e-letter 2/1/19

Usually, we try to reserve this space for inspirational messages that specifically pertain to our current message series and particularly the theme for our upcoming Sunday worship. But today, I’m feeling the need to share some information and address another issue that is critical to our life together as a church: finances. As I share this, know that I feel caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, I know that no one wants to listen (or read) as the pastor talks about money. Yet at the same time, I know that folks talk about church finances with one another, around the edges of our life together, all the time. So, hopefully, this will be helpful.

First, as you have noticed in the bulletin, we ended the year 2018 with a deficit of $63,000 after paying all our bills, including 100% of our apportionments.  There is both good news and bad news in that figure. First, it is good news because in the third week of December, we figured we needed roughly $165,000 to end the year without a deficit. This was a scary place to be, even knowing that we do keep a healthy amount of money in reserves for just such an occurrence.


So, the good news is that we made up a great deal of ground in those last weeks. But the bad news is that we used some of our reserves to pay the apportionments and still had this deficit. Obviously, that is not a trend we can afford to continue.


Another amazing piece of good news is that on December 31, we received a check from a totally unrestricted bequest that was left to Suntree UMC by a faithful member who had passed away earlier in the year. Per action of the Church Council in October 2014, the bequest, was directed to the Endowment Committee for a decision regarding its use. After meeting to discuss the gift, the Endowment Committee voted to recommend that approximately half of the gift be retained by the Endowment Committee for investment in our endowment funds and to recommend to the Church Council that we temporarily suspend the 2014 resolution that all bequests automatically go to the Endowment Committee for investment. The Endowment Committee also voted to give back a portion of the bequest, (just under half), to the Church Council for use in funding the current ministry of the church. Again, this bequest was not designated for the Endowment Committee but was simply left to Suntree UMC with no restrictions on its usage.


Last Tuesday evening the Church Council met and voted to temporarily suspend the October 2014 decision of the Council and to receive a portion of the bequest amounting to $112,500. The Council also voted to use this gift to replenish our reserves from the 2018 short fall, including using $20,000 to replenish Trustees reserves, and to put the rest of the gift into our reserves, an increase of close to $30,000. To be clear, when I say reserves, it means the same as savings. These are the funds we save to cover emergencies and possible shortfalls in any given year.


As you read this, I hope you are saying prayers of thanks to God for the miraculous ways that God provides. This was a truly unexpected gift of grace. I hope you are also saying thank you God for the faithful, committed follower of Jesus and member of Suntree UMC who took seriously the call of God to be a good steward of God’s gifts and to use them for the God’s Kingdom work in the world through God’s church. This is indeed the kind of faithful, incredible generosity, that keeps the mission of Christ alive in this place, and we are grateful for this gift alongside of every gift we receive. Also, by splitting it this gift between our current needs and the endowment fund, it will continue to do God’s work in this place for years to come. Thanks be to God!


That is all incredibly good news. But there is obviously, a larger concern underneath all this. Despite careful spending and even underspending our 2018 budget goal, without this gift, we still had a shortfall. We know we cannot count on special gifts to fund the ongoing operating needs of the church. So, in response the 2018 shortfall, the Church Council also adopted a spending plan for 2019 that reduced our budget goal by $52,329 from our 2018 spending plan. Unfortunately, our budget is at the point where there is no way we can make those kinds of cuts without affecting people, positions and ministry. We have tried to make these adjustments in ways that affect as little ministry and as few people as possible but affecting even one person makes this incredibly difficult. This is a hard reality with which we all need to struggle and shoulder responsibility.    

While we have reduced the budget, the fact remains that we still won’t be able to fund it if our giving in 2019 does not increase. Last year, we received $1,544,132 in income. This year we need $1,637,662 to fully fund our budget. If we don’t receive that income, we will have to make further cuts. And I need to be clear that further cuts will have a tremendous impact on people and ministry. We have a vision plan for expanded ministry to reach more people with the message of the gospel. It involves doing more in every area of ministry. However, we cannot ask fewer people to continue to do more and more. It takes staff to engage and equip volunteer servants for ministry. Cutting more means saying “no” to some of our hopes and dreams for new mission and ministry in the future as well as saying “goodbye” to some current ministries and programs. What would we have to stop? How many folks might walk away from Suntree UMC because we are no longer able to provide the ministry that blesses and encourages them? These are the realities that we will face if we don’t address the income side of the equation.

Your Finance Committee is having some difficult and prayerful conversations about all of this. They are looking at ways to help folks better understand the nature of how our church finances work. We have attempted to do that in recent years through increased communication during our stewardship campaign about our budget, including our stewardship newsletter and our celebration dinner, which provides time for questions about our budget and finances.


But the bottom line is that our members and attenders are the sole source of the income on which we rely. Someone on the Finance Committee recently said that he fears some folks think that church is “free”. I was shocked by that statement at first. But then he explained what he meant, and I’ve realized that it may indeed be part of the problem. It may be that because we don’t “charge” people to attend church, people may assume that it costs nothing for them to attend. Folks may think they can come to worship, take a bulletin, sit in the air conditioned Sanctuary or Worship Center, use the clean restrooms, listen to the music from the organ or the choir or the praise band, be led in prayer, receive a message, eat a donut or drink coffee on the way out, go to a Sunday School class, and whatever else they may participate in, receive a hospital or home visit or flowers when they are sick, have their kids attend student and children’s ministry, take their kids to the nursery, (and obviously I could go on but I know this is long) and think it’s all somehow free! But it is not free. There is a cost for all of it. And the only way to fund all of it is through our faithful, committed and yes, even sacrificial giving. This is our response to the extravagant gift of God’s grace in our lives and to all that we receive by being a part of this body of Christ. We offer all of this freely to bless and care for our church family and our community. But there is a financial cost, and we all need to share the responsibility of giving whatever we can to make it possible.


So yes, this is long. And it is a difficult subject. But we can’t afford (pun intended) to not be clear about all of this. Suntree UMC is an amazing church filled with wonderful, generous, faithful servants of Christ who are making a difference in this community and beyond. Last month we had 24 people at our newcomer lunch. I wish you could have all heard the wonderful things folks expressed about this church. It was amazing. But I was not surprised because this is an amazing church and people are truly being blessed and transformed because or our ministry and life together.

So, I ask for you to do this:
  1. Ask God to help you search your soul to see if you are seriously doing all you can to support the work of ministry in this place. Some folks are limited in what they can give. Perhaps you can give a little more in order to enable us to extend ministry to those who can’t give more. But we all need to do our part.
  2. If you haven’t turned in a commitment card, please do so. They are available in the back of the Sanctuary and Worship Center each Sunday. It really helps in our planning when we have some idea of what you plan to give this year.
  3. Give – faithfully, joyfully, generously, regularly to the work of God in this place.
  4. Pray some more, thanking God for God’s faithfulness in providing for our needs in 2018. Thank God for this faithful servant of Christ who left this amazing gift that will bless future generations. Ask God to lead us in navigating this challenge in 2019.

God is good all the time! We have seen that goodness again and again. And God will surely find a way to provide for this incredible ministry in 2019. I do believe that. But no one wants to live with the stress of wondering week after week how we are going to make it. God provides through people and needs us to do our part, to share the responsibility for mission and ministry in this place. All that we need is already here. It’s up to us to share those gifts so that God’s will can be done in this place. Thanks be to God for God’s indescribable gifts!

Grace and Peace,