Image Credit: “Clean Money” by flahertyb on Flickr, shared under Creative Commons License
The following is an entry in the “Holding the UMC Hostage” series regarding a manifesto that encourages discontented laity in our largest churches to defund the work of the global United Methodist Church. Read the full series: 01 – The Setting | 02 – The Blueprint | 03 – The Effects | 04 – The Conclusion
“By combining several smaller gifts into a larger amount, we can effect change across the world. Individual churches can minister to a small area; however, as a connectional church, we can do big things, all in the name of Jesus Christ.” – UMCgiving.org
“Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” – James 3:16
Previously in this series we’ve examined (a) the history of churches that withhold their church tithes (“Apportionments”) and (b) the rationale and proposal of a blueprint for churches to do this same thing today.
Has this been done before?
In reality, Langford is only articulating what other churches and perhaps conferences operate under already. The truth is that this theory has been put into practice in many different places, with disturbing reasons. For example:
- A few years back, the Southwest Texas Annual Conference had a large church that objected to spending any money on campus ministries and redirected those apportionment funds to another line item.
- About five years ago, a large Oklahoma congregation objected to spending any money on the “Interdenominational Cooperation Fund” (their primary objection was to the National/World Council of Churches, I suspect) and instead overpaid on some other apportionments. I don’t know if that is their current practice.
- Some churches contest paying the ethnic causes funds because their congregations do not reflect that racial diversity and they don’t see the benefit “to them” of it. I know of one District Superintendent who would bring a $20bill to every rural charge conference (sad but true, folks!), that had paid 99%, and when it would be obvious that the congregation was not going to pay the $17 Black Church fund line item, he would hand them a $20 bill in an envelope designated to that fund. Boom!
So while this is not an original idea, it is the first to come with some instructions and a rabble-rousing call for defunding without accountability to the effects.
Advantages: Possibly higher tithes paid!
Some people whom I spoke with about this type of Apportionment said it could actually be a good thing:
- For churches opposed to General Church initiatives and who cannot see the good things done because of resentment towards the GBCS and UMW and GBGM, such a proposal gives them the opportunity to pay apportionments because they believe their money isn’t going towards those entities. Shifting payments allows pastors to encourage churches to pay the full apportionment by promising that their money won’t go to those bastions of homo-liberal agendas General Agencies. As one conference leader said:
Churches are already refusing to pay parts of their apportionments for theological reasons. Paying 100% of apportionments, even with a diversion toward preferred ends, would be progress in some places.
- In the report, Andy asks for more differentiating of funds rather than putting them in smaller number of unified funds. This slicing up of resources may, according to one conference treasurer that I interviewed, actually lead to a higher percentage of smaller funds being paid in full. This phenomenon is already in place as that treasurer noticed that smaller funds are usually paid off whereas larger funds are simply “chopped away at.” 100% paid of an item means more to some churches than a higher percentage on World Service Fund, so that’s a practical consideration.
Disadvantages: Collateral Damage
The primary problem is one with big bold letters: this isn’t a line-item veto like Langford’s proposal would have you believe. While not giving to an effort because of theological reasons is at least arguable if you are just defunding that cause, the way how the UMC is set up is that our ministries are bundled together. While evangelical’s ire is usually focused on the General Board of Church and Society for their perceived liberal stances, and at the Global Missions for valuing lives-made-better over souls-saved, defunding the World Service Fund would radically affect efforts that are, at every numerical target, making disciples of Jesus Christ:
- Missionaries rely on the World Service Fund for 38% of their support, which is more flexibly spent on areas of need than locked-away in Advance Specials.
- Camps and Retreat ministries are funded at the conference level and from campers, but for special outreach to at-risk populations, they can receive WSF-funded grants. For example, in my Oregon-Idaho conference, a camp for AIDS patients got a grant from GBGM/UMCOR as part of the Global AIDS fund initiative; Native American camps receive Native American ministry plan funds, just as examples.
- Defunding the World Service Fund would remove almost $12million dollars from ethnic national causes in America and beyond.
- Defunding the World Service Fund would deplete the availability of the $5million dollars that General Conference 2012 set aside for theological education in the Central Conferences, which comes out of the World Service Fund.
- The way that funds are bundled now, there would be (in the short term) some unexpected consequences of the divestment. For example, in previous years in Oklahoma support of the Oklahoma Indian-Missionary Conference clergy’s salary and pension was bundled with World Service Fund (WSF). So by not paying the WSF line item, churches were denying a living wage and pension to their neighboring ethnic clergy (please note, this is not the case in 2012-present).
- Denying funds in this way denies the will of General Conference. The General Agencies are tasked with certain activities and programs by the will of the General Conference. They are the executive branch which puts into place the will of the legislative branch, which is the voice of the people. As one General Church staffperson shares:
None of our general agencies could function well at all were it not for funding received via WSF. It’s not a question of streamlining– but actual capacity. Most agencies have already cut both programming they directly cover and staffing pretty close to the bone. Withdrawing WSF would basically make it impossible for them to deliver anything close to what the Discipline requires them to do.
The United Methodist Church is a shared life together; our resources benefit causes we agree with and benefit causes we disagree with. Our church tithe supports these equally and each church gives in faith that the vast proportional of the dollar will go towards where they believe in. But some cannot get over the 22 cents of every dollar that leaves the local church and believe it is either (a) the devils work or (b) unfaithfully spent. And they want local churches to decide that they know best for the denomination and want to defund its shared work towards its shared mission–if that’s not an embrace of Congregationalism over Connectionalism, I don’t know what is.
The last post in this series contains much more informed opinions, but here’s some questions:
- What other advantages do you see to this plan?
- What other collateral damages do you anticipate happening if this plan becomes widespread?
- How might we better strengthen a connectional church rather than dissolve into congregationalism? Or is that okay?
The Rev. Jeremy Smith is minister of discipleship at First UMC in Portland, OR. This series comes from his award-winning blog, Hacking Christianity.