Featured Columns

By Keith Schwanz
From his column It's Your Money Chart of naz pastors age distributions

My friend talked for almost 90 minutes. A few times I asked clarifying questions, but mostly I just listened. I met him 15 years ago, and never before had I heard him speak with the emotional intensity that saturated our conversation in early 2016. He told me he had discerned it was God’s will to accept the call to the congregation he now served, so he had moved his family to a new city and began to serve as their pastor. Soon after arriving, however, he learned the congregation’s finances were different than what he had been told in the interview process. I realized that much of the passion in his words that afternoon came from his concern about his family’s sudden financial vulnerability and how it might negatively impact his children.

Unfortunately, pastors in many places across America face similar circumstances. I’ve talked with associate pastors who suddenly have had to move because of changes in their congregation’s financial standing. I’ve talked with pastors who have been compelled to find employment outside the church because their congregations needed to reduce expenditures. I started hearing a few stories in 2011, and the frequency continues to grow.

In the past five years, in various ways, I have tried to understand what has happened in hopes of determining an appropriate way forward. I have looked at research in general trends in personal finance. For example, the February 22, 2016, edition of Time magazine had an article that reported, "Today’s old are better off than yesterday’s old, while today’s young are worse off than yesterday’s young."

Maybe our state of ministerial compensation is the result of generational differences in charitable giving. Numerous studies show young adults contribute significantly less to the church than older adults. But this trend did not begin with the Great Recession of 2008. It started with the Baby Boomers, my generation. When boomers were 35 years old, our giving to religious organizations was 20 percent less than what our parents gave when they were 35 (adjusted for inflation). What we see today in generational giving is the continuation of a trajectory started decades ago.

Data like this suggests systemic economic issues as factors in the financial challenges congregations face today.

Economic Pressures

In the summer of 2015, a conversation with a friend about financial challenges in his congregation prompted me to go to the Church of the Nazarene Research Center’s website. There, I found data for my friend’s congregation, and I looked at stats for eight other congregations in the same metro area. In this study, on average, the congregations received, in 2014, just 65 percent of what they received in 2004 (all figures adjusted for inflation). Expenditures declined too, but by a smaller percentage. In 2014, these nine congregations spent 70 percent of what they had spent 10 years before, which represented almost 105 percent of their 2014 income (one congregation spent 136 percent). This means they were using reserve funds to meet these challenging economic times.

After that, I pulled the data for 10 congregations in a metro area in a different part of the country. The numbers revealed that this second group received 62 percent in 2014 of what they received in giving 2004. Expenditures were at 65 percent at the end of the decade, which represented 105 percent of 2014 income.

A Pastoral Response

A pastor can lead a congregation to address financial concerns. Attention to biblical stewardship is needed to help people act responsibly with all financial decisions. John Dickerson, in The Great Evangelical Recession, asks, "Will we spend the next decade working harder and harder at fundraising—or working harder and harder at disciple making?"

Dickerson also talks about a "dollar-centric deformity of the gospel" that has "led to an assumed dependence on money to fulfill a commission that originally had nothing to do with material wealth." A pastor may need to lead the congregation toward ministry not overly dependent on a cash outlay.

Further, congregations probably need to give attention to paying off the mortgages on their church facilities. Given current trends, Dickerson urges congregations to be debt-free within 10 years. The elimination of a “fixed” expenditure like a mortgage will allow congregations to be more nimble in difficult economic times.

Some denominations use a worksheet to determine pastoral compensation. All congregations in a conference, for example, may use the same calculations so that all pastors are compensated uniformly. In the Church of the Nazarene, pastoral compensation is the purview of the local congregation. A district assembly may pass an annual report that describes and recommends appropriate pastoral compensation, but it is not binding. Economic pressure on congregations can have a direct impact on the financial stability of a minister's family.

A pastor must be wise with her/his own finances. Debt must be eliminated. Savings must be prioritized. Net worth—that is, what is owned (assets) minus what is owed (liabilities), is ultimately the key financial figure—not income. Over time, a person should see an increase in net worth as a basic measure of financial stability.

From my perspective, it seems we are likely to continue to experience profound change in the economics of congregational and pastoral ministry. So far, I have found nothing that suggests we have bottomed out. The swirling continues and there is no easy solution as to how to check the spinning. More change is coming, I’m afraid, but that does not mean we cannot make adjustments that will lessen the impact.

Keith Schwanz is a writer and editor who has previously served in congregational ministry and graduate theological education.

See related articles on Demographics Matter and Attendance and Cultural Shifts in the USA/Canada Region in this edition of P&B eNews.

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