Nation’s economic troubles worry some churches while others see a silver lining in downturn

Churches that teach generosity and have a strong vision seem more equipped to handle the tough times.

Ronald E. Keener

How will the nation’s economic slowdown affect America’s churches? Even as there’s a softening of $4-plus gasoline, there still loom large layoffs, bottoming stock markets, rising food prices and home foreclosures.

Church members may begin to rethink frequent trips to the church for services and meetings, while some leaders seem less concerned that the impact will be much felt on church budgets and income. Not to be held back, it’s “time to cross the Jordan and take the land,” one church official says.

Church Executive took a sampling, however unscientific, of opinion and some respondents feel that hard times for the country could be good times for the church. “While individuals are feeling a pinch and need to be compassionately cared for,” says Warren Smith, “my sense is that tough times are good for the church as a whole, not bad.”

He reports that a once-persecuted Chinese pastor friend said, “I weep more for the American church than for the Chinese church. The American church has forgotten how to trust completely upon God.” Smith is publisher and editor of Evangelical Press News Services and a commentator on Christian concerns.

Church on streaming video?

Of much the same opinion, even a bit more severe, is Eddie Hammett, coach and consultant who sees many churches in his work. “These challenging times might just be what some churches need to seriously evaluate programming and do some streamlining of programs, rather than maintaining all that have historically been available.

“Many members are saying that they are limiting the number of trips they can make to the church, due to gas prices,” Hammett observes, “and they are reallocating their funds from foreign or state missions to local church needs.

“Others are losing their loyalty to denominational organizations so as to free up programming and funds,” he says.

And there is a possible up tick on the use of online giving — still small in comparison to dropping one’s contribution in the offering basket — or automatic checking-account deductions. Online training and meetings by e-mail and online may replace some meetings at the church. Another view sees a new emphasis on neighborhood meetings and small groups that will create better fellowship within churches. The downturn also can be a time for the more well-off to step up and give more as others are unable to do so.

Ralph Holland, senior associate of Covenant Church and senior pastor of Mundo de Fe, in Houston, TX, shared that “I have no doubt as to the faithfulness of God with His children. We must not panic — but neither are we to live carelessly.”

In the 9,000-attendance Covenant Church and his Spanish-speaking congregation of 3,000, both congregations are focused on getting completely out of debt by 2010 as they also are working with congregants to reduce personal debt using the Crown Financial program.

God’s vs. human economy

“We are already seeing a shift in paradigm and an increase in our tithe and offerings,” Holland says. “God’s economy is never affected by the human economic situation. If we are good stewards, God takes charge and will never let the ‘righteous be forsaken nor his seed begging bread.’”

Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, TN, outside Nashville, is another church that is lowering its debt load in the coming year and isn’t letting the national economy slow them down. Executive Pastor Neal Joseph says the church is “optimistic about the coming year,” and even as the church is cautions about the general ministries and operations budget, it is because they are putting “every additional penny we can toward reducing our mortgage.”

Joseph says the 3,000-member church is adding a third teaching pastor, is deepening its commitment to global and local outreach, and has even seen some momentum in giving.

“The faithfulness of God has been on display as we have seen our weekend attendance grow 17.4 percent over the past three years and weekly giving has grown by 42.5 percent. In the past year alone attendance has grown 6.2 percent while giving has increased by 16.9 percent,” he says

Stewardship teaching helps

Where stewardship is taught regularly, it seems some churches are in a more favorable position. “Generosity has been one of our five Core Values, and we’re very serious about proclaiming and living out our Core Values,” XP Joseph says.

The people at Lincoln Berean Church in Lincoln, NE, recently approved a budget increase for 2009. “This is because our board sees opportunity to expand the Kingdom and is calling our congregation to give to maximize our impact on our world,” says Brad Brestel, pastor for generous living at the church that has 3,000 attending.

Lincoln Berean approved modest salary increases, but, says Brestel, “our board felt that this was the time to cross the Jordan and take the land, not resign ourselves to be a generation that dies in the desert due to lack of faith.

“The giants are huge in the land, but we have heard our marching orders and we would rather die trying than have God shelve us and wait for the next generation,” Brestel says.

Among the church’s plans is the launching of a team of nine missionaries into Eastern Europe with nearly all the funding coming from the congregation. Doors are being opened for compassion ministries, and says Brestel, “we want to respond.”

The church can prepare members

Victoria Bailey, a strategic planner to churches, including her own, 600-member First Baptist Church, Vienna, VA, generally agrees that the church can be more proactive in preparing parishioners for economic downturns.

She sees tough times as an opportunity for the congregation to reach unchurched persons through career counseling, job placement services and food pantries. “Churches with credit unions can provide financial seminars for the community,” she says.

The church better remain focused on a clear vision too. Bailey says that it takes pastoral leadership in “exhibiting their faith in God.

“This doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t have to reassess or revise its plans.

“This could be necessary. The important thing is to rely on the strength of the faith-giving congregants and give the community an opportunity to see God’s work in downtimes,” says Bailey.

Some observers come at the economic situation from a more studied approach.

Rick Dunham makes a living at crunching numbers on churches and says too many churches don’t teach on giving. “Most pastors shy away from it and I will be so bold as to say that most teaching on giving is not biblical,” says the president of Dunham & Co., Dallas, that works internationally with ministries in marketing, fund raising and media strategies.

In June Wilson Research Strategies released a study for Dunham’s firm that says nearly half of the Christian adults in America have reduced their charitable giving because of the economic downturn.

