European Methodist Bishops Dispute Planned Budget Cuts

Per-Endre Bjørnevik (left), a General Council on Finance and Administration board member from Norway, receives communion from the Rev. Steve Wood, board member from the North Georgia Conference. During the board meeting Nov. 14-15 in Nashville, Tenn., the GCFA board responded to a letter from European bishops objecting to cuts to office expenses. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News.

The four active bishops in Europe have urged The United Methodist Church’s finance agency to reconsider planned cuts to their office support early next year.

The bishops also warned that the reductions could lead them to reassess their areas’ apportionments — requested giving from annual conferences and local churches.

“If you maintain the cuts, we will need to revisit what we submitted to you in June as expenses and apportionment income for 2020,” the bishops said in a letter to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The letter’s signers were Bishops Christian Alsted of the Nordic-Baltic Area, Eduard Khegay of Eurasia, Harald Rückert of Germany and Patrick Streiff of Central and Southern Europe.

Nevertheless, the agency’s board at its Nov. 14-15 meeting pressed ahead with an earlier decision to reduce office grants for all 66 active bishops by 50% during the first quarter of 2020.

The GCFA board members also responded with their own letter to the European bishops explaining the reasons for the cut and suggesting how the bishops might make up the shortfall.

“Any further funding necessary may be provided by the annual conferences in the episcopal area,” the board’s letter said. “This is a common practice in many of the (U.S.) jurisdictional episcopal areas.”

At heart, the dispute between the bishops and board is about how best to handle the denomination’s increasing financial strains.

Since this summer, the finance agency has been grappling with the problem that if current trends persist, the Episcopal Fund that supports the denomination’s bishops will run out of money by the end of 2024.

The Episcopal Fund has long faced financial stress and has been drawing on reserves in 2019.

Exacerbating the problem is a drop in apportionments since February’s special General Conference, which by a vote of 438-384 strengthened restrictions related to LGBTQ individuals.

Faced with rapidly depleting funds, the GCFA board made three decisions in July to mitigate the situation. The board voted to keep bishops’ salaries flat in 2020, to reduce their 2020 housing grants to the 2016 level and to reduce their office grants by 50 percent for the first quarter of 2020.

Bishops’ salaries vary by region, with U.S. bishops at the high end. In 2019, U.S. bishops each make $162,345. In Africa and the Philippines, the bishops each have a salary of $79,788. The European bishops’ salaries range from $61,824 in Germany to $127,491 in Central and Southern Europe, where the bishop’s office is based in Switzerland.

But it was the office expense cutback — not the hold on salaries — that alarmed European bishops. The office grants largely pay for the salaries and benefits of support staff as well as other office expenses.

“Our episcopal offices work in legal settings that are very different from the U.S.,” the bishops’ letter said. “Perhaps it may be possible in the U.S. to cut salaries of employees at short notice or even fire employees at short notice. In most European countries, this is not possible… .”

The bishops had another concern: That their areas’ faithfulness in paying more than the requested apportionments was going unrecognized.

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Source: United Methodist News