|Layoffs, salary freezes part of new economy in church|
Movers load furniture into a truck. The Desert Southwest Annual Conference is limiting clergy relocation to save money. A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom and Andrew Schleicher*
June 12, 2009
President Obama chose suburban Phoenix, where home prices fell nearly 50 percent since 2006, to announce a plan last February to help millions of homeowners avoid foreclosure.
In their own version of a housing rescue plan, United Methodists in the area decided to limit clergy transfers to allow pastors to stay in their homes rather than be forced to sell in a distressed market.
Throughout The United Methodist Church, officials are increasingly facing the same painful choices confronting private industry as they search for ways to keep mission vibrant amid the lingering recession.
On the national level, the United Methodist boards of Global Ministries and Discipleship have or will eliminate more than 90 jobs. The denomination’s bishops voted to roll back their salaries in 2010 to 2008 levels, dropping from $125,658 to $120,942. Staff members of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women have taken voluntary pay reductions.
Agencies, conferences and even local churches have implemented salary freezes, cut travel allowances and canceled or trimmed meetings and events.
“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.
The denominational structure relies on the apportionment system, in which local churches make contributions based on an approved formula, to fund much of its work. Even at the end of 2008, Kumar pointed out, the apportionment receipts in support of United Methodist ministries were about even with 2007.
Everything is being looked at in these tough times, says Mary Ann Moman, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
“We had projected some new positions that we are not going to fill," Moman said. “We are going to have to look at programs at some point."
Illinois Great Rivers Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said the current economy provides an invitation to consider both staffing and how the church equips and sustains its volunteers.
“I think there are many, many congregations that are adjusting to the circumstances in the line of reduction of staffing, both in ordained staff and laity," he noted.
As the cost of benefits for clergy and other staff rise beyond the means of some congregations, they also may decide to work closer together. “In our conference (Illinois Great Rivers) this year, for example, there were a number of smaller congregations that have come together already," Palmer said.
The decision by the Desert Southwest Annual Conference to move as few clergy as possible this year has a two-fold effect, according to Randy Bowman, conference treasurer.
The conference, he explained, pays 75 percent of the moving costs. “It helps the conference budget, but it also helps the clergy,” he said, adding that requiring clergy to sell their homes could have resulted in foreclosures or short sells. “Most people here have a housing allowance as opposed to a parsonage.”
Bowman has made his own sacrifice for the Desert Southwest Conference, which represents about 40,000 members in 140 churches. He is one of the six highest-paid conference staff members who volunteered to roll back their salaries to last year’s level.
As compared to corporate entities, churches may be more willing to let their members decide together how to cope with the economic downturn, Bowman said. “We’ve been very upfront with our staff here,” he said. “When we floated some ideas, they were pretty unanimous in that we’d all like to share in the hurt.”
A committee meets weekly to oversee budget concerns. The conference’s proposed budget for 2010 is about $6.2 million, down from $6.3 million this year. “We don’t know if this is going to be enough,” said Bowman, who noted that additional spending reductions could include reducing pension contributions, instituting unpaid furlough days for staff and reducing subsidies for urban ministries.
“We’re clearly not out of the woods,” he stressed.
If more local churches are contributing less to the connection these days, it’s not because they are less faithful.
During most of the 10 years that the Rev. Joseph Winfree has served as pastor of Ramsey Memorial United Methodist Church in Richmond, Va., the church had paid 100 percent of its apportionment. “That’s something the congregation has never questioned,” he declared.
Last year, Ramsey Memorial, a diverse congregation with several social outreach ministries, could only manage to pay 75 percent of that obligation. Even in 2007, the church had used some of its reserves to reach the 100 percent mark.
“I’ve been very proud of the congregation for keeping their contributions where they have been,” Winfree said. “We’ve had a number of people who’ve lost their jobs through downsizing and various companies that have closed.”
To help compensate, the church is dropping an appointed, full-time associate pastor position in favor of creating a lower-cost, part-time alternative. The church’s goal for all its ministry teams is to keep expenses to a “bare minimum,” Winfree said.
New church starts
Attracting members and developing new congregations remains a priority for the denomination, according to Karen Greenwaldt, chief executive of the Board of Discipleship.
A volunteer helps a student with her homework at 61st Avenue United
Methodist Church’s afterschool
program in Nashville, Tenn.
Some churches are reducing
staff in lieu of cutting ministries.
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.
Her agency will continue to put an emphasis on new church starts, one of the four areas of focus adopted by the denomination last year. “We are going to start new churches; we are not sure how we are going to pay for it, but we are going to do it.” she said. “It (the economy) makes us think about what you have to have in order to make new congregations. . . . Do we need multi-million dollar complexes to have churches? Probably not."
Path 1, which oversees the general church support for planting new churches, is fully staffed, according to Greenwaldt. However, the Board of Discipleship, which had about 200 employees, announced nine layoffs June 2, bringing the total positions eliminated since January to 30.
New church starts also are a priority for the Minnesota Annual Conference, home to about 80,000 United Methodists. Salaries were frozen for about 25 staff members, but no money was taken out of congregational development.
As a result, the conference, led by Bishop Sally Dyck, will be nurturing several new congregations this year, in addition to up to eight new church starts for ethnic groups, including Liberian and East African congregations, said the Rev. Jim Perry, director of ministries.
Status of appointments
The Rev. Joseph Winfree
For many years, just as auto and manufacturing workers once looked upon their employers, the church workers placed faith in their job security. They would accept lower pay than the private market in return for relatively good pension and health benefits and job safety.
But few positions are off limits in the new economy.
Not even the guaranteed appointment system that guarantees annual appointments for clergy.
That would require a constitutional change. Such a conversation “was already in the pipeline," according to Palmer. But he said the downturn may accelerate the movement in this direction.
The Minnesota Conference, which has 296 pastoral charges and 374 churches, is providing educational assistance to help clergy become more effective as well as seeking desirable candidates for ministry. “We are working very hard here in Minnesota to try to recruit young adults into ordained ministry,” Perry said. “We say there will always be jobs for well-qualified persons.”
Responding to the practical and spiritual
Back in Arizona, First United Methodist Church in Tempe has organized its response to the economic crisis from the inside out.
On a practical level, the congregation has prepared two alternate budgets in the event of decreased income, according to the Rev. David Summers, pastor. “We have not had to do any cutbacks,” he said. “We have just watched everything very carefully.”
The Rev. David Summers
On a spiritual level, the Tempe church held small-group meetings for a “conversation of heart and soul,” where participants were asked to answer two questions: “What are the pressure points in your lives?” and “What keeps you awake at night?” About 250 of the church’s 700 members took part in the conversations.
The answers to those questions -- concerns over health care, employment, financial stress and education – are fueling the church’s ministries to its members and the community at large.
Church leaders throughout the nation are adamant that their mission will continue.
“For the long term, the forecast is that we are a people who are blessed with many gifts,” Kumar declared. “It is those gifts that we share for the continuation of the ministries of The United Methodist Church that give us hope in these and all times.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. Schleicher is a writer and church communications consultant living in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ramsey Memorial UMC
Desert Southwest Conference
First UMC, Tempe