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Amid church exits, work starts on record-low budget

Cynthia Bond Hopson leads a meditation for General Council on Finance and Administration board members and guests during a worship service at the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville, Tenn. Hopson called on the finance agency to be bold in a time of uncertainty. “Tomorrow is uncertain,” she said. “Today is all we have.” She serves as chief equity officer and assistant general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.
Cynthia Bond Hopson leads a meditation for General Council on Finance and Administration board members and guests during a worship service at the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville, Tenn. Hopson called on the finance agency to be bold in a time of uncertainty. “Tomorrow is uncertain,” she said. “Today is all we have.” She serves as chief equity officer and assistant general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

As the number of church disaffiliations rises, United Methodist financial leaders have started preparing what will be the denomination’s lowest budget sent to General Conference in nearly 40 years.

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The board of the denomination’s finance agency, the General Council on Financial and Administration (GCFA), already was preparing to send the lawmaking assembly the lowest budget since the 1990s. In November the GCFA board approved shrinking the proposed four-year budget even further to a total of about $373.7 million for the years 2025-2028.

The current proposal requires significant cuts to all funds that support denomination-wide ministries — including general agencies and bishops.

The new bottom line marks a reduction of more than a third — more than 38% — from the denomination-wide budget that General Conference approved in 2016. It would be the lowest budget to come before General Conference since 1984, when the denomination had far fewer members on the African continent and had yet to establish Africa University, now supported with denominational funds.

Ultimately, General Conference — now thrice delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic — will have final say on the denomination’s next four-year budget when it meets in spring 2024.

Based on surveys of annual conference leaders, the General Council on Finance and Administration staff is projecting that because of church disaffiliations and closures, there will be at least a 21.3% drop in total local church net expenditures by 2025.

Everybody agrees that with fewer local churches, the amount of apportionments requested will go down. Churches that remain in the United Methodist fold will not be on the hook for the apportionments of departing churches.

Newly elected Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, who most recently served as the Connectional Table’s top executive, noted that agencies have been spending down their reserves at the Connectional Table’s instruction. She pointed to the example of United Methodist Communications, which has been using its reserves in part to support greater collaboration in communications among the agencies and allow agencies to cut their communication costs.

The GCFA board has plans to do an in-depth reserve analysis to see how denomination-wide ministries are managing their rainy-day funds.

In the meantime, Bigham-Tsai and others on the Connectional Table also pointed out that agencies have been reducing their staff in the wake of the Apportionment Sustainability Task Force’s first recommendations in 2018.

The denomination is facing many unknowns, and the finance agency is still collecting data about the global economy, trends in church giving and, most significantly, congregational disaffiliations. A number of annual conferences already have scheduled special sessions in the coming year to vote on disaffiliations.

“Welcome to uncertainty with a capital U,” preached Cynthia A. Bond Hopson at a worship service in the Upper Room Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee, that brought together members of the GCFA board, the Connectional Table, the Council of Bishops and other guests.

Bond Hopson is chief equity officer and assistant general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. She also has long administered the Black College Fund, one of the funds supported by the denominational budget.

During the worship service where GCFA invited her to preach, she said her fellow United Methodists will need “spiritual depth and courage” to lead in this precarious time. She also said United Methodist leaders need to work together to get on the same page — God’s page.

“When the numbers don't add up but the need is great, will we listen to hear what God is telling us is required?” she asked.

excerpt from a story by Heather Hahn, assistant news editor, UMNews

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