Keeping faith communities vital in an ailing economy

Keeping faith communities vital in an ailing economy

January 27, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke

Rising unemployment, gut-wrenching declines in the stock market and predictions of a recession worse than any since the Great Depression can spell sleepless nights for even the most faithful ministry leaders.

With the economy ailing worldwide, giving to faith communities is certain to slump and, in geographic areas facing massive job lay-offs, to plummet in the coming months. It is worth remembering, however, that this economy of shrinking budgets is also one of expanding ministry opportunities.

As faith communities search for ways to stay afloat amid the financial tsunami, two church vitality consultants offer some advice. The Rev. Beth Kennett is co-pastor of Hillsborough (N.C.) UCC and a consultant with the Center for Congregational Health. Beth Bordeaux is president and founder of GTM Evaluation and Planning, Inc., a consulting service to faith communities and non-profits. They encourage churches to look inward toward fiscal responsibility while looking outward toward relevant ministry.

The first bit of advice – start now. Ministry leaders should not to wait until a church is in decline to reorder finances.

They must be aware of the external environment, particularly the local economy. Bordeaux says leaders should be alert to their congregations - knowing when members are facing hardship, watching pledges for irregularities, and listening for job layoffs and other personal financial crises. She advises factoring these realities into spending and ministry decisions.

Value Based Budgeting

Kennett recommends value based budgeting, in which each financial decision is weighed against a faith community's core values and mission statement. The mission statement is a succinct explanation of who an organization is and why it exists. The mission statement allows a faith community to examine worthwhile opportunities and projects, bounce them against the mission statement, and then say a clear yes to some and an unapologetic no to others.

Kennett warns against budget creep – when an item is put into a category where it does not belong. If a budget item or program does not fit with the mission statement of a faith community, it should be cut.

Creative Solutions

As faith communities address the challenge of balancing the bottom line, Bordeaux suggests they consider creative solutions such as these for supporting ministry:

  • Encouraging in-kind donations to reduce program expenses - particularly in areas such as Sunday school supplies, kitchen and bathroom supplies, office supplies, lawn and garden labor and supplies, and church maintenance labor and supplies. Be sure to keep track of these expenses, in order to know the full cost of a program. 
  • Encouraging giving in forms other than cash, such as donation of stock or a vehicle/land that could be sold. 
  • Renting out space for additional income and community service. Bordeaux belongs to a church that rents space to a preschool and a piece of land to local sports clubs.
  • Creating entrepreneurial business opportunities in connection with the church – for-profit endeavors to support the non-profit ministry of the church. A Christian bookstore on site, for example.
  • Fund raisers that reach beyond church walls. Often congregations have fundraisers and invite only those who attend the church. Moneymakers that reach beyond those already involved broaden the base of giving and create a presence in the community.
  • Grants or corporate sponsorships to fund outreach or service ministries. Funders are more likely to pay for a service project than to support a faith community in general, but the funds could still supplement the budget.


Sharing the Love

While it is necessary for faith communities to focus on ways to meet shrinking budgets, it is also important that churches look outward to the needs of members and the greater community. While most churches will experience a decline in giving during hard economic times, many will see attendance rise as people seek a place where they can connect and find a support system.

As people become stressed and fearful, faith communities can offer peace and hope as well as practical support, like food pantries and clothing exchanges. During tough times, it is helpful for congregations to know that they offer a relevant ministry. Churches that cut programs too quickly may lose a vital connection with members and the greater community.

Kennett cited, as an example, a church in a small town where a local plant closing devastated the community. While giving stayed flat, Sunday attendance grew as the congregation offered support groups, stress management tips and networking opportunities for those seeking jobs. It was good for the town and for the church.

Faith communities responding to community needs could consider offering debt and asset management classes from a biblical perspective – free of charge, if possible – and encourage members to invite neighbors and co-workers. When individuals' economic situations change down the road, a church that has embraced such outreach opportunities may be bigger and healthier than it was before the economic slump.

Bordeaux says people often do not talk about financial problems because it feels like personal failure. She advises ministers to normalize financial struggles - preach about it - get it out in the open so people can begin to open up and receive support. After all, Kennett points out, even in the most difficult financial times, faith communities must not be afraid to share God's love.

Molly Lineberger is an elder at the First Presbyterian Church of Winston-Salem, N.C.

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