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Lessons for church leaders from the recent economy

By Sauni Rinehart

Remember when it was easy to manage church finances? Income approximated expenses. New programs were launched to meet people’s needs. Lives were changed; more people came, and expansion became necessary; capital campaigns followed, which met or exceeded expectations. Then the bottom fell out as the economy plunged into a recession unparalleled in our experience.

Surprisingly, there has been good news for some churches. More than a few have seen donations remain stable or even increase modestly. Others, with some strategic trims here and there, have weathered this storm pretty well. At many, leaders stepped up to the plate, assessed the situation, and made wise and timely decisions. Others struggled as their key donors lost jobs or income. They had to cut programs, halt building projects, institute pay freezes or cuts, or even more drastic measures.

Failure to take action

Why were some church leaders able to rally more effectively and quickly than others? Steve Worthington, vice president of credit with Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU), and his staff interact with ministries every day. He says that while most have made adjustments and continue to stay on mission in the changing economy, he’s seen a number of trends among ministries that have not.

“Some that found themselves struggling to make expenses and mortgage payments didn’t recognize the problem fast enough,” Worthington says. “Others failed to take action once they realized the extent of their ministry’s issues.” Another problem Worthington has observed among struggling ministries is “a lack of expertise to guide their ministry through the challenges of reduced income.” They didn’t really understand the repercussions of lost jobs or declining income of congregants.

According to a recent ECCU survey of ministry leaders, most ministries are managing their finances differently since the economic downturn.

Making changes

In a survey, of the 83 respondents, 61 percent had made changes. The most common ones were to budget more conservatively, minimize expenses, and monitor their budgets more closely. A handful was looking for other revenue streams; only one had taken the extreme measure of cutting staff.

The leadership at Calvary Chapel WestGrove in Garden Grove, CA, made a very conscious decision in mid-2008 to focus on the most important things. Mike Antenesse, formerly the church’s executive pastor and now serving on the board, says, “We changed our buying decisions criteria to a ‘must have’ as opposed to a ‘want to have’ basis.” This included making some hard decisions about keeping or adding programs.

They also carefully reviewed their cash management practices and began to build their reserves, including increasing their money market balance substantially. Antenesse adds, “We quadrupled our fund by putting aside any unused revenue at the end of each month in anticipation of a potential downturn in income. Fortunately, we have seen no decrease in our revenue forecast year-to-date in 2009, but due to advanced planning, we are poised for one if needed.”

Increase giving

Bob Jarrard, associate pastor at Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel in Yucca Valley, CA, says his church has experienced
God’s favor through the difficult times, but they did learn an unexpected lesson. “We’re not in charge,” he says.

“We rearranged cash and opened a line of credit,” Jarrard says. “And I believe God’s provision follows our being prepared.” Finally, Jarrard referenced a lesson taught by Senior Pastor Jerel Hagerman, “Because we’ve seen how God works, we’ve learned that circumstances can’t stop the vision. We can’t and won’t be imprudent, but we’re not cutting God short. And people have responded.”

Sauni Rinehart supports the public relations effort for Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU), Brea, CA.
[www.eccu.org]

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