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 Summer 2011

Vol. 19, No. 3

 

 Striving for Congregational Self-Sufficiency in Eurasia: A United Methodist Case Study

Hans Växby

Earn, Save, Give All You Can

The story goes that a certain man listened with great interest to John Wesley’s classic sermon on “The Use of Money” (Standard Sermon 50). Wesley began by saying that nothing is wrong with making money. On the contrary, Christians have a “bounden duty” to be industrious, to work hard, and to gain all they can. The man agreed with Wesley and was enjoying the sermon. Next, Wesley went on to say that Christians should be very careful in spending money. He recommended simple living without luxury and expensive habits. The man listened with enthusiasm and agreed that Christians should save all they can.

Then, however, Wesley explained the purpose of earning and saving. “Let not any man imagine that he has done anything, barely by going thus far, by gaining and saving all he can….Nor, indeed, can a man properly be said to save anything, if he only lays it up. You may as well throw your money into the sea as bury it in the earth.” Now the man became uneasy. This was not what he expected from a sermon that started so well. Wesley argued for a very purposeful use of money and encouraged Christians to “add the third rule to the two preceding. Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.” By then the man was no longer satisfied and considered leaving the church.

Jesus tried to teach people the meaning of the paradox, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We easily think the other way around. We are happy when somebody gives us something and believe that we are losing something when we have to give it away. Jesus gives us the spiritual logic about our belongings, “Give, and it will be given to you….for with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).

“You get [it] back,” Jesus said. Tithes and offerings are investments in the Kingdom of God, and the return is good! Pastors and church members, all those who sacrifice their time, skills, and money in our church have experienced this truth. They have been blessed—both in their personal lives and in the ministry of the church. So it is today, and so it will be tomorrow. (The phrase “tithes and offerings” derives from Malachi 3:8-12. According to Scripture the tithe is ten percent of earnings [Numbers 18:26] and offerings are all other contributions.)

Western Support Versus Striving for Self-Sufficiency

In 2009 our local United Methodist churches received $738,809 from our partner churches abroad (in addition to support of special projects and construction). In 2010 the figure was $1,042,050. During the first two months of 2011 we received $173,675, mainly for local churches. Thus, the blessings have not ceased. It is also a great privilege for us to do our own giving and to know that we are not losing anything when we give to the Lord.

Still, our situation today is not easy. Practically the whole world experienced a severe financial recession in 2009, and, in addition, in Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia prices on everything have continued to increase. The average United Methodist in Eurasia is not rich, and if we would give only what is left over, not much would come in through tithes and offerings. Even so, our people continue to fight the good fight, both spiritually and financially.

Financial self-sufficiency was introduced in 2007 as one of the five areas in which all United Methodist groups and congregations in Eurasia were expected to grow. (The other four areas are attendance in worship, increased lay leadership, service to neighbors, and progress towards annual local church goals.) The concept of self-sufficiency has been widely accepted, some brave steps have been taken, and encouraging results can be reported.

Survey Findings

How are United Methodist churches in Eurasia actually doing in moving toward self-sufficiency? With answers from a third of our congregations we learned that:

• 40 percent of our churches receive more than 80 percent of their income from abroad;

• 30 percent receive 60-80 percent of their income from abroad;

• 10 percent receive 15-60 percent of their income from abroad;

• 5 percent receive less than 15 percent of their income from abroad;

• 15 percent receive no support at all from abroad.

When congregations were asked when they expected to be self-sufficient, answers ranged from “never” to ten years to five years to two years. Six of 116 reporting United Methodist chartered congregations and house churches are today self-sufficient, in most cases for lack of partnering churches abroad.

According to the opinion of the majority of United Methodist pastors, the main means for reaching self-sufficiency will be increased tithes and offerings. From their experience and understanding of the situation, they gave the following advice for increasing tithes and offerings:

 

To achieve self-sufficiency, administrative and economic measures are also important. It is necessary to:

  • have a plan for transition to self-sufficiency;•
  • practice financial transparency;•
  • teach the church board about budget planning and • church savings;
  • have the budget as a standing item on the agenda of • the church board;
  • organize training workshops for local church finances;•
  • lease church premises; and•
  • address congregational financial issues at an early • stage.

What Is Really Meant by Self-Sufficiency?

Church self-sufficiency is a broad concept, and clarity is needed about what is really meant by the phrase. Two basic principles need to be kept together.

Each United Methodist church of whatever form and size should be able to sustain itself through tithes and offerings when it comes to: support of its pastor or other leader; basic operating costs (rent, utilities, etc.); and basic program costs including a minimum of one weekly worship service, one ongoing evangelism program, and one ongoing social program.

