ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. - Economic woes in the United States are jeopardizing financial support for retired United Methodist pastors in other parts of the world.

Since 2000, the denomination's U.S. annual conferences have donated more than $4 million in earnings from the United Methodist Publishing House to support pensions for retired clergy and surviving spouses in the church's central conferences, especially in Africa.

In the last 50 years, the Publishing House has given $50 million to annual conference pension programs through what is known as the "Cokesbury check," named after the agency's retail division. A total of $1 million is divided annually among the conferences, based on the number of clergy in each conference.

"There is the likely chance that there might not be a Cokesbury check from annual conferences next year," said Neil Alexander, top executive with the Publishing House. "We are looking at evidence that we won't have the funds to allocate."

For the last two years, the publishing agency has drawn from its reserves to pay $1 million to the annual conferences.

Alexander called a recent downturn in sales "dramatic" and said it "indicates lessening of money" among individuals and congregations.

The economic downturn also has affected investments for the Central Conference Pension Initiative, resulting in a $125,000 loss, said Dan O'Neill, managing director for central conference pension at the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits. But he noted that "investing by the pension board tends to be long term, and we believe that the loss will be offset by future earnings."

The "Cokesbury check" has been the primary starter fund for a pension initiative for pastors in Africa, the Philippines and Eastern Europe who often retire after more than 40 years of service without resources to meet daily needs.