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Methodists rethink the theology of property

The Methodist Church of NZ is set to decide whether to make some fundamental changes in the way it deals with its property.

A report to August Synods and Conference 2008 asks that Methodist parishes be allowed to use some income from the sale of their assets for aspects of mission other than their buildings. It also says districts and the Connexion should have greater say in how property funds are used, and the amount of money that can be borrowed for building projects be increased.

The report was prepared by the Methodist Connexional Property Committee (MCPC). It follows a year-long effort the Church has made to develop a theology of property and reassess the way it buys, develops, retains, and sells its land and buildings.

MCPC executive officer Greg Wright says the Methodist Church is in a period of dramatic change as it experiences growing Pacific membership but declining membership overall. Some parishes face financial constraints and struggle to maintain and repair their properties.

“As the Church changes, we would expect to see changes in the way it manages its capital investments. The report says, once we know what our strategic directions are at local, regional and Connexional levels, we can better determine how to invest our capital,” Greg says.

“There is a sense that the Church is poor and parishes must struggle to find money. The Church is not poor. The 2005 government valuation says the Church has about $400 million in property

“It is not that the Church has no money, rather the money it has is not directed to where it is needed. The report suggests we find ways to be more flexible in the way we use our assets. At the same time we must protect the Church’s capital, which has been acquired over many generations.”

Greg says a key element in the report is that district synods take a bigger role in deciding how investments are made in property. He would like to see the districts more clearly define their mission so that they can better decide how to direct their resources.

“We have asked the districts to provide us their strategic plans for mission. The fact that none of them has provided one indicates not a lot of strategic thinking is going on.

“I am just a bean counter. I am not a theologian and I am certainly not trying to tell districts what to do with their property. Nor should property direct what the mission of the church is.

“Once the Church or the synods decide clearly what their mission is, however, then we can direct property toward that. This could mean the transfer of money among parishes within a synod or from one synod to another.”

The proposed changes could also benefit cash-strapped parishes by allowing them to spend the interest on capital derived from the sale of some of their assets for their mission work. As it now stands, such money can only be spent on their property.

Among the specific recommendations of the report is to lift the limit on the amount of money that can be borrowed from the Church Building and Loan (CBL) Fund. Currently the maximum is $100,000.

MCPC believes no absolute limit should be set on loans. Rather the amount should be determined by such factors as the proportion of CBL loans advanced to each synod compared to deposits lodged by that synod or the synod’s determination of the strategic importance of the proposed development.

Greg says the issue of property is complicated by the Methodist Church’s involvement with Uniting Congregations. While each Co-operating Venture is a local initiative, the properties involved still belong to the denominations.

The report suggests there should be a review of all Union agreements involving Methodist property to ensure that property schedules and ratios reflect the contributions made to such ventures at their commencement and any changes to capital contributions over time.