By Darrel Rowland
On Long Island, fledgling True North Community Church is readily shelling out more than $2 million for a three-year-old building on four acres.
In northeast Ohio, historic First Christian Church in Canton is meeting the payments for a $25 million relocation project from three years ago—for now.
Along Florida’s Gulf Coast, rechristened New Day Christian Church faces an uncertain future because of its struggle to pay for a $5.5 million facility built about four years ago.
While America’s economic woes are unquestionably hitting churches across the country, the varying experiences of this trio of growing congregations illustrate how the consequences are playing out in different ways. Making conditions even harder to assess: Several churches contacted for this article simply would not comment on their financial condition.
Anecdotally, offerings are down 10 to 25 percent in many churches. Some have been forced to lay off staff and make other cutbacks; one church in Oregon is even using water after baptisms for irrigation. Elsewhere, however, offerings remain steady and the fears of nervous church treasurers have gone unrealized, at least so far.
George Barna, the California pollster noted for measuring religious trends, said the recession will cost churches billions in lost contributions. More than a fifth of the people who have trimmed their offerings have stopped giving altogether, he found late last year. “People’s attitudes about generosity have been altered, as shown by their immediate donation behavior,” Barna said in his report. “We anticipate that a greater percentage of church-goers will decrease both their giving levels and frequency over the next year or so. This is a time for church leaders to demonstrate restraint and wisdom in their financial decisions.”
Numerous churches are discovering that their biggest financial challenge lies in raising money for or paying off major building campaigns. “I think this downturn may be different in that the onset may have been more sudden, and many people were more financially overextended on their mortgages and are less able to handle financial downturns,” said Stephen Anderson, head of AMI Church Consulting Services in Clayton, North Carolina, and author of Preparing to Build.
As the economic woes took hold across the nation, many churches’ pledge commitments came in substantially under estimates made before the downturn; in some hard-hit areas, such as those supported by the Big Three automakers, commitments were off as much as 50 percent, he said. “It is too early in the process to see what the real long-term effect is going to be on capital campaigns, as we are early in the economic meltdown/recession process,” Anderson said.
Today’s financial uncertainties “force us to ask the most penetrating questions about stewardship that we have asked in decades,” said Brad Leeper, senior strategist for Generis Partners, Atlanta-based consultants on Christian fund-raising and stewardship. “Evidence shows that in down economic times, many church members do not treat giving as an expendable luxury item. They are inclined, however, to become far more selective in their giving outlets.”
$3 MILLION ‘GIFT’
True North is a true success story. Since opening in September 2005, the church has exploded to 800 attendees spread through five services in a 210-person facility. Yet its fund-raising success will be hard to emulate. Last summer a member scratched off a Ba Da Bling New York lottery ticket worth $3 million—and promptly donated it all to the church. That means $102,000 annually to the church through 2028, or more if authorities decide not to withhold taxes since the church is a nonprofit.
Not that the church encourages gambling; it regards the lottery proceeds simply as a gift. The entire first year’s proceeds were donated to a charity battling human trafficking in Southeast Asia, and at least 20 percent of the future revenue will be given to charities as well. But the church also will use much of the money to pay for the new, centrally located building about 15 minutes away.
Ironically, that facility and its four acres became available from a small denominational congregation struggling to make its payments. “It’s kind of a bittersweet thing for them,” said Bert Crabbe, True North’s lead pastor. True North plans to build a 500-seat auditorium at the new site that it hopes will serve for five years, with perhaps three services each weekend. “It’s been such a fast ride. It’s been so crazy it’s hard to even talk about five years,” Crabbe said. “We’re just three years old, and we’re sorta just holding on for dear life.”
At the moment, True North is the only church of its type in the area, but Crabbe said he hopes additional ones are planted soon. “Long Island is screaming for more of them,” he said. “There’s just a tremendous, tremendous need for new churches.”
Canton’s First Christian is just coming off back-to-back three-year stewardship campaigns. Home of the legendary P.H. Welshimer during the first half of the 20th century, First Christian has grown from fewer than 1,000 to just over 2,000 in the almost 12 years John Hampton has served as senior pastor.
