Church leaders agree: Financial struggles demand a united effort

Church leaders agree: Financial struggles demand a united effort

October 31, 2003
Written by Staff Reports

Mounting budget deficits throughout the UCC are triggering a push for a ramped-up stewardship and identity campaign that will build pride and ownership among our own, while reaching out to attract new members.

The UCC is facing its most significant financial crisis in its 47- year history, church leaders say, but perhaps for the first time, there is a shared understanding that the weight of the problem—including its solution—must be owned equally by all settings of the church.

In an unprecedented meeting that included 23 Conference Ministers, the 78-member Executive Council and the five-person Collegium of Officers, UCC leaders gathered Oct. 10-12 at the Church House in Cleveland to wrestle with the UCC's mounting financial crisis and to examine a proposal for addressing it. At the conclusion, participants endorsed—in theory—a sweeping plan that would attempt to resolve the crisis by strengthening the church's sense of family, covenant and pride.

Instead of casting blame, those in attendance swapped stories of frustration—and hopefulness. There is mounting evidence, they say, that budget deficits in local congregations, Associations, Conferences and the national covenanted ministries no longer can be ignored. Similarly, they indicate, the way out must be a united effort.

"What we are facing now is about the very life and mission of our church," says Edith Guffey, the UCC's associate general minister and administrator of the UCC's Office of General Ministries. "I think we have to do something, and I think we have to do something big and radical. We can't simply continue to do the same thing and expect better results."

The UCC's national offices are projecting a $3.5 million shortfall in 2004, unless drastic cuts are made. In the past year, 25 staff positions have been eliminated through layoffs and attrition. Some program budgets have been reduced by as much as 40 percent, or eliminated entirely. Without sizeable cuts or new resources, cumulative deficits would mount to an estimated $33 million by 2007, but Collegium and board members say they will not allow that to happen.

"What I fear the most is that we will succumb to relentless erosion," says the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president. "I just cannot abide the thought that we're going to allow ourselves to preside over a tranquil decline, and that's the trajectory we're on. We can plan further entrenchment or we can do something bold and risk-taking to change the way we ask for money and seek new resources. If all we're going to do is try harder at what we're already doing, we're going to fail."

A sharp reduction in investment income, along with a weakened economy, has sent shockwaves through the church. Some congregations have dealt with their local financial strain by cutting funds once earmarked for Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM). In turn, Associations and Conferences—receiving less from churches—are passing on even fewer dollars to the national offices.

Church leaders say that before a long-term strategy can be developed, a short-term response will require more difficult decisions. In coming weeks, say Collegium members, significant budget cuts will require additional staff and program reductions.

"We have a general consensus that we must begin by getting our financial house in order, both nationally and in the Conferences," Thomas says.

But, as the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, Connecticut Conference Minister, says, "This is not a short-term issue." Misery loves company?

The UCC is not alone. Virtually every denomination—representing every stripe of U.S. Christendom—has reported significant financial difficulties in recent months. That's why, as the Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman, Illinois Conference Minister, points out, "We must convey the urgency without buying into a disaster mentality."

In October, the Southern Baptist Convention announced "serious financial challenges" that have resulted in deferred missionary appointments. Its domestic mission agency "has not met income projections four of the last five years." A new study indicates that Southern Baptists contribute only 2.03 percent of their earnings to the church. Similar studies put the UCC percentage at 1.67 percent.

In mid-September, the United Methodist Church reduced its 40- member Washington, D.C., staff by one-third, adding to significant staff cuts made earlier this year at the denomination's Nashville, Tenn., offices.

On Sept. 15, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made public a proposal that calls for 41 of its 500 national staff positions to be eliminated this month, as well as disbanding its Commission for Women and Commission for Multicultural Ministries.

The Church of the Brethren's General Board reported a $2.5 million decline in net worth, resulting in sizeable program and staff cuts.

Similarly, the Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, Roman Catholic Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Mennonite Church (USA), among others, have aired financial struggles.

An aggressive new approach

At the Cleveland meeting, many expressed support for a proposal first advanced by Thomas in July at General Synod 24 calling for UCC members to increase overall giving to local churches to $1 billion annually by 2007, the UCC's 50th anniversary—a jump of $140 million annually within four years.

"A Vision Plan for Increasing Stewardship"—a proposal outlining specifics for how to reach the $1 billion goal—served as the summit's conversation-framing document. In short, the plan calls for an aggressive new approach to evangelism and stewardship that builds on the initial success of the UCC's "God is still speaking," identity campaign. It calls for a greatly expanded advertising/ marketing effort to increase UCC name recognition among the general population, while instilling pride and ownership among its members. The heart of the plan is the commissioning of a network of liaisons who will travel the country meeting with UCC pastors and congregations—not in one-shot meetings, but at length and in depth—to "rebuild this great house and make it ready for God's new age," the proposal says.

