By Kent E. Fillinger
Rising unemployment rates. Crashing stock markets. Falling consumer confidence. Decreased spending. Skyrocketing personal and national debt. Freezing credit lines. Collapsing banks and bankrupt companies. Mounting numbers of home foreclosures. A deepening recession. People fearing a depression.
These are the dominant headlines of our day. What is the impact on the church?
Prognosticators and pundits are attempting to predict when this economic downturn will either reach the bottom or start to turn around. Until resurgence occurs, how can churches sustain ministry in a shrinking economy?
Put the economy and giving into perspective. The recession has not equally impacted every job and industry, nor has it permeated every region of the country. However, the interconnected complexity of this recession is unlike any our nation has experienced. Eventually conditions likely will be worse than you actually expect.
“Data from the last 6 recessions show reduced giving in 3 and increased giving in 3, but only in 1970 did it go down in the first year. Traditionally, people view the church second only to family in terms of accountability. In an extended downturn, congregations might begin to see a retraction in church member giving in the second year.”1
Even though the average general fund giving for the surveyed churches remained unchanged from 2007 to 2008 (at $3.7 million per church), many churches reported increased giving last year. At the same time, total giving among the surveyed churches in 2008 ($380.4 million) was down 2 percent from the total reported in 2007.
Seventy-three percent of the surveyed churches in a capital campaign saw the total giving for church building funds and capital campaigns topple 33 percent last year. But 55 percent of the surveyed churches reported an increase in overall ministry spending last year, while 25 percent reported a decrease in ministry spending.
Build better budgets. The typical response to a bad economy is to react by cutting spending across the organization. For churches trying to adjust to a new economic reality, cutting rarely involves obvious and easy choices.
An article in Harvard Business Review questions the practice of across-the-board spending cuts.
During a downturn, (churches) attempt to eliminate slack and inefficiencies accumulated during the recent growth period. But their attempts to cut fat and waste often slice into newly growing muscle, bone and tendon. Creating a strategic expenditures funding category helps (churches) to continue to build capabilities for the future while eliminating the excesses of the past.2
Before this recession, church leaders could assume past giving trends would continue, so they made strategic plans based on those projections. Over the last decade, many churches expanded ministries, added staff, and built buildings, all the while amassing significant debt based on a prerecession giving model.
Last year, more churches across the country fell behind on loans or defaulted than ever before. Some churches even filed for bankruptcy.3 This recession has changed the situation, and now most churches won’t be bailed out financially through attendance growth. A new model for leading the church is required.
Another measure churches take to decrease overhead is to reduce staff. Our research revealed that almost 80 percent of the churches studied either maintained or increased their overall full-time equivalent staff last year. Of the 41 churches that increased their staff, the average increase was 11 percent. Simultaneously, 23 of the listed churches reduced their full-time staff last year, with the average reduction being 13 percent.
When faced with the possibility or necessity of eliminating staff, churches need to ask, “Do we have the people we need to lead us through tough economic times?” Gallup Management Journal suggests, “When deciding who must go—and why—it’s important to retain not only the best leadership talent but the right blend of talent for the realigned organization.”4
As you consider your budget, ask questions like these: Can our church staff do more with less? Are we reducing costs in a way that won’t have unintended consequences down the road? Are we guaranteeing that our church will remain healthy? Are we preparing to emerge on the other side of the downturn stronger than ever?
Grow generous givers. Compared to the rest of the world, Americans are incredibly generous with their time and money. For years, churches have emphasized tithing as the standard for giving; despite this, the typical U.S. Christian gives only 2.5 percent of his or her annual income to charitable causes (with churches and/or religious organizations receiving the largest percentage of that). Studies show each generation is giving a smaller percentage of income and less money than the previous one.
Church leaders need to see this trend and take proactive steps to reverse it. Some ideas: Move beyond talk about tithing and teach stewardship and generosity. Giving is a faith formation process; it is a spiritual issue, not an economic issue. The Bible consistently teaches that everything we earn or have belongs to God and he entrusts us to manage his resources. The more you preach and teach on stewardship, the more dollars you will raise.
Recent research “shows that people who give charitably make significantly more money than those who don’t. While that seems common sense, it turns out that the link in the data between giving and earning is not just one-way. People do give more when they become richer . . . but people also grow wealthier when they give more.”5
Todd Harper, executive vice president of Leadership Network’s Generous Giving group, said this:
I believe there are millions of Christians with the gift of giving, but that gift is latent. You have to call out the gift of giving and invite people to think differently about what God has entrusted to them. We have been blessed to be a blessing, and you have to help them understand why it is that they have more than they need.6
Become an Acts 4 church. Church leaders often refer to Acts 2 as a model for the church today, but in these difficult economic times, the better example comes from Acts 4:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. . . . There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (4:32, 34, 35).
It’s time for Christians to move beyond their American individualism to enact a biblical community of believers. We need to learn to live on less so we can give away more. The current economy creates a prime opportunity for the church to provide purpose, hope, and help to individuals and families in need.
Create an online co-op of shareable resources, tools, and supplies. Offer financial coaching classes like Financial Peace, Crown Ministries, or Good Sense. Establish business networking groups. Push volunteer service to offset giving shortfalls. Provide financial assistance to church and community members in need.
Communicate like crazy, balancing realism and optimism. The instinct of many leaders is to quietly ride out the storm, saying nothing until they believe they have some answers. That’s the opposite of what church members need.
In a recession, church members are nervous, and a church leader’s silence makes them worry more. Good leaders respond by communicating even more than usual. They find they don’t need all the answers, but they do need to say what they’re thinking and be honest about the economic conditions of the church. Even when the news isn’t good, effective leaders find ways to keep hope alive. Every good church has positive stories, even in a recession, and they need to be repeated.
Most importantly, leaders need to reaffirm that God is in control in our chaotic economy. Then communicate the church’s plan to achieve its mission and vision by exercising fiscal responsibility. Show how this will be done through a variety of means: controlling expenses, budgeting by priorities, spending for impact, delaying projects, establishing adequate cash flow, monitoring ministry, managing existing debt, and trusting God for enough.
Ram Charan, in his new book Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty, writes, “The new reality is that, barring acquisitions, (the average) company will be smaller two years from now than it is today.” My hope is that the same will not be true of the church.
We are truly “one nation under stress, in debt with questions and fears for all,” but the church is uniquely positioned as the one place that offers “hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19) to offset the uncertainties of life.
1Leadership Network Advance Newsletter, www.leadnet.org, 25 November 2008.
2“Protect Strategic Expenditures,” Harvard Business Review, December 2008, 28.
3See “In Hard Times, Houses of God Turn to Chapter 11 in Book of Bankruptcy,” The Wall Street Journal, www.wsj.com, 23 December 2008.
4John Fleming, Tom Rath, and Barry Conchie, “Your Organization’s Survival Plan,” Gallup Management Journal, 13 November 2008.
5Arthur C. Brooks, “Giving Makes You Rich,” www.portfolio.com, November 2007.
6Alexis Wilson, “Discipling the High-Capacity Giver,” http://www.leadnet.org/.
Kent Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting (www.3strandsconsulting.com) and outreach minister with Connection Pointe Christian Church of Brownsburg, Indiana.