Mark D. RobertsIn the last month, I've spoken with several pastors and elders whose churches face formidable financial challenges. In fact, it seems like almost every church leader with whom I speak these days is wrestling, or has recently wrestled, with the implications of our struggling economy. Most churches have already eliminated programs and laid off staff. Many are facing even more downsizing, and cuts in mission and benevolence.

Let's be clear. It is neither fun nor easy to be a church leader in times like these. Not that pastors and lay ministers respond to God's call because it offers pleasure or leisure. I realize this. But it can be especially painful, stressful, and discouraging to lead a church when valued ministries and colleagues have to be excised. It can cause you to doubt yourself, your calling, and even God.

I lived through something like this during my first years as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. The economy in the early 1990s was in a downswing, especially in Orange County, California, where real estate development had ground to a halt. The church had lost quite a few members in the years before I arrived, which added to the financial pressures on our budget. I remember waking often in the middle of the night, worrying about how we could cut our budget and still keep our faithful staff. I would pray, hoping to receive "the peace that passes understanding" and return to sleep. But, mostly, my penchant for preoccupation defeated my efforts at intercession.

If you're going through something like I've just described, either as an ordained pastor or as a lay leader in your church, I thought I might share a few words of encouragement. Beyond commiseration, I might be able to offer something to help you find God's presence and guidance in this time.

First, although cutting a church budget is painful, sometimes it contributes to the overall health of the church. Some churches, but not all, are in need of pruning. Perhaps there are ministries that are not bearing fruit, but that manage to stay funded during times of plenty. Pruning can help redirect both financial resources and human energy. Pruning also forces a church, especially its leaders, to refocus its primary mission. If you have to cut something, you'll be inclined to trim that which is incidental to your main calling as a church. In order to do this, you'll need to clarify your purpose. This process of discernment can help a church grow stronger and healthier.

Second, paring down the church budget can encourage the ministry of the people of God and not just the paid staff. In times of financial blessing, it is easy for church leaders to hire staff to do the work. In the process, lay ministers can be discouraged or even shut out. Now, I believe in the value, at least in many contexts, of paid staff for a church. But I also believe that it's way too easy for church professionals to take over that which laypeople ought to be doing. Frequently, busy lay folk are all too willing to "let the pros handle it." The result is a church modeled more on the American corporation than the body of Christ found in scripture. Limited financial resources can motivate church leaders to rethink their way of doing ministry and can encourage the "people in the pews" to consider how they might be more involved as ministers of the church.