Saturday, January 24, 2009

how a church flourishes economically in a financial crisis: a parable of extravagant generosity

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 a crisis, economically, and we have almost no margin for error. Ministries within and external to the church 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, no one of them gives more than 2.5% of our annual budget, and this is a positive element in our story.

When the market began to collapse this 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 in the worst part of the initial collapse (a major employer in our city had been purchased) and in preparation I asked a number of members what would be helpful and what would not be helpful to say. I received a number of responses, and it helped me to see their worlds. 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 on that day 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. I had met all three of these kinds of folks, so I knew at least three different hearers would be present, and they would require distinct messages, within one sermon! 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 having any income (for example, they might have been in sales). I assured this person that we and 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, and these persons are in our churches. I encouraged these persons to consider giving the largest pledge they had ever given to the church, knowing that many 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 a group of the largest contributors to our congregation, thanking them for their pledge, and asking them, if possible, to consider an additional gift. We also stressed that they might choose to express their generosity in other ways, and regardless, we were grateful. As an aside, my wife and I happened to be on that list. This is the simple outcome of following the spiritual discipline of tithing (10%).

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, again thanking them 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 having funded all district and conference apportionments (which we had also accepted in full). Our members fulfilled their pledges at the rate of 99.1%, which, in our economic climate, is nothing short of miraculous. And we 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. And 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. I share this ministry experience on this blog not for the purpose of boasting, but to encourage congregations to be as thorough as they possibly can be in the area of stewardship. Again, the present condition offers us no alternative, and a great deal of unnecessary suffering can be avoided if we attend to the practice of extravagant generosity.


Blogger mark said...

This is great... These lessons are obviously learned from several months of praying through the crisis.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Latrell said...

I want to personally thank the members of your Bridgebuilder's Sunday School Class for their generosity during the Christmas Holiday. Thanks to one of my co-workers in the class, my family and I hade the oppiortunity to have a Christmas dinner and plenty of food after the holidays. God is really working with your ministry and this is so inspiring! I never thought I would be as low as I was. There were days I didn't know how I would feed my children. God stepped in right on time each day and we never went hungry. I am a single mother who works full-time and goes to school full-time. My struggle overcame me for a while, but thank God for his "Bail-out!" Today my family has an abundance of food. Finances in this crisis are still not plenty, but they are enough for survival. I just had to share with you all how greatful we are to have caring people in this community such as the Bridgebuilers and this congregation. Now I can help someone else through my blessings. Please share this with the class. Thank you again and may God forever keep you all!!!!

Latrell Kilcrease
Devon & Alexus Ross

4:18 AM  

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