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Board reviews spending on bishops, agencies (UM News)

November 20, 2023

The board of The United Methodist Church’s finance agency revisited bishops’ compensation and voted to increase both bishops’ pay and funding for their office staff.

At its Nov. 17 online meeting, the General Council on Finance and Administration board also approved agency spending plans for the coming year. In addition, the board heard an update on giving and ongoing church disaffiliations — both of which affect the proposed 2025-2028 denominational budget going before General Conference delegates for approval.

The Rev. Moses Kumar, the finance agency’s top executive, stressed at the beginning of the meeting that the four-year denominational budget remains very much a work in progress.

“As we go through change, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to the values that have always guided us: compassion, community and a shared sense of purpose,” Kumar said. “Our budget as a reflection of these values will need to be reviewed and adjusted.”

In the meantime, the board made decisions about what denominational spending will look like in 2024.

Apportionments — shares of church giving — fund the work of bishops, general agencies and other denomination-wide ministries.

Denomination-wide ministries receive apportionments from annual conferences, regional church bodies that in turn receive apportionments from local churches. About 90% of the offering remains in the local church.

Agency spending plans

With the turbulent times the denomination is facing, the General Council on Finance and Administration has encouraged general agencies, since 2020, to budget with the expectations of lower apportionment collection rates.

Next year’s agency spending plans continue that trend of belt-tightening.

The board approved spending plans for the 10 United Methodist general agencies that receive at least part of their funding from apportionments. Overall, most agency budgets assume a 60% to 75% apportionment collection rate for the coming year.

In total, agencies — including the General Council on Finance and Administration — and Africa University, a United Methodist, pan-African university in Mutare, Zimbabwe, project expenditures to be about $142 million. The total spending in the 2024 plans shows a decline of 15% compared to 2017, when the current denominational budget approved by the 2016 General Conference first took effect.

All but two agencies expect to see a drop in their reserves in the coming year in part because they help behind the scenes at General Conference. However, General Council on Finance and Administration staff calculate the agencies have sufficient reserves to cover the reductions.

A week before the finance agency board met, the denomination’s Council of Bishops heard about what the reduced spending has meant for United Methodist agency staff levels.

“In 2016, there were almost 800 staff persons across the general agencies providing services — 793, to be exact. At the present time, there are 483,” Dawn Wiggins Hare told the bishops. Hare is the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the convener of the General Secretaries Table that brings together agencies’ top executives.

“Between the last General Conference and now, there’s been a 40% reduction in agency staffing,” Hare said. “And yet, people I love are doing their best to provide needed resources and ministries across the church, to the best of our ability, to the best of our capacity as we seek to work together.”

Bishops’ spending plan

The spending plan for the Episcopal Fund that supports the work of bishops assumes an 85% apportionment collection rate.

The Episcopal Fund has seen higher collection rates than the World Service and General Administration funds that support the work of agencies.

“We’ve seen historically that the Episcopal Fund has higher collection rates,” said the Rev. William Williams III, the chair of the board’s General Agency and Episcopal Matters Committee. “And so we continue to make that assumption.”

Back in August, the board had previously approved the committee’s recommendation that bishops receive a 2% raise next year and keep funding of their office expenses flat. But even at the time, Williams told the board that the raise fell below the 3% cost-of-living increase projected in 2024.

At the most recent meeting, Williams told the board that his committee had decided instead to recommend increasing the bishops’ pay by 3% next year.

The Rev. Anthony Tang, chair of the board’s Personnel Policies Committee, made a motion to increase support for the bishops’ office allowance by 3% as well.

“I understand that the office allowances for our bishops support and sometimes directly affects the salaries of all episcopal administrative assistants,” Tang said. “So if we keep the office allowances to be the same, we are essentially advocating that their assistants receive no pay for inflation, which we all know has been significant.”

Christine Dodson, the board’s vice president who is also treasurer of the North Carolina Conference, offered an annual-conference perspective on Tang’s motion. She said conferences provide additional funding to support their bishops’ office staff.

A boost in office allowance, she said, means annual conferences do not have to absorb the difference there would be just from inflationary pressures.

At the same time, she added, if the cost of the Episcopal Fund goes up, conferences have to figure how to pay the difference.

Dodson asked for “just some recognition of the pressure that’s on the annual conferences in the middle, no matter which way it goes.”

Ultimately, the board approved Tang’s motion by a vote of 12 to 7.

The board also approved the 3% raise for bishops as well as $2,500 monthly stipends for the nine bishops who are serving more than one episcopal area. That’s up from the monthly $1,500 these bishops with extra workloads received this year.

Because of mandatory retirements and efforts to save funds, there are fewer bishops serving than the budget passed by the 2016 General Conference allows. That has left nine U.S. bishops taking on extra workloads to cover the shortfall. The stipends extend through August 2024, after which new bishops are scheduled to take office. 

The office-allowance increase, additional 1% pay raise for bishops and monthly stipend added $415,000 to the bishops’ spending plan. With the additions, the finance agency board approved an Episcopal Fund spending plan of about $24.8 million.

At the previous week’s Council of Bishops meeting on Nov. 11, bishops had discussed asking that they not receive any pay raise while so many others in the denomination are facing shrinking budgets. The bishops ultimately voted to table that motion because the discussion of finances happened toward the end of the meeting when a number of bishops already had left.

Update on giving and disaffiliations

The General Council on Finance and Administration board also spent part of its time receiving updates on how giving and church disaffiliations might affect the 2025-2028 denominational budget going before General Conference.

As of the end of October this year, U.S. apportionment collection rates were down by about 1% compared to the same time last year. Collections from central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — were also slightly down.

The board already planned to propose a significantly lower four-year budget of $370.5 million to General Conference, scheduled April 23 – May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s the smallest budget submitted to General Conference since 1984.

Rick King, the finance agency’s chief financial officer, suggested an additional $20 million may need to be cut from the four-year budget.

“Disaffiliations have happened quicker than we anticipated and at a higher rate,” King said. “This has an impact on the quadrennial budget.”

After decades of intensifying debates around LGBTQ inclusion, the denomination is seeing an exodus of churches under a church law that allows U.S. congregations to leave with property if they meet certain conditions. That church provision is set to expire at the end of the year, although a handful of conferences plan on allowing churches to leave under another church law.

The General Council on Finance and Administration collects the official data on disaffiliations and other church closures. However, Kumar stressed that the data takes time to gather. The agency only updates its data when annual conferences report that such disaffiliations and closures have been carried out.

United Methodist News has been keeping its own unofficial tally of congregations that have received the required annual conference approval to leave with property. As of Nov. 20, UM News has found that nearly 7,300 U.S. churches — or nearly 24% of U.S. congregations — have received the approval to leave since 2019 when the church law took effect.

The finance agency board plans to work on the budget again in February to finalize the proposal that will be submitted to General Conference. In proposing budget allocations, the board works with the Connectional Table, a leadership body that coordinates the work of general agencies.

Ultimately, General Conference delegates themselves will have the opportunity to amend the budget and give the final vote. 

“We have worked to create a tentative budget, and final recommendations will be made in February after we have yearend totals,” Kumar told the board.

“I understand that everyone is eager and anxious to see more predictive numbers. But proceeding with abundance of caution, we are sending a budget that will pay dividends in the long run.”