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The 9/11 Attack Sheds Light on UMCOR and the UMC Bureaucracy

by Michael L. Gonzalez

November 5, 2002


The anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone.  It's been six months since I wrote my concerns (posted on this website) about the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) handling of the donations designated to the 9/11 fund.  It's sad to report that still, to this day, the vast majority of the donations have not been expended, and the amount of money expended directly to the actual victims of the 9/11 attack is utterly minute (if anything at all); by "actual victims" I mean the people to whom donors assumed their monetary gifts would be directed.

Having made the above sweeping statement, I will present the evidence leading to this conclusion further down in this writing.  However, first, let us (just briefly) turn our attention to an issue in the UMC which is much larger than the UMCOR 9/11 fund:  When you think about the UMC and money, what comes to mind?  How do UMC members donate money to the denomination (beyond the local church)?  Do members make decisions as to how their donations are expended at the higher denominational level to God's glory?

When I was a less-than-active (and nave) member of the UMC and I gave offerings to my local UM church, I naturally assumed that the local church decided how the money would be expended.  As I became more active in my church, I was surprised to find out that the denomination, an entity beyond the purview of the local church, "takes a cut" of the local church offerings.  This was contrary to my expectations, as I assumed that the local church would be "a cheerful giver" to the greater denomination of some portion of my offerings -- an amount of money decided by the local church itself.  However, once I learned of the UMC system of apportionments it seemed to me like an involuntary "tax" by the denomination on the local church.

It made me think:  Hmmm. . . .  the denomination taxes the local church?  Could it be that the denomination is like the U.S. government in this respect?  Let's look at the similarities.

If there's one thing which Americans are constantly reminded of, it's their duty to pay taxes to the government.  Virtually all working Americans know that money is being subtracted from every paycheck and paid to the various local, state, and federal governments.  Some Americans have the experience of physically writing checks for taxes monthly or quarterly, or at least on April 15th of each year.

There's no escaping taxes, except for one place -- the church.  Churches are tax exempt institutions, right?  Well, this is true concerning the government vis--vis the church.  However, when it comes to the UMC vis--vis the local church, members may or may not know that every dollar donated to their local church is "taxed" by the denomination.  This "tax" is called an apportionment.  The higher powers of the UMC create a formula to decide just how much of every local church dollar should be turned over to the denomination leadership, and the formula is very complicated and based on various factors including local church characteristics, and the percentage of the "tax" changes most every year.

Any UMC member who is intimately familiar with the system of apportionments and the financial structure of the UMC can see stark parallels between the American government and the UMC denominational leadership; we'll call it the UMC federal government, or "Feds" for short.  And just as the U.S. has states, the UMC has conferences.  UMC taxes (apportionments) flow from the local church to ultimately the UMC Feds, and then the Feds decide where all the taxes should be spent (or hoarded in stockpiles).  Just like in the U.S., after the UMC Feds have divvied up the money, a lot of it is sent back to the states (conferences) where the money is expended.  A select few local churches may receive money back from the UMC Feds (or through the conference), and in many cases this is like the "Earned Income Tax Credit" (of the IRS) where even though the local church paid little or no taxes, it's deemed to be in need of financial assistance, so it gets money from the UMC Feds.

Now that we have drawn the analogies between the American tax system and the UMC tax (apportionment) system, let's take a look at what we've learned in the past several decades about the effectiveness of government bureaucracies in providing services to those in need.

America came out of World War II with a strong economy and a collective desire to "spread the wealth" to the underprivileged, and the result was Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.  However, what did we learn after decades of the Great Society experiment?  Well, we learned many things, but one thing we learned is that government bureaucracies are very ineffective at trying help the underprivileged when it comes to distributing monetary aid.

When it comes to the UMC taxing system, when will the UMC membership recognize that this same lesson, learned over the past 40 years concerning government, is applicable to the UMC Feds as well?

All told, the UMC Feds collect hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the membership through the tax (apportionment) system.  These Feds decide where all the money should be spent (or hoarded).  Do UMC members need the Feds to decide how the donations to their local church should be spent?  Is there a belief that local churches, if left to their own, would not expend the money wisely, correctly, to God's glory?