1. The size of a church and its level of tithes and offerings directly determine the size of the budget. (A budget details income as well as expenses because it is not enough to list projected costs for ministry in the coming year. In addition, a strategic plan must include development of financial capacity, which is then reflected in the budget.) In the beginning, a church cannot afford to pay any salary to its pastor, or it may not even have an appointed pastor yet. However, as it grows in faith and commitment, it will also grow in worship attendance and in the number of people tithing. Then it can start to pay a pastor, at first part-time, and later full-time. Each church needs to determine to what extent it can pay a pastor or other leader—part-time, half-time, or full-time. This understanding needs to be formulated in a written agreement between the church and its pastor or leader. A house church meets with minimal costs, but when it grows, it can afford to rent and perhaps eventually build or buy a building If every member is tithing, offerings are as generous as could be expected, and the church still cannot cover its expenses, then probably nothing is wrong with the giving. Rather, the problem may be the level of expenses. It is not realistic to expect that ten members can finance both a full-time pastor’s salary and leasing and maintaining a building. Thus, we come to the second principle.

2. Every United Methodist church can apply for defined-term financial support from global Methodism for:

the creation of new faith communities with new • people;

education on the local, district, annual conference, and • area levels;

special outreach;•

camps;•

start-up support; and•

special growth and development support (for example, • salary support to allow a pastor more time to equip parishioners for outreach).

It is important to note that support from the wider, global church is meant for development, outreach, and growth, not for basic costs that every church should underwrite. A church that is too small to cover its basic expenses and that has no sense of direction in terms of plans, efforts, or fruits, cannot expect global church support. Such churches have to make cuts in their budgets. Global church support cannot be given simply to secure the status quo.

From Dependency to Interdependency

Today, most United Methodist churches in Eurasia are to a high degree dependent on support from their overseas partner churches. This is not a sound state for churches with the ambition to be indigenous and to earn the respect of the society they serve. Our goal, however, is not to become independent. We want to remain in mission together with one another and with our partners abroad—in a broad sense, interdependent in Christ. Our common vision is to be self-sufficient on the local level. A timetable is always locally defined and unique, but in each case it has to be planned and clear. Hopes and wishes are not enough; each local church should be taking considered steps in faith.

Here is some step-by-step advice, some of which stems from our self-sufficiency survey.

In examining the church’s financial situation • and planning for the future, first refer to the congregation’s mission statement and its meaning. If the church does not have one, in preparing one, answer the three questions every church needs to ask itself: Why do people need Jesus? Why do people need the church? Why do people need our church?

Financial matters and spiritual goals always go • together. If we try to divide them, both become weak. If our faith grows deeper, our finances grow stronger.

Re-examine expenses. How much money do we • need to do what we believe God has called our church to accomplish?

Re-examine income. What can we do to increase • tithes and offerings? Does our church have other possible sources of income?

After re-examining expenses and income, if a gap • still exists between the two, do we have any growth plans or projects for which we can justifiably request help from abroad?

Determine our degree of self-sufficiency in • basic ministry by answering these questions:

How can we increase income?-

Do we need to reduce expenses? -

Do we need to make fundamental changes - in the way we work and the way we are organized?

Can we increase our volunteer leadership?-

Do we need to consider cooperation with - another church in order to afford a full-time pastor?

In Summary

Several facts are clear.

United Methodists in Eurasia have abundant 1. direction from Scripture and from the preaching of our church’s founder, John Wesley, to give generously for the support of local churches. In addition, for genuine believers, giving will be understood as a privilege and a blessing, rather than as a burden.

United Methodists in Eurasia are seriously 2. addressing the goal of local church self-sufficiency

On the one hand, it is vital that local congregations make concrete plans to move towards financial independence in their operating budgets. On the other hand, while most of our churches have not yet reached the goal of self-sufficiency, they are consciously working toward that end and have, in most cases, moved further towards financial independence than the average Protestant seminary in the former Soviet Union (Mark R. Elliott, “The Current Crisis in Protestant Theological Education in the Former Soviet Union,” Religion in Eastern Europe 30 [November 2010], 6).

Finally, United Methodists in Eurasia are blessed 3. to have substantial prayer and financial assistance from global Methodism. However, this help must be understood not as a permanent subsidy but as a resource to assist local congregations in the short term to get on their feet and to further church growth across Eurasia.F

Hans Växby is bishop of the United Methodist Church of Eurasia, Moscow.