By Rev. Jenny Phillips
The United Methodist pension board is showing a new video at delegate briefings outside the US that directs central conference delegates on how to vote on socially responsible investing guidelines. The majority of central conference delegates are from countries in Africa, along with a significant number from the Philippines. These delegates serve the church on behalf people who are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change while being among those least responsible for its causes.
The video opens with words about the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits' commitment to invest in alignment with the values of The United Methodist Church. But if the board were fully committed to investing in alignment with the church’s values, it would embrace an open, fair dialogue on socially responsible investing that honors the wisdom and integrity of the delegates, trusting them to discern how to best express the church’s values rather than telling them what to do.
Then the video explicitly instructs central conference delegates how to vote and how not to vote on legislation related to socially responsible investment guidelines. This is wrong. People perceive the pension board to have significant power, not only because it is a general agency, but also because it manages billions of dollars in church assets and pension funds. The video takes advantage of those power perceptions, authoritatively instructing central conference delegates on how to vote rather than honoring their freedom to make the decisions they believe are best for the church’s witness in the world.
Watching this video, it is easy to forget something very important: The United Methodist Church has authority over the pension board. General Conference gets to instruct the pension board on the values that will guide the church’s investments, not the other way around. The church must have a voice in ethical guidelines that shape the ways in which money is invested in its name.
While the video implies that there is risk in implementing socially responsible investment guidelines, it fails to acknowledge the risk (as well as the actual losses our pension fund has incurred) from remaining invested in these volatile, unsustainable companies. It also ignores the deep spiritual harm that may come from diminishing the church’s moral voice on climate and continuing to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into these immoral companies.
The video closes with a particularly troubling remark: “Just because you vote against divestment doesn’t mean you do not care about the planet.” Delegates do not need the board’s reassurance that they will still have integrity even if their votes conflict with their values. What they need is the board’s commitment to affirm the work of General Conference and to follow its leadership, whatever decisions the body makes.
Update (February 11, 2016): The video discussed in this post has been removed from the GBOPHB website and is no longer available online. A new version has been posted in which some of the graphics have been altered or removed. A line below the video reads, "Revised from original version (2/5/16) to clarify agency position on divestment petitions."