By Melissa Lauber and Erik Alsgaard
The COVID-19 pandemic presented several financial challenges for local churches, and each rose to meet them in diverse ways. The Baltimore-Washington Conference Council on Finance and Administration (CFA) is taking this wide variety of responses into account with a proposal to adjust the Mission Share formula that will come before the Annual Conference for vote in October 2021.
Approximately half of BWC churches received Payroll Protection Program grants from the federal government. Some congregations placed church staff on unemployment and others did not. Some churches that rely heavily on building use for income to support their ministries were shuttered during the pandemic. Many churches significantly cut expenses during the past year-and-a-half. Most churches fared well but some did not, explained Paul Eichelberger, the BWC’s chief financial officer.
“It was the CFA’s discernment that the 2020 expense statistics by themselves were an inadequate measure for fairly distributing each church’s share of the 2022 budget, Eichelberger said. “After looking at several options, the CFA corporated a 3-year average into the base calculation to smooth the highly variable distribution that existed between churches, a distribution change that was solely attributed to the disruption caused by the pandemic.”
"This 3-year average was needed because of wide fluctuations in financial support,” said Dave Schoeller, the BWC business analyst.
“We found that the data changes between churches were quite erratic as each BWC church navigated a rather unique stewardship path during the pandemic,” Schoeller said.
In past years, the calculation would have taken the 2020 Mission Share Base and multiplied it by the current Benevolence Factor of 17.55 percent. But CFA has determined this is not a feasible option.
“Instead, to provide an element of stability, the 2022 mission share calculations proposes an average of the reported expenses over the last 3 years (2018 to 2020),” Schoeller said. “This process honors the fact that churches reduced their expenses by an average of 7 percent in 2020. But it also limits the extent to which different church scenarios during the pandemic will influence the distribution of the 2022 mission share goals between churches.”
This proposal has been carefully considered and will be voted on when CFA’s recommendations and the 2022 proposed budget of $18,145,697 come before the Annual Conference Session when it meets Oct. 25-27 in Baltimore, said Phil Potter the chair of CFA.
In compiling the 2022 budget, CFA also suggested that the Benevolence Factor stay at 17.55 percent and that the Collection Rate increase from 87.5 percent to 89 percent.
This increase reflects the generous giving churches demonstrated so far this year. When discussing the Benevolence Factor, CFA members noted that when the overall Collection Rate recovers to the BWC normal, which is greater than 90 percent, future reductions in the Benevolence Factor are likely.
The CFA-approved Mission Share income for 2022 is $13,104,912, a 0.5 percent increase over the 2021 budget. This will be the second year that the budget has been between $13.0-13.1 million after the 9 percent reduction from $14.0-14.3 million in 2019 and 2020.
If it proves to be beneficial to local churches and the connectional life of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, annual conference members may choose to continue the 3-year average calculation in future years, Potter said.
Mission Shares are the lifeblood of The United Methodist Church. Each year, every congregation pays a portion — a percentage — of the funds they spend on themselves to enable life-transforming ministries beyond the local church. In most cases, about 10 to 11 cents of every dollar put in the collection plate or given online go to Mission Shares.
“Because local churches supported Mission Shares in the past, we were able to give relief to churches when this COVID-19 crisis came,” said the Rev. Daryl Williams, vice-chair of the CFA. He noted that in the early days of the pandemic, the BWC relieved financial strain for churches by taking on $2.1 million dollars of pension and benefit payments over the course of three months. Tech grants totaling more than $180,000 were given out to help churches pivot to online worship. The BWC also helped with salary assistance for part-time pastors and the finance staff offered consultation sessions so churches could learn about services and implement them.
In addition, Peace with Justice micro-grants totaling $43,350 empowered 90 churches to assist with COVID-19 related ministries.
The BWC’s finance office, at the start of the pandemic, initiated a program to help churches grow in their online giving capabilities. From May to September 2020, the conference assisted 32 churches to get started with accepting gifts online, according to Kayla Spears, Business Data Administrator. More than $74,000 in tithes and offerings were received by those churches as a result. The conference made the program fee-free for the first 60 days.
Training Tuesdays are another resource that was made possible by Mission Shares. These online webinars began small in 2019 but became must-see viewing in March 2020, when the pandemic hit, said the Rev. Bill Brown, director of New Faith Expressions for the BWC. He and the Rev. Rodney Smothers, Director of Leadership and Congregational Development, have hosted 34 Training Tuesday’s thus far, all of them free. More than 8,400 people have registered for the webinars, and there have been more than 10,000 views.