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Church retains mission focus despite hard times

United Methodist investments lost significant value in 2008. Church finance
leaders say giving is uncertain due to the stock market's decline and
weakness in the financial sector. A UMNS photo by John Goodwin.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Dec. 9, 2009

When the stock market takes a hit, so do church collection plates.

Global economic woes had an impact on all levels of The United Methodist Church in 2009 and the results were budget cuts, staff layoffs, canceled meetings and postponed projects. Even the denomination’s bishops voted to take a pay cut.

But the denomination continued to pursue its four areas of focus—improving global health, engaging in ministry with the poor, encouraging church growth and developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.

The recession that began in the fall of 2008 translated into lean times for church bodies the following year. In January, the United Methodist Publishing House reported its greatest sales decline in 20 years. A planned revision of The United Methodist Hymnal was put on hold.

Treasurer Roland Fernandes reports April 27 on the financial state of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries during its spring meeting in Stamford, Conn. A UMNS photo by Cassandra M. Zampini.

The next month, the church’s largest agency, the Board of Global Ministries, decided to reduce its 2009 operating budget by $3.9 million, or 7 percent.

In May, the denomination’s bishops voted to roll back their salaries in 2010 to 2008 levels, dropping from $125,658 to $120,942, effective Jan. 1.

By June, the Board of Global Ministries was sending letters offering retirement or “voluntary separation” packages to all employees. The agency eliminated 45 positions by the end of July and another 20 open positions were not filled. The Board of Discipleship cut 30 positions during the first half of the year and United Methodist Communications eliminated seven staff positions at the beginning of August.

Staff members of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women took voluntary pay reductions and the Commission on Religion and Race decided in October to reorganize itself, cutting some positions and adding others but at lower salaries.

“The reality across the connection is that budgets have been realigned, expenses curtailed or eliminated, and lives impacted because of the decrease in monies received and a projection of a recovery,” said A. Moses Rathan Kumar, treasurer of The United Methodist Church and head of the General Council on Finance and Administration.

Reaching out with assistance

Despite their own decline in finances, United Methodists reached out to others hurt by the economic crisis, joining rallies for victims of foreclosure, helping job seekers with resume preparation and networking opportunities and keeping food pantry programs stocked for an expanding client list.

Members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Elkhart, Ind., reach out to the community with food and friendship.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Trinity
United Methodist Church.

In Elkhart, Ind., the 850-member Trinity United Methodist Church is doing what it can to minister to the community.

Trinity filled gallon-sized plastic bags, called “bags of grace,” with snack-sized food for distribution to community soup kitchens and homeless agencies. Each bag contained four meals. The Matthew 25 program also sent gift cards anonymously to families suffering from job losses.

The economic crisis affected church programs around the world. In September, Africa University in Zimbabwe opened the 2009-10 school year with its lowest enrollment in more than a decade—865 students instead of the expected 1,200 students.

More than 300 students were unable to register. “I have had mothers come to my office with their children trying to find a way to help their children continue their education,” said Africa University Vice Chancellor Fanuel Tagwira. “They break down crying.”

For about 60 of those students, however, there was a “saving grace.” Grace Muradzikwa, a successful executive in Zimbabwe, raised $100,000 for scholarships from the business community there.

Attracting young adults

As it continues to assess its economic situation, The United Methodist Church is going forward with a plan to do a systemwide study. The Connectional Table at its Nov. 6-8 meeting agreed to fund a proposal approved by the Council of Bishops to consider changes in the church’s structure, from annual conferences to General Conference, from national agencies to the bishops’ council.

United Methodist Bishops (from left)
Larry M. Goodpaster, John L. Hopkins
and John R. Schol discuss plans to
make a systemwide study of the denomination during a meeting of the Connectional Table in Lake Junaluska,
N.C. A UMNS photo by J. Richard Peck.


Part of the point of the study is to figure out how to attract young people to the denomination—both in the pews and the pulpit.

“It is critical to the survival of the denomination to lower the age of United Methodist Christians by a decade in a decade,” Bishop Larry Goodpaster said about a Council of Bishops’ plan to emphasize mission work and leadership development among young people. The average age of United Methodists in the pews is 57, he said.

The need to recruit younger clergy is critical, research shows. The number of people under 35 ordained or on the track to be ordained dropped from 3,210 in 1985 to 910 in 2008, according to a study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. The average age of elders is 52; for ordained deacons it is 51.

Young clergy have established their own Web site, www.umcyoungclergy.com, and have created campaigns such as “40 Days of Prayer” and “6 Questions for The United Methodist Church.”

A part of civil society

United Methodists were both observers of and participants in the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African-American U.S. president.

Young volunteers watch the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington on Jan. 20.
A UMNS photo by Jay Mallin.

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, 87, a dean of the civil rights movement, gave the benediction. Dorothy Height, 96, was among the special guests on the inaugural platform. Both had worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated a day earlier.

In August, Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, was one of 16 people who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor for a civilian, from President Obama.

During the inaugural festivities, 40 United Methodist churches in the Washington area opened their doors to people from across the United States, offering food, fellowship and a place to sleep.

Michelle Gilstrap, 17, came to Washington with a group from Cascade United Methodist Church, Atlanta. She told her mother that she wanted to attend the inauguration because “Barack Obama is the George Washington of our generation.”

Read more on page 2

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