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Church Chat: New Year, new budget - Lemon on spending $150 million during recession

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Treasurer discusses big-ticket items and increasing support from the developing world

January 04, 2010 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Ansel Oliver/ANN

By approving a US$151.3-million budget for this year, Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders are continuing a worldwide emphasis on mission.

This year the church will spend about $124 million on appropriations for world outreach and supporting missionaries.

For every dollar of tithe, about 2 percent goes to the church's world headquarters. That's a budgeted $36 million, but finance officers say headquarters in recent years has operated as much as $6 million below its cap, allowing the additional funds to be used in the field.

Other big expenditures include items such as $5.5 million for Adventist World magazine and $3.7 for funding Hope Channel operations. Smaller budgeted items include $200,000 for the Mission Quarterly and $20,000 in annual maintenance to preserve the Northern California home of church co-founder Ellen White. (for a complete 2010 budget, contact the ANN editor)

The world church's Treasurer Robert Lemon yesterday sat down with ANN for an interview regarding the church's finances. He discussed major budget items and the increasing support from the developing world. Excerpts from the interview follow:

Adventist News Network: Every five years the church holds a World Session. How much will the church spend on this summer's World Session in Atlanta?

Robert Lemon: The world headquarters' cost directly for the Session is a little over $6 million. The total church cost is approximately twice that when you count all the travel and hotel expenses and expenses for delegates coming from all around the world, which I would estimate is about $12 million total.

ANN: Is it still worth having Session during a recession?

Lemon: If we were able to decide yes or no on something on short notice it might be possible to look at a different scenario. But Session location, hotels and arrangements are reserved 10 years in advance and confirmed five years ahead. You can't just pull the plug on something like that so close without huge financial penalties. If you count the cost of a Session and divide it by the number of church members and by the five years in-between, it comes to about 20 cents a year per member. That's less than half of a soft drink a year per member. Session is really a combination of a worldwide campmeeting and a business session and has a tremendous effect on the unity of the church. Church members around the world, no matter where they're coming from -- wealthy places, poor places, places with high membership or places with small membership -- they all have a part in the decision-making of the church. I don't think you could buy that unity any other way cheaper.

ANN: How does the church's financial picture look compared to 10 years ago? Was there a dramatic shift in the last decade?

Lemon: Certainly the last decade has seen dramatic membership growth in our church around the world and probably from a financial standpoint the change has been a huge increase in funds from areas of the world outside of North America. Last year, 60 percent of the funds coming to the world headquarters were from North America and 40 percent outside North America. The previous year it was 70 percent from North America and 30 percent from outside of North America. It was a major shift.

ANN: Each region contributes at least 2 percent of tithe to the world headquarters, while others contribute more for appropriations to other parts of the world. Some have said they wished their region would choose to keep more of the money locally. How do you respond?

Lemon: The gospel commission is to the whole world. I think one of the greatest blessings of our church is that no matter where we are, no matter how much we return in tithe it goes toward spreading the gospel to the whole world. My experience has been that areas that focus on keeping money locally don't grow as fast as those that are generous in sharing with the world field.

ANN: Historically, North America has chosen to give a larger percentage of tithe to the world headquarters, about 8 percent. Is that different than previous years?

Lemon: Well, 2 percent of that 8 percent goes for the world headquarters operation. So percentage-wise, North America doesn't fund the world headquarters any more than other divisions. The extra 6 percent is used for appropriations and missions work. North America used to give 10.7 percent and the rest of the divisions gave 1 percent. It was always North America's way of helping to spread the gospel throughout the world. But as other parts of the world have become financially stronger we have adjusted the percentages. Also, there are appropriations for world church institutions that happen to be located in North America.

ANN: What is the process for determining appropriations?

Lemon: A certain amount of it is history, but we just completed a major commission on appropriations where we had a team of six individuals from the church headquarters visit each of the 13 world divisions and spend a day or two reviewing all the use of tithe and funds within the divisions and made recommendations to the Financial Planning and Budget Committee for adjustments in appropriations. There are some divisions that will get an increase in appropriations, some that will remain rather constant, and there are others it is felt that can carry more of the burden locally and we'll be releasing some of the appropriations for use in other areas.

ANN: What accountability process is in place for appropriations?

Lemon: When we give appropriations to the divisions and the institutions in most cases they're not restricted and the board and executive committees of those organizations set their budgets and make decisions on how to use them. Then of course we have our auditing service that reviews whether items were treated appropriately. Of course if appropriations are restricted for a specific item, then auditors audit to those restrictions.

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