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Job cuts hit mission agency the hardest

By Linda Bloom*
August 7, 2009 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries knew it was not going to be easy to lay off staff at a time of high unemployment.

“There’s no good way to tell someone they’ve lost their job,” acknowledged Christopher Heckert, agency staff executive for marketing and mission communications.

However, “in stark contrast to what has been done in the past,” the agency acted compassionately in the latest round of staff cuts by offering employees opportunities for buyouts or early retirement, Heckert said.

“There’s no good way to tell someone they’ve lost their job.”–Christopher Heckert
Twenty-six employees were laid off when the mission agency cut 45 staff positions at the end of July. Another 19 accepted retirement or voluntary severance packages.

Trauma had lingered, Heckert said, from the way employees were dismissed with little notice during smaller layoffs in 1996 and 2001 and 2002.

This time around, staff members were offered the opportunity to retire or choose a “voluntary separation” package, received information on the restructuring process, had access to chaplain services and were given two-to-four weeks of notice of job loss to allow enough time for people to say goodbye, he said. Those who signed severance agreements also have access to outplacement services.

“There has been an intentionality to engage the human need as well as the spiritual need,” he added.

Sadness lingers

Still, sadness remained in the wake of the cuts.

“There’s been a lot of grief,” said Leslie Booker, a member of the support staff who took the retirement option after working more than 16 years at the Board of Global Ministries.

While nearly all of the denomination’s agencies and commissions have eliminated and consolidated jobs in response to the economic crisis and a drop in income, the numbers are highest at the church’s largest general agency, which has had to trim $4 million from this year’s budget alone.

The intent of the restructuring is to create a more cost-efficient operation while continuing the agency’s mission work. Many of the decisions come from recommendations in an “operational audit” conducted by the Ohio-based Management Partners, Inc.

But some employees did not feel they had enough information to make informed decisions about voluntary separations. The 231-page audit was not made available to the full staff until early July, after the June 30 deadline for applying for buyouts or early retirement.

For the Staff Association—the legal bargaining agent for support staff at the Board of Global Ministries—the magnitude of the downsizing came as a bit of a surprise, according to Booker, who was a member of the association’s executive committee and negotiating team before her retirement.

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Of the 26 employees laid off, 18 were support staff.

The association, which had about 114 members earlier in the year, had just settled a two-year contract in March. The contract included a three percent raise for 2009 and the opportunity to re-negotiate for raises for 2010.

Negotiations process

The planned restructuring was not mentioned during the contract talks, although “we knew that there was an audit going on,” Booker said. “Had we known that five weeks later they were going to hit us on this, we probably would have negotiated differently.”

Work on the restructuring process is ongoing and timelines are being established for each of the 218 recommendations from the operational audit, according to Heckert. “It’s an active conversation between the cabinet, the directors, the (board) task forces and Management Partners,” he explained. “We’re really working through that document and taking it seriously.”

Twenty-four reclassified staff positions—many in the new central unit on mission and evangelism—are being evaluated, the board has reported. Current staff members have been assigned to those positions on an “interim basis.”

More changes could occur when the 2010 operating budget is completed. The current projection for that budget, which does not include the United Methodist Committee on Relief or the Women’s Division, is around $46 million, down from the reduced 2009 budget of $53.6 million.

Despite the grief surrounding the staff cuts, Heckert said he is hopeful about the agency’s future and views the new structure as an opportunity “to really collaborate with one another.”

*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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