Economic challenges still lie ahead, but the church has weathered similar downturns. That was one of the conclusions reached by members of The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) Economic Advisory Committee after its first meeting Friday, December 5, in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Committee is comprised of clergy and lay leaders and includes economists, financial experts, researchers, and church leaders from across the country. It is still in the early stages of developing an outlook for the coming months. Based upon current data and some assumptions of some future events, the group anticipates the economy should be in recovery by the second half of 2009.
The current recession, the weakness in the financial sector, and the downturn in the stock markets have introduced financial challenges for our congregations. We are all concerned about the financial future of our local churches and our denomination as a whole.
It is important to remember that these challenges are similar to those our churches faced during past recessions. Although this time will not be easy for many, and will be very difficult for some, the assembled experts anticipate an economic recovery beginning in the latter months of 2009.
In the United States, giving at the local church level, adjusted for inflation, tends to decline during recessions, and then increase in the years following. During the recession of the early 1980’s, giving dropped 2.43% from 1978 to 1979, then declined another 3.11% in 1980, and another 0.31% in 1981. Giving then increased an average of 1.91% for the years 1982-1989. During the recession of the early 1990’s, giving dropped 1.04% in 1990, then increased an average of 2.12% over the next 12 years. Following the recession of the early 2000’s, giving leveled off again, increasing by 0.19% in 2003, and 0.44% in 2004. Over the last 30 years, local church giving has increased at a 1.28% average annual rate, adjusted for inflation.
Work throughout our denomination continues. Through the generous and faithful giving by local churches to the general funds, The United Methodist Church continues to make a vital difference in the world. We do this through mission programs like the ZOE Ministry in Huye, Rwanda where AIDS orphans are working to grow their own food to
earn an income, pay for schooling, gain self-sufficiency, and, in turn, help out others who are in need. In Pittsburgh, PA we are using text messaging and other forms of new media in innovative ways to connect young people with our churches. We are making an impact on important legislation like the Second Chance Act, which provides vital federal funding to organizations working to transition people from prisons and jails back to their communities. We are building up a new generation of faith-filled leaders to go out start new congregations and revitalize existing churches around the world.
We know that many are wondering if it is still “business as usual” for the general agencies of the church. As annual conferences struggle to fully pay general funds apportionments, we have been asked what the general church can do to lessen the financial load on annual conferences.
The Discipline provides few options to change the approved apportionment factors for the coming 2009-2012 quadrennium. Although the formula is designed to adapt to changing financial conditions in the local church, the historical nature of the statistical data we use in calculations means that this formula may not exactly reflect current economic conditions. We will continue to look for ways to ease the financial burdens of our annual conferences through any means possible.
We do not believe this is the time for “business as usual” for any United Methodist entity. The leaders of the general agencies are adjusting their spending plans to adapt to the still-emerging economic picture. We will, through the Economic Advisory Committee,continue to study and monitor economic conditions and regularly report our findings to the leadership of the agencies to support them in their ongoing work.
During the challenging times ahead, many will turn to our churches for additional comfort and peace. It is important that in these times the Church remains ever present to those in need of support of all kinds. We believe these times of uncertainty represent new opportunities for the mission and ministry of our churches. Nevertheless, the committee
expects modest shortfalls in payments to the general funds apportionment in 2008 and 2009, similar to those experienced during past recessions.
The General Council on Finance and Administration coordinates and administers finances and safeguards the legal interests and rights of The United Methodist Church. www.umcom.org/gcfa