In Uncertain Economic Times Enthusiasm, Planning, Count for a Lot

By Donald E. Skinner

Is the glass half full or half empty? Does economic uncertainty bring only problems, or could it also bring opportunities?

Those are questions facing all of us in congregations this fall as markets fluctuate and members see their savings, and maybe even their jobs, in jeopardy. As leaders, how do we respond to this economic climate?

As markets tumbled, leaders of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Congregation of the Palisades in Englewood, NJ (60 members), called a congregational meeting in October to allow folks to talk about the economy. “We had a frank discussion where people could talk about what’s bothering them,” says President Jonathan King. “We wanted to lessen some of their fears and help them understand they have a community here. We saw this as an opportunity to tend to our own community in a crisis.”

“We had a conversation about how we could be there for each other and how we could help the larger community,” King says. Several people volunteered to help counsel those with financial concerns, he says, such as budgeting and credit card debt. “People liked the idea of having others to talk with on a regular basis. People can feel very alone in their anxiety.”

The group also encouraged the governing board to create a minister’s discretionary fund for those in need, says King. “Several people talked about the need to focus on others and not on our own scarcity. I think that’s where congregations need to be going right now.”

Rev. Ian Evison, congregational services director for the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Central Midwest District, and former director of research for the Alban Institute, notes that helping people with their finances “is not a typically UU thing to do, but we’re catching a glimpse in this district that the emerging generation of UUs would be receptive to this.” 
Things to watch out for in this economic climate, says Evison:

  • Don’t take drastic measures, such as cutting the budget, or staff, before working it out with the congregation. “Some of the greatest damage I have seen to institutions in downturns comes from quick and clumsy self-protective action. That can magnify the harm, first by what is done and then how it is done.”
  • Economic stress can cause problems along pre-existing fault lines in a congregation. “If there is poor communication or a staff that does not work well together, watch for problems.”
  • Work out issues before a money crisis hits. “Often the immediate thing that sends a congregation into crisis is an issue around delayed maintenance of the building, a computer that dies, or needing to find money to replace a minister on sabbatical. “Plan for the things you can plan for. It’s not fair to blame an economic crisis on the sudden need for money for these issues.”
  • Spend time looking for the opportunities in a down market. “Congregations planning major projects and who already have a chunk of cash in hand are finding great opportunities.”

Evison notes that economic conditions have generated more interest in congregations about staff working at home, and in holding some meetings virtually. This might also be the time to think about publishing the newsletter electronically, he adds.

As of late October it was too early to tell if fall stewardship drives in congregations were seeing any effect from the declining economy.

The publication Christianity Today advised in October that church giving should remain steady for the next year, but if the recession goes into a second year giving could decline. The magazine quoted Sylvia Ronsvalle who has been studying Christian giving since 1988. “The data suggest that decreasing giving (to churches) is not the first thing church members do in tough economic times,” said Ronsvalle. “People have traditionally viewed (the church) as just beyond the family in terms of accountability.”

It’s important to keep congregations strong not only for ourselves, but for people who may seek out religious community in these times, says Laurel Amabile, the UUA’s director of the Annual Program Fund. “Individuals and families are experiencing anxiety about the economy and its effects on their finances. Many look to religious community as a source of encouragement and spiritual support in facing these challenges.

Wayne Clark, the UUA’s director of Congregational Stewardship Services, says it’s especially important this year for leaders to “make a compelling and passionate case” when asking for money. “Focus on recent successes and build upon them. Ask for financial commitments in person. And be sure to acknowledge each contribution.”

And expect the best from your congregants. Last spring the UU Church of Silver Spring, MD, found itself with a budget gap of more than $72,000. The governing board cut the budget $20,000 then went back to the congregation on Sunday morning with a compelling vision for the rest (and $7,000 they raised among themselves). Congregants contributed $25,000 that Sunday and within three weeks the total rose to $54,000. The congregation also fulfilled its goal of contributing its full Fair Share amount of $20,250 to the UUA after many years of not paying Fair Share.

Says Rev. Liz Lerner, who ditched her scheduled sermon to speak spontaneously about the deficit, “I talked about how accommodating growth, and the infrastructure that goes with it, is hard, and stays hard, and that there are no churches for whom growth is easy. But that hard work pays off. We had some very inspiring moments that Sunday as people responded to the call.”

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

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.

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