Main Content
Economy Poses Challenges For Congregations, UUA

These are hard but hopeful times at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, CA (310 members). It’s true the annual stewardship campaign was down 12 percent this winter. And it’s true there will have to be cuts next year in programs and part-time staff because of that. And it’s true that every few days the Rev. Kathy Huff talks with a parishioner who has been laid off or lost benefits.

Not a hopeful picture? Times have been better, notes Huff. “Certainly we’re feeling the pinch. Every day someone comes in whose personal life has been dramatically changed. Some have really had to lower their pledges.”

But the recession has also brought opportunities, she says. Members are recognizing that they need to volunteer to take up the slack that will be created by the letting go of part-time staff. And people are coming forward to provide pastoral care to those in need. The church is also holding sessions on how to manage personal finances.

Another bright spot is that the congregation completed a $2 million capital campaign last spring, before the economic dam broke. While some pledges have been lost, new ones have come in, and there is still enough to proceed with the project, which will pay for earthquake retrofitting for the sanctuary. “We’ll be in construction April 1,” says Huff. “That feels good and it says something about the congregation feeling good about itself.”

She adds, “We have an opportunity to really come together as a congregation and become clear on our priorities. This could be a wakeup call to understanding our true interdependence.”

All congregations are being challenged by the economy. And those challenges will likely continue for some time. A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia projects the economy will begin to pick up this summer although unemployment will remain relatively high into 2010. A survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association predicts a “very discouraging” first half of 2009 followed by a slow rebound.

What does that mean for congregations facing spring stewardship campaigns? Fall campaigns did reasonably well in many places, says Dr. Wayne Clark, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) director of congregational stewardship services, partly because they took place before the economy’s real nosedive. Now that the recession has settled in, will spring campaigns be a harder sell?

Clark encourages congregations to start with the basics, especially in a tough economy. “Those congregations that make a compelling case, focus on positive opportunities, and ask people directly for money will probably do pretty well,” he says. “Those that start from a place of scarcity will feed the anxiety, and if they are more hesitant and reluctant to talk plainly about money, won’t do as well.”

Show them the pie, he suggests. “Use program budgeting by creating a pie chart showing how much goes to worship and music, religious education, outreach, etc. Show them where the money will be used and how it will make a difference. After the money comes in, then you can create the line item budget. Most people want to be inspired about what the church is doing. That’s why they give.”

His own prediction for an economic recovery? “I think we’ll be in the soup all of this calendar year and until some time in 2010.”

The UUA itself reported that income is down slightly this year and it is anticipating that income will be down significantly in the fiscal year beginning July 1—possibly by 10 percent. As of mid-February, contributions to the UUA’s Annual Program Fund were down by about 2 percent from a normal year, says Laurel Amabile, Annual Program Fund (APF) director.

UUA staff groups were asked in January to reduce spending wherever possible. The Association has also imposed several other measures, such as ceasing printing some UUA publications, including InterConnections, The Religious Leader, and a monthly mailing to congregations, and making them available only electronically.

Some churches have already had to make hard decisions. The Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Lexington, KY (298), cut staff hours in January and eliminated all committee budgets following a “discouraging” stewardship campaign, says the Rev. Cynthia Cain. When a followup survey by the governing board showed that a majority of members felt their own giving was fairly high, Cain wrote on her blog, “The things that matter most (in our faith): fellowship, fun, spiritual practice, and mutual worship should not be threatened by a contracted economy. But I do think we in leadership will need to work even harder to help people act from generosity and compassion and not from fear.”

The UU Church of Annapolis, MD (536), had a fairly strong stewardship drive last fall. “We set a high goal and we didn’t make it, but we did exceed our pledge income from last year,” says the Rev. Fred Muir. Then in early February many congregants began to slow in their giving. As of February 9, he says, “We are $40,000 short (on a budget of $700,000) and discussing ways to balance this year’s budget.” The church has planned a capital campaign in the spring to raise up to $3 million for a new building. Muir says that might be postponed.

First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR (1,080), announced in February that it would close for the month of July because it faced a projected $185,000 deficit for the year ending June 30. From 10 to 12 percent of members’ pledges for this year are unpaid, compared to 4 percent in a normal year.

Associate Minister the Rev. Thomas Disrud says the plan is for staff members to take two weeks of unpaid leave between now and the end of June and then take the month of July as unpaid time as well. The only activities at the church in July will be by groups that rent space.

Disrud says that if the deficit shrinks because people increase their pledges or more of them pledge, the leadership would adjust the deficit measures, but “it’s a significant amount to make up.” 

He says the church leadership decided to close in July because it wanted to be as transparent as possible about the church’s financial situation. He notes that two part-time office staff were laid off last summer in anticipation of the coming deficit. “That had an effect on the rest of the staff, but people in the congregation didn’t necessarily see the impact of that.” He says there was no option but to reduce staff costs since those are 70 percent of the budget. “We’ve already reduced other expenses as much as we think we can.” He adds that while smaller congregations might be able to carry on with volunteers during a financial crisis, that’s more difficult for larger ones where most programs are coordinated by staff.

Disrud says they picked July because it would cause the least disruption in the church calendar. Emergency pastoral services will still be available.

Is there a silver lining to this situation? Disrud says, “I’m having very good and interesting conversations with our program heads about how we might do things differently, or more efficiently, and what things are most essential to our mission. It’s a dance of fear and anxiety, but also one of hope and optimism. We’re going to stay focused on our mission and we know that we will get through this.”


Dr. Wayne Clark has collected documents related to giving and the economy. To access them go to and type “giving during tough economic times” into the Google box at the top right-hand corner of the page.

See the page on Worship Resources for Tough Economic Times at the UUA WorshipWeb.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

Like, Share, Print, or Explore

For more information contact