June 28, 2010

Extraordinary Promise

BY ROBERT E. LEMONPresented Friday, June 25, 2010

capEach week millions of Seventh-day Adventists around the world join one another in worshipping their Creator. They live in different locations, different cultures, and worship in different styles. But one thing remains the same: they are dedicated to spreading the gospel of Christ around the world. They give their time, their energy, and their money for this cause. Telling other people about the saving grace of Jesus isn’t something they can do all by themselves—on their own. The Adventist Church works together by pooling its resources to spread the gospel.  [See video report]

When we read Matthew 24:14, we often put emphasis on the last part: “and then shall the end come.”* This is a great promise; and it’s what we all long for. But there is another promise in that text that is just as important: it says that “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world.” What a promise! The gospel commission in Matthew 28 says: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.” What a challenge! What a task! But what a promise! That “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world”!

2010 1520 page18It is a promise similar to that given to Joshua when the Lord said: “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses” (Joshua 1:3).

In Joshua 13:1 we find the Lord saying to him: “Thou art old and stricken in years, and there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed.” How sad they had not finished the work, even though God had promised them success!

For almost 170 years we have been taking the third angel’s message to a fallen world. There have been great triumphs; but “there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed.” Nearly half the world is still unreached. The major cities and the majority of the 10/40 window are still to be reached. It is time for us to say, as did Caleb after crossing the Jordan, “Give me this mountain.” It is “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).

Extraordinary Blessings
In the treasurer’s report to the 2005 General Conference session, we noted, as follows: “During this quinquennium [1999–2004] there has been great economic turmoil in the world. The financial markets have been on a roller coaster, the events of September 11, 2001, war, SARS, the tsunami, and others have affected the economies of various parts of the world. As we look back at the increases in tithes and offerings during this difficult period, we can only say, ‘Praise the Lord for the faithfulness of His people and for His bountiful blessings!’”

As we reflect on the events of this quinquennium (2005–2009), we once again say, “Praise the Lord for His blessing!” Having come through one of the most tumultuous financial periods in the past 75 years, we can clearly see God’s leading, and rejoice in the faithfulness of His children.

Faithfulness in Tithes and Offerings
Over the past five years the annual worldwide tithe increased 40.2 percent from $1.32 billion in 2004 to $1.85 billion in 2009. World Mission Offerings over the quinquennium increased 31.8 percent from $48.7 million to $64.2 million per year.

2010 1520 page18Over the past 30 years the World Mission Offerings have remained fairly static in U.S. dollar terms at around $50 million per year, while tithe has increased from $398 million to $1.85 billion, a 365 percent increase. This quinquennium saw a substantial increase in mission offerings from divisions outside North America. Percentagewise, increases in local church funds have generally kept pace with the increase in tithe.

There has been a major shift in recent years toward more project giving, which has helped stimulate interest in missions and has been a great blessing in many areas. Various ministries and groups have taken on projects and have thus helped to strengthen the work. We praise the Lord for this! However, one of the drawbacks of excessive reliance on proj-?ect giving is that attention spans can often be short. When there is greater need or more promotion in another area, most of the support is shifted to the new area, often leaving the local organization (if there is one) to carry on the project or outreach without sufficient resources. Sometimes all the progress that has been made is lost. The need for a strong mission offering program that can sustain major long-term initiatives is doubly important as we focus on the 10/40 ?window area.

Extraordinary Tithe
In the account of the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine in Egypt, we see how the Lord provided for His children in difficult times. With the recession and economic turmoil of the past 18 months, it was not possible to provide substantial funding for new work in the 10/40 window and new initiatives in other areas from normal operating resources. God is good, and even before we knew to ask He was preparing to provide for the needs of His work during this time.

During 2007 the General Conference was approached by a family that was divesting of a multinational business. It is not the practice of the General Conference to receive tithe directly from members. Members should normally return tithe through their local churches to the conference in which they hold membership. This family had consulted with their local conference about where to return the extraordinarily large amount of tithe from the sale of their business. Tithe is for a holy purpose and is returned to the Lord through His church for support of the ministry and evangelism. When there are increases in tithe that are expected to continue in succeeding years, it is easy to expand the work. But infrequent and unusually large amounts require special care to preserve their application for legitimate tithe purposes and to be certain that projects started can be sustained.

2010 1520 page18Given the extraordinary amount involved, and the fact that the business was of a multinational nature (with the funds having been earned across multiple conferences, unions, and divisions), it was felt that the General Conference, rather than the local conference, was in the best position to administer these funds. After consultation with the General Conference and division officers, it was recommended that the General Conference accept this extraordinary tithe for the worldwide work of the church. This extraordinary tithe received by the General Conference totaled more than $106 million.

We praise God for this family’s faithfulness and for His goodness in providing these means for spreading of the gospel. Guidelines were developed for the use of these funds. More than 85 percent has been allocated to various initiatives and projects, many of which target the 10/40 window area and will be used over a five- to seven-year period for spreading the gospel. The unallocated remainder will be assigned after evaluating the long-term viability of these initiatives and projects.

Because the extraordinary tithe would make comparisons of financial information from past and future years difficult, we are tracking it and related expenditures separately from normal operations even though the figures are combined in the audited financial statements.

