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Webinar Update: "A Courageous Recommendation"
A year ago, the coronavirus was contained in China and was barely a top news item. Fast forward one year, and the pandemic has significantly altered life on planet Earth, and that includes the life of the United Methodist Church.
On Saturday, a webinar was held for U.S. delegates and other designated participants to hear matters regarding options for General Conference, an update on the episcopal fund, and other matters.
The online meeting opened with Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, Western Pennsylvania Conference, who acknowledged anxiety, grief, and fear, but also invited all of us to embrace “the best vaccine we have for anxiety, grief, and fear — the realization that God is with us.”
"I invite you to consider that the diversity of lenses through which information is being presented today might just be a gift from God given to us to aid us in our discernment in such a time as this," she said. "I invite you to listen with an ear for vision, mission, and ministry and what might best position us for the next work God has for God's beloved people called United Methodists."
The first presentation came from Rick King, Chief Financial Officer of General Council on Finance and Administration.
His report began on a very positive note as he shared that apportionment collections in 2020 finished on a record level.
"We collected nearly $39 million in the month of December," he said, "Based upon the records of the last 20 years, this is the highest single month collection we have ever received."
His report was less encouraging, however, as he looked toward the future. More on the report can be found here, but the overall message was one of financial readjustments. King shared that general agencies are budgeting in the coming year at 28% less than their current budget.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Louisiana Conference and President of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop David Graves, Alabama-West Florida Conference, both reported on the episcopal fund and actions of the Council of Bishops. They shared that critical decisions will need to be made.
Fierro Harvey shared that the Council of Bishops had named a task force to look deeply at the episcopal fund's sustainability and that the task force made several recommendations, including that no new bishops be elected in 2021.
Bishop Harvey said, "If we want to reduce the episcopal fund, the most significant way and probably the only place to do so is reducing personnel, reduce the number of bishops," she said," In light of our current financial realities and the expectation that the future would not provide great improvement, we needed to go out on a limb, take a risk and make a courageous recommendation."
Bishop Graves pointed out that the collection rates are what will sustain the number of bishops. According to Graves, global expenditures related to a bishop are $285,000 a year, including salary, pension, travel housing allowance, and office support.
"If the episcopal reserve fund significantly depletes and the collection rates move below 65%, some key decisions will need to be made," he said. "Most likely, the housing and office allowance may need to be reduced or eliminated. One option might be for the annual conferences to cover all of the housing or office allocations. Or to fund salaries in a different way. One of the key indicators says that we should consider the interim step of electing no new bishops in 2021."
Bishop Harvey was quick to point out that the Council of Bishops could not make this decision; only the jurisdiction and its delegates can do so.
She added, "This was not a 'forever decision,' but a 'for now decision' until the dust settles and we have a better sense of which churches may choose to disaffiliate and who will remain. It gives us a little bit of space to make a good strategic decision."
Graves said we are all re-imagining the future of the United Methodist Church, "We have choices that are calling us to move between deep change and slow death. This is not about problem-solving, but about adaptive leadership, which in this moment in time we are called to do."
Louisiana Conference delegate Rev. Katie McKay Simpson, University United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, said the financial picture is not surprising.
"Our reality mirrors so much of the erosion of support of religious institutions and non-profits around the world," she said. "I find this moment in the life of our church is a healthy opportunity to learn or practice acceptance and lean into as much collaboration on creative solutions as possible. It will require us to be more resilient as a body, less reactive in our decision-making. Ultimately, this financial picture offers an unintended gift of forcing us to form greater clarity on the ways our structure reflects our 'why' as The United Methodist Church in our witness for years to come.”
Other presentations included an update on General Conference. Kim Simpson, chair of the Commission on General Conference, shared that there has been no change to the postponed date or location of General Conference. It is still planned for August 29 - September 7 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
While the dates haven't changed, concerns continue to mount, such as concerns over connectivity, various time zone differences, safeguarding the credentialing process's integrity, and COVID vaccinations.
As the webinar drew to a close, delegates were asked to reflect on the most challenging issues facing the church in 2021.
Louisiana delegate Rev. Simon Chigumira, St. Mark United Methodist Church, said, "The most challenging issue for the church is our inability to prioritize the unknown challenges facing the denomination. Whether it's general denominational decline for the past 10 years, a pandemic with a projected three-year impact, pending separation with grace or clergy tenure considerations, naming the challenges and prioritizing them enables meaningful critique and dialogue."
Simpson said the most challenging issue is changing the number of judicatories without clarity on how expectations of those who fill those roles will be right-sized or shifted to meet a new contextual reality.
"The most challenging issue facing the church right now is our church accustomed to living in relative abundance and privilege having to now endure the grief found in multiple realities of loss at once--in denominational separation, adaptations having to be made in our churches, once strong alliances of laity and clergy across ideological lines being pulled farther apart because of our current environment," said Simpson. "These are all seemingly insurmountable challenges on their own. Over these next years, we may make technical decisions to address the concerns we are facing, but the road to acceptance and full adaptation to these changes will take a much longer amount of time. It's one of the hardest things many of us ever have to do - letting go of our past to become fully open to an unknown future."
Afterward, Bishop Harvey said the webinar was a faithful step toward the commitment to help the delegates do their best work. "I believe this webinar will bear much fruit as now all the delegates have all received the most current information available at the same time," she said. "It has always been the hope and prayer of the Council of Bishops that we do all we can to help the delegates do their best work."
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