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Downsizing comes to the church

By David Fletcher

The Chapel of Akron deals with cutting 15 percent of its staffing budget.

The recession hit northeast Ohio pretty hard. It came early and has stayed longer. These conditions coupled with the transition of a long-time senior pastor at our church created a challenging scenario. The Chapel of Akron is a church of 4,500 adults in worship each Sunday, on three campuses in eight services.

The Chapel did well for several years by trimming non-staff costs. Eventually, there came a point when the church had to do some major restructuring. While downsizing is challenging in business, it is especially hard in the church.

A restructuring is hard because a staff becomes like a family. In a major restructuring, dearly loved people are often let go. The “pastor” side of the senior and executive pastor positions finds this one of the hardest things to do. It’s been nearly five months and I am still working through the grieving process — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

With this as a background, here are some steps that were done at The Chapel to deal well with the staff, the board, the congregation and the community. The original documents that are mentioned in this article are available on XPastor.org.

Making changes
My terrible task in February 2011 was to cut $750,000 in staffing costs from The Chapel. As one friend put it, “that is more than my entire church budget.”  It is a huge amount of money for a local church! With a staff of 140 full-time equivalents, the cut comes to about 15 percent of The Chapel’s staffing budget. The recession and a changing church caught up with our budget and we needed to make some changes.

We had to be gentle to the congregation, compassionate to the staff that was downsized, strong for everyone’s tears and wise with our governing board.

We began by talking with the staff about the economic issues — this happened about six weeks before any final decisions were made. We also talked to the congregation and let them know that there were serious issues being discussed. We had plenty of prayer in our staff times, board meetings and around the church.

The day after
After this six-week period, we made our decisions. We opted to be proactive in telling all who could be told. The day after the restructuring, we published on our Website an 11-page public letter to the congregation and community. The letter explains the process and the cuts that were made. Also, we gave interviews to the local newspaper and radio station.

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On the communication side, one person wrote a comment on the radio station’s page:

If each of the area’s various governmental agencies made half the effort to do a top to bottom review to their mission, their staffing, and their financial resources such as The Chapel has done and made the appropriate adjustments, the world would be a much better place.

We accepted every positive comment. And, yes, there were negative comments too. Some people had disagreements with our decisions. It was extremely hard for people to lose their pastor. We shed plenty of tears and tried to explain the issues to the best of our ability.

We had developed a comprehensive communication plan. This outlined how we wanted to share information with the congregation, both before and after the restructuring.

Because our governing board members would be talking to the congregation, we also developed “FAQs” for them.

Were we perfect?  By no means. The issues were so large and so complex, that we had plenty of room to make mistakes.

Principles at stake

Let’s start with the obvious principles.

First, accept the numbers. Don’t sugar coat the numbers or give rosy predictions of the future. Be honest with the facts; if you have to trim, do so early. Most churches without debt will have 50 to 60 percent of expenses in staffing, and those with debt will have 40 percent or so. If you are going above those numbers, carefully examine your budget.

Second, accept that the economy is challenging. God can provide through more gracious giving by your congregation. However, that may not be God’s answer.

Third, accept that during a transition there will be challenges. People get attached to their key leader.

Fourth, take steps early on to ease your budget crisis. At The Chapel, we did work on staffing budgets for a year but in this case it wasn’t enough.

Fifth, get experts from your church to give their advice on the ongoing state of finances. Whether you call this a “finance committee” or whether it is done by the board, have high-level discussions about past, current and upcoming financial issues. Listen carefully to the advice and weigh it with biblical commands and principles.

Sixth, even with great advice and planning, your timing may be off. The recession is lasting longer than people predicted and is going deeper in various parts of the country.

Pastors need to gently and firmly make financial and staffing decisions. A major restructuring and downsizing may be one of the most difficult things that you will ever do.

David Fletcher is executive pastor, The Chapel, Akron, OH, and founder and host of Xpastor.org. www.xpastor.org

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2 Comments for “Downsizing comes to the church”

  1. Reverend Cynthia Hinson Graham

    Pastor David,
    I have probably read this article at least twenty times in the last eighteen months. I came across it as I was seeking to make sense of the transition I experienced because the pastor of the church in which I was formerly employed decided to downsize. He was the founding pastor of the church which was almost twenty years old. I had served on staff for sixteen years. A year and a half prior to his retirement at the ending of the twenty years, he and his wife, who was the co-founder, decided to cut my position as Assistant Pastor and Pastor of Christian Education along with the full time custodian, who had been with the church almost twenty years. It was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life. They did very little of what I read that you and The Chapel did. We were the downsizing. (Our church is nowhere near the size of the Chapel; therefore, there should have been even more a sense of family and sensitivity.)
    During my experience, I was so thankful to come across your article. It was so cathartic to know that somebody would go to this length to be spiritual and sensitive at such a difficult time. The compassion that you showed to your staff ministered to me. Reading The Chapel story helped me to put things in perspective. Though my experience was very different, seeing that there was a better way things could have and should have been done has helped and is helping me as I continue to heal. Thanks for having the courage to tell your story. It is a blessing to the kingdom and I pray it will serve as a “living epistles” to other pastors and churches if they are faced with a similar situation.
    Blessing to you and our ministry,
    Cynthia Hinson Graham

  2. Pastor David,
    Janice doesn’t know that I am writing this. I want to let you know that we are doing good. Janice is working at Living Water Free Methodist Church in Dalton, OH. The church is running around 700 attenders. We acknowledge how faithful God is in all that we do. I believe that you took very good care of Janice in her departure from the Chapel. I don’t expect a reply but I just want to say thanks for looking out for Janice. She was hurt deeply by the series of changes but God is healing her spirit.
    May God bless your ministry always,
    Mike Kelley

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