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Future of Duke Endowment’s United Methodist Grant-Giving Unknown Amid Denomination Split

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The Duke Endowment, a Charlotte-based private foundation with nearly $4 billion in assets, gives millions of dollars to United Methodist churches every year through its rural church grant programs. 

But the anticipated progressive-conservative denominational split in the church could put the fund in a tough spot going forward. The endowment operates according to the guidelines of its founder, the 20th-century industrial and tobacco business tycoon James Buchanan Duke, who set up the trust fund a year before his death in 1925. Raised in a Methodist family himself, Duke made funding rural Methodist churches in North Carolina a core part of the endowment’s mission. 

But the Duke Endowment says in an FAQ page that it only makes rural church grants to United Methodist churches exclusively, not to other denominations such as the Evangelical Methodist or African Methodist Episcopal churches. Duke’s indenture of trust document specifies that funding should be directed towards churches associated with the Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which re-organized into today’s United Methodist Church. 

In an email to MinistryWatch, the Duke Endowment declined to share details on how the denomination split could affect its rural church giving. “We are monitoring the situation and feel it’s too early to comment,” stated Charity Perkins, the organization’s communications director. 

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It’s also unclear how much funding the endowment has given to church activities over the past year. Perkins says 2020 financials are being finalized and will be posted in an annual report later this month.

According to its 2019 financial statements, the endowment distributed $16 million in grants to rural church programs, with $35 million approved for 51 new grants. In 2018, $16 million was distributed and $20.6 million was approved for new grants—up from $14.3 million distributed and $14.4 million approved in 2017

In 2019, about $8 million went to building infrastructure projects, including repurposing a car dealership into a fellowship hall for the First United Methodist Church in Taylorsville, North Carolina. Another $24.8 million funded clergy leadership initiatives, and $2.2 million supported outreach and engagement in rural areas in western North Carolina. 

Church grants only account for a small slice of the $156 million in total grants distributed to the endowment’s other three operating areas in 2019. About 12 percent of the fund’s giving goes to rural church programs, while about 46 percent ($64.4 million distributed in 2019) were directed towards higher education programs, 32 percent ($44.7 million distributed) went to health care programs focused on disease prevention and improving health care quality and access, and 10 percent ($15.7 million distributed) funded child and family programs focused on out-of-home care and early intervention for at-risk children.

In 2019, the endowment’s assets topped $3.9 billion, following a relatively steady growth trend over the past decade, with assets totaling $2.7 billion in 2010.

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Shannon Cuthrell

Shannon Cuthrell is a journalist with a background covering business, technology and economic development. She has written for Business North Carolina magazine, WRAL TechWire, Charlotte Inno and EE Power, among other publications.