Africa contributes biggest share of new members to Christian Science church

At its Annual Meeting, the church emphasizes global outreach, financial stewardship

For the first time last year, more new members of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, are from Africa than are from the United States.

That news, which preceded the church's Annual Meeting Monday in Boston, underscored the meeting's theme of "all with one accord in one place" – a reference to the unity of Christ Jesus' disciples on the day of Pentecost.

The theme stems from the extensive travels of the church's board of directors in recent years and their focus on the potential of church to heal political, ethnic, religious, and economic divisions facing humanity.

"We saw how important it is all over the world – where there is so much division and a feeling that we cannot solve long-standing conflicts – to start right at home and show we can overcome our differences and heal conflicts," said board chairman Margaret Rogers, in an interview before Annual Meeting. "If you can heal what's going on in the church, that begins to ripple out into society."

Phinney is new church president

The board appointed as president of the church Allison Phinney, a former senior editor of the church's periodicals.

Mr. Phinney, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher from Boston, is "well-known and loved by many of you for his many years of contributions to the periodicals," Mrs. Rogers said upon announcing his appointment Monday. His "clear, deep spiritual writing has blessed our field immensely," she said.

During his one-year term, Mr. Phinney will preside over a membership that is growing most rapidly in Africa. This year, new members were admitted from 30 countries, with the highest number of applications coming from the US, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria.

Sustainability for periodicals

The church's increasingly international outlook was reflected in reports from the Committee on Publication, the Board of Lectureship, the Treasurer's Office, and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as comments from the directors.

In a videotaped discussion, board member Mary Trammell, also editor in chief of The Christian Science Publishing Society, said the Monitor's transition to a Web-first strategy this spring represents a breakthrough. She and editor John Yemma suggested the Monitor is a pioneer, both in journalism and in the church's effort to make all four of its periodicals financially sustainable.

Board of Trustees Chair Judy Wolff reports that the approximate CSPS financials at the end of Fiscal Year 2009 are $27 million total revenue and $49 million total expense, resulting in a $22 million total deficit.

As part of cost-cutting, all nine quarterly editions of the foreign-language Herald of Christian Science are now published only online.

The new initiative could bolster the publication, said Mrs. Trammell and fellow director Walter Jones, who also serves as a Publishing Society trustee. While the directors were in Chandigarh, India, this past year, church members offered to translate articles from The Christian Science Sentinel and The Christian Science Journal if they could be shared online.

"I'm happy to say you can find articles in Hindi on the Herald website for the very first time," said Trammell. The initiative is expected to expand – next to Zulu.

Global outreach

Three years ago, the board of directors formed an international planning team to coordinate efforts to support church activities worldwide, says team chairman Doug Paul. Efforts include a dedicated position to help groups register as churches in countries with daunting bureaucracies and $1 million annually to send Christian Science literature to more than 250 informal groups and branch churches from Singapore to St. Petersburg, including 100 in Africa.

This past year, outgoing president Barbara Vining and Brian Talcott held dozens of workshops to rouse member support for church periodicals – work begun by former Monitor editor, the late Richard Bergenheim. In an interview, Mrs. Vining emphasized the complementary nature of their distinct missions. The Monitor, the fourth and last periodical to be established, represented church Founder Mary Baker Eddy's expanding vision for her church, she said. Mrs. Eddy, who established the church in 1879, wrote that its purpose is to "reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing."

Fewer funds on hand

Treasurer Ned Odegaard said efforts are under way to reverse the drain on church finances from the periodicals and real estate operations. These initiatives, he said, are in keeping with Mrs. Eddy's vision for a thriving church.

The church has no indebtedness, he reported Monday. However, current funds on hand – $379 million – are 24 percent lower than they were last year, as a result of the drop in financial markets. The church's general fund, which constitutes $135 million of that larger pool, fell by 18 percent since last year.

Plans are also afoot to redesign the church plaza, said Barbara Burley, senior manager of real estate planning. Working with the local community, the church intends to rebuild the reflecting pool to be more resource-efficient and to add buildings on "select edges" of the plaza, while maintaining open space and respecting historic design.

The meeting closed with an extended minute of silent prayer following an interactive presentation of "Siyahamba," a song from the new hymnal supplement that was designed to be more international, lively, and youthful than the 1932 hymnal. Soloist Julia Wade introduced videotaped congregations from San Juan Capistrano, Calif., to Cape Town, South Africa, singing verses, and then invited the congregation to join in.

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