A swarm of earthquakes hitting the region surrounding Yellowstone National Park in the past week has captured the attention of geologists studying the geologically volatile region. But United Methodists in the area are just now learning about a seismic shift of their own that threatens the continued operation of their conference.
“Unprecedented financial challenges have emerged in the last five months radically challenging our short term sustainability,” warned a presentation by the United Methodist Church’s Yellowstone Annual Conference on June 10. “Unfolding in 2017 is a[n] unprecedented level of deficit that could end normal operations of the conference.”
In February, IRD reported that some congregations in the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area – which includes the Yellowstone Annual Conference – were facing decreasing membership and financial contributions following the election, consecration and appointment of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as bishop for the region. Oliveto, who is married to another woman, faces opposition from some United Methodists both within and outside of her Episcopal area.
Methodists in the region launched a “sustenation fund” – later re-styled a “generosity fund” – to compensate for financial “stress” in local congregations, but now problems with local congregation finances have manifested themselves at the conference level.
“We must decide and execute a course of action quickly, to be completed in the next 3-4 months,” the presentation urges.
A Sudden Crisis
While a scarcity of financial resources has afflicted the tiny, declining Yellowstone Annual Conference for some time, the June 10 conference report is phrased in urgent language, describing a grim financial shortfall that has developed only in the past 4-5 months. Reasons cited include “weakened local churches due to death and loss of significant givers” and “reaction to [Oliveto’s] episcopal election” – which conference officials admit was a significant factor, if “only one of many”.
The Yellowstone Annual Conference has faced a loss of income of $30,000 a year from 2014 through 2016, but the presentation reports that in 2017 this loss has grown to $25,000 a month under 2016 income levels in 2017. Forecast income for 2017 is projected to be $935,000, while the forecast deficit is $303,356. At the start of 2017, conference reserves were only $294,000.
“By year’s end most reserves will be depleted with no new income projected to continue conference operations,” the report states. Citing only three levers of control, the report concludes that the conference must decrease spending, increase income (through squeezing more money out of the congregations within the conference,), and delve into the conference’s financial reserve.
Subtracting for denomination-wide “general church” apportionments (the conference is planning to pay $302,095, which would be slightly below average national and its own giving percentage levels for 2016), program and administrative staff ($398,625), office expenses ($62,000), and Cabinet Level Staff ($297,488) only $240,148 remains in the conference budget. Of this amount, all but $51,250 is needed to paying retiree healthcare, but $188,898 is needed for remaining discretionary items – an amount dwarfed by the projected deficit.
Tough Decisions Ahead
Plans for borrowing funds, raising money from outside the conference and squeezing more dollars out of struggling congregations – who have lost some of their own large contributors – are not sustainable.
All sources of significant spending reductions involve staff reductions, deep cuts to general church apportionments, and eliminating costs such as United Methodist campus ministry within the conference ($32,000), supporting the moving expenses for pastors within the conferences ($23,000), the conference Vital Worship Developer ($30,000) and support for the Blackfeet United Methodist Parish which serves the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana ($15,000).
The presentation suggests increasing conference income through setting of fundraising goals for congregations as part of a conference-wide campaign. But the amount of new funds needed would be significant: to take no more than $100,000 from reserve finds, approximately $150,000 would need to be raised (or cut in spending) by the end of 2017.
“Extraordinary efforts will need to be taken,” the presentation warns. If fundraising is not successful, the annual conference must have a plan ready to execute in November/December to severely curtail operations of the conference.
In the presentation, turmoil or financial distress experienced by local congregations is not addressed. The concern is focused entirely upon a conference budget largely controlled by the bishop (Oliveto). If Oliveto’s appointment as bishop is indeed one of the contributing causes to a financial shortfall, she could step down to relieve some of the distress.
The Yellowstone Annual Conference is already proposing a merger with the neighboring Rocky Mountain Conference. It remains to be seen if the financial difficulties will accelerate or force the hand of the proposal for Yellowstone to merge into a new Mountain Sky Annual Conference.
The Yellowstone Annual Conference is among the most liberal within the denomination. At its gathering last year, the group of churches in Wyoming, Montana and a sliver of Idaho voted to affirm abortion provider Planned Parenthood and a host of other progressive causes tied up in sexuality and gender identity.
UPDATE [06/23/2017]: Christian Post has more coverage of the financial crisis in the Yellowstone conference. You can view that coverage by clicking here.