Pandemic Bailouts’ Uneven Benefits within the UMC

on October 9, 2020

The COVID-19 epidemic has led to major financial challenges for congregations and other institutions throughout the global United Methodist Church.

American United Methodists readily think of how the CARES Act adopted by the U.S. Congress has provided much-needed bail-out money to a great many small businesses, nonprofits, and schools, including many United Methodist congregations and other ministries. This was important for preventing widespread unemployment in the United States. 

But it is important to understand how such relief has had very uneven effects on different theological segments of our denomination. Yes, we are all hurting from the global economic downturn, but some segments of our denomination have received much more help than others.  While the CARES Act has helped American United Methodists across the theological spectrum at the local and regional levels, at the denomination-wide level, the liberal side of the coming denominational division appears to have been much more protected from the negative financial effects of the novel Coronavirus. After all, it is widely acknowledged that more theologically liberal United Methodists are primarily concentrated in the United States, in contrast to theologically traditionalist members of our global denomination. 

In terms of only American congregations, I am not aware of any systemic imbalance in the theological perspective of those benefitting from the CARES Act. United Methodist News Service (UMNS) highlighted how Adam Hamilton’s huge Church of the Resurrection, which has been a key site for promoting the aggressively liberal UMC Next caucus, received between $2 and $5 million through the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). But I know of more evangelical American congregations that have also received PPP support of varying sizes. 

Beyond the local church, it is now widely agreed that our denomination’s general agencies would be inherited by the more liberal of the two main denominations that would emerge from the expected split next year, and that these are already largely dominated by the liberal American faction. A UMNS report lists PPP loans received by 11 such UMC denominational agencies totaling between about $10.9 and $14.9 million. (The imprecision is due to how the loans received by the United Methodist Publishing House and the national headquarters of United Methodist Women were only publicly reported as broad ranges.) Remember, these PPP “loans” can be forgiven if certain conditions are met, which makes them more like grants. 

The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) informed me that the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) chose not to apply for a PPP loan, while a representative of the Connectional Table (CT) told me that after receiving a PPP loan, the CT board decided to repay it in full, due to unanswered questions and uncertainties. 

These forgivable loans to general agencies amount to a combined eight-figure grant by the U.S. federal government to financially strengthen institutions that will be inherited by the liberal side of the coming separation in the UMC. Since the denomination for more evangelical United Methodists has not yet formally been established, let alone set up its own agencies, it is obviously not receiving a similar benefit.

Furthermore, most of our denomination’s 13 U.S. seminaries are generally seen as more theologically liberal (with some internal exceptions and nuances) and likely to continue into the more liberal denomination after the split, with the possible exception of United Theological Seminary. Apart from United (which also benefitted), all six American United Methodist “stand-alone” seminaries not connected to a wider university received PPP grants totaling between $3.6 million and $6.75 million

Furthermore, through a separate part of the CARES Act, the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), a total of over $480,000 in additional money was granted to these six UMC seminaries along with United, which got about $81,000, and Claremont School of Theology, which got about $66,000. (The latter was a stand-alone seminary until its recent merger with Willamette University.) Furthermore, the five United Methodist universities that encompass a seminary received a total of over $36 million from the HEERF, a portion of which has presumably been devoted to the seminaries at Boston, Drew, Duke, Emory, and Southern Methodist Universities. There are strict limits on how these funds can be used, including requiring that schools devote at least half of their HEERF money to “emergency financial aid grants to students.”

United Methodists around the world have been severely economically challenged by the global pandemic. But these particular denomination-wide institutions slated to be inherited by the liberal side of the coming divide have received somewhere in the neighborhood of between about $15 and $22 million in U.S. government bailouts, not counting grants to universities and other UMC institutions not noted above. These key pieces of our denomination have received this financial boost (while other pieces have not) simply because they are headquartered within the United States.

Those of us in the American portion of our global denomination need to recognize our extraordinary privilege. When we faced financial crisis, we were rescued by the national government of the largest economy in the world. But now roughly half of our denomination’s membership is outside of America, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa, where United Methodists generally do not enjoy such privileges and safety nets. Although Sub-Saharan African countries have been severely economically hurt by the global pandemic, national governments in this region simply do not have the same capacity for stimulus spending.

So the situation is very different for (largely theologically traditionalist) United Methodists in other parts of the world.

For example, our denomination has numerous seminaries in other nations, besides the 13 in America.

In Nigeria, Banyam Theological Seminary was forced by COVID-19 to shut down last spring, sending well over 500 students home. While the campus has re-opened for the fall semester, as of this writing, this United Methodist seminary has been unable to pay its professors since last spring. Those salaries are normally funded by student tuition payments. This has prompted at least two professors to leave. This school has received no special government bailout.

In Liberia, the United Methodist University includes both the Gbarnga School of Theology and the Bishop Innis Graduate School of Theology, with the former serving as a feeder for the latter. This university shut down from March through September, as part of a more comprehensive national lockdown, and is only now working to begin classes again later this month. However, the lack of tuition-paying students has similarly deprived faculty and staff of their livelihoods for most of the year thus far. Unlike American United Methodist seminaries and universities, this university and its seminaries, while no less part of our denomination, did not receive any major bailout from any government or other entity.

Lest anyone misunderstand me: I am not criticizing the CARES Act or any of its recipients. I believe it was right and responsible for all the U.S.-based UMC institutions noted above to apply for the benefits they received.  Beyond what I have said about U.S.-based denominational agencies and seminaries, it is too early to predict with too much confidence and specificity which parts of our currently unified denomination will go into which of the two new denominations that will emerge. Initially, both denominations may be more theologically mixed bags than many expect. And I of course realize that the various segments of our denomination are being impacted by plenty of other important, big-picture economic factors.

But as we prepare for the future, it is helpful to look honestly at the uneven impacts current developments are having on different segments of our denomination.

I encourage readers to stand with our brothers and sisters in dire need by giving donations of any size to support Banyam Theological Seminary in Nigeria here:

https://advance.umcmission.org/p-182-banyam-theological-seminary.aspx

And also to support the United Methodist University in Liberia here:

https://advance.umcmission.org/p-574-liberia-university.aspx

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