Sunday is looking like an interesting day.
It’s Sunday morning so we start with worship, of course. At 7:30 a.m. Why the early start? Because one of our rules is that we have to be done by 6:30 each evening. We’ll have an hour or so for lunch. They’re planning for a busy day. And I’m OK with that, let’s get this thing moving.
We have 78 petitions before us, those 78 have passed the initial vetting to “be in harmony” with the purpose of General Conference. No doubt, 78 is a big number. Each of those 78 will be debated, possibly amended, voted, etc. Usually the heavy lifting of voting is done in any of a dozen or so committees. The committees separate the wheat from the chaffe, with those petitions approved in committee making it to the plenary floor. But we have a single committee of the whole to work with, so all 800 of us will work on those 78.
An early bell weather will be who is elected to chair this legislative committee. The conservatives or traditionalists will lift up Dr. Joe Clark, the Bishop’s Assistant and Director of Communications for the Oklahoma Annual Conference. Centrists or progressives are behind Cornelia, “Connie” Clark, a member of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
To make the legislative process more manageable, today we will prioritize those 78 petitions. With our handy dandy electronic keypads we will each rate each of those 78 as high or low priority. The ones with the higher average rating will be considered first and the ones at the bottom we may not even get to.
So a couple things will happen tomorrow. First, we’ll see what we’re really interested in. Those of you who have been following this know that there are three plans in question, each comprised of 15 or more petitions. Each of those will be considered separately, not as a package for each plan. But we should still have a good sense of where we are going. Those of you holding a torch for the Connectional Conference Plan could see it fall way down the list tomorrow.
The second thing we’ll see (or hopefully not see) is the obstruction and political garbage that many are expecting. We have a limited amount of time, so a strategy could be that a petition that calls for all churches to have blue carpeting could be debated with three speeches for and three against. But before we vote some could move an amendment to replace blue with dark blue. That amendment would then be debated and then voted on. But someone else replaces dark blue red and the debate goes on. None of this, of course is because we care what color the carpet is, we just want to make darn sure the stuff on down the list never sees the light of day.
So check out the live streams Sunday morning at 7:30 central. Worship at General Conference really is an amazing thing and it really is worth your while. Then settle in and see where your favorite piece of legislation lands on the priority line.
Should be interesting.
Photo Credit Mike DuBose, UMNS
Because we’re the church, we pray. A lot. We pray before meetings, we pray at the office pot luck and we pray before General Conference. But today was different. An entire day of prayer, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or so. We sang hymns, prayed in languages I did not understand and prayed in styles from around the world. A lot of our pre-meeting prayer is brief, afterall we need to get to the agenda.
But today there was nothing on the agenda but prayer. We consistently heard that what unites as Christians is prayer, the worship, the submission and holy communion.
Folks back home want to know the vibe of the day, which translates to wondering if we’re shouting at each other yet. We didn’t shout today. We held hands. We prayed, we had communion with that gluten free bread that crumbles into the chalice.
The big question, of course, is whether or not this will carry over to tomorrow. It’s easy to be unified in prayer around our mutual dislike of gluten free bread (yes it really is that bad). But the reason we are in St. Louis is because we disagree.
As that disagreement comes front and center, will we lose everything we loved about today?
Give me 24 hours, I’ll let you know.
Photo Credit East Ohio Communications
When General Conference met in Portland about three years ago we worked under the theme, “Therefore Go,” a shortened version, presumably, of The Great Commission, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” from Matthew 28:19, NIV.
That General Conference, of course, voted to table all matters relating to human sexuality to a specially called General Conference that was eventually schedule to begin this weekend. So in a few days in St. Louis we were to consider all of the places in the Discipline that refer to this issue, especially homosexuality and make a holistic, cogent position.
You know by now of the three plans and their various nuances and amendments. I expect that we will discuss all three. I don’t know of many handicappers who are putting odds on any of the three plans passing.
What I believe will be front and center goes back to that 2016 theme, “Therefore Go.”
Perhaps the biggest decision we make in St. Louis is who is allowed to Go and under what terms.
If a church wishes to leave the denomination at what cost will it be possible? Will it need to purchase its land, buildings, hymnals and light fixtures from the Annual Conference? What pension liability is out there for pastors who have served that church in the past and will expect to be able to retire some day. Consider an elder being ordained this summer could be 28 years old, work another 40 years or more before retiring, then live until perhaps age 90. That pastor’s pension liability won’t end for 62 more years, in 2081.
Dale Jones, managing director of church relations at Wespath Benefits and Investments has, along with his top-notch staff, had done yeoman’s work to calculate some of these liabilities. Both the amount of work completed and the financial implications are staggering.
The decisions made in St. Louis around what seems to be minutiae could have a significant impact until nearly the 22nd Century.
Conversation in the last year or so makes it clear that not everyone in The United Methodist Church will Therefore Stay. It will be up to us to decide how a church Therefore Goes, and what it means for all of us.
Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS
Our annual grant cycle has begun and we invite you to apply for Foundation grants and scholarships. Deadline for all is March 1.
If you are a seminary student or know someone who is there are two options available:
The Excellence in Clergy Leadership Scholarship is for students attending a United Methodist seminary. Awards are up to $12,500 and involve funding from a number of sources.
The Firebrand Scholarship is for seminarians who are on track to be ordained as elders by age 35.
Undergraduate students who are active in their local churches can apply for a number of Foundation scholarships. We also have funds specifically earmarked for children of clergy in the Annual Conference.
If your church is launching a new outreach program, such as a feeding ministry, after school program or other program designed specifically to reach your community outside your local church. We do not fund requests for capital improvements that are not mission-related, debt retirement, or operating funds.
My neighbor, Rick, loped up the driveway the other day and after a couple minutes of chit chat he said, “Hey I need to get that edger off of you this afternoon.”
Now I don’t mind lending out my tools. Rick’s earned a reputation for taking care of stuff he borrows and prompt returns, but I was a bit taken aback from his, well, his informing me. I’m sure in his mind he asked to borrow the edger, but he really didn’t. Perhaps by definition a question requires a question mark. I would have appreciated something along the lines of , “Could I borrow your edger?”
For the record, Rick left with my edger, I didn’t mind lending it to him and predictably it was returned quickly. All’s well that ends well.
Some 20 years ago I was in a seminar led by the legendary fund raiser Jerry Panas. He was adamant that every ask needs to be an ask. And an ask has to have a question mark. If there’s no question mark, there’s no ask.
As you plan your fall stewardship work, I encourage you to check for question marks.
Here’s the thing about a question. At least in theory there are two reasonable answers: Yes or no. This terrifies Finance Committees. What if you ask a generous tither to renew her pledge and she says “no?” Then I say there’s a good chance she would have anyway. But if you look at it from her point of view, you’re giving her the courtesy of acknowledging that what she does or doesn’t give is up to her. And the better she feels about giving it, the more likely she is to continue to be generous.
Have you ever been backed into a corner by a pushy salesman? There’s a good chance you have and an even better chance that you never went back there again.
So make the ask, use a question mark and invite, rather than demand, your people provide your church with the financial support it takes to change the world.
You just might be surprised by the response.
Gift annuities have always been attractive for donors. They offer a great win-win, with individuals receiving a guaranteed income for life and their churches benefiting at the end of the donor’s life.
Here at the Foundation we manage about 45 annuities totaling more than $580,000.
Effective July 1, we will increase the payout rate for new annuities. This comes at the recommendation of the American Council on Gift Annuities. Charities with ethical gift annuity programs follow the ACGA rates.
The benefits go beyond attractive payout rates. Most of the income is free from taxes: federal, state and local. Donors get a tax deduction for about 40-60% of the value of the annuity, and the security of knowing the rate is locked in, regardless of what happens with interest rates, the stock market or other investments.
But the key is that an annuity is a great way of supporting the church’s mission in a very simple, straightforward way that is relatively inexpensive to administer. And with the Foundation’s minimum annuity of just $10,000 this can be a great tool for so many of your members.
Below is a sample of gift annuity rates after July 1:
If you haven’t discussed gift annuities or planned giving with your members, this may be just the perfect excuse to do so.
Your members who may be interested gift annuities should start with these resources:
Click here to personalize a gift annuity illustration. Click on “Personalize this diagram.”
In the last week or so, stock markets have seen significant volatility, or change, and it has folks worried. Stocks dropped about 6% early in the week. Does a bad week make Chicken Little correct, maybe people wonder.
The chart above is a great illustration for times such as these. It was provided to me by Wespath Investment Management, our investment partner, based on data from Morningstar, a firm that does research in this area. You can see a full-sized version of the chart here.
The blue bar for each year shows the annual change in the S&P 500, which tracks 500 of the largest domestic stocks. For 2017 it shows an increase of 21.8% and in 2016 an increase of 12%.
But then look at the gold triangle for each year. This compares the largest drawdown, the highest peak to the lowest point, of the S&P 500 during the year. In 2017, the largest decline was just 2.6%, compared to 2016 when the index declined 10.3%.
I think it’s extraordinary that in a year of such significant growth as we saw last year, that the downside volatility was so low, in fact the lowest in 20 years or more.
And when you compare the 6% or so that we saw the market drop this week to previous years, we are well within reasonable ranges. The average for those 22 years is an intra-year decline of 15%. Further, among the years that the Average finished on the positive side the intra-year decline is still more than 11%.
Please do not take this as a promise that the we will not see another drop this year or even that the drop will be significant. These are the realities of investing.
But I am saying to you that volatility is a very natural part of the investment process, one that lulled us to sleep last year only to wake us up with enthusiasm within the last week.
For the year, 2017 was remarkable in the investment markets, with both stocks and bonds performing well.
