Leading a Church in Challenging Financial Times

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.

Third, financial challenges at church can unify the leadership. Of course they can also divide leaders and members. But if the leaders seek to discern God's will together, if they regularly gather for honest conversation and prayer, then God is able to knit together the hearts of leaders in a new way. If you're facing tough budget issues, I would urge you to pay close attention, not only to the difficult decisions that need to be made, but also to the process by which they are handled.

Fourth, economic hardships can help us acknowledge our dependence on God. Although it seems almost self-contradictory, it's true that pastors and other leaders can begin to function as if they are the masters of their fate and the lords of their church. This is particular true in times of growth. But when challenges are overwhelming, we realize how foolish we have been to think we're ultimately in charge, and how much we must depend upon the Lord. Thus, difficult times can bring us to proper humility before God, even as they renew our commitment to prayer. I don't think I ever prayed harder as a pastor than when the church was confronting challenges that exceeded our human resources, fiscal and otherwise.

Fifth, challenges that feel overwhelming can also help leaders to remember whose church it is and whom they are serving. When I used to worry about what might happen to Irvine Presbyterian Church, I found that my ego was caught up in the success or failure of the congregation. There was too much of me in that equation. But when I couldn't solve the church's problems, when I couldn't make things better on my own, I was forced to remember that Christ was the Lord of the church in general, and of Irvine Presbyterian Church in particular. That congregation existed for his mission and glory. So if the Lord, who had more than enough resources, chose to withhold some of those from the church for a season, that was his prerogative. Hard as it was for me, I had to trust that Christ knew what was best for his church.