As we prepare for the Annual Session of our Indiana Conference next week, we have some important financial decisions to make. Those decisions are difficult, because they are all about "competing covenants" and whether or not we can keep all of our covenants and commitments we made in the Imagine Indiana process which was adopted in 2008 to launch the Indiana Conference in 2010. Let's review:
- We made a covenant to strengthen our local congregations by "inverting the initiative" and leaving more of the financial resources in the congregations because that is where disciples of Jesus are most often made. We have fulfilled that covenant. We have reduced conference structure (18 districts to 10, two conference offices and one Area office to one conference center in rented facilities, and reduced staff by 35%) so that now local churches are only asked to give a tithe (10%) to support the Conference and another 1% for their district support. This is the smallest percentage asked by any Conference in the country (the average is 17% in other conferences). We have fulfilled our covenant to keep more resources in our local congregations, while at the same time providing more support from the district and conference to help our congregations with ministries like the Fruitful Congregation Journey.
- We made a covenant to pay 100% of our obligation to support the UMC denomination through our general church apportionments. In 2009 the former South and North Conferences barely paid 50% of that obligation. We have not fulfilled our covenant to pay 100% but we have improved all the way to 95% last year. For 2014 our budget projects at least 92% payment, with the policy of paying more if the tithe budget comes in more completely. We have improved our payment to the UMC in part because the general church budget has declined, and now only 2 cents of every dollar given to the local church goes to support our general church, its agencies, missionaries, bishops, schools, etc.
- We made a covenant to bring the pensions of our retired clergy up to the highest level of any of the plans of the former conferences, and we have fulfilled that covenant. Our pension rates for our retired clergy are the highest in history (higher than either the former North or South Conferences), and many pastors retiring this year have reported to me that they will have more spendable income in retirement than they had while serving in active ministry. That is wonderful! It has been expensive, but we can be proud of fulfilling that covenant as the Indiana Conference.
- We made a covenant to help our retired clergy, spouses, and especially widows and surviving spouses to purchase Medicare supplemental insurance. We are struggling with that covenant. The plan was to pay $1 million from the tithe budget (which we are still doing) and to receive about $500,000 from the Retired Ministers Fund in our Foundation. Unfortunately the recession of 2008 and following has reduced the income from the RMF to about $200,000 a year, and the costs of helping with this Medicare supplement have increased as we have had more and more clergy retire and live longer (which is a good thing). To make up the difference in funding, our Conference Board of Pensions has used their reserves, but they report those reserves will be depleted in 2014. They are proposing a reduction in support from $150 to $120 per month for our currently retired pastors, maintaining the full $250 per month for widows and surviving spouses now and in the future, but ending this program of support for clergy who retire after 2013 – based upon the assumption that their improved pensions will allow them to purchase their own Medicare supplement.
In addition to those covenants and commitments, we have promised to continue to support missions, camping and youth ministries, disaster response, and improved scholarships to help our younger clergy – plus many more commitments and covenants I could name.
So we have "competing covenants," and it is not clear if the Indiana Conference can fulfill all of them. That is why we have our Annual Conference Session – to hear the reports and proposals, to consider other amendments and alternatives, to engage in polite discourse, and to discern God's will.
Competing covenants are not easy – but we all face those various covenants in our own lives. I pray that we will not beat each other up, accuse ourselves of "breaking covenants," or look for places to blame. Let's seek God's guidance, the wisdom of the voting members, and let the church decide.