Membership decline combined with denominational discontent has brought the Desert Southwest Annual Conference (DSC) of the United Methodist Church (UMC) to a precarious financial situation. If unresolved, the steep drop in apportionment giving that has become the norm in recent months could pose major financial challenges to the numerically small annual conference, which recently denounced the IRD and other reform groups by name.
The causes and consequences of Desert Southwest’s situation were recently laid out in an article written by Randy Bowman, conference treasurer. Including August, the conference has seen apportionment receipts drop for six of the past seven months. This includes all money collected in various offerings that pays for the denominational structure and programs across the district, annual conference, jurisdiction, and denomination. At the current rate of giving, the Desert Southwest Council on Finance & Administration (DSCFA) projects that by the end of the year DSC would only meet 80 percent of its apportionment contribution goal. “That would be the worst year by far in our Conference’s history,” Bowman writes. According to reports by the General Council on Finance and Administration, last year the annual conference paid 100 percent of its apportionments, which would make a decline to 80 percent all the more dramatic.
In April, resident Bishop Robert Hoshibata and Rev. Matthew Ashley, Chairperson of DSCFA wrote to conference members, urging their churches to continue to paying apportionments. They appealed to the fact that 82% of apportionment giving stays within the annual conference and named how that money is used. Apparently, many have been ignoring their request.
Though the conference has modest reserve funds to fall back on, the DSCFA is enacting some significant cuts to ministry spending right away. These include but are not limited to paying “general church apportionments” (which refers to the global, denomination-wide funding streams all US congregations are required to support) at an 80 percent level, instead of 100 percent as originally planned, reducing additional funding the conference has given to Claremont School of Theology by 25 percent, and reducing funding for Equitable Compensation subsidies by 30% starting next year.
Desert Southwest’s contributions to the Episcopal Fund say a lot about the conference’s financial past and present. The average estimated annual cost of each active bishop in the US from 2016-2020 is $329,750, according to financial reports shared at the 2016 General Conference (p.618). The DSC’s apportionment to the Episcopal Fund in 2018 was just over half of that, at $166,983, which they paid 100 percent. In practical terms, this means even before these recent stark financial woes, this annual conference could not afford to independently pay for its own bishop, who exclusively serves the Desert Southwest, relying on funding from other US annual conferences. This also means that unlike most other US annual conferences, they have been contributing nothing to the funding of central conference bishops overseas.
By choosing to target their general-church apportionments for these steep cuts, the Desert-Southwest Conference is effectively demanding that United Methodists outside of the Western Jurisdiction pay even more heavily to subsidize the Desert-Southwest bishop.
The cuts to Claremont School of Theology, located less than an hour east of Los Angeles, may be especially significant because the seminary is already facing major financial struggles. Claremont’s president told UMNS this year that the schools debts are $6.9 million and operating deficits have been over $2 million each of the past two years. The school is currently pursuing a move to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, hoping that the sale of the valuable property it currently occupies will right the institution financially. This sudden decrease in support from DSC would add another layer of difficulty.
The cut to equitable compensation subsidies is also significant and is likely not sustainable. These subsidies are funds provided from the annual conference to local churches that are not able to pay the full amount of the equitable or minimum salary for pastors. Small churches that are already struggling to pay for their pastor may find themselves in even tougher situations, and the cuts are likely indiscriminate in terms of whether that church paid its apportionments or not, potentially penalizing churches that give. Furthermore, pastors are less likely to seek or continue in appointments there if they cannot be sure they will make an honest salary.
Desert Southwest’s financial struggles can in part be traced to its continued numerical decline, which is affecting a majority of annual conferences across the US. UMNS reports that membership for 2018 stood at 27,972, down 4.4 percent from the previous year, and worship attendance declined even more, down 6 percent to 18,361.
The longtime liberal-leaning conference has directly criticized the IRD in the past. In April 2007, the conference “enacted a resolution calling on United Methodists to consider withdrawing all support from IRD because of its efforts.” The efforts they opposed included building direct connections with orthodox United Methodists in Africa as well as exposing liberal biases in mainline church agencies.
The marginalization of evangelical pastors, laypeople, and congregations within liberal-dominated annual conferences, particularly in the Western Jurisdiction, has exacerbated the financial struggles that declining membership and losses of major givers have brought. A prime example was Yellowstone Annual Conference, which experienced a financial crisis several months after the election of openly partnered lesbian bishop Karen Oliveto to the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, of which Yellowstone was a part. Yellowstone soon after merged with the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference to form the Mountain Sky Annual Conference, which is still under Oliveto, although her leadership remains contested.
In their regular annual conference gathering this past June, Desert Southwest approved legislation disavowing the Traditional Plan passed at the 2019 special session of the General Conference in St. Louis. As a result of the very large number of resolutions and petitions submitted in response to General Conference 2019 and the future of the conference, the conference held a special session of the Desert Southwest Annual Conference on September 14.
Among the resolutions coming before that special session was “Renouncing Divisive and Destructive Strategies,” which specifically named the IRD, along with the Confessing Movement, Good News, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association as renewal organizations to contact, presumably to voice their displeasure at our work in advocating for traditional, orthodox views on sexuality and marriage (see page 12). The resolution passed with minor clarifying amendments.
At present speculation on the exact financial future of the Desert Southwest Annual Conference is not worthwhile because of the strong potential of foundational denominational change coming from the next General Conference in May. This much is certain, however: churches in the southwest and across the country and globe need to be a part of a denomination and denominational structure with which they are of one accord. Otherwise, such a connectional model will continue to struggle mightily.