The Demise of the World’s Greatest Mission Agency
Mark Tooley on Mainline Decay
Just over ten years ago, fresh out of college, I became missions chairman at my small United Methodist congregation in northern Virginia. I was curious about my denomination’s missions outlook, so I ordered a copy of our missions board’s budget and began reading the board’s publications. My distress over what I discovered about United Methodist missions 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, D.C.).
The 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 full-time missionaries serving overseas. But a recent ranking of U.S. churches and missions agencies revealed that 25 other organizations now outrank the Methodist missions board in number of missionaries. These organizations include not only conservative denominations and parachurch groups like the Assemblies of God and Wycliffe Bible Translators, but also even the mainline (and smaller) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The official United Methodist missionary force is now less than one-tenth the size of the Southern Baptist Convention’s, which maintains 3,482 full-time missionaries—while Southern Baptists outnumber United Methodists only 2 to 1. Today, the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries has only 282 full-time U.S. missionaries abroad. Even ten years ago, after I became missions chairman at my local Methodist church, we still had over 400 full-time missionaries abroad.
Why the decline of missions in the United Methodist Church?
Is It the Money?
The problem with Methodist missions isn’t lack of money. With assets of over $400 million and an annual income in 1997 of over $190 million, the board is thriving financially. Indeed, its assets increased $46 million in 1997 alone.
Less than 30 percent of the board’s income comes directly from local church apportionments and special contributions. About 12 percent comes from United Methodist women’s organizations. Last year, over $30 million (or about 17 percent) came from United Nations and U.S. government contracts for relief work conducted in troubled places such as Bosnia or Rwanda. (In 1996 over $50 million came from United Nations and U.S. government sources.) Most of the remainder of the board’s income comes from interest and capital gains from trusts, estates, and bequests.
The board had nearly $258 million in marketable securities at the end of 1997. 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 also 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 the United Nations plaza in New York, which by itself must be worth many times $5 million.
Of the board’s $402 million in assets, only 25 percent are permanently restricted as to 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.
So where does their money go?
Spending Patterns of the Global Board
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. The remaining 30 percent of the budget supports the board’s extensive U.S. operations, including more than 430 full-time staffers—150 more staff than the total number of full-time missionaries!
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.
At least $7 million of the grant money 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.
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 United Nations. 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 of many of the board’s programs.
In its defense, the board has announced plans to spend $52 million of its assets on new missions programs over the next several years. Much of this new “Millennium Fund” will be devoted to relief projects, underwriting pension costs for already existing missionaries, and deploying short-term missionaries for several years. It does not portend any major policy shift by the board.
An Alternative, a Growing Cash Pile
Distress over the board’s spending and its 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 to most United Methodists, few of whom would likely support their official mission agency’s priorities. A poll published in early 1998 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.
Thus 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 churchgoers. The deceased United Methodists whose earnings now underwrite many of the board’s activities cannot be polled. But from their current vantage point, they might regret having subsidized a Christian missions agency no longer focused on the heavenly kingdom, but more often than not on secular alternatives.
Note: All of the budgetary and missions data cited above is drawn from publicly available budget disclosure documents for 1996 and 1997 from the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.
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“The Demise of the World’s Greatest Mission Agency” first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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