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Mission agency reviews impact of economic crisis

Treasurer Roland Fernandes reports on the finances of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. UMNS photos by Cassandra Heller.

By Linda Bloom*
Oct. 21, 2008 | STAMFORD, Conn. (UMNS)

  "Now is the time for the church to be the church," says Bishop Bruce Ough.

While the global economic turmoil will not immediately affect operations of the mission agency of The United Methodist Church, the crisis does present new opportunities for the church to be in mission, its leaders say.

"Now is the time for the church to be the church," said Bishop Bruce Ough after his election as president of the Board of Global Ministries.

He declared that those on the margins who will suffer the most "are the very people God has called us to minister to."

This year’s economic meltdown, triggered by a collapse in the housing market followed by mayhem in the investment and banking industries, dominated the headlines during the board’s annual meeting Oct. 13-17 in Stamford.

As a jittery stock market seesawed by hundreds of points each day, the financial climate was a concern for the mission agency. Continued decline in investments could "impact the board’s general operating fund significantly," according to a report delivered by Global Ministries Treasurer Roland Fernandes.

The agency’s total net assets, including restricted funds, stood at $210.8 million at the end of 2007, the highest level since 2000. Over the first eight months of 2008, receipts from general church funds were up by 3 percent, but investment income decreased by $1 million.

"The key thing will be how we end the year," Fernandes told United Methodist News Service, noting that much of the board’s funding comes through general church contributions. “We may have to adjust our interest investment income for next year.”

He added that there has been "significant underspending" of the agency’s 2008 budget to date, "so we have some flexibility."

Offering hope

Looking beyond its own budget issues, the church needs to be a presence during this economic crisis, according to Ough, not only during Sunday worship, but in the workplace during the week.

The Rev. Bau Dang

"We have a lot of fearful people, not just in our churches, but in our communities," he said. "I think it’s a wonderful time for the church to step forward and say, 'hope always trumps fear.'"

He noted that many local congregations already are engaged in ministry with the poor. "That audience is just going to get larger in the midst of this crisis," he said.

The Rev. Edward Paup, the board’s top executive, agreed with Ough. "In this time of economic crisis, we cannot forget those who have the least," he said. "Economic recovery will never be complete until poverty is fully addressed and strategies to eradicate it are in place.”

Acting on the recommendation of the finance committee, board directors adopted a $58 million budget for 2009, a decrease of $2 million from the budget approved for 2008.

The Rev. Bau Dang of San Diego, finance committee chairman, said concern remained over some investment income, noting that "it could affect the income of our overall budget."

He expressed personal concern over another type of crisis—the steady decline of United Methodist membership in the United States. "I want to see how we can use this money (board budget) to bring about the revitalization of our churches," he said.

Seeking ways to respond

Several speakers addressed the board’s Women’s Division meeting on economic themes. Members of United Methodist Women were encouraged to explore ways to directly respond to the housing foreclosure crisis by working with other partners on counseling and advocacy actions for homeowners in distress.

Women’s Division treasurer Martha Knight believes giving levels will remain steady.

Directors also participated in a letter-writing action "to the president-elect of the U.S.," asking for a fair and just policy on the economy.

In her report on the first eight months of 2008 to Women’s Division directors, treasurer Martha Knight noted that revenue was higher and expenses lower than the same time period in 2007. In addition, the staff particularly had been conservative on spending over the past two quarters.

"We are still ahead over the last four years," she told United Methodist News Service. "I find that very hopeful."

The value of Women’s Division investments did drop by about $11 million through August. "The unrealized losses to date will require staff to look closely, first at the impact to the pension plan for deaconesses and missionaries, second at the future of mission funding from endowments," she said in her report.

But Knight believes that giving levels will remain steady. "I have great confidence in United Methodist Women," she said. "When the chips are down, they help each other."

The challenge, she said, will be to address the special needs of women and children and create some new initiatives around the financial crisis.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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