June 11, 2015

Grant initiative gives clergy million-dollar boost

By: Connor Murphy

DAYTONA BEACH — Each year since the late 90s, the Florida United Methodist Foundation has provided emergency brick and mortar grants to Florida Conference churches and ministries. This year, that grant-making emphasis is undergoing a major expansion.

During the Foundation’s presentation to the Florida Annual Conference June 11 at Bethune-Cookman University, the Rev. Mark Becker, the Foundation’s president, announced the launch of a new funding initiative that will provide an initial $1 million in grants, disbursed over the next five years, for clergy training and support.

The Rev. Mark Becker, the Foundation’s president, presents a $1 million check for grants to provide resources and support for clergy during the Office of Clergy Excellence report at annual conference. Photo by Tita Parham.

Funding will come from excess Foundation revenue — a strategy adopted in 2005 when the board formalized its emergency grant program — and charitable gifts from donors. Future grants will use the same funding source.

The initiative, Becker said, is a multi-faceted, multi-year program supporting a main theme of the Foundation’s strategic plan — to collaborate for the common good and nurture new ministries.

Its focus is the financial and physical health of conference clergy, but it will also provide resources that help clergy become strong financial-stewardship leaders in their churches.

Reducing The Debt

One of the first priorities, Becker told lay and clergy members during the annual meeting’s afternoon session, is the next generation of clergy, many of whom face significant debt after seminary.

Citing statistics from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Seminary Indebtedness Task Force, Becker said the average debt from undergraduate work and seminary education is $49,303. The median annual compensation for active, full-time provisional elders and deacons with one year or less of service is $49,742, according to the United Methodist General Board of Pension and Health Benefits. That includes a median base salary of $38,000, plus a housing allowance or parsonage amount.

“Coping with the discrepancy between debt and income has obvious financial and emotional ramifications for clergy and their families,” Becker said. “But it can also affect a pastor’s ministry.”

To help alleviate the debt burden, $60,000 in grants will go to ordinands each year, with the conference board of pensions matching the amount. All newly ordained elders and deacons in full connection will receive $5,000 at ordination. Another $5,000 will be awarded at a later time.

This year’s ordinands were the first to benefit from the newly formed program. Each received a check during the morning session of conference before answering the traditional, historic questions all ordinands are asked.

“The goal,” Becker said, “is to help our young clergy be as unencumbered with debt as possible as they start their full-time ministry.”

Ordinands answer in the negative when asked by Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter if they have “debts such that you will embarrass yourself or the church.” This year’s class was the first to receive $5,000 each in grant money from the Foundation. Photo by Tita Parham.

And recognizing the challenges inherent for many students striving to attend seminary, the Foundation will also provide a tuition scholarship to a qualified person of color. Approximately $40,000 will be offered over the course of the student’s seminary education.

“While this does not represent a full tuition scholarship, it is a substantial one and one we hope will foster effective and diverse clergy leadership,” Becker said.

Clergy, Church Health

Debt is just one financial issue clergy must address. Financial stewardship is another. And strong financial stewardship is based on sound personal and congregational financial planning. Yet, clergy have historically received very little training in either.

In response, the Foundation is working with the conference’s Office of Clergy Excellence and other conference agencies to provide a series of financial-stewardship courses available to all clergy. Funding will come from an annual Foundation grant of $60,000.

Topics will include practical tools for personal debt reduction, sound financial practices at home and in the church, church fundraising, investment strategies and others.

Similar training took place March 3-5 with the first Young Clergy Stewardship Academy. Working in partnership with the clergy excellence office, the Foundation held the pilot seminar for younger clergy, with funding from a $50,000 grant from the denomination’s Young Clergy Initiative.

The academy will be offered again, likely in tandem with training developed through the grant initiative’s education component, Becker said. A broad range of topics will be covered so clergy can be better equipped to foster both a culture of generosity and effective stewardship and financial management in the churches they serve.

It’s complicated subject matter, however, and implementing good practices is challenging. Add the spiritual development of a congregation and the myriad responsibilities required of pastors and leading a church can become “overwhelming and emotionally draining,” Becker said.

That’s why the United Methodist Book of Discipline allows clergy to take renewal or sabbatical leave, but few clergy can afford to do so because it’s without compensation. A portion of the grant initiative addresses that concern by providing $40,000 annually for renewal leave grants for experienced clergy.

“We hope this will offer some financial incentive for pastors to take their leave to study and better themselves, while also rejuvenating their spirits,” Becker said.

Partners in Ministry

Beyond clergy support, the Foundation is partnering with other United Methodist agencies to strengthen ministries.

A $25,000 matching grant was awarded this year to Bethune-Cookman University for its Spring Into Service trips abroad.

The opportunities give students the chance to serve alongside professionals in their intended career field, while gaining a broader worldview of other countries and cultures. During recent trips, nursing students served patients in local community clinics in the Bahamas. At the same time, they gained insight into the strengths and challenges of providing health care in that setting.

The Rev. Mark Becker announces the Foundation’s $100,000 grant to Imagine No Malaria, which grew, in part, from the denomination’s participation with NBA Cares, Sports Illustrated and other groups in the Nothing But Nets campaign to eradicate malaria. Photo by Tita Parham.

A second matching grant totaling $100,000 will help Imagine No Malaria Florida meet its $2.5 million goal for the denomination’s malaria campaign.

In 2007, The United Methodist Church joined the National Basketball Association’s NBA Cares, Sports Illustrated and other organizations to launch Nothing But Nets, a United Nations Foundation campaign to provide insecticide-treated bed nets for communities in Africa. United Methodists expanded that commitment to ending death and suffering from malaria in 2008 when it created the Imagine No Malaria campaign, which officially launched in 2010 with a goal of raising $75 million by 2015.

The Foundation’s dollar-for-dollar grant will allow Imagine No Malaria Florida to leverage additional funds from new and committed supporters who are able to make significant gifts.

“Clergy debt and malaria … they’re both issues the Foundation is working with others to eliminate, in part through this comprehensive, and we hope lasting, grant program,” Becker said.

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