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.
As indicated in a previous post, one way in which United Methodists in the United States subsidize the ministry of United Methodists in the central conferences is through the Episcopal Fund, one of the seven general church apportionment funds.
Episcopal areas in the central conferences do contribute to the Episcopal Fund (central conference apportionments make up 2.81% of the Episcopal Fund), but the amount they receive from that fund exceeds what they put in, thus generating a subsidy.
GCFA has reported that the cost for a central conference bishop on average is $930,000 for the current quadrennium, or about $232,500 per year. This total for episcopal expenses includes salary, housing allowance, office allowance, and travel.
In 2018, the UMC spent $1,016,903 in Africa, $234,670 in the Philippines, and approximately $373,832 in Europe on episcopal salaries. Subtracting salary from the total expense leaves about $150,000 per bishop for benefits, housing, office, and travel expenses. Benefits might account for $30,000 (40% of average salary). Presumably less than $20,000 (the American limit) is for housing. No more than $10,000 is for office expenses. That leaves up to $100,000 per year in travel expenses per central conference bishop. While this may seem high, note the large expenses in flying bishops from remote locations in the central conferences to the Unites States for frequent meetings.
Taken all together, the UMC as a whole is spending about $4,650,000 per year on central conference bishops. By contrast, all central conferences together gave $621,241 in 2018 to the episcopal fund. Thus, central conferences received about 7 ½ times what they spend on episcopal compensation.
Even more important is the disparity between episcopal compensation and the average income of people in many of the central conference countries. In the United States, a bishop’s salary is 2.7 times the average income for a resident of the US. In Germany, it’s only 1.7 times as large, and in Russia, it’s only 2.3 times. But in the Philippines, a bishop’s salary is 9.4 times the average income.
And in Africa, the gap is even larger. It’s 13.3 times as large as the average salary in Nigeria, 34 times in Zimbabwe, 55.9 times in Liberia, and a whopping 111.7 times in the DRC. And that’s not including benefits, housing and office payments, or travel expenses. All told, episcopal compensation in Africa is dozens if not hundreds of times what an average United Methodist might make in a year.
While I have great respect for the difficult and challenging work done by the central conference bishops and the deep faithfulness of the individuals in the role, there are some structural consequences of these US subsidies of central conference episcopal salaries that are vastly out of scale with average income in African countries. Again, these are structural consequences to a structural issue that has been around longer than any of the individuals currently serving as bishops. This is about the system we as global United Methodists have collectively built, not any of the individuals serving as bishops in that system.
Moreover, it’s important to point out the colonialist roots of this system, wherein bishops were initially US Americans, and it was seen as acceptable to pay them many times what those among whom they served earned. Upon the election of leaders from the central conferences as bishops, the reasonable argument was made that they deserved to be paid in line with their American predecessors, not at a fraction of that rate.
Be that as it may, this system has several consequences. First and foremost, it dramatically increases bishops’ roles as patrons, therefore increasing both bishops’ power and the demands placed on them. African bishops may receive a lot of money, but they don’t just keep all this money for themselves. In line with traditional leadership models, bishops function as patrons who distribute resources, including their own money, for the benefit of those they lead. African bishops being paid more also means that the United Methodists they serve expect more from them as patrons, since they are aware of the resources that bishops control, not just through approval and channeling of project funding, but from their own salaries.
However, because the funds that African bishops distribute through patronage come from outside the communities served, rather than being redistributed among those communities as in traditional times, this reduces the accountability of bishops. If bishops hold all of the financial cards in a relationship, there are fewer who can (or are willing to) afford (literally) to challenge the bishops.
This can make episcopal elections hotly contested, as they are not just for positions of spiritual leadership but for positions of significant economic influence that can be used in a manner seen fit by the office holder with little pushback from others. I am not saying that bishops use this situation for their own benefit; again, they are often called upon to use their own resources for the church. I am saying this situation gives bishops a tremendous amount of power, making election as a bishop a very valuable prize.
The value of the prize of being bishop and the extent of the power that bishops wield within the official system paradoxically also increases the incentive for those not elected as bishop to try to cultivate alternative, non-official sources of funding to develop their own power base, since there is little recourse to power left to them through official channels after losing an episcopal election.
It is thus significant, for instance, that the three Africans on the WCA council (Jerry Kulah, Kimba Evariste, and Forbes Matonga) all previously ran unsuccessfully for bishop. WCA funding, connections, and prestige are a way to challenge the authority of the bishops in ways that are not possible through the official channels of the church. Indeed, it is fair to say that the way the UMC has administratively and financially structured the office of bishop in Africa has produced a perverse incentive for other African leaders to affiliate with the WCA to try to build their own spheres of influence.
To the extent that African episcopal salaries are ethical or administrative problem in need of a solution, the solution is not as simple as just giving all African bishops a significant pay cut. There are real issues of procedural fairness to those serving as bishop that should make us reconsider such a drastic approach.
But the UMC could stand to reflect more on how it has structured financial relationships not only between the United States and the central conferences, but within the central conferences themselves, and the complicity of US United Methodists in those systems. And, as The United Methodist Church lurches towards whatever future awaits it, there is no time like the present to rethink how money shapes the denomination, the consequences of that shaping, and the alternative that may exist