A swarm of earthquakes hitting the region surrounding Yellowstone National Park in the past week has captured the attention of geologists studying the geologically volatile region. But United Methodists in the area are just now learning about a seismic shift of their own that threatens the continued operation of their conference.
“Unprecedented financial challenges have emerged in the last five months radically challenging our short term sustainability,” warned a presentation by the United Methodist Church’s Yellowstone Annual Conference on June 10. “Unfolding in 2017 is a[n] unprecedented level of deficit that could end normal operations of the conference.”
In February, IRD reported that some congregations in the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area – which includes the Yellowstone Annual Conference – were facing decreasing membership and financial contributions following the election, consecration and appointment of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as bishop for the region. Oliveto, who is married to another woman, faces opposition from some United Methodists both within and outside of her Episcopal area.
Methodists in the region launched a “sustenation fund” – later re-styled a “generosity fund” – to compensate for financial “stress” in local congregations, but now problems with local congregation finances have manifested themselves at the conference level.
“We must decide and execute a course of action quickly, to be completed in the next 3-4 months,” the presentation urges.
A Sudden Crisis
While a scarcity of financial resources has afflicted the tiny, declining Yellowstone Annual Conference for some time, the June 10 conference report is phrased in urgent language, describing a grim financial shortfall that has developed only in the past 4-5 months. Reasons cited include “weakened local churches due to death and loss of significant givers” and “reaction to [Oliveto’s] episcopal election” – which conference officials admit was a significant factor, if “only one of many”.
The Yellowstone Annual Conference has faced a loss of income of $30,000 a year from 2014 through 2016, but the presentation reports that in 2017 this loss has grown to $25,000 a month under 2016 income levels in 2017. Forecast income for 2017 is projected to be $935,000, while the forecast deficit is $303,356. At the start of 2017, conference reserves were only $294,000.
“By year’s end most reserves will be depleted with no new income projected to continue conference operations,” the report states. Citing only three levers of control, the report concludes that the conference must decrease spending, increase income (through squeezing more money out of the congregations within the conference,), and delve into the conference’s financial reserve.
Subtracting for denomination-wide “general church” apportionments (the conference is planning to pay $302,095, which would be slightly below average national and its own giving percentage levels for 2016), program and administrative staff ($398,625), office expenses ($62,000), and Cabinet Level Staff ($297,488) only $240,148 remains in the conference budget. Of this amount, all but $51,250 is needed to paying retiree healthcare, but $188,898 is needed for remaining discretionary items – an amount dwarfed by the projected deficit.
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SOURCE: Juicy Ecumenism