Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A Brief History of Apportionments

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

When the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was officially adopted by General Conference in 1820, it received no funding from the denomination. Instead, the Missionary Society was supported through direct gifts from individuals and congregations. The Missionary Society was the second denomination-wide agency in American Methodism. The Book Concern (predecessor of today’s Publishing House), the one older agency, was funded entirely by sales of books, as it still is today. Indeed, at that time, there wasn’t any central process of collecting denomination-wide funds.

The apportionment system, which so dominates the current United Methodist Church, took a long time to develop, longer than most of the agencies it supports. Indeed, it did not solidify until 1924, over a hundred years later than the earliest agencies. And today, nearly another hundred years later, there is no guarantee that apportionments will endure indefinitely.

This post will briefly review the process of the development of apportionments, and a subsequent post will examine what lessons that history offers for the financial future of connectional ministries in the UMC.

While there is some variation across predecessor denominations to the UMC, in their early histories, denominational agencies such as the Missionary Society of the MEC functioned as voluntary associations that operated relatively independently from General Conferences, including in financial matters. In the MEC, it was not until 1872 that the General Conference sought to exert much direct control over boards and agencies, and that control was still not focused on finances.

Funding for denominational agencies was often coordinated by annual conferences, not General Conference. Annual conferences would designate specific months for collections for specific benevolent ministries of the church. This helped give some order for congregations and individuals as givers, though congregations and individuals still made the real financial decisions about connectional ministries.

Moreover, this system of monthly foci for giving did not prevent local church benevolent societies from constantly collecting money for their specified area of ministry, nor did it prevent special appeals for finances in local churches by visiting agency staff persons or missionaries.

The first iteration of apportionments was as a system of fundraising goals set by individual agencies in the latter decades of the 19th century. Early apportionments were merely a request by an agency that each congregation raise a certain amount for the work of that agency. They were not approved by conferences and did not carry the weight of denominational polity behind them.

Absent central coordination, financial competition among boards and agencies increased throughout the late 19th and early 20th century as Methodists continued to create new agencies, each of which would solicit direct contributions from Methodist individuals and congregations. Despite whatever pressures towards collaboration in ministry there might have been, financial concerns fostered a lot of intra-Methodist competition. Ministers and especially laity became increasingly exasperated by the slew of fundraising appeals they were bombarded with.

This led to the formation of the Commission on Finance in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1912, promoted by the Laymen’s Missionary Movement. Though ultimately ineffective because of its dependence on the agencies it was to regulate, it was an early attempt at central coordination of the finances of denominational agencies.

Then came the Mission Centenary in 1919. One aspect of the Centenary was a fundraising campaign. The Centenary fundraising campaign was somewhat unique in that it was a joint campaign on behalf of the Board of Foreign Missions, the Board of Home Missions, and the Board of Education of the MEC. These three boards agreed to work together on the fundraising campaign and then split the receipts according to a pre-determined formula.

While the fundraising campaign did not collect everything that had been pledged, this centralized approach to fundraising and division of denominational dollars was a relative success. That experience of centralized fundraising, along with concerns about debts incurred by the Board of Foreign Missions, led to the creation in 1924 of the World Service Commission, forerunner of the General Council on Finance and Administration, and the centralized denominational apportionment system.

Instead of each agency competing for local church and individual giving, the denomination as a whole asked each congregation to collect a certain amount in apportionments, which would then be divided among the agencies according to formulas established by the World Service Commission.

A centralized financial system allowed General Conference, both directly and through the World Service Commission, to promote ideals of efficiency, accountability, and coordination in the business of connectional ministry. Interestingly, General Conference 1924 rejected a proposal to create a single denominational agency, feeling that the goals of efficiency and accountability could be sufficiently realized through central financial control without requiring central administrative or programmatic control.

There were downsides to the apportionment system. It allowed agencies to become somewhat disconnected from the perspectives and desires of their constituencies, since they no longer needed to respond to pressures from local churches and average individuals to ensure their on-going financial support. Instead, denominational insider perspectives and the perspectives of large donors became more influential, since these were the groups who did have a significant impact on the agencies’ bottom lines.

Moreover, the apportionment system did not completely end the process of direct fundraising by agencies, and developments such as The Advance in 1940 created new opportunities for direct, second mile giving by congregations and individuals. The Advance, both in its denomination-wide and annual conference forms, has become a particularly important channel for the flow of connectional funds outside the apportionment system.

Nor did apportionments completely end board and agency competition, as anyone who has been around the denomination long enough is aware. Nevertheless, the apportionment system shifted the site of much of that competition from local churches to internal denominational mechanisms such as General Conference, the General Council on Finance and Administration, and the Connectional Table (and the predecessors of these latter two). In this way, much of the competition was only visible to denominational insiders and not the average member of the denomination, lay or clergy.

Whatever its weaknesses, the development of the apportionment system was revolutionary. It assured boards and agencies that their core functions would be funded, and it simplified giving for congregations and individuals. The apportionment system has become a robust and central means of funding connectional ministries in American Methodism. Although initially adopted by the MEC, this system of centralized denominational financing for connection ministries through apportionments persisted through the various of Methodist mergers of the 20th century, becoming the backbone of connectional ministry financing in the UMC.

But nothing lasts forever. The apportionment system is already facing pressures, and these are not likely to go away any time soon. As United Methodists contemplate the situation of denominational agencies now and the possible financial futures of connectional ministries, this history is highly relevant. Another post next week will explore that topic further.

No comments:

Post a Comment