Monday, July 15, 2019

What Options Do Central Conferences Have in the Face of Reduced American Subsidies?

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 a previous post explained, churches, annual conferences, and other groups in the United States provide significant financial, in-kind, technical, and personnel subsidies to churches, annual conferences, and other ministries in the central conferences. However, for a variety of reasons, those subsidies are likely to decrease, perhaps quite significantly, in coming years. The question then arises of what options central conferences have for their ministries in the face of reduced American subsidies.

It is important to state up front that some, perhaps many, of the decisions about subsidized ministries and programs in the central conferences will not be made by people in the central conferences themselves but rather by the Americans who are currently sending the subsidies. For those ministries and programs completely dependent on American or general agency support, it is effectively Americans and/or general agency boards and staff who will make decisions about the fate of ministries in the central conference, not the people from central conferences conducting those ministries.

Despite the ways in which American decision-making will impact those in the central conferences, central conference church leaders also have agency in this process. Thus, there are a variety of decisions they can make or strategies they can adopt in the face of reduced American subsidies.

Before getting to those decisions and strategies, it is useful to get a sense of what a central conference perspective on the ministries subsidized by US Americans might be. One might perhaps think of four categories of subsidized ministries:

1. Ministries that are a priority for Americans, but not a priority for those in the central conferences. Any decent development literature review will reveal that it is common for charitable projects to go forward, not because the intended recipients have any interest in the project or the goods it intends to produce, but because of the desire of the donor(s) to support that project. This practice occurs in US subsidies of central conference ministries as well.

2. Ministries that are a priority for those in the central conferences, but not a high priority. Here, one might think of ministries that provide incremental improvements in quality of life but do not impact issues of life and death nor the basic function of the church. Such ministries include upgrading functional if suboptimal equipment and facilities, expanding the scope of existing ministries such as health and education to reduce difficulties in accessing them, and adding new components to existing ministries.

3. Ministries that provide vital health, educational, or other services but that do not affect the basic functioning of local congregations. These include hospitals, clinics, schools, and the like. These ministries provide important, even lifesaving, services not just to United Methodists, but also to others in their communities. They may also form important parts of United Methodist witness in their local contexts. Nonetheless, local congregations could continue to function as worshipping communities without such ministries.

4. Ministries that are essential to the operation of local congregation. These include salaries and transportation for pastors, Bibles and hymnals for congregants, church buildings, and supervision by bishops and district superintendents.

With those four types of subsidized ministries in mind, here are the range of options that central conferences have in the face of reduced US subsidies for those ministries.

First, central conferences could simply reduce the number or extent of ministries offered according to the reduction in subsidies. Simply accepting ministry cuts as a consequence of US-decided cuts in the amount of subsidies for those ministries is most likely for the first two categories of ministries: those that are not a priority or are a low priority to people in the central conferences. Such cuts might be somewhat disappointing to those in the central conferences, but not devastating.

Second, central conferences could attempt to identify other partners who could make up for the reduced amounts of the subsidies. Attempting to expand existing partnerships is the easiest way to make up for those reductions, so central conferences are likely to ask more of their annual conference and local church partners in light of reduced general church apportionments, though given the threats to such relationships, that strategy may or may not be successful. Non-governmental organizations, either religious or secular, are also likely sources for new funding to make up for reductions in US subsidies. This strategy could work for any type of ministry, though it is more likely to be effective where there are existing partnerships that can be built upon and where the priorities of new funders or funders stepping up their commitments align well with the priorities of those in the central conferences.

Third, central conferences could increase the extent to which their ministries operate on a fee-for-service model. That is, they could charge the beneficiaries of those ministries for the services provided. This approach is most likely in education and health, where fee-for-service is a common practice and may already exist in some form in these ministries as they currently operate. Additional fee-for-service revenues can come either by charging those who had previously received services for free or by increasing the cost of already paid services. The extent to which ministries can successfully collect fees for services depends in part upon the economic capacity of the populations they serve and on the perceived quality and value of the services offered.

Fourth, central conferences could increase the amount of self-funding through apportionments and other giving collected from the churches in those central conferences. Thus, central conferences would attempt to raise more money locally to make up for reduced money (and other subsidies) from the US. Certainly, this approach, like fee-for-services, will be constrained by the economic realities of United Methodist members in those central conferences. This model is also likely to serve as the best indication of what a central conference’s priorities truly are. The operation of churches as worshipping communities and evangelism to start new churches are likely to be the highest priority on which central conferences are willing to spend their own money. Some health and educational services may also fall into this category.

In all likelihood, of course, central conferences will use a combination of these strategies to make up for reduced US subsidies. The exact mix of strategies will depend on the type of ministry, its priority within that central conference, the range of partnerships cultivated by that central conference, and the financial realities in that central conference. This component of the financial realities in the central conferences will be addressed in a future post.


  1. David,
    Sad to have to consider the impact of changing institutional realities upon mission relationships. In Africa it is dejavu all over again.
    When the option of autonomy was presented to the annual conferences in Africa by the COSROW process discussed in previous postings, the Bishops of those conferences spoke with a common mind.
    “We support the maintenance of the Central Conference relationship. We believe it is a better way toward genuine autonomy.
    We feel we must work hard to become true stewards of Jesus Christ so that we can shoulder our responsibilities in carrying out the mission of Jesus and his church in Africa with a greater degree of self sufficiency.
    We do not wish to foster paternalism and we resent being called ‘product.’ We now want to produce as well in order to minimize or end the humiliation of wretched beggars and burdens on the World Division. When we strive toward relative selfhood of the churches in Africa, we will be able to serve the church with dignity, integrity, and self response, and thereby achieve true partnership in mission.
    We ask that African churches be allowed larger freedom to plan and implement their own indigenous leadership in cooperation with persons in mission, that they use personnel and financial resources to their best judgment and adopt and implement policies without hindrance.” (Daily Journal Board of Global Ministries October 1974)
    The bishops were expressing their desire to achieve fulfillment of the vaunted trifold mission objective of self direction, self propagation and self support. Now, more than a half century later, another moment for visionary leadership approaches as the realization of that foundational and yet elusive third principle of self support remains unfulfilled and threatened by the disruption or ending of the Central Conference relationship. May this generation of African Church leaders grasp the benefits of “serving the church with dignity and integrity” that a self supporting ministry realizes by ending dependency and building “true partnership.” And may willing partners in affluent donor conferences not walk away from the ongoing struggle to maintain a stewardship of financial resources in the weakest of the world’s economies based upon sharing rather than control.
    Robert Harman

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  2. Editorial correction: COSMOS not COSROW in second paragraph.
    Robert Harman