In times of economic stress, it is fascinating to see how the church responds. ‘In God We Trust’ is apparently only true to the extent that we have the currency on which it is printed. Cut losses, panic, make shortsighted decisions for the short-term — it makes one wonder, where is the faith? Over the past two decades I have had opportunity to work with universities, social service agencies and other non-profit organizations as a consultant to improve their systems and processes. It is a stunning irony that when other non-profits are faced with economic uncertainty and budget shortfalls, their default response is to explore alternative revenue sources. However, the church — at all levels — responds by first looking to downsize and cut costs. Healthy organizations focus on the income side of the budget, dysfunctional and poorly led organizations focus on the expense side.
The main difference between the healthy and the unhealthy is a simple difference between being mission/vision-driven vs. being budget-driven. Budget driven organizations ask “Can we afford it?” then act on the answer. Mission/vision driven organizations ask, “How can we afford it?” then do what is necessary to accomplish their goals. Where there is clear, compelling vision, money is just one tool among many. Without vision and clarity, the demands for money always exceed the supply (because unfocused organizations lack priorities and try to do a little of everything — usually poorly) and funding the deficit becomes an all-consuming task.
Another difference that comes clear in the church in times of economic hardship is where the focus is on giving (behavior modification) and where it is on generosity (a core value). When stewardship is defined within a local church as ‘what people give to the church,’ economic hardship always translates to congregational hardship. People tend in our culture to give what they can from their surplus, not from their first fruits. Our church efforts to increase giving works well when the economy is strong, but often falls apart when financial times are tough. Teaching people to give doesn’t necessarily make them more generous. However, when people adopt a generous lifestyle, it always has a positive impact on giving. For people focused on giving, the main question is “what can I afford to give?” When the focus is on generosity the question becomes, “where can I do the most good to meet the most needs?” Congregations that cultivate a culture of generosity weather economic distress much better than those that focus on the practice of giving.
Healthy organizations don’t have a lot of fat to trim. Because they are clear on mission and vision, have well-defined priorities and goals, and expertly align their activities to their objectives and mission, there is very little waste. Unhealthy organizations waste an enormous amount of resources trying to figure out what they should be doing. Without clearly defined targets, they shoot in all directions. They hire consultants, reorganize every few years or so, and eliminate some positions to create new positions (generally replacing key knowledge workers with middle management and administrators to help with future planning and reorganization…). Planning becomes a substitute for action; thinking about mission and purpose replaces doing the mission, and valuable assets are squandered.
Many of our congregations, conferences, and general church structures have cut away not only fat, but have chopped into muscle, sinew, and bone. They find that they have nothing left to cut. Fewer and fewer people are tasked with greater and greater responsibilities and demands. Quality suffers as people are spread thinner and thinner, trying to do more and more with less and less. What is so sad is, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Healthy congregations, conferences, agencies, and extension ministries are doing nothing more radical than finding the resources to do the work that God is calling us all to do. Most of what they are doing isn’t difficult, which begs the question, ‘why aren’t more of us doing what they do?’ For me, the answer is about faith, not about money. Where leadership is spiritually grounded, focused on discerning and doing God’s will, and openly willing to act on faith in the face of opposition and perceived scarcity, our church thrives. Where faith is absent — where the church is run like a business, and leadership limits its vision to what we can do with what we’ve got — the church suffers.
The bottom line, if you will, is that there is more than enough money in our churches and communities to do just about anything we want to. I say anything, not everything. We need to have clear priorities, and appropriate plans to meet our needs, and then we need to generate whatever it takes to be faithful. There are five basic practices of fiscally sound and growing congregations (regardless of soci0-economic conditions) that any congregation, conference, agency, or extension ministry can emulate.
- Ask — healthy organizations ask for money without embarrassment. The reason is that they can explain very clearly what they need, why they need it, what they will do with it, and what the benefits will be. They are able to make people care enough to contribute sacrificially. Too many of our churches operate from a vague, general budget, where our main message is “give us your money, and trust us — we will do something good with it.” This is a prime example of an unhealthy organization’s approach to asking for money. Modern Americans are a causal people — they want what they do to produce a visible result. When they spend money, they want something to show for it; and when they give money, they want to see what it does. If they give a dollar to feed a child, they want to see the child, the food, and the child eating the food. It is why special appeals for money to fix the furnace, give a gift, respond to a disaster, build or remodel something, etc., are generally so successful. People can see tangible evidence of their giving. When church leaders are able to offer a simple, clear cause-and-effect vision to potential givers, they are much more likely to give. Also, when leaders are deeply committed to the importance of their work, they find more than enough courage to ask people to give. The only time people are timid or embarrassed about asking for money is when they are unsure of, or not passionate about, their reason for asking.
