Goodbye, historically low budget.
General Conference delegates on May 20 approved a general church budget of $604 million for 2017-2020. That represents a slight rise over the $603.1 million approved at the 2012 General Conference.
Hello, slight increase.
It’s also an increase over the $599 million budget proposed to the 2016 General Conference delegates, which would have been The United Methodist Church’s lowest in 16 years and meant the lowest apportionments to conferences in just as long.
That budget proposal came from the General Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table, which coordinates the denomination’s agencies. The two groups collaborated in developing the budget over the past three years.
Delegates voted to add $5 million to double the denomination’s financial backing of the Central Conference Theological Education Fund, which supports United Methodist schools, pastors and pastors-in-training in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The Rev. Bill Arnold, a delegate from the Kentucky Conference, made the motion to boost the theological education fund to $10 million.
“We’re woefully underfunding theological education for the very part of the church that is growing,” he said.
Earlier in the week, a number of African delegates argued for the increase when the budget came up. Among them was the Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia. Delegates voted for the increase 406 to 379.
“This $10 million is going to help the more than 26 theological institutions across the central conferences to train more pastors, improve the facilities we have and help the teaching environment,” Kulah told United Methodist News Service.
In addition, delegates, for the first time in history, also established a set formula for central conferences (church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe) to support the denomination’s global ministries.
When asked about the budget increase, Missouri Conference Director of Financial and Administrative Ministries Nate Berneking said he understands the motivation, but is concerned about the General Conference putting a larger apportionment on churches that are struggling financially.
"I understand the desire to increase educational funding for Central Conferences. I even support that aim. But I also, with many other conference treasurers, remain concerned that General Church apportionments constitute such a large percentage of our total Conference budget every year,” Berneking said. “Missouri is currently one of the healthiest conferences financially and statistically, but the General Church apportionments are only becoming a greater burden for our local churches. At some point, the General Conference will have to reduce the General Church budget to something more manageable for the annual conferences and local churches.”
He suggested that there can be more direct ways to support theological education in the Central Conference.
“We have found that an alternative way of supporting theological education in Africa is through the deepening of relationships with our Mozambique partners,” Berneking said. “We currently have a number of individuals and local churches supporting Cambine Theological Seminary students as well as laity and local pastors at the Gondola Training center. This is one way of growing in radical generosity while at the same time building relationships that doesn’t continue to increase the General Church budget.”
General Conference — the denomination’s top policymaking body — establishes the total amount of money needed to support churchwide ministries. That amount is then apportioned mainly to U.S. conferences, which in turn ask for apportionments from local churches.
Getting to a BudgetGetting to the budget took some time despite a number of efforts to move the discussion along, including shortening the voting time to 10 seconds.
After approving a number of budget reports from the General Council on Finance and Administration, delegates voted to consider the remainder in one bundle.
Nevertheless, delegates then proceeded to debate a motion to remove $5 million from the General Administration Fund budget to cover the $5 million they added to the theological education fund. General Administration supports General Conference among administrative entities of the church.
Delegates next debated a motion to refer the whole budget back to the Connectional Table and General Council on Finance and Administration board to come up with a way to get the budget back to $599 million while keeping the additional $5 million for theological education. Delegates ultimately voted both motions down. Still, that did not stop multiple points of order and parliamentary inquiries from delegates.
At one point after several points on parliamentary procedures, including a delegate calling for an end of debate, Chicago Area Bishop Sally Dyck — the presiding officer for the morning session — suggested a “hot tip” to move things along.
“You don’t go to the mike,” she said to laughter.
Altogether, General Conference delegates spent about two hours deliberating budget proposals. Put another way, at a meeting estimated to cost $1,388.89 per minute, the money discussion cost $166,666.
As lunchtime rapidly approached, Dyck chose to throw caution to the wind and call for a vote on the budget package.
"I’m not looking at this thing,” she said, pointing to the electronic queue where the bishops see the names of delegates wanting to speak. “You can accost me at lunch.” The final budget won approval by a vote of 751 to 33.
Breaking Down the BudgetSo what did delegates actually approve? The proposed budget allocates the following:
$310.7 million for the World Service Fund that supports most of the denomination’s 13 general agencies (including United Methodist Communications, which encompasses United Methodist News Service)
$104.9 million for the Ministerial Education Fund that supports United Methodist seminaries and provides financial aid for United Methodist seminary students
$92 million for the Episcopal Fund, which supports active bishops, their support staff, retired bishops, surviving spouses and minor children of deceased bishops
$41.9 million for the Black College Fund that supports 11 United Methodist-related historically black colleges and universities
$36.9 million for the General Administration Fund, which supports General Conference, Judicial Council, the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, and the General Council on Finance and Administration
Nearly $9.4 million for Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe
$8.2 million for the Interdenominational Cooperation Fund, which supports the church’s ecumenical work
Funds help with such denomination-wide endeavors as planting new churches, providing resources for evangelism, supporting theological education, advocating for church social teachings, engaging in international development and cultivating new mission fields.
New Source of GivingThe delegates also approved a new source of giving: apportionments from United Methodists in central conferences.
United Methodists in central conferences have long financially supported the work of bishops. In the past four years, central conferences have given $3.8 million to the Episcopal Fund, Kumar told reporters earlier this General Conference.
Under the formula, the requested giving would go up to $5.1 million and support both bishops and the General Administration Fund.
The formula actually asks European United Methodists to give less than they currently contribute. However, some European church leaders plan to continue voluntarily to give $2.9 million.
Impact on Local Church OfferingU.S. United Methodists will still bear the lion’s share of general church expenses.
The finance agency requests apportionments from each U.S. conference based on a formula that includes its local church expenditures, local church costs, the economic strength of the conference and a base percentage approved by General Conference. Even with the slight budget increase, U.S. local churches are unlikely to feel much effect.
U.S. churches, on average, retain slightly more than 85 cents of every dollar they collect in their offering plates.
It can still be difficult for Conferences to swallow an increasing General Church budget when they have been tightening their own belts. Missouri Conference Director of Financial and Administrative Ministries Nate Berneking would have preferred to seen the original $599 proposal go through.
“I was glad that the Connectional Table and GCFA heard and responded to concerns expressed by many bishops, conference treasurers and delegations by lowering their initial proposal before General Conference began,” he said. “The slight increase adopted through amendment will have an effect on our conference budget, but I still anticipate presenting little or no increase over the budget presented last year.”
Most of the giving outside the local church goes to support jurisdictions, areas, annual conferences, districts and direct-billed pension and health benefits.
The percentage of local church expenditures given to the general church has gone down from about 2.27 percent in 2002 to 2.14 percent in 2014. In other words, about 2 cents of every dollar in the offering plate goes toward the general church budget.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.