And as if the apportionment taxation of UM members isn't enough, there's the eternal appeal for even more money to be donated to the UMC Feds.  For example, the UMCOR 9/11 fund made an appeal to the members for donations to UMCOR in addition to the UMC tax applied to all local church offerings.

UMCOR, like many UMC boards and agencies, operate, in effect, as a "Ministry of Good Intentions."  In other words, the success of a program may be determined by its intentions -- not necessarily by its actual measurable results.  The evaluation of success can be summarized by answering this question, "How do we feel about our program?"  If the UMC leaders feel good about the program, it's deemed a success!  Whether or not the program accomplished anything may be beside the point.

This is true in the UMCOR example of the 9/11 donations.  After nearly 14 months, UMCOR's 9/11 fund hasn't been able to show a solitary measurable benefit to the ACTUAL victims of the attacks from the $20,000,000 donated!

Thus, the measurable effect of the 9/11 fund, with respect to the donors' original perception, is virtually ZERO.  Is this how the UMC Feds see the 9/11 fund?  Apparently not!  The United Methodist News Service (UMNS, the partisan voice of the UMC Feds) has continued to tout the "feel good" intentions of UMCOR's efforts with the 9/11 fund.

Shall we look back at the chronology of details of the 9/11 fund?  All of the following information is from the UMNS and UMCOR websites.

9/18/01:  UMC Feds plead with members not to divert donations away from the UMC (as a result of generous hearts due to the 9/11 attack), and so, in an effort to provide a receptacle for generous donations from emotional members distraught over the attack, the UMCOR 9/11 fund was created.  Request for donations initiated.

11/01/01:  Half a million dollars received.  UMCOR claims to be "hanging around" with other organizations who are providing the actual support to the attack victims.  UM churches are opened for prayer and for "listening posts."  No money expended thus far, and UMCOR itself provides no actual aid to victims.  "Pet programs" of the UMC Feds begin to emerge, such as "The 'Honoring Differences in the Midst of Hate and Violence' grant program encourages congregations and annual conferences to design creative joint projects with Islamic groups, Arab-American organizations and others who have  experienced stereotyping and hostility in response to the Sept. 11 attacks."  Obviously, this pet program does NOTHING for the attack victims, but it certainly makes the UMC Feds feel good. No plans evident for actually expending funds to aid the victims.  Request for donations repeated.

12/13/01:  $10,400,000 received.  UMC Feds praise the huge amounts of money which members have donated to various UMC special programs (obviously they're thrilled that the 9/11 attacks didn't divert members' donations AWAY from the UMC to other worthy charities).  No plans evident for actually expending funds to aid the victims (promise made to develop a future long-range program in a month or so).  Request for donations repeated.

12/20/01:  UMCOR announces that it has approved future (not current) grants; money will be distributed in the months and years ahead.  $1M will eventually be paid to an existing Counseling Center.  Another $1M was designated to be doled out to churches in the New York area for projects that may be defined in the future, but a bureaucracy will have to review and approved each project.  This UMNS article is the first mention that 9/11 donations will likely be distributed in Afghanistan.  No plans evident for actually expending funds to aid the victims.  Request for donations repeated.

January 2002:  UMCOR indicates how it will identify the REAL victims of the 9/11 attacks (notice that today, over a year later, not a single REAL victim has received a penny from UMCOR).  UMCOR points out that victims will need money when their unemployment compensation expires (notice that today, over a year later, not a single REAL victim has received a penny from UMCOR).  UMCOR says it can't actually create a plan to use the donations until all of the donations have been collected -- How does this work?  They never stop asking for donations.  UMCOR admits that donors have complained that the 9/11 fund donations will be sent to Afghanistan, so UMCOR asks donors to specify where their money should be used (note that at that time, UMCOR already had, in hand, at least $10,400,000 which was perceived to be donated specifically for American victims of the attacks).  No plans evident for actually expending funds to aid the victims (future long-range program, last promised to be completed this month, now promised for the end of 2002 -- maybe).  Request for donations repeated.

1/11/02:  UMCOR admits that the REAL victims of the attacks have already received all the help they need from other charities and government sources.  The UMNS article alludes to UMCOR now defining nearly every occupant of the U.S. (not necessarily citizens -- which is a key point) as a "victim" of the attacks, saying "Some may not even recognize themselves as victims of the terrorist attack."  The obvious effort in this language is to open up the donations to be used for any pet project that the UMC Feds deem worthy.  No plans evident for actually expending funds to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations repeated.

