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Church Missions Agency Sits on Cash Pile

Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy

The nation's second largest church missions agency is sitting atop a growing pile of cash, thanks to the generosity of deceased church members and the rewards of a bullish market. Unknown to most living church members, the money horde is not underwriting a corresponding increase in missionaries. Instead, it subsidizes the agency's extensive headquarters operations and proclivity for direct political action, while further cushioning it from the beliefs of average church goers.

The issue is important to me personally. Just over ten years ago, when fresh out of college, I became missions chairman at my small United Methodist congregation in northern Virginia. Curious about my denomination's missions outlook, I ordered a copy of our missions board's budget and began reading the board's publications. My distress over what I discovered propelled me into a decade of "renewal" work within United Methodism, a calling to which I am now devoted full-time at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC.

All of the budgetary and missions data I cite below is drawn from publicly available budget disclosure documents for 1996 and 1997 from the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.

The 8.5 million member United Methodist Church was once the nation's, and probably the world's, largest missions dispatching organization. Earlier this century it had nearly 2,700 missionaries serving full-time overseas. In the 1920's, American Methodism was the largest dispatcher of overseas missionaries. Today, the General Board of Global Ministries has only 282 full-time U.S. missionaries abroad. (When I began examining the numbers ten years ago, there were still over 400 full-time missionaries.)

With assets of over $400 million and an annual budget in1997 of over $190 million, the board is thriving financially. Indeed, its assets increased $46 million in 1997 alone. Yet, its missionary force is now less than one tenth the size of the Southern Baptist Convention, which maintains 3,482 full-time missionaries. (Southern Baptists outnumber United Methodists 2 to 1.)

The board spends only about 11 percent of its budget on direct support for missionaries, according to its 1996 budget. About 30 percent goes toward relief projects, most of them admirable. About 28 percent is disbursed in grants to a wide variety of organizations, religious and secular, some of them politically far-left.

At least $7 million of that 28 percent goes to groups with no church affiliation. One example is the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which has legally defended artist Karen Finley's "right" to federal funding for smearing chocolate over her nude body before theater audiences. The remaining 30 percent of the budget supports the board's extensive U.S. operations, including more than 430 full-time staffers.

Less than 30 percent of the board's budget comes directly from local church contributions. Over $30 million comes from United Nations and U.S. government contracts for relief work conducted in troubled places such as Bosnia or Rwanda. The rest is primarily from interest and capital gains from trusts, estates, and bequests. The board had nearly $258 in marketable securities at the end of 1997, a figure that surely has since increased. Most of the remaining $144 million in assets is comprised of cash, mortgage receivables (many staff are granted mortgage loans), and interest in a lumber forest. (The Collins lumber fortune has been especially generous with the board.)

The board acknowledges $5 million in property, a vast understatement, since this figure is based on original purchase prices and their subsequent depreciation rather than real market value. The board owns a large office building on United Nations plaza in New York, which by itself would be worth many times $5 million.

Of the board's $402 million in assets, only 25 percent are permanently restricted in how they may be spent. Almost 40 percent are completely unrestricted, with the remainder temporarily restricted. Most of this largesse is traced back to devout United Methodists who bequeathed their savings to an agency they believed was perpetually devoted to spreading the Gospel.

But for many years the board has been increasingly influenced by political correctness, multiculturalism, faith in the welfare state at home and faith in the United Nations as the primary instrument for global justice.

Recent political initiatives from the board include opposition to welfare reform and capital punishment, defending affirmative action and bilingual education, supporting the Land Mine Ban Treaty, and lobbying for increased U.S. funding to the UN. The board's Women's Division belongs to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which defends the legality of partial-birth abortion.

The board provided a window into its worldview at a "Global Gathering" it convened last year in Kansas City for 4,000 Methodists from around the world. Brazilian Methodist theologian Nancy Pereira, a featured speaker, condemned the traditional understanding of Christ's crucifixion and Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac as sinister biblical stories that have justified capitalism's exploitation of children for profit.

She faulted Western culture, supported by the church, for having "ruined the lives of the world for such a long time." Pereira warned that the free market economy's "system of exclusion" means the "destruction of the welfare state, increasing impoverishment of the population, unemployment and loss of labor rights."

The board's leadership, when later pressed, carefully disavowed Pereira's theology. But she is still featured in resource materials published by the board. Her emphasis on economic liberation, as opposed to personal salvation, is emblematic for many of the board's programs.

In its defense, the board has announced plans to spend down $52 of its assets on new missions programs over the next several years. Much of this new "Millenium Fund" will be devoted to innocuous relief projects, underwriting pensions costs for already existing missionaries and deploying short-term missionaries for several years. It does not portend any major policy shift by the board.

A recent ranking of U.S. churches and missions agencies found the board outranked in numbers of missionaries by 25 other organizations, including not only conservative denominations and parachurch groups like the Assemblies of God and Wycliffe Bible Translators, but even the mainline (and smaller) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Distress over the board's spending and theology among evangelical clergy within United Methodism led to the formation of an alternative Mission Society for United Methodists in 1984. Fourteen years later, the society has a $4 million budget and over 100 full-time, overseas missionaries, thanks to support from 3,400 local United Methodist churches. (The denomination has over 30,000 congregations.)

But the society receives no "official" support, and some bishops refuse to appoint clergy to its postings. These facts are still unknown by most United Methodists, few of whom would likely support their official mission agency's priorities. A poll published in early1998 by Abingdon Press (the United Methodist publishing house) showed that 64 percent of church members call themselves "conservative" with traditional beliefs about their faith. Most belong to small churches struggling to make their required payments to the national church agencies.

The deceased United Methodists whose earnings now underwrite most of the board's activities cannot be polled. But from their current vantage point, they might regret having subsidized a Christian missions agency focused not on the heavenly kingdom, but on often secular alternatives.

Published in November/December 1998 issue of Touchstone

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