UMC Apportionments: A Moral Dilemma

The concept of covenant in the UMC has degraded to the concept of contract law. Instead of putting things in writing so we can remember what we agreed to (because we want to keep our word) we tend to treat any agreement as a contract where we can find loopholes. Our instruments of governance were designed for a covenant people. We were totally unprepared for clergy, boards, and bishops who approach the relationship with the attitude, “You can’t make me!” Our church order was designed for a people who keep their word. Membership is voluntary after full understanding of our guiding principles. It was never designed to grab people off the street and “make” them do anything. Now, we find ourselves in General Conference having to write laws instead of reaching agreements.
This has led to the moral and functional collapse of our instruments of governance. Until restructuring and repair is done, it leaves local churches and their members in various moral dilemmas. Among them is, “What is a Christian in the UMC to do with their tithes and offerings?” Especially in a church where order is broken, “accountability” has become a dirty word,  and even financial accountability is in doubt.
One should be confident that when a church solicits funds for a particular purpose then those funds are expended for that purpose and that accountability procedures are in place to verify compliance. The United Methodist Church has a Ministerial Education Fund (MEF) which was created to assist in the education of clergy and qualified candidates for clergy. The General Conference established the fund, set criteria for candidates for ministry, and established a vetting process for determining who is qualified and who is disqualified for candidacy and receipt of MEF dollars.
At least nine Annual Conferences have declared that they are ignoring the criteria established by the General conference and are not using the required vetting process. Based on the results of their work product, it appears that other Annual Conferences are doing the same though without the public statement. Those charged with distributing the MEF are doing so with the full knowledge that many recipients are specifically disqualified and that many others were never vetted in accordance with the process outlined by the General Conference. I don’t know what the lawyers would say, but that sure sounds like misappropriation of funds to me.
The UMC has a General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). “The prime responsibility of the board is to seek the implementation of the Social Principles and other policy statements of the General Conference on Christian social concerns.” (par. 1004 BOD 2016). There are numerous examples that give cause for a reasonable person to believe that GBCS has not only neglected implementation of certain policy statements of the General Conference but has actively worked in opposition to them. However, the one instance most relevant to consider here is the treatment of funds received in a Declaration of Trust.
One thing that every local church treasurer or trustee knows is that any trust funds may be used only for the express purposes for which they are designated and no other. When GBCS was founded it received an endowment from the predecessor churches that was restricted to temperance ministry and alcohol problems. By 2010 GBCS was engaged in many activities that local churches would not adequately support through voluntary contributions, but they had a large trust fund restricted to purposes for which the leadership had no interest in pursuing. Their solution was to go to court and break the trust so they could use the funds entirely at their own discretion. Over the objections of other United Methodist organizations who opposed them in court–they were successful. It was done through the courts. It is lawful. It is not church. It lacks moral credibility.
Through this precedent no donor to a United Methodist endowment, trust, or designated fund has any real assurance that the funds will be expended for the intended purpose. If the leadership of that organization at any given time decides to spend it differently, and if they can find a legal way to do so, then they will.
The fact that the above two blatant examples of how the UMC treats collection plate money are accepted so casually by our denominational leadership gives one reason to doubt the integrity of all General Church funds. The UMC is in a state of flux. It is neither a church with a covenant for people who desire to keep their word, nor is it an organization with laws to regulate the conduct of its clergy and institutions. Until it becomes one or the other then each local church and member must decide how to resolve these moral dilemmas on their own. For me, it means taking a sabbatical from the UMC to visit among our kindred churches–and not placing a dollar in a UMC collection plate.

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