Hanging On: Rural churches face financial struggle

By Linda Bloom
United Methodist News Service

First United Methodist Church remains a respected member of the Archer City, Texas, community, but the boom times are over for both the congregation and the town.

Oil revenues and the population, estimated at 1,848 in 2000, have dropped in the past several decades. The county seat now serves as a bedroom community for Wichita Falls, although it draws some tourists who visit the bookstore established by author Larry McMurtry and stroll streets seen in the movie versions of two of his novels, The Last Picture Show and Texasville.

At the church—whose members have included county judges, town officials and Mr. McMurtry’s mother and sister—smaller contributions from seniors on fixed incomes and young families on tight budgets make it increasingly hard to meet financial obligations.

Tasks like repairing church windows, updating the parsonage and even starting new mission programs must go to the back burner.
Jerry Phillips, a mortgage loan officer who moved to Archer City in 1988 and commutes the 25 miles to a job in Wichita Falls, wonders how long First United Methodist can operate under these conditions. “We’re just barely hanging on by our fingernails to get all the expenses met,” he said.

Meeting financial obligations is a consistent struggle for the denomination’s rural churches, according to a 2010 survey by the United Methodist Rural Fellowship.

Many rural congregations are proud of fulfilling 100 percent of their apportionments, the assessments that support general church ministries. But, the survey found, that commitment seems “unduly burdensome” and rural church members are concerned about the formula by which apportionments are calculated and the increasing costs associated with them.

“We all are committed to the connectional system,” Mr. Phillips said. “Our hearts are in that sort of thing. But we can’t seem to get an even chance to keep some of those dollars for local programming.”

Some rural churches are joining in new ministry models to avoid closing their doors.

As a lay representative to North Texas Annual Conference—which met June 5-7 in Dallas and Plano—Mr. Phillips has seen what happens to rural congregations that are no longer sustainable. “Every year, we vote on disbanding a church or two or three,” he said.

In contrast, “most of the growth in our conference is in the metroplex, the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” he added. “They’re committed to building churches there.”

Financial distress

The Rev. Jim Ozier, the conference’s director of new church development and congregational transformation, acknowledges the rural-urban transition “is one of the real places of tension in the denomination.”

Downward demographic trends have made it “tough” for churches in places like Archer City. “We see examples where occasionally a church can just really thrive,” he said, citing one growing small congregation in East Texas, “but those are few and far between.”

At 61, Mr. Phillips is one of the younger members of his Sunday school class. He estimated that of the 75 regulars who attend worship, some of whom are second- and third-generation members, about half are living on Social Security or a teacher’s pension. Many are widows or widowers who raised their families in the church. The church has about 200 members on its rolls.

Among the active members are Jane Toliver, 75, and her husband, Bill, 81, retired school employees, who joined the church in 1967.
The church’s financial future is Jane Toliver’s main concern. “The older people are on a fixed income and the younger people, some of them have been hit by loss of jobs,” she explained. “Then there are divorces—that always hits people financially.”

She is appreciative of efforts by younger church members, particularly the “single moms” who are eager volunteers. “They’re very involved. But they don’t have a lot of money to put into apportionments and the upkeep of the church.”

The congregation generates $100,000 to $125,000 in gifts and offerings each year, Mr. Phillips said, but that only covers required expenditures, such as payroll, utilities and apportionments.

If someone doesn’t fund a new congregational program from his or her own pocket, “it probably doesn’t get done.” 

Sometimes, the offerings aren’t enough for the basics. Last year, Ms. Toliver said, the church was “way behind” on its apportionment commitment. At the last minute, someone donated a car, which the congregation sold, allowing it to meet most of the shortfall.

She believes “different rules” should apply to financial obligations for rural congregations like First Church Archer City than for larger urban churches like First Church Dallas or First Church Wichita Falls.

Still, Ms. Toliver is more optimistic about the church’s fortunes now that a new pastor, the Rev. Beth Kellner, is leading the congregation.
“We’re so open and ready to be led and have some new ideas that we can try,” she said.


Ms. Kellner, who started Feb. 1 at First United Methodist, agrees “there is a lot of concern” about paying the bills, but thinks the congregation can continue to draw on its rich heritage for strength. “We know there are people in the community . . . who need the church,” she said. “A lot of possibilities stand in front of us.”

