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Chicago (ELCA)-JB — Because of lower than expected income for the first seven months of the church's fiscal year (Feb. 1 to Aug. 31), overall financial results for the churchwide organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) were "disappointing," said the Rev. Charles S. Miller, executive for administration and executive assistant to the presiding bishop, ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop. Miller made the comment in a financial report to the ELCA Conference of Bishops, which met here Oct. 2-6.
Miller reported on behalf of Christina Jackson-Skelton, ELCA treasurer, who is on maternity leave. The ELCA is organized into 65 synods, each headed by a bishop. The ELCA Conference of Bishops is an advisory body to the church consisting of the church's 65 synod bishops, ELCA presiding bishop and ELCA secretary.
Income from mission support — contributions from congregations through synods — was down $1.6 million and investment income was off $600,000 compared to the same seven- month period in 2002. For the first seven months of this fiscal year, the ELCA churchwide organization spent $4.8 million more in current operating funds than it received, Miller reported.
On the plus side, income from bequests and trusts was up $900,000 and a grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans for mission congregations added $350,000.
"While bequest and trust income was favorable to the prior year, mission support and investment income continue to perform significantly unfavorable to last year," Miller said, quoting from Jackson-Skelton's report. Reductions in income projections and planned spending are needed, he said.
This year units of the churchwide organization agreed to underspend their budgets by $1 million, he said. Because of the present financial situation, Miller said an additional $1.5 million in underspending for this fiscal year is needed. For the next fiscal year beginning Feb. 1, ELCA leaders must plan for a $2.8 million reduction in income, compared to an earlier income projection of $1.8 million less, he said.
The report comes as the church considers a significant reorganization plan for the churchwide organization, which, if enacted, will realign many units and result in a net loss of 22 positions. Declines in income are also a factor in the reorganization proposal. The ELCA Church Council will consider the reorganization proposal when it meets Nov. 13-16 in Charlotte, N.C.
A bright spot in the ELCA's financial situation was contributions to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal, Miller said. For the first seven months of the fiscal year, gifts totaled $6.8 million, including nearly $329,000 in quarters collected at the ELCA Youth Gathering in Atlanta. The total is $400,000 ahead of the 2002 giving for the same period. ELCA Disaster Response income was $1.7 million, the report said.
Following the treasurer's report, the bishops discussed what may be driving the income declines. The Rev. Mark R. Moller-Gunderson, executive director and coordinator for mission support, ELCA Division for Congregational Ministries, began by saying that the church is experiencing "what appears to be an extraordinary erosion" in mission support funds not seen before in the ELCA's 15-year history. Moller-Gunderson met recently with stewardship leaders in other U.S. denominations, and all report similar financial downturns in giving to church judicatories, he said.
Several bishops offered opinions on the income declines. They cited uncertainty and lack of trust in the church, conflict in congregations, concerns about the outcomes of the ELCA Studies on Sexuality, more congregational funds being directed to other ministries outside the ELCA, general organizational mistrust, and a 30- to 40-year downward trend in giving to institutions such as churches.
Some bishops said they are working on the income problem. "We don't have a money problem," said the Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, bishop of the ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod. "We have a relational problem." In response, Bouman said he has scheduled 10 lunch meetings with pastors throughout the synod to talk about stewardship "and to affirm our vision."