Despite Tough Times, Church Giving Rises

Date Posted: 2/24/2011

At a time when fixing the church roof or hiring a youth pastor might take precedence over supporting world mission, overall giving increased to the global United Methodist Church.

Fifteen of the denomination’s 59 U.S. annual (regional) and missionary conferences paid 100 percent of the money asked of them to support the denomination’s ministries around the world.

The total collected was $27.8 million short of the $157.2 million budgeted and agreed to by members of the denomination at the 2008 General Conference, the denomination’s top policy-making body.

However, total giving to all denominational funds — including apportionments, churchwide Special Sundays and The Advance — was up $46.5 million (28 percent) from 2009.

Giving to the United Methodist Committee on Relief accounted for the greatest share of that increase, which was largely in response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Giving to the six Special Sundays was down 9.7 percent in 2010, with total donations of $5,178,605.

At the same time, spending in the local church, adjusted for inflation, declined 1.28 percent from 2009 after a 3.63 percent drop in 2008. Scott Brewer, director of connectional services for the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration, noted that the recession’s impact varied across the United States.

“Although churches did not cut spending at the same level in 2009, it’s still clear that the difficult economy had an impact on congregations,” he said.

The United Methodist Church works as a connection. Apportionments make it possible for the church to make a difference in the world. No one local church is responsible for establishing a university in Africa, nurturing historically black colleges, preparing ordained ministers or supporting the church’s global mission work. But every local church contributes to all those efforts and many others when they pay their apportioned amount.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, emphasizes the importance of the financial obligation to apportionments. “Payment in full of these apportionments by local churches and annual conferences is the first benevolent responsibility of the Church.”

Experiencing ‘the abundance of God’s grace’

In the average congregation, of every $1,000 given in the offering, $854 stays in the local church. The remainder goes to outreach beyond the congregation.

In 2010, the 100-percent annual conferences included Alaska, Baltimore-Washington, Dakotas, East Ohio, Greater New Jersey, Illinois Great Rivers, Iowa, New York, North Carolina, Northern Illinois, Oklahoma Indian Missionary, Peninsula-Delaware, Red Bird Missionary, West Michigan and Wisconsin.

Four conferences — Rio Grande, Susquehanna, Texas and Upper New York — gave 100 percent to the World Service Fund, which strengthens evangelism efforts, stimulates church growth, expands Bible studies and enriches spiritual commitment. The road to 100-percent payment wasn’t easy.

The Northern Illinois Conference, for example, was “on pace,” conference treasurer Lonnie Chafin recalled, “to … set a new low in total receipts.” However, district superintendents, pastors and church treasurers refused to give up, and their efforts began yielding results. One congregation’s appeal yielded $75 from a retired member in Florida. An extended family reached beyond their pledges to pay their church’s apportionment in full. A district superintendent personally contributed in the name of the district churches, and a congregation’s Christmas offering went toward world mission through the apportionment.

 “We receive calls of joy from churches making it to 100 percent for the first time in many years,” Chafin said. “A church called to say they were emptying the coffers — giving more than they thought they ever would. There were calls from churches wanting to overpay their apportionment. We prayed with thankfulness with churches happy to have made their best effort.”

He said many of these churches were in economically devastated areas and were continuing a Methodist tradition of the poor giving to the very poor.

The conference closed the year with a significant improvement in giving over 2009.

“We have truly experienced the abundance of God’s grace,” said Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Northern Illinois Conference. “Through careful planning and deep commitment, we have offered an important response to a troubled world in our connectional giving.”

Always Say ‘Thank You’

Ross Williams, New York Conference treasurer, credits the leadership of Bishop Jeremiah Park, “who has been an outstanding motivator and has been able to do some creative fundraising.”

The conference has paid their “shared ministry apportionments” in full since 2004. “Paying apportionments at 100 percent is in keeping with what we expect local churches to do,” Williams said.

“A church can spend too much on itself and not enough on outreach or mission.”

Belief in mission and gratitude for the connectional church keeps the Red Bird Missionary Conference on track.

“(We’ve) always paid apportionments 100 percent,” conference treasurer Judith Fowler said. “We pride ourselves in this.

“We are a small conference,” she added. “I have a one-on-one relationship with the pastors and their congregations.” To keep congregations focused on the goal, she sends quarterly reports and notes of encouragement.

Every contribution, no matter how small, is combined with other gifts to “do miracles in a big way,” she noted.

Thanking congregations for their commitment is essential, Dakotas Conference treasurer Jeff Pospisil asserted.

“We thank them and show our appreciation for their faithfulness in as many ways as we can. We bend over backwards for our churches.”

And if a congregation cannot always pay 100 percent, it’s not the end of the world.

“Our connectional structure allows for some churches to not pay in full for a year or two when they fall on hard times,” Pospisil said. “The most important thing is their long-term health. If that means not paying in full for a year, so be it.”

Now congregations and conferences are looking ahead to 2012.

The 2012 figure of $153.8 million is 6.9 percent lower than originally approved in the budget by the 2008 General Conference.

“The apportionment formula we use adapts to changing economic conditions,” Brewer said. “We apportioned 2.68 percent less than the 2011 budget, and the amounts for 2012 are largely a continuation of that trend.

“By apportioning less than was originally budgeted, our hope is to reduce some of the financial pressure on conference and churches especially hard-hit by the economy.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications. Sharon Dean, communications director for the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration, contributed to this article.

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