A vision shaped from those possibilities, she believes, must come from the congregation itself. Ms. Kellner, experienced with small congregations, has met with small groups of members to hear what they want, feel and dream.

“That has been very, very insightful and very eye-opening,” she said. “One of the things we’re all in agreement on is reaching out to our children, our youth and our young adults.”

Her husband, John Drummond, is working as a volunteer to help revitalize the church’s youth program.

Melba Gardner, a long-time member who also serves as a part-time administrative assistant in the church office, is a big advocate for building a strong youth ministry. “They are the future of our church and we really need to work in that area,” she said.

For Ms. Gardner, 75, life at First United Methodist is very much a family affair. She and her late husband, Clyde, joined the church after retiring from their jobs at Southwestern Bell and moving to a lake near Archer City in 1990. Her two sisters, two sons and a daughter-in-law also belong to the congregation.

She is concerned because the congregation can’t afford to hire a youth minister. She would like to see more denominational attention to rural areas and financial assistance for struggling churches.

“A lot of churches wish we could pay for a youth minister for them,” Mr. Ozier said. “But, unfortunately, no conferences I know of have that kind of budget anymore. What we have to do instead is try to train lay people in youth ministry or group churches together.”

‘Harder job’

At present, 67 North Texas churches are part of what the conference calls the “transformation process,” designed to help congregations “either maintain or regain their focus of inviting people to remember what church is all about.” Depending on the congregation’s size, Mr. Ozier said, each church pays $1,000 to $2,000 a year over a three-year period for seminars on various topics, coaching and consultative work.

In addition, the North Texas Conference offers training seminars and summits for churches of all sizes throughout the year and participates in a jurisdiction-wide small church leadership institute. Ms. Kellner, who grew up in a small church on the outskirts of Baltimore, has already been involved in some of this training and plans to attend the small church institute in November.

Still, Mr. Ozier acknowledged, “it’s true that more emphasis is put on starting new churches. That’s because all of our denominational research shows the best way to reach new people is through new churches.”

A church’s history and the dynamics of relationships among members can make revitalization of an existing congregation “a harder job” than a new church start, noted the Rev. Roger Grace, the rural fellowship’s executive director.

“You have to change an entire culture sometimes to revitalize a church,” he said. “That’s a longer task and a hard task. But it needs to be done.”

Significant revitalization does not occur without change within the congregation, Mr. Grace added. “A number of churches aren’t willing to do that and they don’t grow.”

Ms. Kellner believes that Archer City’s welcoming, loving congregation wants to be intentional about making a difference. “There is a sense that God is in this place,” she said. “God does have a plan for us and we’re seeking to discern it and how we can best carry it out.”

2 thoughts on “Hanging On: Rural churches face financial struggle

  1. Wow, It kills me to watch how churches are financial hurting and slowly becoming disabled b/c of apportionments…. and it’s all because apportionments are based upon the number of members as opposed to the number of regular attenders or amount of church income. Thoughts?

    • Actually, in the UMC the apportionment’s are not tied to membership. A congregation’s fair share of apportionment’s are determined by a formula developed at the General Church level. This formula consists of three factors: 1) a church’s net expenses minus current capital debt, apportionment payments and all benevolence giving; 2) a base percentage that is applied to the net expense number; and 3) a percentage adjustment that may be applied in conferences where per capita income creates unusual need. Once the general apportionment figure for an Annual Conference is determined each conference uses a formula to distribute the cost of the General Church support among its local congregations along with the various Conference and District expenses that must be covered .

      In materials prepared by the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) there is an analysis that helps to put apportionments into perspective: Of every $1000 given in a United Methodist congregation $845 stays in the local church. Twenty- two dollars goes to General Apportionments, $124 goes to Jurisdictions, Annual Conferences and Districts, and $9 goes to other General Funds including the United Methodist Women.

      When all of this is taken into consideration, a local church with 25 active members operating on a budget of $30,000 could operate indefinitely if each member contributed $100 per month to the work of the church. It comes down to giving I think. And not enough of it.

      Hope this helps!

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