From his column It’s Your Money

its-your-money-05-13-1The storm dumped eight inches of snow on my driveway even though the calendar indicated spring had sprung. The clouds blew in on Saturday, and by Sunday morning the wise thing to do was stay tucked inside a warm house. Most congregations in the city where I live did not meet for services on Palm Sunday 2013.

I’ve heard many pastors observe that giving for the month drops if the congregation doesn’t gather on a Sunday. Snow and ice adversely impact the offerings received.

An economic tempest started five years ago. Various persons now seek to discern its effect on congregational finances. The Indiana University School of Philanthropy released the 2013 Congregational Economic Impact Study in which it probed how congregations responded to the financial challenges they faced. About one-third reported layoff of staff between 2008 and 2011. Researchers discovered that after the recession, congregations more likely increased funds for outreach and mission activities rather than for buildings and internal programs.

John Dickerson wrote The Great Evangelical Recession (2013) in which he describes six factors that will “crash the American church.” It’s sobering data. Thirty-five-year-olds today give less than previous generations did when they were the same age. In one study of giving to charities, 46 percent of the donations came from persons 65 and older; those under the age of 35 gave just 4 percent. Dickerson predicts, “Unless giving trends change significantly, evangelical giving across the board may drop by about 70 percent during the next 25 to 30 years.” Adjusted for inflation, Church of the Nazarene districts in the United States reported on average a decrease of 20 percent between 2002 and 2012 (range: +14 percent to -40 percent). We’re almost a third of the way to fulfilling Dickerson’s prediction.

Leading through Economic Change

Pastoral leadership can prepare a congregation for the changes ahead. Dickerson urges congregations to be debt-free within 10 years. Given the fact that the oldest members provide the bulk of a congregation’s income, the prudent church board will eliminate debt before that generation passes away. Pastors will need to lead boards in taking the necessary steps.

Dickerson discusses the dependence on dollars in how the American evangelical church has operated in recent decades. He calls it “a dollar-centric deformity of the gospel.” People sometimes criticize the persistent fundraising on religious television shows, but it is necessary with dollar-dependent ministries. Compensation for pastors generally makes up the highest percentage of a congregation’s annual budget with facility expenditures in second place. Pastors need to acknowledge that the financial stress faced by congregations puts pressure on their own personal finances.

The 2013 Congregational Economic Impact Study reports that congregations with clergy not informed about congregational giving face the greatest challenges in these financially difficult times. The pastor is an essential voice in articulating the mission and calling for a fiscal commitment to that mission. The pastor builds trust within a congregation as he/she guides the congregation with transparency about monies received and spent.

Dickerson says that in light of the great evangelical recession, the spiritual need is for renewed engagement in discipleship. This must be whole-life discipleship that challenges people to live out their faith every hour of every day. Instead of sermons on tithing—contributing ten percent toward God’s work—the challenge must be for faithful stewardship of 100 percent.

Hurricane Sandy smashed into the East Coast of the United States in October 2012, churning up destruction valued at more than $70 billion. Some will rebuild. Others will relocate. None will be the same.

The church, too, is in the midst of a fiscal storm of similar proportions with little sign that the eye of the storm has passed. Congregations and pastors will feel the impact for years. Forms of congregational and pastoral ministry will shift to reflect the new economic reality. Some will persist. Others will not. All will be changed from what we’ve known in the recent past. The only way to thrive will be to recommit to faithfully follow the leadership of the Lord Jesus, to embody and proclaim the gospel in its simple and pure form.

Keith Schwanz is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kansas, and the founder of Storian Press, a book production company.

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