By Woody Woodrick
Giving to apportionments by Mississippi United Methodists in 2007 dropped to its lowest level in nine years, according to figures released by the conference treasurer's office.
That means that agencies and ministries included in both the conference and General Church budgets got far less in 2007 than they had been allotted in the budget.
The conference collected 83.85 percent of its budget, the lowest level since 1998 when 83.30 percent was given.
"Over half of the decrease was because of second-mile funds for the Seashore District apportionments in 2006 were not available this year," said David Stotts, conference treasurer.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many churches contributed extra funds to apportionments – fair-share giving among United Methodist churches – to help churches in the Seashore District maintain their 2004 giving levels.
In addition, the conference Council on Finance and Administration did not increase the budget for 2007 because of Katrina. However, at the 2007 Annual Conference, the budget for 2008 was approved with an 11 percent increase. The budget for this year is $20,664,572.
"People did not realize until apportionment allocations were sent out what (the increase) meant for them," Stotts said. "At the 2008 Annual Conference, churches will be given a projected number based on the budget that is approved."
While concerned that the drop could continue this year, Stotts cited two areas of focus that could help improve the conference's giving.
"We've got to better communicate where our apportionments are going and doing ministry," he said. "I call that putting a face on the need."
CF&A is working with the Commission on Communications to develop a "tool kit" of materials for churches to better inform members where their contributions go. The kits are scheduled to be available this spring.
The second step, Stotts said, is doing a better job of teaching stewardship in the local church.
"One of the ways we're seeing this manifested is in the Stewardship Academy being put on by the Mississippi United Methodist Foundation," he said.
The academy invites churches to send representatives to three sessions in March, September and March 2009 for training in a myriad of topics relating to stewardship.
"Stewardship training challenges every church to motivate members so that you never let the collection plate pass you without putting something in, even if it's not you regular tithe," Stotts said.
"When I was a child, I remember my daddy always made sure I had something to put in the collection plate. Children can then develop the habit of never just passing along the plate."
One church where an emphasis on stewardship paid off is Forest Hill UMC in Jackson. The historic south Jackson church paid 100 percent in 2007 for the first time in 10 years.
The Rev. Steve Casteel, pastor at Forest Hill, credited his predecessor the Rev. Vickie Landrum with guiding the church toward 100 percent giving.
Landrum, now an associate pastor at Christ UMC in Jackson, said the key was turning her attitude about apportionments from negative to positive. A member of CF&A, she said a conversation with the Rev. Danny Rowland of Starkville, also a CF&A member, encouraged her to think more about what her church could do instead of what it could not do.
Beginning in spring 2006, the church listed all of the apportioned missions located south of I-20 which had been impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Information was provided about the missions. Each week church members adopted a mission, agreeing to pay that part of the church's apportionments.
Landrum and church leaders such as the late Sid Holly and lay leader Pat Martz developed a plan to put ribbons on boxes that described a mission supported by apportionments. When the amount needed from Forest Hill had been collected, the box was tied with ribbon, placed on the church altar and thanksgiving was offered to God for the opportunity to serve.
After paying approximately 67 percent in 2005, the church improved to better than 80 percent in 2006 and started with a goal of reaching 75 percent and increasing it annually. Members reached 100 percent in 2007.
"They've used a lot of creative ways to raise the money," said Casteel, who was appointed to the church in June. "For example, they have a coffee club that has a jar where people drop in money that goes to apportionments."
Landrum pointed out the goal was reached without sacrificing on-going outreach in the community.
"What we learned is that it's easy to think about what you don't have and not about what you do have," Landrum said. "It did a lot for the self-esteem of that church."
When the church reached 100 percent, a celebration service was held and Stotts was invited to the church to accept the final payment.
Casteel said Landrum shared the church's plan with CF&A and has had an impact on how it presents apportionments.
"If people don't know what they're giving to, it's hard to motivate them, but when they know they will give," Casteel said.
Some figures from the 2007 apportioned budget for the Mississippi Conference.
• Budgeted amount: $18,615,585
• Amount paid: $15,600,486
• Percentage paid: 83.85 percent
• Comparison to 2006: down 3.27 percent
• Churches giving 100 percent of askings: 648 (56.94 percent), down from 671
• District paying highest percentage of apportionments: Starkville, 94.82 percent
• Districts showing increase over 2006 percentage paid: Tupelo (6.21 percent increase to 90.31 percent) and West Jackson (1.51 percent increase to 85.22 percent)
• Districts with all churches paying part of apportionments: East Jackson, New Albany and West Jackson