Friday, July 12, 2019

A Primer on American Subsidies to Central Conferences

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
One significant feature of the financial realities of The United Methodist Church is that the American (and Western European) branches of the church provide extensive funding, in-kind gifts, technical expertise, and human resources for a variety of ministries in the central conferences. This practice can be read as a just response to global economic inequalities, a commendable practice of charity, or a form of neo-colonial control. Whether such subsidies are good, bad, or indifferent is a case-by-case personal judgment, and this post will not attempt to make such judgments.

Instead, this post will briefly cover the ways in which American (and Western European) churches subsidize ministry elsewhere and why those subsidies are currently at risk. A subsequent post will explore what options central conferences have if/when those subsidies do decrease.

While the remainder of this post will focus exclusively on American subsidies of central conferences, it should be noted that United Methodists in Norway, Germany, and Switzerland also provide funds, in-kind gifts, technical expertise, and personnel for programs in the central conferences through the work of their mission agencies and church partnerships. Such assistance is real and valuable, though since it occurs at a much smaller scale than American subsidies, this post will focus primarily on subsidies from the US to the central conferences.

First, a review of the mechanisms by which American churches subsidize ministry in the central conferences. There are five main mechanisms:

1. Apportionment funds that are explicitly directed toward the central conferences, such as bishops’ salaries paid from the episcopal fund, the Africa University Fund, the Central Conference Theological Education Fund, etc. In 2018, 99% of apportionments collected came from US churches, so while a future post will examine central conference apportionments as a part of their overall finances, practically speaking, most apportionment funds are a form of US subsidy.

2. Programs, grants, and assistance from the general boards and agencies, which subsidize a wide variety of mission, health, education, social justice, evangelism, infrastructure, and other programmatic expenses in the central conferences. Since apportionments are a significant source of funds for the general boards and agencies, as are direct contributions from Americans, most general agency funds sent to the central conferences can also be regarded as a form of American subsidy.

3. Monies and in-kind gifts given by US annual conferences through direct annual conference-to-annual conference partnerships. US annual conferences often have on-going relationships with annual conferences (or episcopal areas or non-profits) in the central conferences. These relationships typically involve financial support and in-kind gifts and services for a variety of programs and expenses.

4. Monies and in-kind gifts given by US local churches who have partnerships with local churches or entire annual conferences in the central conferences. These may be either one-time fundraising campaigns or on-going relationships that involve financial support and in-kind gifts and services.

5. Monies and in-kind gifts and services given by United Methodist-related para-church organizations. A variety of unofficial United Methodist groups, such as Good News, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and Reconciling Ministries Network, have historically or have announced their intention to fund ministries in the central conferences or provide services, including training, to central conferences. The funding for such para-church groups is overwhelmingly if not entirely American in origin.

While historically, significant amounts of funds and assistance have gone from the United States to the central conferences via these mechanisms, most of these mechanisms are currently under threat for a variety of reasons.

A primary threat to US subsidies for the central conferences is the threat of reduced apportionments. Some US churches are withholding apportionments to the general church because of their objection to some aspect of the current debate over gay marriage and gay ordination in the church. These withholdings have already made an impact in the amount of apportionments collected since General Conference 2019. In addition, the GCFA board has proposed a steep cut in the amount of apportionments collected from American churches in the next quadrennium. A potential church split would further reduce total collected apportionments. These reductions affect both apportionment funds that go directly to central conferences and funds from general boards and agencies.

The other primary threat is the discontinuation of direct relationships between US annual conferences and local churches on the one hand and annual conferences and local churches in the central conferences on the other. Anecdotal stories have already circulated about both progressive and traditionalist churches cutting existing funding relationships with overseas partners because of their objections to how General Conference 2019 unfolded. More such discontinuations of relationships are possible, and were there to be a church split, it would likely result in further ruptured relationships.

It is difficult to establish a dollar figure for the current amount of ministry subsidies sent by the US to the central conferences. Moreover, the size, scope, and focus of possible reductions in US subsidies of central conference ministries remain to be seen. Nevertheless, it is almost assured that US subsidies as a whole will decline, though the various proposed plans for the future of The United Methodist Church that will be mooted over the next several months will affect these subsidies in different ways.

Given such impending reductions, the question naturally arises, “What will the central conferences do?” A subsequent post will attempt to answer just that question.

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