The “Great Recession” and the economic stagnation that has hit the US has affected churches like no other economic downturn in most of our lifetimes. Perhaps some who are still in active ministry were ALIVE during the Great Depression of the 1930s, (70+ years ago) but none of us were in active ministry during that period.
Because of that, the continuing economic stagnation and high unemployment continues to take a toll on churches. While there is great debate about whether the US faces a “double dip” recession, most experts say that any recovery in the economy will be very slow in coming. High unemployment, the continuing housing bust, tapped out consumers, concern over the US soaring debt load and (with the revolutionary turmoil in various parts of the Middle East), increasing fuel prices all conspire to keep any economic recovery slow in coming.
Churches have had to live with declining budgets, staff layoffs, reduced programming and liquidating properties at fire sale prices for several years. While there is no magic bullet, there are sound financial principles that our churches need to have been following, but we need to be reminded of their importance. Many of them are attitudinal checks:
1. See reduced budgets as a time to renew ourselves to what the church is called to be about. And by that, I don’t have simply one thing in mind. ALL churches are called to be disciple-making churches. To abandon that is to abandon the direct call of Jesus. ADDITIONALLY, however, each congregation ALSO has a unique call of God in the community in which it serves. What is it that God has specifically called your congregation to be about? Your congregation exists in your community for a unique purpose. What is it?
2. See reduced budgets as a time to prune ministries that do not bear fruit. We must take a hard look at the purpose of our churches and which programs best help us reach that purpose. Every program will have its proponents who cry that people will leave or disaster will come if the program is cut or discontinued. But leadership means taking some hard stands at times and pruning those ministries that either are unproductive or are peripheral to the main purpose(s) of the church. Across the board budget cuts are both unwise and self-defeating. Leadership must be strategic on what cuts are made.
3. See reduced budgets as a time to “rediscover” the ministry of all believers. In the (I believe mostly legitimate) concern over “excellence” in the past thirty years, churches began to pay for leadership that sometimes ought to be done by “lay” volunteers. I have known many churches in which it was easier to “just hire someone to do it” rather than recruit, train and supervise lay people to do the work. But in doing so, we have taught the church body that they are neither needed nor capable of providing what the church needs (other than dollars).
4. Difficult financial times can be a time of increased unity among church leaders. This is not a foregone conclusion, however. Difficult financial times and difficult financial decisions can result in disagreements and DIS-unity. The leadership needs to triple their communication with one another. Instead of avoiding conversations on finances and the problems that reduced finances cause, it is a time for increased conversations and prayer on what the church is to be about. It is said of marriages that hard times will bond more closely a good marriage and will shatter a bad marriage. The same can probably be said of church leadership, but we must do all that we can to create a oneness of mind and heart during this time.
5. Difficult financial times are times to be transparent with the church body. Just as communication between members of the leadership team need to increase during hard times, so does communication with the body. I have seen churches who, in a desire to be upbeat and positive, never talked about their difficult financial situations to the point that church people (thinking that everything is just fine at their church) started diverting their money to ministries and causes that were honest about their need. Being honest all along will also help more people understand when cuts and restrictions have to be made.
(to be continued..)
Dr. Calvin Habig ministered in local congregations for thirty years and currently does professional coaching with ministers and other value-driven leaders. He lives in Portland, OR. For more information, visit Cal’s website at http://www.calhabigcoaching.com/