The Mission and Ministry Board of the Church of the Brethren held spring meetings via Zoom on Friday through Sunday, March 12-14, 2021. Main items of business continued work on the board’s new strategic plan and received year-end financial reporting for 2020.
Patrick Starkey, chair, led meetings from the denomination’s General Offices in Elgin, Ill., where he was joined by chair-elect Carl Fike, general secretary David Steele, and a few staff. The rest of the board joined in via Zoom from across the country.
The sessions on Saturday morning and afternoon and Sunday afternoon were open to the public via a published link. The Executive Committee and other board committees met on Friday, and some closed sessions of the full board were held in the evenings. As always, the meetings opened and closed with worship.
Early work under the board’s new strategic plan is being carried out by several task teams and the Executive Committee. The strategic plan will guide the board and the denominational staff as they shape and reshape the ministries.
The board approved two of four proposals for new “foreground initiatives” presented by the Strategic Planning Committee. New task teams will be assigned to develop “road maps” or “game plans” for the following:
— “On the Road to Jericho (Plan for Defining Neighborhoods),” creating a resource for use by congregations in discovering and defining their “neighborhood” for missional focus; and
— “Each in Our Own Language (Plan for Recognizing Injustice),” creating a curriculum resource to help congregations identify aspects of racial injustice that may be present in their contextual settings.
The Evaluating Systems and Processes Task Team proposed numerous revisions to various documents including the Mission and Ministry Board Member Manual, the bylaws of the Church of the Brethren, the denomination’s Financial Policies and Communication Policy, and the Employee Handbook. Many of the revisions simply bring documents up to date with current nomenclature and practice, while others identify “potential impediments” to the strategic plan. The board adopted Executive Committee recommendations to refer revisions to the General Secretary, staff, or board committees.
The board received pre-audit financial reports including a year-end report for 2020. Treasurer Ed Woolf gave his report in the form of a pre-recorded video and financial documents.
The mostly positive year-end report for 2020 also raised concerns about how the pandemic continues to affect certain ministry areas, and continuing trends seen especially in decreased congregational giving.
Financial reporting covered both the Core Ministries Fund and the Church of the Brethren’s “self-funded” ministries, including the Conference Office, Brethren Press, and Material Resources. Special purpose funds, including the Emergency Disaster Fund (EDF, which supports Brethren Disaster Ministries), the Global Food Initiative Fund (GFIF, which supports the Global Food Initiative), and the Emerging Global Mission Fund were also reported on.
The Core Ministries Fund ended 2020 with a surplus of $127,500, almost $235,000 ahead of the revised budget. Woolf noted that factors leading to the surplus included a mid-year budget revision to take into account pandemic effects on finances, cancellation of staff travel, cancellation of some large events, moving other events online, and decreased use of office space and related utilities as most staff worked from home. This positive outcome allowed $200,000 to be set aside for future budget shortfalls and $50,000 for costs of implementing the new strategic plan. As a result of the significant surplus, a budgeted transfer from reserves was not needed.
Brethren Press received more than $117,000 in donations in 2020 through a special fundraising campaign, in what Woolf called “a show of overwhelming support for the Brethren publishing house.” This generosity made it possible for Brethren Press to end the year with a small deficit of just over $4,600. “Brethren Press sales were drastically impacted by pandemic upheaval in congregations; 2020 gross sales fell by more than $150,000 from the year before,” he said. The staff creatively worked to provide new products to meet the needs of the church during the pandemic, and Woolf noted the growth in devotional sales and the sales of face masks with Brethren messaging.
In 2021, Brethren Press will receive a one-time special distribution of $100,000 from the Gahagen Trust, Woolf announced. This will help the publishing house weather continuing pandemic conditions. The money will pay for Brethren Press expenses related to production of the children’s Christian education curriculum Shine, which is jointly published with MennoMedia. “We are sincerely grateful to the trustees of the Gahagen Trust for distributing these funds,” Woolf said.
The GFI Fund and the EDF experienced decreased donations in 2020. For the EDF, the decrease was especially dramatic because of cancellations of disaster auctions that usually raise more than $500,000 each year. In total, donations to the EDF decreased more than $860,000 from 2019.
Material Resources ended the year with a deficit of almost $122,000, experiencing many difficulties during the pandemic. The ministry had to close warehouse facilities from March through May last year, canceled volunteer groups to prevent COVID-19 spread, and saw a slowdown of activity by partner organizations. The program warehouses and ships disaster relief materials out of the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Md. The program has a negative net asset balance that has steadily increased over the past decade. Woolf reported that staff are working on a new business plan.
The Conference Office ended the year with a deficit of $116,000, after having had to cancel the 2020 Annual Conference because of the pandemic. More than $70,000 in donations helped to offset a loss of income from registrations.
In an analysis of giving, combined giving from congregations and individuals to the Core Ministries Fund finished ahead of the 2020 revised budget. Overall, however, donations from congregations to the total ministries of the denomination fell 20 percent in 2020, as compared to 2019. This continues a trend of decreasing financial support from congregations. The number of congregations that gave to the denomination also continued to decrease. Only 528 of the denomination’s 900 congregations gave financial support to the Core Ministries Fund in 2020.
Total combined giving from individuals and congregations to all denominational ministries also decreased over 2019, mostly due to decreases in restricted giving and bequest income.
However, there was an increase in giving from individuals to the Core Ministries Fund, as compared to 2018 and 2019. Also, the number of people who donated increased. The 1,500-plus number of individual donors to Core Ministries was well above last year’s total.
The net asset balance–the denomination’s total value including all funds and capital assets–grew again this year, continuing a positive trend seen over four of the past five years. The net investment balance grew accordingly, and Woolf reported much of the increase was due to market gains. The denomination’s investments are managed by the Brethren Foundation of Brethren Benefit Trust. The Church of the Brethren’s current net asset value is $42.3 million, which Woolf described as a “very healthy” financial position.
The treasurer also celebrated that the Church of the Brethren was able to provide more than $1,000,000 in grants and special allocations in 2020, aiding congregations, camps, retirement communities, and other church-related organizations that were in need of financial help because of the pandemic. This was accomplished, in large part, with the help of generous donors, he said.
“The key take-away…is that in the midst of talking about declining membership numbers, the Church of the Brethren saw a significant increase in donor participation,” said Woolf. “We are truly humbled by our donors’ generosity, especially in the midst of…this very challenging pandemic season.”
In other business
The board welcomed the new co-executive directors of Global Mission, Ruoxia Li and Eric Miller.
The board approved a recommendation for the Brethren Faith in Action Fund (BFIA) to extend through 2021 the eligibility of Church of the Brethren camps to receive grants, as well as the option for camps and congregations to request a waiver of a matching funds requirement.
Staff reports to the board as well as reports from the Annual Conference moderator, the Council of District Executives, and the Conference agencies–Bethany Theological Seminary, Brethren Benefit Trust, and On Earth Peace–were received as pre‐recorded videos. The board engaged in live question and answer time with those who provided prerecorded reports.
Drew G. I. Hart and LaDonna Sanders Nkosi led a two-hour “Healing Racism” training for the board, also open to the public. Nkosi is director of Intercultural Ministries for the Church of the Brethren. Hart, who is a member of Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren, is assistant professor of theology at Messiah University where he directs the Thriving Together: Congregations for Racial Justice program, and author of Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism and Who Will Be a Witness? Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance.
In a Sunday afternoon closed session, the board received the resignation of member Paul Liepelt, whose term had been extended a year due to the cancelation of the 2020 Annual Conference.
For the video reports and background documents go to www.brethren.org/mmb/meeting-info.
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