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Channeling care and compassion


By Tom Gillem

The availability of fresh, running water brings joy to the simple task of washing one's hands.
The availability of fresh, running water brings joy to the simple task of washing one's hands.

A financial gift to an Advance project – every penny of it – dropped into the offering plate at a United Methodist church in the United States will support the giver's designated missionary or mission program.

As the denomination's official program for voluntary, designated, second-mile giving, The Advance channels funds to more than 850 projects and 300 missionaries. All have documented needs for monetary support.

"The Advance links The United Methodist Church. It connects all churches in mission," says Ellen Knudsen, director of Advance projects for the General Board of Global Ministries. "We have a diverse group of projects, from building churches to digging wells to feeding and educating children, equipping hospitals and responding to disasters."

Gifts given to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for disasters and global health and development, agriculture and poverty projects also go through The Advance. About a quarter of all Advance projects are related to UMCOR work.

In 2012, more than $42.1 million was received by The Advance for distribution, including $14 million for UMCOR disaster response.

Because administrative costs for The Advance are paid with money from the World Service Fund, 100 percent of each gift goes directly to the designated recipient. Everyone who gives through The Advance can be certain both that the church approves the project, and the money will be used for the stated purpose.

Projects fit priorities

To be included in The Advance, project leaders must submit an application with goals, objectives and budget. The bishop of the area where the project is located thoroughly reviews the application as do Global Ministries' regional staff, executives and The Advance Committee.

This assures the bishop is familiar with the project and that it fits with priorities for the area, Knudsen said. "The unit executive is looking at the quality of the application and whether the budget makes sense. The cabinet is looking at the overall mix of projects. Do we have a balance of projects? And The Advance Committee looks at the applications from the point of view of the donors of churches. Will churches and individuals be interested in giving to this project?"

Once selected for The Advance, project leaders must submit annual reports with details about how the donated money is being spent and updates on the project. Regional auditors visit the episcopal offices to meet with the treasurers and visit Advance projects.

"When a person gives through The Advance, they are giving to projects that have been stated as priorities by the episcopal leader in the area where the work is being done," Knudsen said.

Churches and individuals can, and do, give money and support directly to worldwide mission work, Knudsen acknowledged. While some churches may establish their own accountability process to assure that the funds are used as they were intended, The Advance's project scrutiny is unparalleled.

"When funds go through The Advance to a project, we are supporting the work that the project put in its application," Knudsen said.

Interest drives giving

Funds that come through The Advance are based on the interest in a project and the efforts of churches and individuals, she said. The Advance staff closely watches to see if a project is oversubscribed or undersubscribed.

If a project is close to reaching its annual budget amount, Knudsen said its leaders are asked if they need to continue seeking funds. If project leaders want to continue raising money, The Advance asks for a revised spending plan.

If projects fail to raise their financial needs, they likely will be unable to meet their goals. The Advance will ask for a sustainability plan and encourage leaders to seek local funding.

Most Advance gifts are one-time or periodic; however, The Advance encourages ongoing or sustaining gifts. This helps the projects gain a better understanding of how to look at their monthly costs and operate on a steady flow of funds, Knudsen said.

Choosing the channel

United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., is working with The Advance staff on ways to improve its many mission initiatives, said the Rev. Cayce Stapp, pastor for domestic and international mission ministries.

"At Resurrection, we are consistently and constantly thinking about ways that, as a large church, we can model the amazing nature and capabilities that come from being a connectional church," Stapp said. "The Advance is one of those initiatives that I feel is and could be even a greater tool for effectiveness and productivity, as well as synergy and cost savings for our churches, our people and our denomination."

The Advance not only streamlines processes but also saves churches and individuals the wire fees associated with direct donations, Stapp said.

A decade ago, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, felt a call to help the people of Darfur, who faced mass starvation because of the atrocious actions of Janjaweed militiamen.

In 2004, the Ginghamsburg congregation raised $317,000 as part of the "Christmas Is Not Your Birthday" program. The Rev. Mike Slaughter, lead pastor, asked everyone to donate an equal amount to what they would spend on themselves and their families for Christmas. The funds allowed new crops to be planted in February 2005 and harvested that fall to feed about 23,000 people. A sustainable agriculture program was begun.

So far, Ginghamsburg has sent about $6.2 million to that region. Other congregations and individuals have joined the effort through The Advance.

Vincent United Methodist Church in Nutley, N.J., and First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pa., are two of many churches who regularly use The Advance to support projects and missionaries in Tanzania.

The Rev. David LeDuc, Vincent's pastor, said one of the projects his church supports is the construction of a guesthouse and reception center near Dar es Salaam (Advance #12635N), which the church in Tanzania needs as it transitions from provisional to full annual conference status.

Giving through The Advance allows Vincent members to feel confident that the projects will receive every dollar they give. LeDuc added, "In many other programs that people support outside of the church, there's so much administrative overhead that a smaller portion actually gets to the project you're wanting to support."

"Another advantage is that you can develop relationships with these ministries and relationships with the people who are working in the field" through The Advance, he said.

Civil engineer John Spear, a member of First Church in Lancaster, said he is personally involved in helping local church officials in Tanzania with the guesthouse and reception center project.

Having The Advance be responsible for auditing the funds "is a nice relief for the rest of us who don't like to worry about things like that, but maybe in the back of our mind are wondering where the money is going," Spear said. "... That is quite comforting to those of us who just want to get it done."

Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brentwood, Tenn.