Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The Cost of Being a Global Church

Today's piece is written by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. It is the second of a three-part series on General Conference and the global structure of the UMC.

As I mentioned in Part I of my blog, when the current governance structure of the United Methodist Church was established in 1968, the global nature of the church was not a major concern. At that time, only 7.5% of General Conference delegates came from the Central Conferences. Moreover, the new union between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) created a monster denomination of more than 11 million members, and negotiations revolved around how to honor these traditions in the new structure.

However, over the past few quadrennia membership has decreased by four million to just over 7 million in the US, while church membership in the Central Conferences has increased. Given the representative formula for electing delegates to General Conference, the resulting percentages of General Conference delegates in 2016 will look very different from those of 1968.

While we celebrate the growth of the UMC outside the United States, the increase in international delegates to General Conference does not come without a cost. The expense of running the 2012 General Conference was $8.8 million, which was up from $7.1 million for 2008 and $5.3 million in 2004. Translation alone cost $920,000. Even though several interpreters were volunteers, GC still covered their travel, hotel and per diem.[1] Delegates received up to $125 per diem for meals and housing. The rental of the Tampa Convention Center was $160,000, and GC spent $408,000 for a computer tracking system. Some of the increase from 2008 to 2012 is obviously inflation and the rising costs of organizing a major convention of this size; however, we also recognize that travel costs for delegates are a major expense. Of the $8.8 million cost for General Conference, $1.7 million was paid for domestic and international delegate travel.[2]

In an effort to cut expenses, in October of 2013, the Commission on General Conference decided to cap the number of delegates to 850 for the upcoming 2016 General Conference in Portland. This will temporarily cut down on some of the travel and per diem expenses for delegates; however, this is only a stopgap measure as the trend is for the percentage of international delegates to continue to grow.

I rejoice in the growth of the church in the global south. As I mentioned in my first blog, my parents served as missionaries with the Methodist Church in Singapore (where I was born), and I also served as a missionary for 15 years in Latin America and helped to plant new faith communities, train leaders and build churches. Now that the church is growing in the global south, it is a blessing to hear stories of full churches and see new leaders rising up. I rejoice in these lives being transformed by being in a relationship with Jesus Christ. I also enjoy being part of a global church and knowing brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world.

My concern is with the stewardship of the smaller pool of resources of the United Methodist Church. For the price of $8.8 million that it costs to unite 850 delegates at a convention center for 10 days, one would hope for a very effective communication and decision-making process. Often, it is not.

One of the problems is that the overwhelming majority of petitions introduced at General Conference have to do with the life of the church in the United States. If one looks through the index of the UM Book of Resolutions, one can see the emphasis on social issues in the U.S. context. So international delegates attend General Conference to deal with matters of the general church; however, the petitions deal primarily with the U.S. context. This is not the most efficient use of the international delegates’ time, nor financial resources.

How long can this current structure be sustained given the membership trends in the UMC? Is there a better way to make decisions that still is representative of the various conferences that is more efficient and cost effective?

In the third part of this blog series, I will make some proposals for how the United Methodist Church might address these questions by reconsidering the model of relations with autonomous churches.

[1] Email correspondence with the United Methodist General Commission on Finance and Administration on February 19, 2015.
[2] Ibid.

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