In 2006 the church moved five miles north to a new 127,000-square-foot building on 114 acres that was a golf course (nine holes remain). The old building was sold to Malone College, a private Christian school, for $6 million.
While members in economically hard-hit northeastern Ohio have kept the church’s operating fund afloat, the commitments to the capital campaign suffered, Hampton said. “We did see some folks, probably because of the economy, who were unable to fulfill their pledges,” he said. “On the other hand we did have a sizable number of people give without pledging. And then we had several people who gave over their pledge, which softened that blow quite a bit.”
For now, the church is dipping into cash reserves set aside years ago. “We take it month by month and rejoice that we’re able to do that,” Hampton said. “But just like if you live out of your savings for a long period of time, that’s not going to be good.”
He compares Canton’s situation to Egypt’s under the guidance of Joseph; the church is in the midst of its seven lean years now, living off what was set aside during the seven healthy years. “If churches like ours . . . can weather this current storm, I think we have positioned things very well for the future. But it’s being able to survive to get to the future.”
$31,000 EACH MONTH
New Day Christian in Port Charlotte, Florida, has been growing, too. Unfortunately, so have its financial obligations. Known as First Christian Church until the beginning of last year, the congregation has almost tripled in size since Jamie Snyder began as lead pastor in August 2006. However, that rapid growth has brought the church’s attendance to only a little more than what it was in the early 2000s when the congregation built a $5.5 million facility on 22 acres. Problems soon after the move led to a sharp decline in both attendance and giving. Since the $1 million from the sale of the church’s old building ran out last fall, the congregation has been unable to meet its $31,000-a-month obligation.
Initially, church leaders thought they could get a “bridge” loan to tide them over, but that fell through. Snyder acknowledged that “from a stewardship point of view you’d be nuts to give us the money.” The church is struggling to find a way out of its dilemma.
“We’re basically in a position now to where our hand has sort of been forced to agree to a very aggressive payment plan,” Snyder said. “Is it very realistic for us? No, but are we in a position to negotiate? No. We’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Seemingly the only option is to sell part of the church’s 22 acres. But the economic turmoil and zoning issues so far have turned prospective buyers away, even though the church has dropped the price by $1 million. “For me as a leader, it’s difficult to know that although we are seeing good signs of growth, we’re also exponentially compounding our debt every month that goes by that we can’t make our mortgage payment,” Snyder said. “You just can’t continually accept free money . . . hoping that some day this just all goes away.”
Church leaders are trying to balance faith and practicality. “How long do you stand and wait on the miraculous, and when do you make the decision to take the church in another direction?” Snyder wondered. “There are cathedrals and buildings all over the continent of Europe that used to be vibrant, growing churches that are now (empty) because God is bigger than those buildings. The day may come when this facility is not our facility and I’m OK with that, because I look at life from a kingdom perspective. I tell my leaders all the time, the reality is, God’s not sitting on the edge of the throne chewing his fingernails wondering how to save New Day Christian Church.”
GIVING IN HARD TIMES
Kevin King, administrator at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, said churches’ financial struggles are coming at just the time many people are taking another look to the church. “So many people put their trust, put their security in their financial situation. Well if you lose 30 to 40 percent from your retirement account your stocks are going down, what is security?” he said. “When people’s worlds get shaken they start looking, because the reality is we all need something to ground us.”
King’s observations are backed up by a study last year by David Beckworth, assistant professor of economics at Texas State University. He found that evangelical Protestant congregations grew about 50 percent faster during an economic downtown, leading him to conclude that leaders of those churches should be “praying for a recession.”
Leeper of Generis Partners said, “The church that consistently and creatively articulates a compelling vision and celebrates the successes will attract giving in hard times. . . . What a terrible price to miss authentic ministry because we lacked financial resources, especially when our neighbors may be driven to their most open spiritual moments in years because of their personal financial stress.”
Darrel Rowland is public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch and an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington Christian Church.