INDIANAPOLIS — One of the nation's largest Christian denominations is addressing the nation's financial crisis with what it hopes will be a spiritual teaching moment as well as a cost-saver.
Fifty United Methodist Church bishops in the United States will roll back their salaries by 4 percent next year in what Bishop Gregory Palmer of Springfield, Ill., president of the Council of Bishops, says is a gesture of solidarity with others hurt by the global economic downturn.
The salary cut is one of the strongest statements taken yet by a faith group as U.S. churches respond to a recession that has left growing numbers of people jobless and hungry. Other denominations have eliminated jobs, frozen salaries or canceled mission trips.
United Methodist leaders say the move, approved in May, is an acknowledgment that churches are hurting too and there's less money to go around. But some Methodists said the bishops' action would have been more effective — and might have saved some church jobs — if it had come earlier.
"Some of these things should have been thought about six, eight, nine months ago," said Darcie Chamberlain of Indianapolis, a 49-year-old sales representative who's been out of work since January.
Bishop Michael Coyner of Indianapolis, one of four bishops on the finance council, said he and his fellow bishops know their church is hurting.
Two United Methodist boards have cut more than 90 jobs, and the denomination's publishing house will not distribute payments to retired clergy for the first time in 50 years. Only 17 of the 63 regional U.S. Methodist conferences paid their full share of the denomination-wide expenses last year, down from 23 in 2007.
The bishops' salaries will fall back about $4,700 annually to their 2008 level, $120,942, on Jan. 1 from $125,658 currently. The annual pay, based on a formula, is set by the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration, which voted in May to accept the bishops' recommendation. The money comes out of denomination coffers.
"None of us bishops are going to starve ... but it is a good reminder that many people, many pastors, and many congregations are going through tough times," Coyner said in a note to his Indiana pastors and lay leaders.
Other denominations and faith groups have also made cuts:
- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has cut executive salaries, fired 25 people and ended a weekly radio program.
- The Presbyterian Church (USA) has frozen salaries, furloughed employees for a week and cut department budgets.
- A Southern Baptist Convention board suspended some overseas mission assignments because of lower donations.
- The Episcopal Church's headquarters staff offered to take pay cuts last fall, but the executives who oversee church finances rejected the offer, saying they didn't want to balance the budget on the backs of staff.
- Roman Catholic dioceses have frozen salaries for priests and lay staff, among other austerity moves.
The cuts don't necessarily reflect lower giving by churchgoers. The National Association of Church Business Administration, which has tracked church salaries for more than 30 years, said 46 percent of the congregations it has surveyed this year have frozen or cut salaries, even though 70 percent said they fared as well or better financially in 2008 than in 2007.
The Giving USA Foundation's annual philanthropic survey released in June showed religious groups received $106.89 billion last year, up 5.5 percent from 2007.
The church business group's annual survey of more than 700 congregations shows senior pastors of Methodist congregations will earn an average of about $120,000 this year, compared with $108,000 for all Protestant senior pastors in the survey. For congregations with 1,500 or more members, the average senior pastor pay rises to $141,000.
Phill Martin, deputy chief executive officer of the Richardson, Texas-based National Association of Church Business Administration, attributed the attrition on salaries to "some overreaction of caution" by churches.
He said staff salaries and compensation generally make up a bit more than half of congregations' annual spending.
"Part of it is just the fear and uncertainty over what this economy is going to do," Martin said.
Chamberlain believes some of the cuts could have been avoided if bishops had rolled back their salaries sooner.
"The signs were there," she said.
United Methodist expert William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, acknowledged that the bishops aren't saving the denomination a lot of money. Nor are they asking pastors or other staff to make similar sacrifices.
Rather, he said, they're making a "tremendously important witness."
"It's a strong symbolic message by the bishops, absolutely," Lawrence said.