Letter from Conference Minister

January 15, 2021

Conference Minister, Rev. Molly Carlson brings this week’s thoughts on Money
Friends,

Welcome to our new weekly communication from the Illinois Conference where we talk about Jesus’ favorite topic… money. I know this is a highly unpopular topic in the church, but there is some very important work we are focusing on in the Conference this coming year regarding our relationship with and management of our finances. You will hear from many different voices on many different topics throughout the year. Some of these topics might be helpful for local churches to share their own communications as well. Feel free to share – or to reach out with questions that might emerge for you.

First, I want to acknowledge that 2020 brought come unexpected clarity with regard to the financial situation within the Conference. Today I will address several facets of this new awareness and some insights into what we will be doing in 2021 to address what we have uncovered.

  1. According to our records, over 100 of the 240 churches that make up the Illinois Conference did not contribute to OCWM (Our Church’s Wider Mission) in 2020. I am well aware that 2020 has been a hard year for all of us with COVID and everything else that has come up in our communities. OCWM is the primary mechanism we have to financially support the common ministries of our churches through the Conference and National staff. It funds search and call support (and we have about 60 or 1/4 of our churches in some part of the search process), authorization and oversight of ministry (and we have about 60 MID -members in discernment – and currently have 4 active fitness reviews), Church conflict/visioning/resourcing/consulting services, and much, much more. Part of being part of the UCC is supporting these shared ministries so that we can all benefit when we have needed them!
  2. We discovered that the accounting of Conference finances has been wildly inconsistent for years if not decades. Let me assure you that THE ILLINOIS CONFERENCE IS NOT BROKE. However, we have been operating in a nearly $1M deficit for the last several years. This must stop.
  3. We hired Keith Clark-Hoyos as our Financial Transition Manager in September of 2020. His job is to clean up our accounting mess. He is helped by several volunteers, an increasingly active FAB, and a Property Committee that has recently shifted into high gear. I had hoped that we could have a fair handle on things by the beginning of this year – but that is not the case. If anything, we have found more complex inconsistencies. Each and every day, Keith and the finance team resolve a bit more and we are confident that we will make it out the other side.
  4. We have discovered NO indication that any individual experienced personal gain from errors of the past. We have discovered quite a lot of instances of “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” which is clearly not a good accounting principle and leads to much of our cleanup work.
  5.  It is quite clear that trust has been broken with regard to the stewardship of the funds entrusted to the Illinois Conference. We are doing everything we can to remedy this and to implement policies, procedures, and accountability structures that will protect us from this in the future.

 

A few words about what we are doing in 2021 to improve our situation.

    1.  We are initiating this weekly communication to foster transparency and openness about our conversation about money.
    2.  We are freezing all but essential operating spending.
    3.  I have presented a staffing proposal to Council and am having conversations throughout the Conference that are projected to cut our personnel costs by $300,000. If approved, we will not see these full savings in 2021 due to a staggered implementation but can expect these full savings into the future.
    4.  Our Property committee is working hard to resolve insurance, ownership, and title issues on several properties. We also have three properties on the market and will continue to work to minimize ongoing real estate costs.
    5.  With much of our staff working remotely, we are looking at how we can best minimize our rental footprint for Conference Office space. We have no intention of fully eliminating physical office space, but we are looking into reducing our footprint.
    6.  We are implementing several technologies to help streamline and simplify the work of the Conference. Implementing REALM and ACS Accounting systems are one big piece of this. We are also working toward digitizing all of our files which will increase accessibility and decrease the amount of office space we need.
    7.  Tower Hill and Pilgrim Park have created balanced budgets ad are committed to breaking even in 2021. This is especially challenging with COVID, but we have outstanding camp managers and a strong outdoor ministries team.
    8.  We will be implementing several initiatives to promote OCWM, Mission Friends, Stewardship, Generosity, Philanthropy, and more.
    9.  The finance team is working to have a solid sense of the whole of our financial picture by this summer; a budget for 2022 presented to Council by August; a narrative and numeric budget available to the whole Conference by October; and an Annual Celebration with a focus on our financial health in November. We have our work cut out for us.
    10.  

      As you might imagine, my head is spinning with the complexities and possibilities of the Illinois Conference. I am optimistic because nothing is being hidden- we are finally shining a bright light on these problems. We are talking about the gritty realities of our situation. We are working very hard to sort out the pieces and to put the puzzle back together.

      There is a vulnerability in laying out these details in such a matter-of-fact way. I hope you receive them in the spirit in which they are shared. I expect that 2021 will be a year of challenge and healing for the Illinois Conference – but the healing will only happen if we are working on it together.

      I invite you to be in touch. My email is ilconfmolly@gmail.com and I welcome your thoughts and concerns. Please realize that if all of you share at the same time, it might take me a minute to get back to each of you… but I will!

      I am grateful for our shared ministry,

      Molly