Methodist Conference in crisis Cuts possible to combat deficit


The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, which has operated with a $2 million deficit two years in a row, faces a financial crisis, and the 740 congregations in its jurisdiction are being asked to make some hard choices.

Many of these local churches are having trouble meeting their own separate budgets. But if they can't come up with the money to rescue the regional bureaucracy, conference-wide ministries long considered vital to the future of Methodism in Maryland will be dropped.

One program already targeted for elimination provides United Methodist chaplains on college and university campuses. In the 1993 budget of $15 million, the sum for campus ministry was about $375,000.

Other major cuts in programs and staff, a halt to publication subsidies and lower-cost medical and pension benefits for active and retired clergy are being considered as the conference struggles to avoid bankruptcy.

The Rev. Frank E. Trotter Jr., pastor of Reisterstown United Methodist Church, is unhappy about ending the college chaplaincies.

"I do believe the conference is correct in its downsizing efforts, but where you cut is a subjective decision," he said. "The place where it is going to hurt is in our connectional ministries -- campus ministries and things like that. This is very sad. We have had a strong presence on college campuses for decades."

The Rev. N. Ellsworth Bunce of Baltimore, who is semiretired, sees the elimination of any programs for youth as particularly threatening to the United Methodist Church's future.

A veteran of many years in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Mr. Bunce said he was disturbed by the cancellation of the Youth Assembly in June for lack of funds. It was to have been held at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

No closing of churches is planned immediately. But, new rules that are part of a proposed reorganization of the conference -- such as a requirement that two or more congregations may no longer share one minister -- could eventually mean some will be merged.

Mr. Bunce thinks that might be a good thing. Too many Methodist churches in close proximity are competing for the same congregations in some communities, he said. He cited North Baltimore's Hampden area, where four churches function within a radius of about six blocks.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference is the central administration for United Methodist churches in most of the Maryland counties west of the Chesapeake Bay, in the District of Columbia and in the panhandle of West Virginia. The conference bishop, Joseph H. Yeakel, recently told the clergy that efforts to obtain a $750,000 loan from a bank were not successful.

'Crisis has arrived'

"At the present, we have not satisfied the requirements of the bank for the line of credit, and this activity may take at least another several months to complete," Bishop Yeakel wrote to the more than 400 active ministers of the conference. "In the meantime, the crisis has arrived."

A proposed $15 million conference budget for 1994, keeping the total of expenditures at the 1993 level while cutting programs and reducing the size of the bureaucracy, is up for adoption Oct. 16. But the proposal is controversial.

For example, cutting the number of district superintendents -- clergy under the bishop who are in charge of geographical areas -- from 10 to nine is far from a satisfactory solution, said the Rev. Emora T. Brannan, pastor of North Baltimore's Grace United Methodist Church.

In the current budget, the superintendents and their staffs receive nearly $1 million.

"Those superintendents are already overworked," Mr. Brannan said.

Earlier reporting

He is one of several Baltimore area ministers who believe the seriousness and extent of the financial problem should have been reported sooner to the congregations.

"Some of us are very concerned that funds continued to be spent and the debt was contracted instead of an emergency session of the conference being called," Mr. Brannan said. "The local churches should have been consulted sooner than they were."

The Rev. Henry C. Thompson III, pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City, made a similar observation.

"They tried to handle it internally -- I don't mean secretly, but within the bureaucracy," he said. "You've got to go to the people directly with a situation as bad as this. Some feel the problem should have been shared with us earlier.

"The financial picture is complicated," Mr. Thompson added. "I am hoping it gets clearer as Oct. 16 approaches."

As of Aug. 31, congregational assessments totaling $193,000 were past due. Unpaid bills of the conference included a $330,000 medical insurance premium, a $75,000 payroll and $110,000 for expenses of the conference's annual meeting held in June at American University in Washington.

Among larger budget items under review are $675,000 for staff salaries, travel, continuing education and other costs of the Council on Ministries; $226,000 for communications; $143,000 for professional counseling for clergy families; nearly $300,000 for the treasurer and his staff, and $194,000 to pay pastors' moving expenses.

Conference funds also cover scholarships, AIDS workshops, alcohol and drug counseling, promotion of ethnic groups, historical research, advocacy related to the status of women and an annual meeting to discuss social issues and legislation. Nearly $600,000 in the 1993 budget goes to the national church to cover seminary costs and $250,000 to 12 predominantly black colleges.

Sluggish economy

In local churches and at the conference headquarters on Greenwich Avenue in Catonsville, most of the blame for the crisis is placed on the sluggish economy. A midyear report from the United Methodist Church's national finance office warned that "significant reductions in vital ministries" across the country would be the result of a continued downward trend in contributions.

Part of the problem is lagging cash flow caused by congregations that delay until the last possible moment the payment of fees and assessments they owe, church administrators say.

Medical premiums and pension bills handled by the Baltimore-Washington Conference must be paid every month, a spokesman explained, and any local congregation in arrears is making it necessary for the conference to subsidize its pastor's benefits with funds intended for other purposes.

A proposal under consideration would cut $1 million from the budget through changes in health care coverage for ministers and other church employees. Almost half of the $15 million total goes to pensions and benefits.

"We are in this struggle together," Bishop Yeakel told the clergy in his Aug. 31 letter, "and CFA [Council on Finance and Administration] and the conference agencies are addressing the immediate needs to reduce spending at the conference level as well as establishing a long-term strategy that will cover the 1992-93 deficits and restore financial stability."

More modest bureaucracy

In a recent interview at the church offices on Greenwich Avenue, in a former nursing home where a conference staff of about 40 works, Bishop Yeakel said that what is already a modest bureaucracy will become even more modest because of the same economic pressures that forced changes at General Motors and IBM.

"We are not lush," the bishop said, adding that the plight of the conference is being discussed openly. "It's all public, nothing is being hidden."

But some ministers feel the fees of a Chicago consulting firm -- the Center for Parish Development, which has been advising the conference for more than four years on the long-term reorganization plan the bishop mentioned in his letter -- contributed to the fiscal emergency. In the current year's budget, "strategic planning" receives about $143,000.

A majority of the 1,700 voting lay and clergy members of the conference, representing the approximately 220,000 United Methodists on church rolls in the region, instructed its officers at the American University meeting in June to halt all funding for the consultants' project, known as Strategic Planning Management, by November.

Reorganization favored

"The conference voted to stop this five-year planning process in its tracks, but a compromise was struck, and we'll be able to see the results of it Oct. 16," Mr. Brannan said. "Whether the guidelines that were set down were implemented remains to be seen." The October session will be held on the campus of Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg.

Mr. Trotter, the Reisterstown pastor, said, "The consultants' fees out of Chicago have been higher than expected, but the exact costs have been hard to pin down. I hear they are approaching $900,000, but that is only a guess."

While it was necessary to stop this funding, Mr. Trotter said, he strongly favors reorganization of the conference generally along the lines indicated by the consultants.

"I support continuation of the planning, using our own personnel," he said. "We need to do it in-house."

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