2/4/02:  $17,500,000 received.  UMC Feds cheer huge receipts from UMC members.  Needing to appear to be "doing something" in the wake of 9/11, UMCOR clamors to tout one of its pet projects, which is to promote Islam and other eastern religions (the Great Commission is apparently unknown to these UMC Feds).  No plans evident for actually expending funds to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations repeated.

4/19/02:  $19,800,000 received.  More pet programs are announced by the UMC Feds; for example, "People Centered Long Term Recovery."  This plan allocates ("allocate" DOESN'T mean to actually expend) $5M to "secondary victims," which can be construed as virtually ANYONE in the U.S.  However, it is obvious from the description of the program that the vast majority (if not all) of this money would be (if ever expended) used for more bureaucracy.  Another example of a pet project is "'Justice For Our Neighbors,' an UMCOR immigration project" which is more bureaucracy aimed at immigrants and illegal aliens; the UMC Feds claim that they, too, are "victims" of the 9/11 attacks because of the heightened security (what a stretch!).  Also, UMCOR announces that more 9/11 funds will go to Afghanistan and around the world.  No plans evident for actually expending funds to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations repeated.

6/3/02:  UMCOR announces $5M allocated, (primarily for new bureaucracy) to set up an appearance of aiding victims in the New York area (will this money ever actually be expended, even for bureaucratic costs?).  First of all, the "victims" are virtually anyone who shows up, and second, UMCOR says, "We are not about just giving out money."  The question is, just what are they about?  Where's the beef?  No money actually expended to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations continues.

July 2002:  UMCOR uses 9/11 funds for pet project "Justice for Our Neighbors," a program for immigrant clinics, specifically now targeting arabs. No money actually expended to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations continues.

7/23/02:  UMNS touts bureaucracy being established to help "victims," yet virtually anyone who walks in the door and says that they "suffered indirectly" can qualify as a victim.  Obviously the bureaucracy will use its own "pet preferences" to determine who's a "victim" and who isn't.  No money actually expended to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations continues.

8/6/02:  UMNS writes anecdotal stories to demonstrate "good intentions" of the UMCOR 9/11 fund, but the story actually demonstrates that the 9/11 fund is simply allocating kick-back money to the local churches to use for their pet projects, allowing "pet definitions" of "victims."  No money actually expended to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations continues.

August 2002:  UMCOR responds to criticism that "the response to the disaster of September 11 has been too slow."  Well, that admission misses the mark:  Not only was UMCOR's response too slow, their response was to do nothing but allocate funds (not actually expend funds), and not only that, they didn't even plan to use the funds for the REAL VICTIMS of the 9/11 attacks!  Thus, more from the Ministry of Good Intentions.  UMCOR is quoted as saying, "We were shocked at how difficult it is to give away money responsibly."  The excuses for not expending the funds just pour out of UMCOR.  No money actually expended to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations continues.

10/28/02:  UMCOR continues to tout its allocating of funds (albeit still a small portion of the total 9/11 funds received), but what UMCOR has never disclosed is the amount of funds that have actually been expended (money leaving the UMC Storehouse of Wealth); and still . . . No money actually expended to aid the REAL victims.  Request for donations continues.


If I had the ear of UMCOR and/or other financial leaders of the UMC, I'd ask to see actual line item expenditures of the 9/11 funds -- money that has actually been spent.  To whom were the checks written?  It sounds like the small amount of money that has actually been expended (as opposed to simply allocated) has been used to pay bureaucratic salaries, rent, supplies, consultant fees, etc.

Surely UMCOR has records of dollars expended.  Surely there are literally thousands of line item entries of money expended from the 9/11 fund.  I can't imagine that UMCOR turns money over to a conference and/or local church and has no idea of where the money went.  There must be records that show which pet projects actually spent how much money; and within the pet project expenditures, what exactly did the money "buy?"

Will UMCOR make a full disclosure of the 9/11 fund?  I can imagine that they'll say that they'll provide a final accounting when they complete the distribution of the entire fund; don't hold your breath for that day!

 

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