The Church and Tough Economic Times: What Should Congregations be Doing?

by
Anthony B. Robinson

The election is behind us, the holidays are here, and the economic challenges? They continue. In fact, it seems likely that they will grow worse before they get better. In view of this, what should congregations and their leaders be doing?

Response can be grouped in three areas. First, caring for those hit hardest by the economic crisis. Second, planning for your congregation's future in what could be lean years. Third, speaking faithfully and frankly about money. Let's take these in turn.

Caring for the hardest hit. If you live in a part of the nation where there have been widespread home foreclosures, there are people in need of emergency shelter and food, as well as pastoral care and the support of a Christian community. Losing a home means more than loss of a residence; it also means the loss of a dream. If you live in a part of the country that hasn't been hit as hard by foreclosures, the impacts are being felt in other ways, with job loss the number one issue. Losing a job has obvious practical consequences: less money to pay the rent or mortgage, meet medical bills and buy food. But losing a job also means losing identity, routine and connection.

Congregations need to make renewed efforts to respond on all these fronts: food, shelter and ministries of care and support for those whose spirits have been dealt a devastating blow by the loss of a home or job. Prayerfully seek God's guidance about how you are called to respond. Inventory what you doing now. Gather information on needs among your church members. Gather additional information on needs in your community.  Build on what you are already doing. If you have a feeding ministry, build on that. If you have a housing or health care ministry, build on those.

Ask members of your congregation to make a special gift to a special fund for "Helping in Hard Times."  Encourage members of your congregation to take part in such ministries, to pray for them and for those they serve. See if there are people who sense a call to form a "Helping in Hard Times" ministry team to coordinate your congregation's efforts. Find partners in the community and with other congregations. Publicize what you are doing. Let it be known that your congregation is addressing needs created by the economic crisis and that you welcome to worship those in need of spiritual support and Christian community because of loss of job or home. Whether you offer food, temporary shelter, emergency assistance, referrals or groups where people can process loss and recover hope, get the word out in your congregation and community.

Planning for lean years. In biblical Egypt, Joseph foresaw in a dream seven years of abundance and seven lean years. He led Egypt to plan and prepare for the lean years. Doing so meant the family of patriarch Jacob found help in their time of need.

No one really knows what lies ahead for the U. S. or global economy, but the consensus is we're not out of the woods, that things could get much worse, and that it could remain that way for as much as three, five or seven years. To be sure, we all hope that such dire predictions prove wrong, but they may not. It could be that congregations and their leaders need to be thinking, like Joseph in Genesis, about seven "lean years."

Here are some suggestions for planning and managing for lean years. First, get good information on where your congregation currently stands financially. What are your assets and liabilities? What portion of your overall budget goes to building maintenance? What portion goes to support staff and the programs they lead? What are your sources of income? Share this information with those who need to know, whether Trustees, Elders or members of your Board. Provide a helpful level of information to the congregation as a whole, along with the assurance that the congregation's leaders are addressing the challenges. Congregations that rely on trust and endowment funds that are invested in the stock markets have been hard hit. Decisions need to be made about how to best steward those resources.

Second, instead of simply asking every aspect of your congregation's life and program to take a 10 or 20% across the board cut, this may be a good time to for the congregation and its key leaders to ask what ministries and programs of your church are the most vital and to sunset those that are not vital or effective. Sometimes church programs march on after the need is gone or even if they were never effective in addressing a need. Let them go. Ask what are the "vital few" ministries and programs your congregation needs to do and do well in order to be faithful and fruitful. Identify those ministries that are core to your mission and those that are relatively less important.

Third, consider creative short-term reductions and alternatives. For example, some clergy might welcome additional time off in the summer to spend with family even if it means a "leave-without-pay." Your congregation could combine services in July and August with a neighboring congregation, allowing you to grant a such a leave without pay to one or more staff members. Or consider different ways of getting necessary things done. Instead of maintaining a custodial staff, building maintenance might be contracted out or parts of the task taken on by a ministry team made up of congregational members. Or it may be a time to see if there are capable members of the congregation who would be trained and could volunteer in the church office or other congregational life ministries. If you are in a geographic area where there are a number of congregations that might cooperate, consider letting each congregation develop a "specialty" that others don't have to do themselves. For example, one congregation might develop social services ministry, another youth ministry, and a third a church camping program.

The situations, needs and resources of congregations vary a great deal. But beginning now to think about plans and alternatives for "lean years" will give your congregation greater flexibility and preparedness in the future.

Talking faithfully and frankly about money. The challenge of these times should not be allowed to paralyze congregations or their leaders when it comes to basic Christian teaching and convictions. Now, more than ever, is the time to affirm some basic truths. Remind yourself and members of your congregation that, as Christians, we believe that God owns everything. It's not "ours" in the first place. The sooner we get this, the more relaxed our hold becomes and the more our anxieties are kept from racing unchecked.

Second, encourage people to focus more on God's abundance and less on human scarcity. In our American consumer economy there is, it seems, never enough. By definition that's the way it is. There is always something more you "need." Perhaps you've noticed that no matter how much people have (had), it is never enough. Sometimes the more money or possessions people have, the more acute their feeling that they don't have enough. The only way to have "enough" is by focusing on God and God's abundance and by giving and sharing. Where God is, there is enough. Where Jesus is, there is more than enough.

Third, encourage people to give to God and to the ministries of the church “off the top” rather than with what is “left over.” Giving off the top means that we are putting God first. It also means that a person who makes such a conscious commitment is more likely to do a budget, to manage their own finances, and avoid becoming over-extended financially. As part of “giving off the top,” encourage people to consider a percentage that is set aside for God and God’s work through the church. It may be 2, 3, 5 or 10%. Complete this frank talk by encouraging people to grow in their giving--as they are able, to increase the percentage they set aside for God and God’s work in the world through the church. “Giving off the top,” establishing a percentage for what is offered to God, and encouraging people to grow in their giving, will mean that your church will continue to be a vital beacon of faith, hope and love in these challenging economic times.

About the Author

Anthony B. Robinson, UCC pastor, speaker and author, teaches leadership at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. His newest book is Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations.

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