Times are tough. The economy is in the tank. People are losing jobs, and those who have them are growing ever more cautious with their money. It’s got to be hurting the church, right? Well, yes… and no. It all depends on where the congregational treasure is — there will you find the congregational heart.
There are daily news reports of church foreclosures, mega-church staff lay-offs, program cancellations, and massive planning changes in American churches — United Methodist churches included. Expansion plans are scrapped. Mission trips postponed. Community groups that can’t afford to make a “donation” to the church are being asked to leave. It is a sad and dismal time. But only for those churches that are spending the bulk of their bucks on themselves.
Congregations with a strong focus on mission — on using their human and material resources to serve the needs of the world — are reporting that they are doing fine. In fact, a number of these mission-focused churches report an increase in giving since the economy turned sour. While these churches are unique, they also share four common characteristics:
- strong vision for compassionate service to the poor and marginalized
- strong, loving relationships that cement the members of the community of faith together
- a pervasive sense of generosity as a key spiritual element of the congregation’s identity and purpose
- well-designed, articulate and constant appeals that help people connect their spiritual and material gifts to greatest need.
In short, where the focus is on “them” rather than “us,” money simply isn’t a problem. It is a matter of the heart, not the wallet.
The upside of the downturn is that many churches are beginning to act ecumenically — realizing that they cannot do much alone, congregations are banding together to make sure they have enough to share with others. Food pantries, thrift shops, soup kitchens, and shelters are reaching out to new groups, seeking supplies and support. The media is beginning to raise awareness about what churches can do, and they are helping to bring in donations and contributions. Supply is down in the vast majority of our churches, but demand is up everywhere. We need all the help we can get.
The worrisome economy is an excellent catalyst for deep reflection about priorities — at both the individual and the congregational (and denominational?) levels. Where is our treasure? Where is our heart? Is what we truly love and truly believe guiding us in our relationship with material possessions? These questions push church leaders to face whether the emphasis has been on the behavior of giving or the value of generosity. Too many churches focus on giving to the exclusion of generosity, ignoring the fact that you can alter a person’s giving patterns (behavior modification) without helping them to become a generous person. But when we help nurture true generosity, giving cannot help but be affected. ‘Generous’ churches will ride out an economic downturn much better than ‘giving’ churches.
Unfortunately, the best time to tackle changing a congregation’s culture is not in the middle of a crisis. Talking more about generosity, the needs of the poor and marginalized, the importance of strong community (‘we’re all in this together’), and the need to stay focused on our values, is not well received by anxious, uncertain people. If a church doesn’t enter an economic crisis in a healthy place, it probably will not get healthy when it feels like the world is crashing down around it.
So, what is there to do?
- Church leaders have a wonderful opportunity to provide a non-anxious presence to their congregations. Our God is greater than any cyclical crisis we might encounter. Making the church a comfortable, safe space for people to gather is important.
- But it is also important to keep the ‘big picture’ — to share a larger picture that many of God’s people are suffering and in need. A vision and encouragement to care for one another — both inside and outside the church — is crucial.
- Eliminating waste, at church and at home, is also important. We can begin now to reduce wasteful habits that will help in the short term and hopefully continue when things get better.
- Remember how important attitude can be — people’s relationship to money has more to do with how they feel than what is actually happening. If people live in fear, they will be less willing to do for others. Where they feel safe and good, they will be more sharing.
- Don’t afraid to talk about money, and do not apologize for appeals to give. Every person has to decide for him or herself whether to give and what to give, but there is no choice for leaders — we continuously ask people to commit their material wealth to doing God’s will.
- Stay focused on the future, not wallowing in the present. Walk by faith, not by sight. Where does the church need to be when all this is over — and it will be over (but not for a few years)? How do we emerge from this wilderness-walk with our integrity in tact?
I see the greatest gift in this current crisis as the grass-roots level reevaluation of our church values. Congregations abandoning plans for montrous church campuses so that they will have money to feed and clothe the needy. Churches eliminating paid unnecessary staff positions that force them to train, equip, and mobilize laity into meaningful ministry. Churches selling off statues, paintings, and equipment once they realize that these things have nothing whatsoever to do with ministry. As difficult and troubling as our economy is, for many it is a wake-up call to remember why we’re actually here — to be the body of Christ to serve a broken world.