Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Financial Future of Connectional Ministry

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.

Last week, I described the evolution of the current centralized apportionment system that The United Methodist Church uses to fund its connectional ministries. The apportionment system replaced an earlier system of direct solicitation by individual boards and agencies. I also indicated that the apportionment system may not last forever, and that this past can help us think about the financial future of connectional ministry in the UMC.

While the apportionment system has not yet ended, apportionments clearly cannot and will not be the same sort of financial engine for denominational agencies as they have been in the past. The UMC has passed “peak apportionment,” the point at which increased per capita giving by United Methodists in the United States made up for a decreasing number of US members. An impending denominational split and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have made connectional giving trends worse, but the underlying financial dynamics towards lower apportionment giving exist independently of these two complicating factors.

Lower levels of apportionments can potentially have a lot of different impacts on the connectional ministries of the UMC. Back in 2019, I looked at the possible consequences for connectional institutions and ministry programs. There have indeed been steep cuts at many of the agencies in terms of personnel and programs since I wrote that piece. I also explored the possibilities of reconfiguring the apportionment system to create different options for the connectional ministries that congregations and annual conference support, using the metaphor of content bundling.

Yet regardless of what other strategies denominational agencies may or may not adopt to respond to lower apportionments, the agencies are moving towards greater soliciting of direct gifts from United Methodist individuals and congregations. Recent Giving Tuesday appeals in your United Methodist-related social media feeds are just the tip of that trend. If money will not continue to come from apportionments, at least in the same amounts, then the agencies will look elsewhere, and direct giving is one of the foremost places they are looking.

Viewed through the lens of the history recounted last week, this move towards denominational agencies soliciting greater direct giving is a move back towards an older, pre-apportionment system of giving, in which denominational agencies competed with one another to solicit direct gifts from individuals and congregations. Therefore, reflecting on that older, pre-apportionment system can help us think about what a move away from apportionments and towards direct giving might mean for the future of connectional ministries in the UMC.

In particular, as we go back towards a system of soliciting direct gifts, it is worth thinking about how that move will reshape relationships in the denomination: relationships among agencies, relationships between agencies and the denomination’s congregations and members, and relationships between agencies and conferences.

As I explained about the pre-apportionment system last week, financing connectional ministry through direct giving is a system that puts denominational agencies in financial competition with one another. Yet, there has been a significant move towards collaboration between the boards and agencies in the past two decades, and the desire for agency cooperation remains strong among denominational leaders.

How will a return to substantial direct giving as a funding source impact the more collaborative relationships that have been built up among agencies? How can the denomination foster relationships among the agencies that emphasize collaboration and do not become merely competitive? If finances will not be the lever to push agencies towards collaboration (and indeed will push in the other direction), what levers will push towards collaboration?

The leading group of critics of the pre-apportionment direct giving system was laity, especially businessmen whose money the various church agencies sought to obtain. Those laity found the appeals for money excessive and worried about the efficiency of connectional ministries. Perhaps by the 21st century United Methodists in the United States have become a bit more inured to a large number of charitable solicitations, but the desire for missional efficiency remains strong.

How does an increase in direct solicitation develop greater responsiveness by agencies to individual and congregational missional priorities without overwhelming United Methodist individuals and congregations with a dozen separate financial appeals? How can agencies present multiple requests for money while assuring potential donors that those moneys will be used efficiently and effectively?

Finally, there are the relationships between agencies and various levels of conferences. Annual conferences were much more important financial players in the pre-apportionment system. Are annual conferences prepared to again take a larger role as intermediaries between the agencies and congregations? What sorts of new tensions and conflicts would that introduce to annual conferences, which are already facing a number of tensions and conflicts?

The move to the apportionment system also gave General Conference much more control over what had previously been semi-autonomous agencies. This increased control assured United Methodists that organizations that used the United Methodist name would be accountable to the highest authority in The United Methodist Church. How can the General Conference continue to exert control over the agencies for the sake of coordination, accountability, and efficiency if it controls a smaller percentage of agency budgets?

I do not mean to depict a shift away from apportionments and towards direct giving as all bad. As indicated last week, there are problems with the apportionment system. There are also advantages to direct giving. It creates more engaged givers. On the other hand, there are advantages to apportionments, and there were disadvantages to the system of direct giving that preceded the apportionment system.

Rather than trying to make out one financial system as better or worse than the other, my intention is to point out that The United Methodist Church is in a time of transition in how it finances its connectional ministries. If we can be aware that we are in a time of transition and aware of what the challenges and advantages are in various systems, then perhaps we can be mindful and intentional in trying to best capitalize on the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the systems we develop.

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