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Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod officer explains sharp budget cuts

By Jesse Bogan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS) • Jun 17, 2018 at 8:00 AM

KIRKWOOD, Mo. — Known for its conservative brand of Lutheranism, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod will also have a conservative budget here at its international headquarters in fiscal year 2019.

Its new annual budget will be $69.4 million, down $7.65 million or 10 percent from the current year, and down $12.5 million or 15 percent since 2016.

Like other huge denominations, LCMS, which has about 6,000 congregations and 2 million baptized members in North America, is challenged by fewer people in the pews and declining revenue. The church, which is affiliated with Lutheran seminaries in Missouri and Indiana, and several colleges and universities, has said that it expects to lose about 500,000 members in the next 10-15 years.

LCMS officer salaries have been frozen the past two years. A historically black college is closing. Now, 14 vacant positions at headquarters near St. Louis, Missouri, are being eliminated and $6.5 million is being cut from international missions.

But the Rev. Kevin Robson, chief mission officer, said in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday that the bulk of the 2019 budget cuts were merely an accounting maneuver that stripped hundreds of “wish-list items” from current overseas projects — anything from a theological symposium for African pastors to expanding a network of orphanages in Kenya.

“We’ve become very well organized and rather selective about what’s actually included in the budget to reflect exactly the revenues that we are anticipating,” Robson said.

He assured that “opportunistic initiatives” abroad weren’t forgotten.

“We are not putting those in the budget even though we will be talking to donors about those possibilities,” said Robson, whose duties include supervising fundraising efforts.

In the past decade, LCMS has made some notable changes. It sold classical music radio station KFUO (99.1 FM) for $26 million. In early 2018, LCMS announced that Concordia College Alabama in Selma would close. LCMS also is closing its missionary headquarters in Hong Kong and moving to Taiwan.

“We really weren’t efficiently using those properties and really maximizing their utility,” Robson said of three Hong Kong properties. “There were a number of things that converged on us, none of which has to do with any kind of concern over the financial condition of the synod at all.”

He said the China Evangelical Lutheran Church offered free office and housing space in Taiwan for LCMS missionaries and their families.

Despite concern from some church members, he said there were no plans to sell the seminary property in Clayton, Missouri.

“To us, that seminary along with the seminary in Fort Wayne (Indiana) are in some ways the foundation of our ministry,” he said. “They really represent the crown jewels of our education system.”

Robson said there were no plans to sell church properties to support the budget.

“We are continually evaluating the use of our properties and assets on a worldwide basis, as any sort of world-class organization would, right?” he said.

Despite budget cuts, he said, LCMS is alive and well.

“We are about as free and aggressive and lively and vivid as you could possibly imagine in our desire to advance the Gospel in the most creative and constructive ways possible,” he said.

He wouldn’t predict what the LCMS budget would be in five years.

“I don’t know if I want to put a number on that,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to constrain God.”

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