THE finances of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, continued to improve during the last fiscal year, the church's treasurer said yesterday.
The report came at the annual meeting here of the Christian Science Church, which publishes this newspaper. About 3,000 members from around the world gathered in The Mother Church Extension to hear reports from the Christian Science Board of Directors, the denomination's five-member governing body, and from other church officials.
David Driver, a Christian Science teacher and lecturer from Seattle, was named president of The Mother Church. The president, who serves a one-year term, chairs the annual meeting.
New readers appointed
The directors also announced the elections of David Degler of Nashville, Tenn., and Mary Weldon Ridgway of Richardson, Texas, as first and second readers of The Mother Church. The readers, who serve three-year terms, conduct church services, reading citations from the Bible and "Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures," by Mary Baker Eddy, the church's founder.
The directors' report pointed to what it called victories and a serious challenge facing the "church family." It said "Science and Health" was increasingly available to new readers. The Christian Science Monitor, the board said, is in an "ongoing renaissance visible in many recent changes," and its radio broadcast audience is "expanding steadily."
In the United States, the directors said, the church has made "substantial progress in the areas of child-care legislation and the public's right to understand and practice spiritual healing." In California, the church was removed as a defendant in a wrongful-death civil trial involving a child, while a Minnesota appeals court overturned a punitive-damages award against the church in a similar case.
"We remain committed to the recognition of the rights of the members of our church family to practice spiritual healing," the directors said.
The board labeled as a "serious challenge" a lawsuit filed by two members 18 months ago challenging its authority under the Church Manual, written by Mrs. Eddy.
Recalling a similar attempt by a group of members in the years 1917 to 1924, the directors said, "As then, the current litigation would attempt to change the form of government established by Mrs. Eddy for her church."
"This suit, if not withdrawn or defeated, would amend the Church Manual and certain of Mrs. Eddy's deeds of trust. It would do this by forcing the adoption of the personal theories and interpretations of the two plaintiffs concerning these founding documents. It would thus place the future of this church in the hands of a legal system whose workings cost our Leader many a long and prayerful hour."
John Selover, church treasurer and director, reported that total funds on hand for the fiscal year ending April 30 were $67.7 million, $22.7 million higher than last year.
Unrestricted funds on hand were a negative $56.6 million, an improvement from a negative $70.8 million in 1994 and negative $84 million in 1993. Restricted funds on hand totaled $124.3 million, up from $115.8 million in 1994 and $110.8 million in 1993.
"Expenses have been essentially level for the past three years," Mr. Selover said: $64.3 million in fiscal 1995; $63.3 million in 1994; and $64.2 million in 1993. He said income from all sources grew to $86.6 million last year from $74.9 million in 1994 and $76.3 million in 1993.
Selover reported external debt of $2.7 million for capital leases and internal obligations of $4 million to The Trustees Under the Will of Mary Baker Eddy and $41.5 million to the pension reserve. The church paid $1 million into each during 1995, he said. The pension reserve "had a positive cash flow with an income of $1.9 million over expenses, and an actuarial evaluation of the pension reserve shows it continues to be sufficient to meet future obligations."
The Christian Science Publishing Society and church administration together were almost $4 million under budget, Selover said. A line of credit at the Bank of Boston established since 1993 is still available but has never been used.
Selover noted that while contributions have remained steady over the years, "The activities and obligations of the church and Publishing Society have grown."
The treasurer listed three areas where church financial obligations have increased:
* Domestic and shortwave radio broadcasts of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Sentinel, and The Herald of Christian Science, which have an estimated audience of more than 1 million listeners worldwide.
* The $10 million restoration work on the Original Mother Church and its Extension.
* Potential expenses of $25 million for rehabilitation and maintenance of the publishing house, other buildings at the Christian Science Center, and Mrs. Eddy's houses in Chestnut Hill (Newton) and Lynn, Mass.
Olga Chaffee, clerk and director, focused on efforts by The Mother Church and local Christian Sciences churches to meet the needs of young people. "Over 11 percent of the applications for membership this year came from youths under 18 years of age," she said.
"Many branches have discovered their reading rooms to have been an untapped resource in accomplishing our Leader's vision of the pastor ministering to our church," Mrs. Chaffee said. The meeting included a 30-minute audio-visual presentation on how churches are making more effective use of reading rooms.
M. Victor Westberg, manager of the Committee on Publication, the church's public- and governmental-affairs office, gave examples of church members' work in correcting misconceptions and replying to attacks on Christian Science. He said the church is sponsoring an Internet home page on religious freedom, in particular, First Amendment rights and the implications of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"Even with this law, the right to practice spiritual healing for children is still being challenged," Mr. Westberg said.
Virginia Harris, director and publisher of Mrs. Eddy's writings, described efforts by her office, local churches, and individual Christian Scientists to share "Science and Health" and make it more widely available.
The book, which has sold more than 8 million copies since Mrs. Eddy first published it in 1875, is now available in more than 2,000 bookstores in the United States, up from 500 to 600 before 1994.
"The message of "Science and Health" is and will continue to be the message of our church to mankind," Mrs. Harris said. "Sharing this healing message is our core business as a church."