- Involve — when people have responsibility for things they care about, they invest at a deeper level. Healthy church leaders connect people’s actions to the things they care about. By expanding leadership circles and asking for a commitment of energy as well as money, resources increase exponentially. When people are passionate about children, they are most willing to give to programs and processes that serve children and youth. When people have a deep concern for the poor and marginalized, they will give most generously and sacrificially to those things that address poverty and exclusion. Giving is not primarily an act of the head, but an act of the heart. People give most freely to what they care about, not what they are talked into.
- Partner — a congregation can do only so much by itself. Most societal needs are too great for any one church to address alone. What is impossible for individuals or individual congregations, becomes eminently doable when we join forces and resources. Healthy churches and conferences participate in goals and objectives larger than themselves — ecumenical, interfaith, communal, and collaborative. They reach beyond their own resources to pool resources with others. They seek synergy, where what they produce is greater than the sum of the parts. Partnership is a key to amazing results. Too many of our individual congregations try to do everything all by themselves. Having to be in control limits our potential effectiveness.
- Grants — on average, approximately $150 million dollars earmarked for research, launching new enterprises, community development, social services, children’s programs, etc., remain unspent and undistributed each and every year in the United States. What could we do with an additional $150 million dollars in The United Methodist Church? Not much, right? Our healthiest congregations, conferences, and other church agencies are developing expertise in grant proposal writing. They see what is available in foundations and trusts, and make application for funds that align with their priorities. The success of many grant proposals depends upon the congregation’s willingness to partner beyond its own walls. While many non-profit funding sources will not support or endorse one denomination, they are more than willing to fund ecumenical and interfaith efforts and church partnerships with secular organizations.
- Endowments — okay, this is not a short term solution and it may take years to reap the benefits, but it is still worth it. If there is any critically important ministry in the congregation, the formation of dedicated pools of funds to support this work is an act of good stewardship. Some of our healthiest congregations and conferences have established designated accounts to build principle for various ministries of outreach, compassion, education, spiritual development, and a host of other worthy causes. Contrary to popular myth, having large reserves of money does not have a negative impact on regular giving — as long as the money is USED! Too many unhealthy congregations hoard assets against an uncertain future, without a clear reason for raising and holding the funds. In situations where the foundation is generosity, and the resources are all dedicated to specific priorities and goals, endowments continue to grow as regular giving continues to increase. In the healthiest congregations, the basic driving attitude is “we can never have enough — there is always something we can do in service to God with whatever funds we receive.” This is the heart of an abundance mentality. Conversely, the scarcity mentality uses some of the same words to mean the opposite: “no matter how much we have, there is never enough — our needs are always greater than our resources.”
We live in a time when we desperately need leaders who walk by faith, not by sight. We need good, faithful, clever stewards managing our affairs who are constantly seeking God’s will, staying focused on the future we need to create, not the problems that threaten to hold us in the present. We need to spend less on marketing and more on mission, less on preservation and more on potential, less on structure and more on spiritual leadership, less on resources and more on reformation, less on us and more on God’s crreation and children in the world. Fear cannot be our driver. We need faith. We don’t need more information about how bad things are, but wisdom and knowledge about how great things can become if we will all seek ways to increase our assets, instead of fixating on our liabilities.
The fear of not having enough is sometimes worse than not having enough. We are a church of approximately 8 million people in the U.S. alone. We control or have access to literally billions of dollars. There is virtually nothing we could not accomplish if we put our hearts and minds to it. What we need is a vision. What we need is courage. What we need is conviction. What we need is faith.
This applies to individuals as well. Leaders need to be mission/vision-driven, too. Individuals who are always concerned about what is lacking will not reach their goals. Those who see what is possible, will do what is necessary to make that possible happen.
I often looked to what was possible, but I had feared taking many of the steps necessary. Now I have laid aside my fears and put my trust in the vision God has shared with me. I am more confident now in my own abilities to accomplish anything that I set my mind to.
Now, with my own renewed confidence, I hope to share these dreams back with the church. I want to see the church engage in the world in ways that match how we find our connections and needs. There is so much we can do in this digital realm that can build up God’s church even in the sense of its physical community.
As usual, Dan, your insights have crystallized the core of the UMC’s situation. I’m going to forward the link to this post to everyone on our church’s leadership team with a request that we discuss it at our next COM meeting in June.