The Foundation’s investment options as of December 31, 2017 are summarized below:
COMPARISON OF RATES OF RETURN AS OF DECEMBER 31, 2017
|1 year||3 year||5 year||10 year|
If your church is still living off of CDs this may be a great illustration to get a new conversation going. What we offer certainly has risks associated with it and may not be right for every church.
But regular readers of this blog know that I’m not concerned with the amount of money in a fund but rather how effective it is as a tool for ministry. Simply put, a fund that made 21.25% last year provides ministry options that a CD under 1% doesn’t.
I generally recommend a 5% spending policy, which can be calculated a number of ways. But any of our options provide that 5% with plenty of extra growth to absorb periodic losses.
If this is a conversation you’d like to have, contact the Foundation Office to set up a time for us to meet with the leaders of your church.
And now for the fine print:
First, let me acknowledge that this is horrible timing. The last week of Advent is probably the worst time of the year to discuss tax-wise giving, but I strongly encourage you to share the information below with your congregation this week. I don’t suggest re-writing your Christmas Eve sermon to discuss end of the year tax strategies (but if you do, send me a copy; I’d love to read it), but perhaps you can put the following in your bulletin, email it to your members or put it on your church social media page.
Please don’t mess with the technical information, but certainly feel free to adjust the third and fifth paragraphs to discuss the various options for generosity in your particular congregation.
New Tax Laws Provide an Opportunity
New Tax Reform Legislation raises the standard deduction for income taxes beginning in 2018. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the number of taxpayers who will itemize their deductions in 2018 (and thereby get tax savings from charitable gifts) will fall from 40 million under current law to just 9 million under the new legislation.
If you currently itemize, and are financially able to do so, consider giving some or all of next year’s gifts to the church before the end of this year. You can claim your gifts on your 2017 taxes (due April of 2018) and give the church a boost.
This can be done for regular offering, or for special gifts such as for a capital campaign or endowment.
To qualify, the gift must be made by the end of this year, given in worship on or before December 31 or postmarked no later than December 30. The check should be dated in 2017 and indicate on the memo line “2018 offering” or other designation.
When in doubt, reach out to the church office to clarify your intentions.
They say the greater the need the greater response. Right now the need in and around Houston is beyond comprehension and is matched only by the desire for folks to respond. Here are some ways to help:
Pray. Pray for those who are no longer in their homes. Pray for those who are home with no way of getting out. Pray for the police, the firefighters, the National Guard soldiers, the volunteers who are helping. Pray for the government officials who are tasked with prioritizing many urgent options. Really, just pray.
Give. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is a remarkably efficient. Two of the things I love about UMCOR is that all overhead is covered through One Great Hour of Sharing. That means every nickel you designate for Harvey Relief will be spent directly on this cause. The second is that UMCOR stays around. The CNN trucks will be gone from Houston in just a couple of weeks, but UMCOR will have a United Methodist presence for the long term. After Katrina the group was there for seven years, working well beyond most other organizations. Use this link to give directly to UMCOR for Disaster Response in the U.S.
Refill supplies. United Methodists are known for our flood buckets. I had the opportunity to be in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi shortly after Katrina hit. I saw UMCOR at work and I saw flood buckets (now called cleaning kits) being distributed to very grateful residents. Fortunately flood buckets are already on the way to Houston from the UMCOR Sager-Brown Depot in Louisiana. This can be a great time to get your church packing flood buckets to replenish the warehouse in anticipation of the next time they are needed. You’ll find more information about flood buckets here.
Come and help, but not right now. I know there are those of you just itching to strap on your tool belt and start helping to demo then rebuild all the houses you can. That’s a great idea, but this isn’t the time. Save those plans for the first part of 2018, once things are organized and safe. The next few weeks or even months will be far more about caring for people than it will be about fixing homes. The best way to keep up with what is needed is by following the Rio Texas Annual Conference on Facebook.
Train for the future. If you want to be better prepared to lead a group, consider attending Volunteers in Mission (VIM) Team Leader Training September 23 or November 4. You’ll find details on the East Ohio Conference Website.
But there are a couple of things not to do. Don’t send stuff. Donations of things like clothing, stuffed animals, toys or building materials require someone on the other end to receive it, catalog it, store it and distribute it. There may come a time when they ask for things like this, but that will be a while. Even things that are needed, such as bottled water, are better off being purchased through UMCOR and distributed. By the time you buy it and ship it, the effectiveness of your dollar is greatly diminished.
Finally, share this post. UMCOR is a great system but is often over shadowed by organization with better PR functions. Let folks in your circle understand that your church is at work in this area and that anyone can support the cause, no matter what they do on Sunday mornings.
One of the great advantages of our connective denomination is that we have structures and systems in place for folks to help from thousands of miles away. Whatever your abilities, plug in as you are able and help be the hands and feet of God in an area where that help is so desperately needed.