Although specifics are still pending, the Executive Council committed $100,000 to the effort with hopes that it would leverage additional contributions. Participants also offered spontaneous offerings and pledges totaling $3,000 to support the initiative.

Many affirmed that when UCC members attend national meetings or visit the Church House in Cleveland, or conversely, when Conference and national staff visit local churches and tell about the work of the larger UCC, "then we are able to close that gap and build those relationships that lead to trust," says Ron Buford, the UCC's public relations and marketing manager.

"This is not about the national setting of the church. It's about all settings of the church," Buford says. "People are leaving our churches on Sunday morning with pockets full of money giving it to everyone else, because we're not asking for it. Money really is the language of love. If people say 'I'm sorry, I've got other priorities' then that speaks to the value in the relationship."

"'God is still speaking,' has wings," Buford says. The goal, he says, is to let the church's unique message of radical welcome take flight.

The Rev. Madison Shockley of Los Angeles believes "the hardest thing to do in the world is stand still."

"We've got to make the decision to move forward," Shockley says. "Are we going to stand still and decline, or are we going to trust that this church can get larger, grow and do more?"

The Rev. F. Russell Mittman, Pennsylvania Southeast Conference Minister and chairperson of the Cabinet of Conference Ministers, agrees. "The question is do we want to move in the direction of opportunity or in the direction of erosion?"

The Rev. Nancy Taylor, Massachusetts Conference Minister, says this is a turning point. "This is not only a huge crisis, but a time of huge opportunity," she says. "This church is so important that we've got to find a way—all of us—to bring this church into the future. We're a church that has something special, precious, tremendous."

Voicing caution

The Rev. Bryan Sickbert, executive director of the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries and an Executive Council member, agrees that new approaches should be considered, but not if that means taking additional money from the church's reserve funds. Comparing the church's financial situation to a maxed-out credit card, he says the church must adopt "a pay-as-you-go strategy. We can't keep borrowing from ourselves."

The Rev. Robert A. Lee, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Burlington, Vt., says that spending money to make money, at this difficult financial time, is not the answer. "I confess I was one of the negative voicesÉ. I honestly feel it's the wrong plan at the wrong time," he says.

Thomas says further conversations will take place at a meeting of the Cabinet of Conference Ministers in November and at the annual consultation in February between the Collegium, Conference Ministers and team leaders of national ministries. Hopefully, Thomas says, at a joint meeting of the four Covenanted Ministries' boards of directors, scheduled for April, the church will be ready to make some final decisions.

"We really are eager to put together a bold plan, and in so doing, we need to uncover the disconnects. We agree that we have to share this information in a way that includes a new responsiveness, a new transparency," Thomas says.

Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, asks churches to pray for the denomination. "We need to be as open and honest about all of this and ask our churches to pray for the whole church."

Promising signs

There are signs of hope. In the past two years, more than 80 churches have joined the UCC, and statistics show that the UCC's newest congregations have made a generous commitment to OCWM because they have felt its impact, says the Rev. David Schoen of the UCC's Evangelism Ministry.

The Rev. Doug Borko, Florida Conference Minister, says the UCC is at its best when it resists the "corporate church model" but instead embraces the concept of the UCC as a "movement." Citing encouraging statistics in Florida where 28 ministers are seeking privilege of call in the UCC and five established congregations are talking about joining, he says, "They're not approaching us because we have lots of money to offer. It's because they're drawn to who we are, the movement."

The Rev. Joe Malayang, executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries, concedes that the financial stress has taken its toll, but it should not leave the church in despair. "We have been living with budget realities that run from the serious to the severe and we are living with the emotions of all thisÉ.the pain, the frustration, the sadness," he says. "But we have a vision and we have bought into that vision."

Malayang says the still-speaking God is one who requires action. "The God we know is a God who asks us to do something." Recounting stories of God's leading of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Jesus, Malayang says, "We believe in an acting and active God." Guffey says the tone of the meeting reveals a promising spirit. "I get very depressed when I'm doing nothing, but I get very energized by the possibility of doing something different," she says.

Shockley says the answers to the UCC's money and evangelism problems are one in the same. "We've been afraid to ask," he says.

Buford agrees. "I think people are going to give enthusiastically, but we have been very shy in asking."

What the conference ministers say

"Because god is still speaking and we are still listening, we believe it is imperative that all settings of the church commit to a process of unprecedented collaboration toward the adoption of a bold plan for church-wide renewalÉ.We affirm and accept the challenge issued by the General Minister and President at General Synod 24 to increase total annual church-wide giving to $1 billion by the 50th anniversary of the UCC and understand this to be a profoundly theological and spiritual challenge."

—From a statement adopted by 23 Conference Ministers, meeting in emergency session, to members of the UCC's Executive Council who received the statement with affirmation.

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