The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
COMMENTARY: How a church can flourish despite our economic crisis Ken Carter, Feb 17, 2009
By Ken Carter Special Contributor
I write the following at some risk—I take no credit for the outcome of what I am about to describe—but I offer it because our larger church is in an economic crisis and we have almost no margin for error.
Ministries are at stake, as well as the livelihoods of individuals who serve in program and administrative roles.
I write from a city that has been at the center of the financial storm, and from a state that has been hammered by job losses for more than a decade. While our church has a number of affluent members, not one of them gives more than 2.5 percent of our annual budget, and this is a positive element in our story.
When the market began to collapse last fall, we recognized that our stewardship campaign could not function in a “business as usual” manner. Our leaders began to meet early on Monday mornings, every other week, to monitor our responses and to check in with each other. Some had lost considerable income, others considerable retirement savings, and others were in key leadership positions in the local economy and charitable sphere. We were all in a state of shock, and it helped to meet together.
Lesson One: In a crisis, the wise pastor does not go it alone, but relies on the wisdom of others.
I veered from the lectionary during the worst part of the initial collapse (a major employer in our city had been purchased). In preparation, I asked a number of members what would and would not be helpful to say. I quoted a number of them (anonymously) in the sermon, and I think many listened more closely because their were hearing experiences that hit close to home.
Lesson Two: In a crisis, make adjustments in the planning of worship and the preparation of sermons.
We reduced the number of mailings that we sent to the congregation about stewardship, incorporating most of this into the newsletter. Saving money on paper and postage made sense to people. We shifted from having a lunch following the service on Stewardship Sunday to having muffins and fruit between the services. Again, we explained the reason for the shift and it made sense to people.
Having said this, we did not apologize for continuing with our appeal. We believed that what we were doing was particularly important in a difficult time.
Lesson Three: In a crisis, continue with your plans, but discern what is essential and what is flexible.
I recognized along the way that I would need to speak to three audiences in the sermon on stewardship. The first audience was the person in our congregation who had never pledged, for whatever reason, and I urged this person to pledge in the knowledge that there were people in our church who could not do so this year. In this way we were the body of Christ.
The second audience was the person in our church who simply could not pledge; perhaps they had lost a job or were not seeing any current income. I assured this person that God honored this situation, and asked them to support the church with their prayers, presence and service.
The third person was in the circumstance of being relatively unaffected by the economy. These persons are in our churches. I told them to consider giving the largest pledge they had ever given to the church, knowing that many others would not be able to participate, and sensing that we were in the midst of a recession/depression that comes along once or twice in a century.
Lesson Four: Do not assume that everyone in your congregation is in the same financial circumstance.
At the end of the year, we wrote a letter to the largest contributors in our congregation, thanking them for their pledge, and asking them, if possible, to consider an additional gift. We stressed that they might choose to express their generosity in other ways, and regardless, we were grateful.
Lesson Five: Do not restrict your appeal to one Sunday or the first phase of a campaign.
After the first of the year, a number of our leaders met and asked to send a letter to the congregation, thanking them again for their generosity and noting that each of them were planning to increase their pledges. For most this was a sacrificial act. They made it clear in the letter, sent to everyone who had already pledged, that this appeal had come not from the pastors and the staff, but instead from the grassroots.
Lesson Six: In a crisis, lay leadership is crucial.
The outcome. Our congregation concluded the year with a tiny financial surplus, having funded all internal and external ministries, and all district and conference apportionments (which we had also accepted in full). Our members fulfilled their pledges at the rate of 99.1 percent, which is nothing short of miraculous.
And we are very close to pledging our 2009 budget at the 2008 rate. This will mean no reduction in staff, missions or apportionments.
Lesson Seven: I truly do give thanks to God for this process, which has unfolded over several months.
I confess that I do not know what the future holds. But for the present, our members have been faithful in their giving, and our leaders have been faithful in their planning and execution of this important work.
The Rev. Carter is pastor of Providence UMC in Charlotte, N.C. This commentary first appeared as a post on his blog at kenatprovidence.blogspot.com.