General Conference Revenues, Expenditures, and Net Assets
During the quinquennium the General Conference (exclusive of extraordinary tithe) had total revenue, gains, and additions of $953 million and total expenditures of $885 million. The breakdown is shown in the graphs on page 20. Total net assets of all General Conference funds (exclusive of extraordinary tithe) increased from $199 million to $267 million; and working capital (exclusive of extraordinary tithe) as of December 2009 totaled $156 million, which is 109 percent of the amount recommended in the General Conference Working Policy.

Extraordinary Challenges
The General Conference holds and invests funds designated for a variety of purposes. The General Conference Executive Committee has established in policy a minimum recommended level for working capital. This amount, equivalent to 40 percent of one year’s unrestricted operating income, helps care for temporary swings in the economy, as well as in meeting the cash needs for appropriations, salaries, and other monthly expenses in the budget—which must be paid even though the largest portion of the funds are received in the last couple months of the year.

The General Conference invests the allocated and restricted funds that have been designated by donors and the Executive Committee for projects and initiatives, many of which extend over multiple years or require time to complete. In addition the General Conference has endowment funds, the extraordinary tithe funds, depreciation funds, and funds held in trusts, life income agreements, charitable gifts annuities, etc., that must be invested. The majority of General Conference funds are disbursed in the same year they are received.

2010 1520 page18General Conference funds are conservatively invested. In January 2008 approximately 87 percent of General Conference-owned funds were in fixed income investments and 13 percent in equities. The decline in the financial markets took its toll on General Conference investments (as it did on almost all organizations), but we thank the Lord that over the two-year period, 2008 and 2009, the total return on investments (interest income, dividends, etc., as well as the realized and unrealized gains and losses on investments) for all funds combined was 3.5 percent, which means an average of 1.7 percent per year.

In 2008 we had $15.6 million in realized and unrealized losses, partially offset by $8.0 million in earnings; giving a net negative return on investments of $7.6 million. In 2009 we had a net of US$11.8 million in realized and unrealized gains as the markets recovered some of their losses and $6.5 ?million in earnings for a net positive return on investments of $18.4 ?million.

Effect of the Recession and Exchange Rate Fluctuations in 2008 and 2009
Worldwide tithe in 2008 was up 8.56 percent, as compared to 2007. Almost half of that increase in U.S. ?dollar terms was because of changes in exchange rates to the U.S. dollar in 2008. But even when eliminating the effect of the exchange rates, there were still significant increases in tithe in terms of local currency in most divisions. The extreme economic turbulence and recession during the past 18 months have had an effect on members’ income, and have affected tithe and offerings. Worldwide tithe for 2009 in U.S. dollar terms was down 4.3 percent, as compared to 2008.

The U.S. dollar strengthened considerably against most currencies at the end of 2008, and continued strong well into 2009. That reduced the U.S. dollar value of the tithe and offerings coming to the General Conference from outside the U.S. Nearly 40 percent of tithe and offerings in the General Conference’s budget comes from currencies other than the U.S. dollar. The decrease in terms of dollars does not necessarily mean they had decreases in terms of local currency. In fact, most of the divisions, other than North America, actually experienced increases in 2009. Because of the strength of the U.S. dollar against other currencies, the decrease in gross tithe in divisions other than North America was 6.5 percent, down from US$1.04 billion in 2008 to US$972 million in 2009. Tithe in the North American Division was down 1.7 percent from US$893 million in 2008 to US$878 million in 2009.

2010 1520 page18Mission offerings in the North American Division were down 2.1 percent from US$23.8 million in 2008 to US$23.3 million in 2009, while mission offerings from the other divisions were down 8.5 percent from US$44.7 million to US$40.9 million. But as with the tithe, most of that decrease was because of the strength of the U.S. dollar.
GC Operations and Budget Constraints
During 2008 the General Conference had a decrease in total fund balances (exclusive of extraordinary tithe) of $2.1 million, due largely to the underperformance of the markets. Tithes and offerings were up 8.6 percent, which helped offset much of the decline from investments.

The picture in 2009 was somewhat different. Even though the normal tithe and mission offerings coming to the General Conference were down $5.9 million from 2008 (because of the economy and currency exchange rate fluctuations), the fund balances (exclusive of the extraordinary tithe) increased by $25.3 million. The improvement in the financial markets resulted in a positive return (investment earnings and realized and unrealized gains) from our investments of $18.4 million. That, combined with the fact that in 2009—with financial constraints in place—the General Conference operated $9 million under budget on the expense side, helped provide the increase to fund balance.

During the Quinquennium
The Appropriations Review Commission studied and made recommendations as to how to realign resources to give more emphasis to the work in the 10/40 window during the next quinquennium. The General Conference completed the phase-in of the new tithe sharing percentage formula, without reducing appropriations to world divisions and GC institutions.

  • In 2008 for the first time tithe in divisions other than North America exceeded that of the tithe received in North America.
  • ?The General Conference built an extension to the headquarters facilities to accommodate the Hope Channel studio and offices at a cost of $5.2 million for the building and $2.8 million for equipment.
  • ?More than 5 million individuals joined the church through baptism.

Extraordinary Future
As God has promised, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world [what a promise!] . . . and then shall the end come [what a hope!].” His promise is still fundamental to our hope and assurance. Ellen G. White wrote: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (Life Sketches, p. 196). What an assurance!

*Bible texts in this report are from the King James Version.

Robert E. Lemon is the Treasurer of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.