Written by J. Bennett Guess
Church leaders: Expenses must be reduced by $2 million by 2005
Because of troubling financial realities, national UCC leaders will act to cut an estimated $2 million from the 2005 budgets of its four covenanted ministries—on top of nearly $3.2 million in cuts that have occurred during the past three years.
That's the difficult news that church leaders received and discussed during the UCC's Annual Consultation—a gathering of the church's Collegium of Officers, Conference Ministers, seminary presidents and national ministry team leaders—held Feb. 19-21 in Cleveland.
"Some things are not going to be done the same way," the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, conceded after lengthy consultation with participants, summarizing the group's sentiments.
Thomas and other members of the five-person Collegium of Officers privately discussed cutback scenarios with the Cabinet of Conference Ministers, but Thomas says specifics will not be finalized for several months.
Ultimately, Collegium members say, decisions will be made with input from Conference Ministers and in keeping with policies set forth by the Covenanted Ministries' boards of directors, which are scheduled to meet in joint session, April 22-25, in Atlanta.
While some of the cost-cutting measures are expected to be implemented this year, Thomas says the bulk of the cuts will be made to impact 2005 budgets. "We can't just keep paring, paring, paring each year. It is absolutely essential that we make the drastic cuts necessary that will take us to that sustainable baseline from which we can start growing again," he says.
The deep cuts are the result of a $1.5 million, one-year decline in gifts to Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM), according to year-end 2003 figures. In addition, income projections for 2004 and 2005 forecast even less revenue, perhaps to the tune of $500,000.
Significant drops in investment income also contribute to the problem. Although the market rebounded somewhat last year, the improvement is not likely to impact the national setting's fiscal health for several years, because budgeting practices call for investment draws to be calculated on a three-year average of market performance.
Thomas says any cost-cutting figures also must factor in certain anticipated cost increases, such as health care premiums, and he notes that national staff members have received only one pay increase since the denomination's wide-sweeping restructure in 2000. "We can't continue to hold staff salaries static," he says.
In a column in the March issue of United Church News, Edith Guffey, the UCC's associate general minister, wrote about the difficult realities, saying, "We cannot continue with business as usual."
Guffey says that we must recognize the significant amount of money that is being provided by UCC members for mission and ministry, but also recognize that it's "significantly less than we have had in years past."
Cuts are nothing new for the UCC's national setting, where cutbacks have been implemented annually since the church first began feeling the financial effects of the post-September 11, 2001, economic downturn. Since that time, about 25 fewer persons are employed at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland.
However, the severity of this newest round appears to be unprecedented. Instead of asking each Covenanted Ministry to base concessions on a prescribed percentage, as in years past, Thomas says decisions will be made this time with the "big picture" in mind.
"The cuts are significant enough that they will affect all of us, so what's new is that, instead of looking at this ministry by ministry, we will be looking at the whole [of the national offices], what is absolutely essential."
Despite the financial concerns—and perhaps because of them—church leaders responded enthusiastically during nearly two full days of conversation and analysis about the UCC's "Still Speaking Initiative" (formerly referred to as the "Catalyst Project"), a longer-term plan to encourage denominational growth and financial health in time for the UCC's 50th anniversary in 2007.
Church leaders agreed, however, that the initiative—which is aimed at strengthening the UCC's identity among the general public, increasing members' pride in membership and stimulating increased giving to local churches and OCWM—will take time to produce tangible results.
A series of UCC television ads began airing in six test markets on March 1 and will continue through Easter, April 11. National roll-out is expected to begin in November, thanks in part to Conferences' financial support for the initiative. In addition to contributions from the four Covenanted Ministries, Conference commitments—either approved or pending—now stand at almost $900,000.
"During tough times, some would expect that we've got to pull back and entrench," Thomas says. "But even as we cut dollars, we're going to invest dollars for long-term renewal. That brings a lot of excitement."
"We're not content to just fade," Thomas says. "There is a willingness to stick our necks out even when we are slogging through some difficult times. If all we were doing was cutting at this point, none of us in leadership would be interested in continuing on."