Church Retains Mission Focus Despite Hard Times

December 10, 2009

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

When the stock market takes a hit, so do church collection plates.
 
Global economic woes had an impact on all levels of The United Methodist Church in 2009 and the results were budget cuts, staff layoffs, canceled meetings, and postponed projects.
Even the denomination's bishops voted to take a pay cut.
 
But the denomination continued to pursue its four areas of focus - improving global health, engaging in ministry with the poor, encouraging church growth, and developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.
 
The recession that began in the fall of 2008 translated into lean times for church bodies the following year. In January, the United Methodist Publishing House reported its greatest sales decline in 20 years. A planned revision of The United Methodist Hymnal was put on hold.
 
The next month, the church's largest agency, the Board of Global Ministries, decided to reduce its 2009 operating budget by $3.9 million, or 7 percent.
 
In May, the denomination's bishops voted to roll back their salaries in 2010 to 2008 levels, dropping from $125,658 to $120,942, effective Jan. 1.
 
By June, the Board of Global Ministries was sending letters offering retirement or "voluntary separation" packages to all employees. The agency eliminated 45 positions by the end of July and another 20 open positions were not filled. The Board of Discipleship cut 30 positions during the first half of the year and United Methodist Communications eliminated seven staff positions at the beginning of August. (Treasurer Roland Fernandes (left) reports April 27 on the financial state of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. A UMNS photo by Cassandra M. Zampini.)
 
Staff members of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women took voluntary pay reductions and the Commission on Religion and Race decided in October to reorganize itself, cutting some positions and adding others but at lower salaries.
 
"The reality across the connection is that budgets have been realigned, expenses curtailed or eliminated, and lives impacted because of the decrease in monies received and a projection of a recovery," said A. Moses Rathan Kumar, treasurer of The United Methodist Church and head of the General Council on Finance and Administration.
 
Reaching out with assistance
 
Despite their own decline in finances, United Methodists reached out to others hurt by the economic crisis, joining rallies for victims of foreclosure, helping job seekers with resume preparation and networking opportunities, and keeping food pantry programs stocked for an expanding client list.
 
In Elkhart, Indiana, the 850-member Trinity United Methodist Church is doing what it can to minister to the community.
 
Trinity filled gallon-sized plastic bags, called "bags of grace," with snack-sized food for distribution to community soup kitchens and homeless agencies. Each bag contained four meals. The Matthew 25 program also sent gift cards anonymously to families suffering from job losses.
 
The economic crisis affected church programs around the world. In September, Africa University in Zimbabwe opened the 2009-10 school year with its lowest enrollment in more than a decade - 865 students instead of the expected 1,200 students.
 
More than 300 students were unable to register. "I have had mothers come to my office with their children trying to find a way to help their children continue their education," said Africa University Vice Chancellor Fanuel Tagwira. "They break down crying."
 
For about 60 of those students, however, there was a "saving grace." Grace Muradzikwa, a successful executive in Zimbabwe, raised $100,000 for scholarships from the business community there.
 
Attracting young adults
 
As it continues to assess its economic situation, The United Methodist Church is going forward with a plan to do a systemwide study. The Connectional Table at its Nov. 6-8 meeting agreed to fund a proposal approved by the Council of Bishops to consider changes in the church's structure, from annual conferences to General Conference, from national agencies to the bishops' council.
 
Part of the point of the study is to figure out how to attract young people to the denomination - both in the pews and the pulpit.
 
"It is critical to the survival of the denomination to lower the age of United Methodist Christians by a decade in a decade," Bishop Larry Goodpaster said about a Council of Bishops' plan to emphasize mission work and leadership development among young people. The average age of United Methodists in the pews is 57, he said.
 
The need to recruit younger clergy is critical, research shows. The number of people younger than 35 ordained or on the track to be ordained dropped from 3,210 in 1985 to 910 in 2008, according to a study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. The average age of elders is 52; for ordained deacons it is 51.
 
Young clergy have established their own website, www.umcyoungclergy.com, and have created campaigns such as "40 Days of Prayer" and "6 Questions for The United Methodist Church."
 
A part of civil society
 
United Methodists were both observers of and participants in the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African-American U.S. president.
 
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, 87, a dean of the Civil Rights movement, gave the benediction. Dorothy Height, 96, was among the special guests on the inaugural platform. Both had worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday was celebrated a day earlier.
 
In August, Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, was one of 16 people who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor for a civilian, from President Obama.
[Editor's Note: Rev. Lowery preached the 11 a.m. sermon at Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco on Nov. 8. See story in the November 13 edition of the Instant Connection.)
 
During the inaugural festivities, 40 United Methodist churches in the Washington area opened their doors to people from across the United States, offering food, fellowship and a place to sleep.
 
Michelle Gilstrap, 17, came to Washington with a group from Cascade United Methodist Church, Atlanta. She told her mother that she wanted to attend the inauguration because "Barack Obama is the George Washington of our generation."
 
