Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Bolivia and the Challenges of Church Financing

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.

The Swiss UMC published a profile of the recently-elected Methodist bishop of Bolivia. The Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia is an autonomous Methodist denomination with historic connections to The United Methodist Church and on-going partnerships with Swiss United Methodists through the Swiss mission and development agencies, Connexio hope and develop.

One thing in particular struck me about what Bishop Medardo Vedia Gutierrez said about his vision for the future of the church in Bolivia. He argued that the church needs to become less financially reliant on its school system to pay for the ministries of the church.

Some background is important here. Methodism in much of South America was heavily influenced by William Taylor, a Methodist world-traveling evangelist, missionary, and eventually bishop. Taylor recruited most of the missionary personnel that forwarded the development of Methodism in South America in the later nineteenth century.

Taylor was a strong proponent of self-supporting mission. That is, he wanted mission to be primarily funded by local sources, not by donations from the United States. In South America, the main source for local funds to support Taylor missions was operating schools. Taylor missionaries made running schools (especially English-language schools) a primary focus of their work.

When leadership of Methodism in South America passed from missionary to local hands, these schools continued and continued to be an important part of South American Methodism, both as a source of revenue and as a marker of identity.

Thus, Bolivian Methodism's reliance on income from its school system has deep historic roots.

There have been real advantages historically to this system of church financing. It has made churches, even those serving poorer groups, less financially dependent on the United States, which has meant more freedom to make decisions locally.

But every strategy has its limitations, and the pandemic exposed the limitations of this strategy for church financing. During the COVID shutdown, income for Methodist schools in Bolivia fell sharply, which means that money to support the church in Bolivia dried up as well. That put a pinch on both the schools and the church.

Hence, Bishop Gutierrez would like to cultivate more congregational giving and more members and congregations to give and thus reduce the church's financial dependency on the schools. The challenge with congregational giving, however, comes when congregational members themselves have limited financial resources to share with the church.

This example from Bolivia is a good reminder: there is no perfect model for financing the activities of the church. Churches have had varying means of paying for the work they do throughout the centuries, and each of these means have had advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the goal, though, is not to find the perfect model for church financing that can apply universally, but rather to do the work of discerning what model can best support the mission and ministry of the church in a particular context at a particular time.

Running schools has had real advantages for Methodism in Latin America, but COVID caused a shift in the context. That calls for a rethinking of financial models, as Bolivia is doing. May God bless Bishop Gutierrez and the Bolivian church as they seek to continue to be faithful and wise in shifting contexts.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    It is well that you have called attention to the aim of the new Methodist Bishop Gutierrez in Bolivia to achieve financial independence from the patrimony of the historic mission schools. But the association with Charles Taylor’s Latin America crusade to establish self sufficient mission schools in Latin America, and specifically Bolivia, needs further contextualizing. Taylor’s independent campaign led him to explore the west coast of Latin America.’s major port cities with large expatriate English speaking populations serving industrialization in each region. He negotiated with leaders of those communities to sponsor the salaries of missionaries from the United States that he would recruit to establish English speaking schools for their children. It was an adventurous undertaking in several locations but without much evidence of a lasting institutional impact. The only place where his missionaries were successful in using their educational efforts as a wedge for establishing a church presence was in Chile, but that effort soon fell victim to Pentecostal influence further complicating its succession to Methodist Episcopal Church development.

    As for Bolivia,Taylor arrived in Antofagasta in the brief period of 1866-79 when Bolivia controlled the Chilean territory giving it sea access. So the establishment of mission schools in sovereign Bolivia was not Taylor, but Board of Missions appointed missionary personnel, initially Francis M. Harrington whose strategy was to work around Roman Catholic control to establish a Methodist presence. Those institutions have historically served tuition paying expatriate and affluent local student populations that have successfully subsidized the development of indigenous ministries of the Methodist Church. It is that from that dependency that has become less reliable that Bishop Gutierrez seeks relief.

    Robert Harman