Addressing the Financial and Other Headaches of COVID

First, there was the bare bones General Conference budget with $20 million slashed from last year’s spending. And then there was the gratitude. When Ray Wahlen, undertreasurer of the General Conference, completed his presentation of the proposed 2021 budget to the General Conference Executive Committee on October 8, 2020, there was no outcry from the listening Zoom crowd. No complaining or arguing. There was gratitude as treasurer after treasurer from the various world divisions thanked the GC treasury team for their work.

Putting the budget together did have major challenges. In addition to the financial impact of the worldwide COVID-19 shutdowns, the other factors affecting the budget were the first year of tithe parity lowering the amount of tithe money coming from the North American Division to the General Conference, and currency volatility. The World Budget was based on an 11.4% decrease in tithe ($9.9 million), and a 22.8% decrease in world mission offering income ($16.1 million). Despite those decreases, the proposed appropriations to the international divisions in 2021 will only be a 1.9% decrease ($1.3 million). That commitment to the divisions was deeply appreciated, and was a major reason for the gratitude of the treasurers.

Of course, that meant that other areas of the budget will take a bigger hit percentage wise. Operations in Silver Spring, for instance, will see a 15.1% decrease. General Conference Auditing Service Allocation $1.8 million (15.9%), GC Administered Funds for liability insurance, special projects, and contingency allocation $1.2 million (6.0%).

The world has changed, Treasurer Juan Prestol-Puesan told the Executive Committee. He said church organizations anticipate 2020 tithe and mission offerings well below 2019 levels with the negative financial impact on tithe and offerings estimated in the amount of $26 million.

In July of 2020, there was a special meeting of the Executive Committee to address the dire financial situation. Three decisions were made at that time: 1) To maintain as much as possible the level of appropriations to divisions and institutions, 2) to continue with the tithe parity action, and 3) to apply reserves to be able to maintain a balanced budget.

Applying reserves, Wahlen told the committee, is the only way to resolve the difference between a $26 million drop in revenues and only a $20 million cut to the budget — so it could be much worse. The church’s financial officers came to the conclusion that this is “an appropriate middle ground or interim step between the significant reductions that have already been implemented when compared to the additional major cuts to personnel and appropriations that would otherwise be necessary.”

After the financial news was shared, the other headache/problem exacerbated by COVID to be addressed concerned mental health, specifically depression and suicide. Torben Bergland, MD, a psychiatrist and the associate director of the Health Ministries Department, shared statistics on suicide and depression — one suicide every 40 seconds around the world. Youth are particularly effected by depression and thus likely to attempt suicide. The effect of COVID in the United States has been a tripling of anxiety disorders and a four-fold increase in depressive disorders, according to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Leaders from several different departments within the General Conference — Education, Youth, Women’s Ministries, Family Ministries — have come together under the direction of the Health Ministries Department to address the issue with a COVID-19 Mental Health Initiative. Initial focus will be on reaching young people between the ages of 18 and 30, but will later be expanded to other groups. The plan is to create a social media campaign, plus host webinars, interviews, and panel talks online. Bergland encouraged the world leaders to work together to make a difference on this important health issue.

That completed the Executive Committee’s work for the week. The next meeting would be the Sabbath worship service. Then starting on Sunday, October 11, the members will begin the work of going through 100 pages of material regarding changes proposed for the Constitution and Bylaws and Church Manual that must be reviewed before the 2021 GC Session.

 

Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.

Image Credit: Video still.

 

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