In communion with others
 
On Aug. 20, the largest Lutheran body in the United States entered into full communion with The United Methodist Church, which had approved the agreement in 2008.
 
After the vote, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America hugged Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, and thanked all who had labored in dialogue between the religious traditions founded by towering figures in Christian history - Martin Luther and John Wesley.
 
"You have taken up centuries of differences and found centuries of commonalities," Hanson declared.
 
[Above, members of the California-Nevada Annual Conference of The UMC and Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA celebrated the full communion agreement at a service titled "Together We Serve," Nov. 15 at First UMC in Sacramento.]
 
The two denominations also joined with Catholics at a spirit-filled Oct. 1 service in Chicago to celebrate an historic agreement on justification by faith - how individuals are forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God. The three groups vowed to move toward greater unity.
 
Immigration
 
United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño (below, right) of Phoenix helped launch a national interfaith campaign for humane immigration reform, declaring at a Feb. 11 press conference in Washington that people of faith "cannot and will not stand by in silence while young people die, families are separated, individual freedoms are ignored, and the immigrant community in the U.S. is treated unjustly and inhumanely."
 
Prayer vigils on immigration reform followed across the country during the Feb. 13-22 Congressional recess. Later that month, Carcaño and other United Methodists joined in a solidarity march against alleged abuses of power by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix, related to the detention of immigrants.
 
In November and December, houses of worship in Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas were holding special prayer services to press Congress to pass immigration reform that keeps families together - part of a larger campaign sponsored by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition.
 
Health care
 
United Methodists were among the nearly 30 top leaders of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic organizations who gathered July 7 at the U.S. Capitol for a day of dialogue and planning on health care reform. "We must speak on behalf of the poor and marginalized here in the halls of power," said Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, one of the event's sponsors.
 
Three United Methodist pastors participated in an Aug. 19 live Webcast call-in forum on health care reform aimed at the faith community. The call, which featured President Obama and drew more than 140,000 listeners, launched a "40 Days for Health Reform" campaign to ask people of faith to press Congress to finish work on a health plan.
 
The denomination is embarking on a new campaign to fight malaria, "Imagine No Malaria," with a public launch set for the next World Malaria Day - April 25, 2010. The fundraising goal of $75 million will expand grassroots programs such as Nothing But Nets and develop more comprehensive efforts to promote prevention and education activities, strengthen health delivery systems, and train health care workers to more effectively treat the disease.
 
Dealing with disaster
 
In Africa, United Methodists continued to respond to the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, keeping church-related hospitals and clinics open. The United Methodist Committee on Relief coordinated emergency relief efforts through The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe and other groups.
 
In the United States, the swollen Red River left residents in the Dakotas and Minnesota scrambling to stop floodwaters in late March.
 
The Rev. Rich Zeck, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Fargo, N.D., was exhausted after spending 10 days bagging sand for the emergency dikes. "We are tired, but the saying here is 'God is good and so is Advil,'" he said when reached by telephone.
 
"Everyone is tired, but I am amazed that whenever a call is put out for volunteers, we have more than we need and we keep responding."
 
UMCOR worked with Church World Service and Muslim Aid over the spring and summer to assist the 2 million Pakistanis who fled the Swat Valley during fighting there between government forces and the Taliban.
 
Those celebrating the July 24 grand opening of UMCOR's new office and resource warehouse in the Philippines, based on the campus of Union Theological Seminary in Cavite, did not know the office soon would be assisting Filipinos as they dealt with the consequences of multiple typhoons over the fall.
 
The United Methodist Council of Bishops issued a Churchwide Appeal for Philippines Disasters on Nov.19 in response to the multiple typhoons that have struck the country. UMCOR was distributing emergency supplies to more than 11,000 displaced families.
 
Court rulings
 
The United Methodist Church's top court ruled in April that Southern Methodist University could lease campus property for the George W. Bush Presidential library, museum, and public policy institute, saying the agreement does not violate church law. Critics opposed to many policies of the Bush administration, including the war in Iraq, argued that placing the institute on university property would be inconsistent with church teaching.
 
At its October meeting, the Judicial Council ruled that the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference went too far in adopting its own sexuality statement, which declared "a more authentic and truthful representation of The United Methodist Church" is that "we disagree" on gay and lesbian issues.
 
The court said that while such statements can be "aspirational in nature," an annual conference "may not negate, ignore, or violate" the Book of Discipline, "even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections."
 
In the company of bishops
 
A new bishop - the Rev. Christian Alsted, 48, a pastor from Copenhagen, Denmark - was elected in February to succeed retiring Bishop Øystein Ølsen in the Nordic and Baltic Area.
 
Three retired bishops died in 2009: Bishop Melvin E. Wheatley, Jr., 93, of Laguna Woods, California, on March 1; Bishop Ole Edvard Borgen, 83, of Norway, on March 24; and Bishop Eugene M. Frank, 101, of Kansas City, on Oct. 13.
 
Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster of Western North Carolina was elected in November as the next president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany was designated as president-elect.
 
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.