One pastor sat in astonishment as the treasurer described their situation. They had just had their worst month since his ministry started. “How did this happen?” he asked.
The treasurer answered, “We’ve had an OK year so far,” he said. “Not great, but we’ve been paying the bills. I really can’t explain this drop-off.”
The pastor knew that their biggest giving family had been pretty unhappy with his leadership lately. He was afraid to find out what was making the difference, but he knew he needed to. If this couple had really quit giving, the church could be in real trouble.
Either external events or internal congregational realities can precipitate a church financial crisis. As everyone knows, many churches were deeply affected by the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, whether because of real economic impact on their members, or simply by the high anxiety that was everywhere in the country.
In addition, a stepping out in faith by the leadership may actually lead to a dip in income, as the system reacts to the upset in the balance. All churches have some kind of financial and emotional balance or homeostasis, and strong moves by leaders upset that balance. The congregation or parts of the congregation may say, in effect, “Change back,” and sometimes this shows up in giving.
What can leaders do when a financial crisis looms?
First of all, you need to know as best you can what you think yourself. The clearer you are on what is most important to you, the better you will be able to navigate the anxiety of others. As Bob Hunter said in February’s teleconference, quoting Edwin Friedman, “First, focus on your own functioning.” Hunter points out that when anxiety increases most people tend to automatically focus on others, how they caused the crisis or what they can do to alleviate the crisis.
Leaders who are calm communicate their calm to others – it’s contagious. This doesn’t mean you have to calm others down, reassure them, or be a cheerleader. It means you manage yourself and communicate a calm presence.
Secondly, make sure you stay connected. At a time of crisis it can be tempting to hide out, especially if your leadership becomes the focus of the crisis. Ed Bacon, my teleconference guest next week, suggests, “What is so important in relationships is that we connect our being to the being of another person, and not have the relationship conditioned on whether or not someone agrees with us.” So even if there is strong disagreement on how to handle the crisis, it’s critical to stay in touch. Those connections will help the whole church navigate the crisis better.
Here are some questions to ask at a time of financial crisis:
* How clearly can you describe what the crisis is?
* Who knows about the crisis? Who else needs to know and when?
* What else is going on in the life of the congregation (new initiatives by the leadership, change in staff, building, key deaths in the congregation) that might have upset the balance?
* What guidelines, if any, have the leaders set for themselves in how to handle this crisis (how to use e-mail, how decisions will be made and by whom, how they will be communicated)?
* How are you managing your stress through the crisis (taking time off, caring for yourself, meditating, getting support from others)?
* Are you and others able to keep going with the mission of the church, maintaining focus on goals, regular worship, etc.? This is possible to varying degrees depending on the crisis. (For example, if your building burns down you have to make changes in worship!)
* How do you sense God present with you in the crisis? What are you doing to remind yourself and others of that presence?