Body passes resolution forgiving direct billing debt

By Jessica Brodie

GREENVILLE—Churches that owe back debt in direct billing charges are getting their year of jubilee.

Annual Conference passed legislation June 10 that forgives approximately $3.3 million in debt in owed by churches experiencing hardship.

Submitted by Dr. Reginald Lee, chair of South Carolina Black Methodists for Church Renewal, and a team of other clergy and laity, “A Resolution for Debt Forgiveness for Direct Billing Arrearages” sets forth that all arrearages older than 121 days for South Carolina United Methodist churches be forgiven, enabling what the resolution writers call “a fresh start for those committed to our connectional system.”

Specifically, the amended resolution calls on Conference Treasurer Beth Westbury to write off the debt of these churches in arrears in direct billing.

Direct billing is a system devised in 2003 designed to handle clergy benefits coverage. As part of their service as a pastor, South Carolina United Methodist clergy are entitled to insurance and pension coverage, and the church they serve is supposed to pay for this. The conference pays the bill, then in what is termed direct billing, sends the church a bill for its share of the pastor’s coverage.

But sometimes, churches are not able to pay their bill, resulting in debt. 

A payment or a write-off?

At first there were questions about the resolution might be out of order. Debate ensued about whether the resolution violated the Discipline, as it appeared to ask the trustees to pay off this debt, which would violate proper church process.

However, Westbury clarified that the funds had already been paid long ago by the conference and would not need to be paid now.  As she explained, Wespath bills the conference for this, and the conference has to pay Wespath regardless of whether the church pays, so the money had already been delivered to Wespath. This would simply be an accounting adjustment.

“We have reserved uncollected funds, so there is negligible impact on the balance sheet,” Westbury said.

The Rev. David Anderson, a past conference benefits officer whose duty included implementing direct billing, noted this is not an uncommon action.

“Basically, what we’re doing now is trying to write off bad debt,” Anderson said from the floor. “It’s been a burden on some churches, and it’s time to settle the score and level the playing field. This money has been spent.”

The Rev. Joseph James proposed an amendment that he hoped would add clarity to how this debt forgiveness would be handled, specifying that the treasurer would be writing off the debt, not paying anything.

Deacon Angela Marshall stood in support of this.

“If ever there was a time and need for a year of jubilee, is this not it?” she asked from the floor.

The amendment and then the amended resolution passed overwhelmingly.

Why was the resolution proposed?

Lee and the other submitters—the Rev. Keith Hunter, the Rev. Martin Luther Quick, the Rev. Velma Haywood, Michael Woodham and Kathy Tisdale—said the resolution is needed because direct billing burdens inadvertently harmed smaller and largely Black congregations, as well as failed to address historical disparities in poorer congregations

“The uniform billing system disproportionately affected rural and economically distressed churches, particularly those serving Black communities,” the resolution maintained. “While large Anglo churches benefited, this placed undue strain on financially vulnerable Black and rural congregations, exacerbated by misinformation and pressure to fulfill obligations.”

Historic inequity in wages added to the problem.

“As a church of grace, forgiveness, and love, we must rectify the adverse effects of this decision on our missional readiness,” the resolution concluded.

Other resolution referred

The debt forgiveness resolution was the only one that went before the body for a vote this year.

Seven resolutions total were submitted, but five were ruled out of order for a variety of reasons.

One other resolution—LGBTQ+ Inclusion: Expressing Gratitude and Commitment to Next Steps—was referred to the Conference Connectional Ministries and to the Council on Finance and Administration because of its large budgetary implications. The referred resolution called for creating a conference-level LGBTQ+ Ministry Team for nurturing and equipping churches in this area.

The resolutions ruled out of order were as follows: Worldwide Regionalization, Encouraging Leadership with Integrity, Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Reconciling Ministries Network, A Resolution Reaffirming Our Doctrinal Standards and Heritage, and A Resolution for the Preservation and Revitalization of Black Methodist Churches.

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