With a split within the United Methodist Church (UMC) a real possibility on the horizon, the financial future of the church is already on shaky ground, which could make any possible unity based on the current denominational structure difficult and complicated. High tensions across the connection combined with continued drops in attendance and membership across the US led to expectations of greatly decreased giving, and a recent giving summary and memo from the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), previously reported on by UMNS and by Mark Tooley, project a difficult next quadrennium for the denomination. While a decline in giving to the church in 2019 comes as no surprise, the differences in giving varied across the board, so it is worth examining the most dramatic drops and the few rises that occurred.
Total giving in all forms plummeted just shy of 11 percent from 2018 to 2019, as seen at the bottom of the first page of the giving summary, which is a rather dramatic drop for a single year, but incredibly is actually a less dramatic change than many expected. All apportionment giving combined, which generally receives the most attention, dropped 7.6 percent.
In small glimmers of positive trends bucking the overall pattern, three US annual conferences saw increased giving rates last year. New Mexico moved from 65 percent to 75 percent, Northwest Texas jumped from 55 percent to 65 percent, and Memphis saw a modest increase of 83 percent to 86 percent. Northwest Texas is one of the most conservative conferences in the United States, some would say the most conservative, and had consistently been one of the lowest apportionment givers in recent years.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, four conferences saw dramatic drops in the proportion of requested apportionments they gave, three in the North Central Jurisdiction. In Indiana, where there has been mistrust stemming from the aggressive liberalism of the bishop and other conference leaders, giving went down from 100 percent to 80 percent, or just over $1 million. After giving 100 percent of apportionments in 2018 year, liberal-leaning Michigan (where over two-thirds of 2019 conference session voting members expressed support for liberalizing church standards on sexual morality) went down all the way to 78 percent. Similarly, the Western Jurisdiction’s Mountain Sky conference, led by controversial same-sex married Karen Oliveto (whose occupancy of the bishop’s office remains contested), saw a decrease from 100 percent to 78.5 percent.
However, none of these compare to Northern Illinois, which plummeted from an already below-average 72 percent giving in 2018 to a US-low 35 percent last year. Last year, Chicago Area resident bishop Sally Dyck, known for supporting resistance to the Discipline, oversaw the ordination of the UMC’s first openly “non-binary trans person,” M Barclay, as a deacon, as well as commissioned two more openly LGBTQ individuals as provisional deacons. At their 2019 annual conference gathering, a straw poll revealed in a vote of 441 to 79 a preference for a future of full LGBTQ affirmation over following the Discipline as amended in 2019. The conference also approved its Consent Calendar, which included several pieces of legislation to be sent to General Conference in support of the Simple Plan, which would remove all prohibitions on the marriage or ordination of LGBTQ persons. As John Lomperis reported last year, the Simple Plan is also notable in that it would “remove official church teaching and some related standards for clergy that pre-marital sex and adultery are wrong.” Their lowest-in-the-country giving levels were in part a result of the annual conference voting to suspend payments to the General Administration Fund “until changes are made to the structure and practices of the General Conference.” You can read more about that decision on the conference’s webpage here. Only Northern Illinois’ giving the World Service Fund was anywhere near normal levels.
A few conservative-leaning conferences showed continued high-levels of paying apportionments. South Carolina stayed at an above average rate, dropping only slightly from 91 percent to 90 percent of requested funds paid. Impressively, the Susquehanna Conference, located in central Pennsylvania, and the West Virginia Annual Conference both remained at 100 percent giving, serving as good examples of conservative conferences pulling their own full weight.
Taking a wider view, overall giving went down across the US and globally. The clear domestic trend among the five U.S. jurisdictions is that each of them saw a decrease in giving. The generally liberal-leaning Northeastern Jurisdiction had the highest percentage of apportionments paid in both of the past two years, and was far ahead of all others in 2019 with 96 percent paid, only slightly below its 2018 rate of 98 percent. No other jurisdiction even reached 85 percent in 2019. However, these jurisdictional patterns did not cleanly follow any pattern along ideological or theological lines. For example, in contrast to the Northeastern Jurisdiction, the liberal-leaning North Central Jurisdiction and radically progressive Western Jurisdiction both saw large drops of about 11 percent from 2018 to 2019. The South Central Jurisdiction and Southeastern Jurisdiction, known to be comparatively more conservative, particularly the latter, saw their giving drop 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively. On the whole, giving from the Central Conferences dropped 7 percent, from 65 percent in 2018 to 58 percent last year.
It is worth noting that the highly progressive and very small-in-membership Western Jurisdiction is asked to carry a much lighter financial load than the other jurisdictions in one key area, contributing to the Episcopal Fund. This jurisdiction has long been not only the only one that pays nothing to support Central Conference bishops, it also relies on the other four U.S. jurisdictions to cover for its oversupply of five bishops, which have given a region with few churches and members disproportionate influence in the UMC.
