General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Financial Leadership in Tough Economic Times

General Assembly 2009 Event 5022

Presenters: Rev. Ian Evison, Director of Congregational Services for the Central Midwest District; Kenn Hurto, Florida District Executive.

This session was keenly focused on providing tools to manage church finances in these times of economic ambiguity. Rev. Ian Evison and Kenn Hurto offered special counsel to church leaders facing anxious congregations.

The presenters began by defining primary roles of the leader. Chief among these, they said, is regulating anxiety—your own and your congregation's. They advised leaders to stay close to shared values and church mission to steady the ripples. Evison and Hurto also defined desired outcomes for leaders. These included management of anxiety and looking for opportunities amid adversity.

The presenters warned leaders may get that “this is not what I signed up for” feeling, given the current economic pressures facing their churches. They warn leaders to address anxiety before it spreads among stakeholders. Anxiety about finances can lead to denial, unneeded system changes, and fighting over side issues, all of which are nonproductive. Good leaders, they counsel, will promote open, honest dialogue about current conditions without promising to fix things unilaterally.

How Goes It?

Presenters asked session participants how their congregations are doing, financially, compared to last year. Responses varied, but most said they are behind last year. Some cited the economy, poor stewardship results, or problems with a minister. Evison posited that the mechanism for how well a congregation does lies in its uniqueness, not the economy. The congregation’s mission statement should be clear, and integrated into its work.

Lean times might actually provide opportunities, Hurto suggested. If your congregation had been considering a building expansion, for example, the poor economy might lead local builders to take on your project for less money.

The “M” Word

Although the current trend shows an overall decrease in charitable giving in 2008, giving to religious organizations has actually increased. Hurto encouraged leaders not to back away from frank talk about money. Hold a face-to-face stewardship campaign, require a balanced budget, and ask for more money if you need it. One participant said he offered his church three budgets: one with all their dreams met, one with none, and one in between, to show them how much more they would need to give.

Participants shared that some congregants who used to pledge a large amount stopped coming to church when economy went into recession, embarrassed that they were no longer able to give as much. Evison felt this posed an opportunity for pastoral care. He advised ministers and leaders to let donors know you care about them regardless of their pledge.

Hurto recommended asking for a percentage of income, rather than a percent increase over last year's pledge or a prescribed dollar amount. Analysis shows that Unitarian Universalists only donate one to half a percent of their income. Hurto feels this is rather low, considering the old standard used to be one dollar a week per $5,000 of income, a 5 percent tithe.

The presenters offered five dos and five don’ts to remember when dealing with congregational finances.

Don'ts Dos
1. Don't assume the worst. Do an excellent job on stewardship.
2. Don't pull back from what is hard to do. Do ask what changes are needed.
3. Don't stop talking to people. Do make friends with those who are best at working with people.
4. Don't mistake acting quickly for acting decisively. Do keep in mind how you want to be in community with each other.
5. Don't forget that we are a values-based institution. Do keep ministry and mission first.

Evison and Hurto reminded attendees that, while national trends don't cause the problems in our congregations, they do exacerbate fault lines. Do not step back on stewardship, they advise; rather, stay in close relationship to your donors.

In closing, they advised attendees that the way we approach leadership matters more than what we actually achieve. Learning and growing may be most important thing we do.

Reported by Toby Haber; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley.