Those, and other good things happening in our denomination, are cause for celebration. There are good things happening in our local churches and annual conferences. There are good things happening in our denomination.
I am asking you, the leaders elected by your annual conferences, to focus on our core values. To make decisions about implementing those core values by preserving what is worthwhile, eliminating what isn’t, and innovating when innovation is called for–responsible decisions that reflect our common values.
Responsible decisions that balance our hopes and dreams with our ability to fulfill the promises we are making.
Responsible decisions that you not only vote for, but go home and support in your annual conferences and local churches.
My home church is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. As part of that celebration they are bringing pastors and associates back to their pulpit. Several weeks ago, the preacher was Martin Deppe. Martin’s sermon recollected some of the struggles our church faced in the ‘70s. He reflected on how our living through the struggles determined the heritage left by that generation. He observed each generation has different struggles and that one of the questions for this current generation of leaders will be, “Why are we accumulating debt upon our children and their children?”
Like our government leaders, we as church leaders need to answer that question.
What will our legacy be?
What will our future look like?
Will it be simply a maintenance future?
Maintaining the promises we have made to generations of clergy for pensions and health insurance?
Maintaining the promises to keep neighborhood churches in areas that can no longer support them?
Maintaining the promise to be a global church when we have made commitments that will significantly impair our ability to fulfill that promise?
We cannot continue to make financial promises that we may not be able to keep.
We cannot continue to make promises that will bankrupt our missional commitments.
We cannot continue to make promises that do not reflect the values of the local congregations.
You have the opportunity and responsibility to say YES. Yes to our future together.
You have the opportunity and responsibility to set a course that instructs the leadership of our denomination to put our money, time, energy and imagination where we have said our values are.
You can choose to plod ahead in a “business as usual” mode. Or, you can make the decision to take charge of our financial future and march forward with new energy.
If we are going to say “yes” to our future:
We must agree to focus our financial resources, the work of our leadership and our time, energy and imagination on what is primary to our core values — “Making Disciples of Christ.”
I have not come before you to give you a list of priorities. I am not suggesting you have to vote the council’s recommended budget. I am not saying you need to approve this specific petition and turn down this other one. I am asking you to assume a humbling responsibility.
The responsibility to carefully evaluate our historic commitments. The responsibility to deepen our discussions to the point where our financial decisions are grounded in our core values. The responsibility to articulate a practical vision that will motivate us to meet the challenges of the future. To take seriously this humbling responsibility is extremely important. You have the ability, through your actions at this General Conference, to determine our financial future.
May we allow God guide to us.