In light of the GCFA memo stating that US bishops cost $1.4 million per quadrennium (see the bottom of page 2), or $350,000 per year, it’s noteworthy that a number of episcopal areas did not give enough to cover the expenses of even their own bishop last year, much less to help offset costs for central conferences.
None of the Western Jurisdiction annual conferences gave their episcopal areas at least $350,000 last year, however that is in large part due to the system setting apportionment budgets below that figure, with the exception of California-Pacific. California-Pacific paid roughly $328K, California-Nevada paid $312K (100 percent), the three conferences of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area paid $297K (100 percent), Desert-Southwest paid $129K, and Mountain Sky $311K (100 percent). Though the WJ has relatively few members, their five bishops, whose salaries and other expenses are simply not covered by those they serve, give the jurisdiction an oversized influence in the denomination.
A very similar pattern emerges in the liberal-leaning Northeast Jurisdiction, whose conferences are also not all asked to support costs of even their own bishops. Four episcopal areas in this jurisdiction were not self-funding, however they all gave 100 percent of the apportioned amount. The first two listed are some of the most liberal outside of the WJ: New England gave $245K (100 percent), New York $282K (100 percent), Upper New York $321K (100 percent), and West Virginia $246K (100 percent). This second-most-liberal jurisdiction has also been privileged with a disproportionately high number of bishops than its numbers can justify, and consequently has gained influence in the denomination.
In the North Central Jurisdiction, the combined giving of the Dakotas and Minnesota annual conferences did not reach $350K for their episcopal area, combining to give about $216K. Northern Illinois gave only $71K to the Episcopal Fund, falling significantly short, and paid less into episcopal fund than overall apportionments. Lastly, Wisconsin gave just $206K in 2019.
In the South Central Jurisdiction, Northwest Texas and New Mexico combined to give $293K for their episcopal area, even though New Mexico gave 100 percent, while Central Texas gave $331K and Louisiana gave $302K.
Finally, in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, Kentucky and Red Bird combined to give $300K, and South Georgia $283K.
Beneath the numbers it is important to remember that numerous congregations across the spectrum have experienced losses for various reasons, and so non-payment of apportionments is for many primarily a matter of financial pressures or even necessity. Walter Fenton, Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association, reminded the United Methodist world last year that low apportionment giving can come from a variety of reasons, and it’s impossible to know each church’s decision from this macro-level data: “The reasons they do not do so run from a simple lack of funds, the need to direct dollars to a major physical plant repair, the desire to prioritize a new children’s ministry program, and yes, as a message to the general church regarding their displeasure with its direction.”
Particularly in the past few years, a number of conservative congregations big and small have withheld giving because of how trust has been broken by bishops and agencies actively working to undermine the church’s faithfulness and to encourage “resistance” to the very standards they are charged with upholding. The sentiment is perhaps best explained in the Faithful UMC clergy letter:
“Many of us struggle every year to defend to our members why we should pay apportionments that support boards such as the General Board of Church and Society that regularly lobbies and writes legislation to change the church’s position regarding the practice of homosexuality. If we ever come to the point that we are having to explain why the church is not holding those who break the Discipline accountable in a real way, we may no longer be able to convince our members of the wisdom of contributing to the general ministries of a church that seems bent on its own destruction.”
While many progressive churches have withheld apportionment giving because they see a lack of concrete progressive action in the US church, some liberal leaders have called for defunding support for Central Conferences, who tend to have more traditional views and who sent a vast majority of traditional delegates to General Conference 2019. Bruce Birch, Dean Emeritus of Wesley Theological Seminary, wrote an open letter to non-US delegates that voted for the Traditional plan, and said that he “must withdraw at this time from further partnership in ministry with your conferences.” You can read the rest of his letter here. Bishop Grant Hagiya acknowledged in a public letter posted on the California-Pacific Annual Conference website last April that many in his conference “want to demonstrate their rejection of what happened at General Conference is through withholding or redirecting their apportionment contributions” and endorsed such action as “an important act of resistance.” In the letter he also announced he was advising the conference’s council on finance and administration to create an alternate World Service Fund that would allow local churches to steer funds to areas of the church that are pro-LGBTQ.
However, this has not been a uniform belief among progressives, as the Bishop’s Extended Cabinet of the California-Nevada Annual Conference asserted publicly last July that withholding general and jurisdictional apportionments “lacks integrity and courage” as a form of resistance and is “manipulative and coercive” towards Central Conferences.
Last year’s financial numbers show that likely more than ever many United Methodists across the theological spectrum are displeased with how the denomination is being run at present and that they are voicing their displeasure by redirecting their giving.