United Methodist News Service
A recommended budget of $603 million for the 2013-2016 operations of the denomination’s general agencies will go before General Conference in 2012.
The figure represents a 6.04 percent reduction from the previous four years and marks the first time a smaller budget will go before the church’s top legislative body for approval. General Conference could adjust the recommendation when it next meets April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla.
In a separate action, General Conference will take up two constitutional amendments that would allow the body to empower a unit of the denomination to make budget adjustments between conference sessions. At present, after General Conference adjourns, no entity can make changes to the allocated budgets.
To be ratified, constitutional amendments must win a two-thirds majority at General Conference and next must be approved by at least two-thirds of the members voting during annual conferences. By contrast, the budget requires a majority vote by General Conference.
Impact of budget reductions
The 40-member board of the General Council on Finance and Administration and the 60-member Connectional Table in May gave provisional approval for the budget for all seven general apportionments, including the World Service Fund that supports most general agencies.
After a review during their July 27-29, 2011 meeting, the two groups agreed to send the proposed budget to General Conference.
As it stands, the recommended budget will mean “reductions in programming or staff depending on how the individual agencies react to reductions in funding,” said John Goolsbey, an executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration.
Reductions in the number of members in U.S. congregations and declining revenue already have forced general agencies to eliminate some staff positions and programs. The number of staff positions in 13 general agencies has decreased every year, from 3,139 in 1971 to 1,384 in 2010.
The Rev. Andy Langford, pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., and a member of the Connectional Table, said most of the denomination’s money is spent at the annual conference and local church level.
“I personally think that the majority of the work in our denomination in dollars and everything else is done not in the seven funds but in the rest of (the denomination),” he said. “That $603 million is only 3 percent of the total expenditures of the denomination.”
The reduced budget should provide some relief to congregations and annual (regional) conferences, Langford said.
“What the annual conferences are going to say is, ‘My goodness, we’re going to have more flexibility with what we do,’” he said. “And the local churches are going to say, ‘We will have more flexibility in what we do.’ I think this could actually help the church.”
Factors that go into budget projections include: church membership, inflation, per-capita disposable income, “giving elasticity” (the percent of giving from increased revenue), net spending and the U.S. gross domestic product. What church leaders ultimately are trying to predict is what church members will be able and willing to give in the coming four years.
The recent volatility in the U.S. stock market illustrates why the long-term prospect for giving is often difficult to anticipate.
Impact of constitutional amendments
The proposed constitutional amendments are trying to address some of that unpredictability, Langford said. He is the secretary of the Apportionment Structure Study Group, which first suggested the amendments that the council endorsed.
“We need a body that can say if we need to spend more money on advocacy than a program, we can shift stuff around. Right now, that cannot happen,” he said. “What we have is an organization that we set it on a course and they have to follow this same track for the next four years and you can’t lay any new track.”
The General Council on Finance and Administration did not support two study group proposals: One to combine the seven general apportioned funds into one fund and one to restructure the apportionment formula to move from an expenditure-based model to an income-based model.
The council did support the study group’s recommendation to emphasize stewardship as a spiritual discipline.
“I feel that there is a need to refocus on the practice of giving as a spiritual discipline in the church,” Goolsbey said. “We’re focusing so much on cutting expenditures, and we’re not really addressing the fact that United Methodists and religious people in general have not been as generous as they have been in the past. Perhaps we need to focus on that as well.”