“This study shows that the sharp rise in fuel costs has already begun to impact giving by Christians who are the backbone of philanthropy in America,” he wrote. It  notes that 46 percent of adults surveyed said they have reduced their giving to charity, and that people older than 55, the segment of the population most supportive of nonprofit organizations, were most affected (53 percent) by the faltering economy.

Rising gasoline and food prices were cited as being the driving force in peoples’ reactions. Dunham says that while the effect on churches is masked somewhat by the typical summer slump experienced by most churches, the cost of a fill up at the pump from $40 to $60 “four times a month is a real hit to the pocketbooks of middle America.”.

Difficult times ahead in 2009

Clif Christopher says that “in the last six recessionary periods experienced by this country, giving has gone down in three of them. In the others it has increased slightly. Giving to religion is usually the last place a donor will cut.”

As president of Horizons Stewardship Co., he watches these matters carefully. “My belief is that the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 will be very difficult times for many nonprofits and churches. If a church does not have enthusiastic support from persons who see how lives are really being changed through the work of the church, then support will diminish quickly.

“However, persons will continue to do all they can to support a place where they believe a better world is being created and lives are being strengthened. The competition for the gift is going to be intense and we will see a survival of the fittest,” he says.

He points up the need for congregations to communicate and interpret the work being done and the needs being met.

Church health consultant Bob Whitesel says that “flexible churches will adapt by using Internet video communication for lay meetings and small group meetings, such as with Sunday schools.” A professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, Whitesel says that this could be a blessing. “In the future Internet communications will increasingly be utilized for congregational connections, and this present economic downturn is forcing churches to begin harnessing the power of Internet connectivity.”

Denominations being hit hard?

George Bullard Jr. of The Columbia Partnership, Columbia, SC, and for many years a denominational consultant, sees a possible cutback in monies for missions programs. “Denominational apportionment payments will be paid in part, but not in full,” he forecasts. “As a result denominational spending could be cut back 15 to 25 percent during 2009.”

Bullard sees the impact going even deeper, affecting cutbacks in staff salaries, health insurance and pension fund payments for pastors and staff ministers. “In some situations this will cause pastors and staff ministers to consider a second job outside their local church ministry. Spouses will consider going to work or moving from part-time to full-time. Consumer debt experienced by pastors and their families will increase. Some church staff positions will be eliminated and elsewhere new church staff positions will not be funded,” Bullard foresees.

Jim Tomberlin, a specialist in multi-church/multi-site churches, says that “the mega-church movement has largely been a suburban phenomenon made possible by the automobile and inexpensive fuel.

“That day is coming to an end,” says the Scottsdale, AZ consultant. “Launching new congregations reaches more people better, faster and cheaper than building a large mega-campus in one location.”

Tomberlin was the architect behind the Willow Creek regional expansion. “The megachurch movement is not dead,” he posits. “There will be even larger ‘giga-size’ churches in the decade ahead, but they will meet in multiple and smaller buildings across a region. There will be 30,000 churches across America with multiple venues and campuses by 2030.”

If there is a theme in any of these reflections it is that the church that talks regularly to its members about generous giving is in a stronger position in times of economic downturn. It’s probably not window dressing that Lincoln Berean, which is doing well, has a team pastor with a portfolio called Generous Living.

Other churches will do well if they have engaged their members in such financial and giving programs as Crown Financial, Good Sense, and Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University that Ramsey teaches on DVD over 13 weeks.

In speaking to Church Executive, Ramsey noted that almost 300,000 families will go through the sessions this year. “It’s been taught for more than a decade in churches all across America and tens of thousands of churches have taught it,” Ramsey said.

Moreover, with Ramsey on radio and in the media and receiving more recent exposure as author of The Dave Ramsey Total Money Makeover, he says the sessions are a “wonderful outreach” tool. “As much as 50 to 70 percent of the class attendees don’t go to church [where the course is offered].”

If there is good news in the present economic slowing, he says it is in the fact that “if somebody gets a little bit worried about their money, they pay attention to it. That’s an opportunity for growth and for learning.

“It’s like if I worry about my health, maybe I’ll get on the treadmill and back up from the table a little bit. Paying attention is always a good thing if that can lead us to doing anything better in our lives, including our money,” says Ramsey.

Three churches experiencing an economic up tick

Joe M. Ward, Executive Pastor, Walnut Ridge Baptist Church, Mansfield, TX: I am thankful to report that our income is the best it has been all year. Our average offering has increased every month but one since January, with June being our best month and July shaping up to be one of our best months. Honestly, we are shocked at this as fuel, utilities and food prices are really hitting our people hard.

Allen Winslow, Business Manager, First Presbyterian Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Through the first six months of 2008 the giving at our church has been consistently near or at last year’s level. This is significant given that we are situated in economically depressed Michigan, and there are members struggling with job losses. The fact we are a vibrant church has helped us weather the storm.

Dana Bisantz, pastor of administration, The Highlands Christian Fellowship Church, Palmdale, CA: For whatever the reasons that the Lord would choose to glorify Himself, we, by His grace, are not experiencing any downturns. Our year to date comparison for attendance is up more than 15 percent and our non-designated income is up more than 9 percent above last year. July should close with attendance up more than 30 percent. In all of our church’s non-designated income history of 19 years, we have never experienced a down year and our lowest increase was 3.4 percent in 2004.

— from Church Executive eNewsletter

Surviving the fall: how churches can overcome a downturn

  • Vision is articulated
  • Generosity is preached
  • Debt is worked down
  • Financial planning is taught
  • Communication is increased
  • Transparency is practiced

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