The below article was written for Exponential by Ralph Moore.
Four days ago, I awoke in the midst of a long and fearful dream which I remember all too vividly — something I seldom do.
It took a couple of hours to shake that eerie sense of depression in the hangover from the dream. Not fun. I’m kind of glad that I remember this one, though, because it brings extra passion to what I’m about to write.
In the dream, the church I pastored in Hawaii lost the public school (where we met for 16 years). We were meeting in an indoor/outdoor mortuary. The congregation shrank in the move and people were not happy about the new meeting place. Finances were hurting and I felt crushed under the weight of responsibility. The stupid dream must have lasted an hour because it seemed to stretch over several days and numerous arguments over money.
We never lost a building, so the dream had no roots in reality (though we did move to Hawaii with no place to meet and spent several sleepless nights before gaining access to the first of four buildings that we would occupy during our first 18 months in the state). I think the dream was triggered by knowing that I would write about church finances this week.
So how do you lead your congregation through this difficult time, financially? I’ve talked to church planters who were living on the edge prior to the pandemic. How will they survive the thing? Others are seeing an increase in giving. What can we learn from them? What are some basic understandings we all need while dealing with church finances while many of our members may be living on unemployment, or worse?
Address the Issue
Honesty is the key word here. If things are bad, admit it. Don’t try to paper over a monster that threatens to destroy the future of your congregation. Acknowledge the pain among your members and their neighbors, but do not hide the fact that your church needs to meet its financial obligations.
Admit your own fears about addressing the issue. Be quick to point out that you are speaking from a position involving a conflict of interest. You are paid from their generosity and they know it so put it up front in your discussion about money so you can put it aside and get to the needs at hand. Promise to speak the truth, in love, about this subject as strongly as you would any other. Be willing to spend a Sunday or two on the subject — during, and certainly after, the pandemic.
Volunteer whatever cutbacks are feasible. This might include a pay cut for you and/or your staff. It also may help to simplify and re-focus the ministry as your future unfolds. There is nothing like a crisis to help people become comfortable giving up unnecessary church programs that may have outlived their usefulness.
Point out scriptures that bring financial hope to your congregation. Several that come to mind are Proverbs 3:1-10, 2 Chronicles 7:14, Malachi 3:10, and Philippians 4:10-19.
Create Inexpensive Ways Forward
Don’t just focus on giving to the Church. Develop creative strategies for helping others in the midst of what may be a very difficult time for your members. Show your people by your personal behavior and by the plans you develop that you and they can still give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name, no matter how bad things get. Giving to others helps us look to God for more. It is a way to beat a spirit of poverty.
You might make lunches for children who normally catch their only healthy meal each day in a public school. You could organize to go shopping for elderly people in your congregation, or in your community. A call to donate blood would certainly be a benefit during a medical crisis and costs no money. One church I know simply wrapped toilet paper and a few snacks in gift packs for older folks in the congregation — a small but meaningful gift. A gift of takeaway meals to your local hospital would brighten the day of a few healthcare workers.
Finally, begin to point to the path forward. By now you’ve probably re-assessed what is truly essential to your church and what is not. I believe that proclaiming the Word, living in community, and focus on mission are essential ingredients if we are to call whatever we do, “church.” Beyond that everything is up for grabs. You may not agree in total, but probably do in principle. Harvest the lessons from doing church in a pandemic, both relational and technical. Use them to streamline the life of your congregation as you come out of this thing. They, and you, will be glad you did. And, perhaps you’ll sleep with more pleasant dreams than the one that caused me to shudder a few days ago.