As General Conference approaches, one of the important agenda items for the body is setting the budget for the denomination for the next quadrennium. As this UMNS article from two weeks ago indicates, there has been debate about what the budget should be. Economic projections have shifted (as they have a tendency to do) since the first round of budget proposals, and new data has come in about membership loss in the US, which together have made previous spending levels seem overly optimistic. In response, the general secretaries of the church's boards and agencies have called to reduce their allocations and thereby craft a lower budget, as indicated in this UMNS article from yesterday. General Conference has the final decision, but it seems (for now) like the budget for the next quadrennium is headed in a downward direction.
Such news might engender a variety of responses, ranging from the unhelpful to the helpful. Perhaps the least helpful response is for the denomination to once again collectively wring its hands about US decline and get worked up into a frenzied state of anxiety before General Conference. US decline is a serious problem and will probably be with us for a while, but states of frenzied anxiety do not make for good decision making. We should maintain our trust in God, even in times of tightened budgets.
A more well-intentioned but ultimately misguided response would be to say, "Well, the boards and agencies will just have to do more with less." On the one hand, such a statement can be read as an affirmation of the importance of the church's continued mission and ministry through its boards and agencies. In this read, it is important we keep doing good work and not cut back on it. On the other hand, such a statement reflects the harsh logic of capitalism more than it does the abundant love of God. Capitalism always demands more, more, more. It will not let us be content, as God calls us to be. One of the ways to produce that more is to wring ever greater efficiencies from producer and consumer, no matter what the consequences on either are. We should be mindful of being good stewards, but we should not prize efficiency above all other spiritual, moral, or ethical values.
Finally, we could respond to this era of reduced budgets by resolving to do better with less, not more with less. Doing better with less will involve stopping some of the things that we are currently doing--those that are not working or are no longer suited to their situations or are not the best and most important reflections of who we are as United Methodists. Yet making the hard decisions to stop doing some of the things we are currently doing will free us up to better do those things we continue to do, the things that are really central to who we are and what God has called us to do in the world. In other words, if we're willing to have hard conversations, it can help us focus on what really matters among what we do.
Identifying and focusing on such things may or may not make a difference to membership trends. But it will definitely make a difference to our spiritual lives and our participation in the missio Dei.