Assembly Executive Meeting: 28 November 2023

Hand holding an oranage piece of paper

The autumn meeting of Assembly Executive opened on 28 November with a welcome by the Revd Dr Tessa Henry-Robinson, Moderator of the United Reformed Church (URC) General Assembly.

The meeting was held online and convened principly to discuss the URC’s budget for 2024, and beginning a search for strategy over longer term funding through the Ministry and Mission (M&M) Fund.

Assembly Executive opened with devotions led by Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global & Intercultural Ministries, and the Revd Stephen Ansa-Addo, Minister of Park and Hungerford United Reformed churches, Chaplains to Dr Henry-Robinson.

Of the meeting, the Chaplains said: “The prospect might be daunting, but this could be the start of a new adventure to confirm and reconfirm what we prioritise and deem to be precious. Then, having thought and confirmed, we can ever more determinately set our faith to live out that truth.”

En Bloc

Paper R1 Complaints Procedure
The aim of Paper R1 was to clarify that all HR complaints, made by or about an employee, should not be handled using the complaints procedure, but by the employee’s line management and the appropriate HR policy of the body which employs them.

The resolution passed unanimously.

Paper G1: M&M Budget
This meeting was Alan Yates’ first Assembly Executive since taking on the role of URC Treasurer.

Alan presented Paper G1 and began with an apology as the paper did not report the fact that the neither the Finance Committee nor the URC Trust meeting considered the stipend rise recommended by Ministry’s Maintenance of the Ministry sub-committee when making their stipend decisions.

Alan explained that unfortunately the sequencing of meetings meant that the MoM sub-committee had actually met after crucial meetings between the Finance Committee and the Trust. Although the formula used by the MoM sub-committee had recommended a proposed stipend rise of 7.3%, the Finance Committee and the URC trust were not changing their decision made under delegated authority of a 5% rise for both stipends and staff salaries.

The Treasurer explained their reasoning which tooktaking into consideration inflation rates and the general economic outlook. Alan assured Assembly Executive that steps were being taken to ensure that more joined up working would take place between Finance, the URC Trust and MoM sub committees in future.

Alan went on to explain that in budget meetings with committees and Church House staff, budget holders were asked to base their requests on actual needs rather than a percentage change on existing operations.  The outcome predicts a deficit of almost £1.5m

Attributed mainly to the pandemic years, Alan explained that there are good reasons for treating the reasons for the deficit as extraordinary. 2024 projections are based on the new normal for the Church (e.g. rising costs, declining giving and congregations hastened due to the pandemic and more church closures). The URC’s reserves can cover the deficit for 2024, but it cannot be maintained in the long-term.

Following a couple of queries from the floor, Assembly Executive adopted the M&M Budget for 2024 unanimously.

Paper G2: Budget Strategy from 2025 onwards

The Assembly Executive then moved to discuss options for bringing down budget deficits.

The proposals were brought to Assembly Executive by Alan Yates, the URC’s Treasurer and Convenor of the Finance Committee.

The problem Mr Yates is addressing is that since the pandemic, the URC budget has been operating at a significant deficit. On our present trajectory, that deficit is expected to keep increasing by at least 10% a year. The URC Trust cannot fund this deficit indefinitely, so significant changes must be made to eliminate the deficit.

‘We need to change how we budget,’ Mr Yates told Assembly Executive. ‘We have time to change, but the time we need to do it is now.’

The Finance Committee suggest that there are three levers available to reduce the budget:

  • Reduce spending on Assembly Committees and Church House by 20%;
  • Increase M&M giving by 8-9%;
  • Regular grants from Synods.

Mr Yates thanked local churches for the fact that M&M giving had fallen by less than the fall in membership, but said they could hardly be expected to find this extra money amid all the other challenges they face.

The Finance Committee offered Assembly Executive four options for the way ahead, using these levers:

  1. Reduce the deficit quickly, over a couple of years;
  2. Reduce the deficit slowly, over a decade;
  3. Keep the deficit;
  4. Increase the deficit to stimulate growth.

Option 1 would involve pulling all three levers. It would leave finances in a good place, but could, the committee note, be traumatic.

Option 2 would involve annual budget reductions of 2% becoming ‘business as usual’.

Option 3 would be easy but ‘will probably consume all of the URC Trust’s unrestricted funds by, or before, the end of the decade’.

Option 4 recognises that ‘the overall financial resources of the denomination are very significant, and growing’, and would involve spending it on mission in the hope of increasing membership.

Mr Yates noted that these were four discreet points on a continuum of actions and Assembly Executive could choose something that combines more than one or splits the difference. He pointed out that the Finance Committee did not have authority to make these changes itself, but would lead the Church’s discussion in the direction that Assembly Executive decided.

In the discussion that followed, one question was how these questions relate to the Church Life Review. The General Secretary, Dr John Bradbury, said that they underline the importance of the review: ‘We have run out of road for the way we have been doing things, but we may run out of money before finishing the Church Life Review unless we take action.’

Some members voiced concerns that option one (quick deep cuts) might bring greater losses than we are prepared for, losses we can’t come back from. More than one synod moderator said that synods had the capacity to makes grants that would make a significant difference.

Steve Faber, Moderator of West Midlands Synod, proposed a fifth option of ending the deficit over five to seven years, with the help of synods.

Members took an indicative straw poll on their feelings on the now five options. Option five (pacing the cuts over five to seven years) emerged as clear favourite, with significant support for option four (investing for growth).

Dr Bradbury warned Assembly Executive against hoping they could release resources to allow the URC to continue doing exactly what we’ve already been doing. ‘We need to be more focussed on what we can and cannot do,’ he said.

Discussion concluded with a formal vote for or against option five. It was carried by 88%. Mr Yates said that Finance Committee  would proceed in full awareness of the whole discussion, and noting that there was support for investment as well as cuts.

The meeting was closed in prayer.