A UM Missional Future: A Downward Financial Spiral?

Part 5 of 21:

Dr. Weems asks:

Can we escape the approaching “tipping point” of declining income
after over thirty years of aging as a denomination?

The "tipping point" Dr. Weems refers to here is twofold-- the end of a steady influx of funds from people in their fifties and up, caused by death, and the relatively lower level of giving to denominational causes by the younger populations of the denomination.

Unfortunately, the only data from the State of the Church study that Dr Weems can cite here relate to the level of satisfaction with the apportionment system, and these data were not reported by age of the responders. (One supposes such a collation could be derived from cross-tabulations of the original data sets, but such cross-tabs have not appeared in any version of the final reports, nor have he datasets been made publicly available).

So there are problems with answering the question based on the actual data we have.
1) We do not know whether there is actually a difference between older and younger populations regarding whether the apportionment system is effective, and neither do we know based on the data cited if such a difference would show that older people are more satisfied and younger people less satisfied, or vice versa, or to what degree this may be true.

2) The question would seem to presume that the UMC in the future would be trying to organize itself for mission to accomplish about the same things in the same way we currently do-- and therefore require the same or an increased level of financial support over time.

3) The only data that can be cited refer to a single kind of income stream-- apportionment receipts-- and actually only to an opinion about whether that form of a funding stream is effective and efficient, not whether there remains actual interest in continuing it.

With all of these problems in the question as posed, let me pose an alternative question.

What might the financial future look like for a missional UM future?
Of course, in a very real way, there is no accurate way to answer that, either, other than to say something like, "It depends."

So let me put forward some provocative assumptions and see what the financial implications might be.

Scenario A: A Conservative Approach
We keep our current basic structures, including General Agencies, Bishops, Districts, and Conferences. However, like the bishops and DSes, ALL conference and General Agency staff are deployed. There are no more "offices." And unlike the current scenarios, where General Agency staff function under hierarchies of management, the organizational structure for GA staff is now entirely flat, with those serving in staff roles functioning with whatever authority they need to get things done in their area of expertise. The only "control" on their work is financial-- salaries plus expense budgets based on the work they're actually doing (not the previous year's budget, etc). This converts agency staff from "producers of content" controlled by others into "content leaders" responding to the leadership needs in the field, wherever the field may be.

Possible Results:
cost savings in buildings (there wouldn't be any buildings anymore), greater flexibility to work when and where work needs to be done, a bias toward leadership rather than bureaucracy in General Agency and conference staffing.
Fiscal Impact: Could be positive or about break-even, as the costs for travel and the funding of new projects could equal or exceed costs for building maintenance, janitorial, central IT, and other costs.
Missional Impact: Leaders would clearly be SENT into mission fields of all sorts, equipped to lead there-- not SITTING in offices.

Scenario B: A Market-Model
End all centralized funding for General Agencies, and make them compete for the funding they receive based on goods and services they can sell. Survival of the smartest, those who understand and respond the best to what their market-- probably congregations-- are looking to do.

Possible results: Frankly, this is already happening to a large degree. Many General Agencies already receive a relatively small portion of their income from apportioned funds, and of course The United Methodist Publishing House receives no apportionment support at all.
Fiscal Impact: There would be no more need for a General Church apportionment, or at least a substantially reduced one. Financing for this work would devolve entirely to local congregations and individuals. Those who wanted what was being sold would buy it for themselves. Those who didn't wouldn't. Maybe there would be a net dividend from the agencies back to the churches in some way, like the Publishing House that invests its profits in the pension fund.
Missional Impact:
The danger of a consumer driven church this way lies. It's not like we aren't one already in many ways, but this could make it much worse. Or, if we build it with enough quality control-- some core values that keep us missional-- it could make things much better.

It is hard to say if this would result in any actual "freeing up" of missional dollars-- money that could be redirected into forming and sending disciples locally and globally, or perhaps could be pooled to support massive cooperative projects to end hunger or malaria or poverty. We're pretty selfish people and congregations-- we might just spend more to keep ourselves "fat and happy."

Scenario C: A Radical Approach-- Start Over
Stop all current systems that are not absolutely mission critical. We would probably need to keep in place bishops (but not DSes), a pension fund, health care and other such systems, and we would need to assess where current "missionaries" (i.e., those officially deployed by GBGM) were still needed. But everything else could be up for rebuilding on an as needed basis.

The basis for the need? Accomplishing basic unit mission or fundamental global mission. Basic unit mission is what the basic mission unit does-- the accountable small group. What systems would be needed to support that the best way possible in particular places? Build those only as needed-- not to reproduce what the old systems, based on attractional congregations, used to do-- but to support what the basic missional units need. Fundamental global mission would be in the category of things Brian McLaren is talking about in Everything Must Change-- elimination of extreme poverty and the diseases that ravage people who experience it, transformation of social and economic structures that keep people stuck and keep the earth in thrall, but perhaps above all, Christians not just calling for others to do something, but living into these new sustainable patterns of community and life and generous giving that make that possible.
Fiscal Implications: The cost to run the current denominational structures would be all but ended. It could be ended almost entirely if we can endow some of the ongoing bits (health care, retirement and bishops) with funds saved from the former structure costs. However, the costs of the new denominational structures-- if we would actually have these costs as denominational costs-- would be unknown. Basic mission unit support costs could be fairly minimal. Fundamental global mission costs could consume all the rest and more-- but wouldn't be a problem to fund if these are thoroughly supported by the basic mission units, and ideally they would be.
Missional Implications: Huge, at every level. Such a radical restructuring would already indicate and then require a thoroughly missional orientation for everything we do as United Methodists. And our distinctiveness as United Methodists wouldn't be generated from our structures doing branding exercises, but from our people living the way of Jesus in all the missional contexts in which they find themselves-- and doing so cooperatively and generously with others.

Which of these scenarios would you choose? How would you propose we work to get from where we are now to that scenario? And how do you think funding for each one could avoid running into a "death spiral?"

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards