Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Liberia UMC commercial building and African UMC church finances

Last week, E. Julu Swen wrote a UMNS article about how The United Methodist Church in Liberia is constructing a commercial office and retail building. The rents collected from tenants of the building once it is complete and occupied will help support the budget of the Liberia UMC. This new venture is part of an attempt to become less dependent on funds from the United States UMC and comes after the failure (only $325,000 out of a $10 million goal raised after 15 years) of a fund-raising campaign to establish an Episcopal Fund whose interest would help in the shift from American to Liberian resources.

While it may not initially seem so, this story is significant for the future of the UMC as a global denomination for three reasons:

1. It reflects the desire on the part of Liberian United Methodists to become (more) independent of American funds for the operation of their church. As the UMC comes to terms with its new reality as a global denomination, some of the tough questions it will have to grapple with will be about financial relations between the relatively well-off but shrinking American branch of the church and the poorer but growing African branch of the church. I'm sure there are Americans who want the Liberians to move toward financial independence because they think that Americans cannot afford to underwrite the church in Liberian forever. These questions about money will be especially complicated because money often equals control. I'm sure Liberian United Methodists recognize this relation and want to move toward financial independence themselves because that will give them greater voice in other regards as well. This shift will challenge some Americans who currently have power, but most significantly, the shift in funding is an important step in developing a robust, indigenous UMC in Liberia. The same will be true of other annual conferences elsewhere in Africa.

2. It acknowledges the failure of massive fund-raising campaigns as a means of achieving financial independence in Liberia. There are a variety of potential explanations for the utter failure of the Liberia United Methodist Episcopal Fund. Moreover, one could ask questions about what, if anything, this particular failure means for other capital campaigns, either in Liberia or elsewhere in Africa, and what it means about Liberian (and other African) churches' ability and willingness to give annually toward budgets. This post is not the place to sift through the complicated answers to this slew of questions. Suffice it to say, that this failure is at least an indication of the challenges in conducting successful capital campaigns in annual conferences in rising economies.

3. It demonstrates a willingness to experiment with entrepreneurial solutions to revenue problems. The Liberian UMC is solving the financial problem created by a desire to move toward financial independence coupled with the failure of their capital campaign by starting a money-making endeavor. This instance is far from the first time that Methodists have sought to use business-making efforts to bolster church revenues. Thus, the significance of this decision is not in its novelty but in its departure from standard Western ways of thinking about church budgets. This approach is potentially an innovative solution to funding shortfalls, but it comes with risks too. What happens if the Liberian economy falters and there are no tenants for the commercial building? Nevertheless, this approach to finances may become more common as annual conferences in rising economies find themselves in the same bind as Liberia - desirous to be less reliant on American dollars but having difficulty raising donations of their own.

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