Lessons From Recession: How To Succeed During Lean Times In The Church

News anchors often sound dramatic when talking about the U.S. economy, but a growing consensus of experts are worried about the end of 2022 and beyond. A recession—significant, widespread, and prolonged downturn in economic activity—seems more likely than not, and will inevitably impact everyone’s lives.

These long stretches of financial strain are exponentially tougher for churches. Not only are your congregants, staff, and leadership suffering individually, but your ministry may experience a drop in giving—at a time when your community’s needs are greatest.

Following the real estate crash of 2008 and subsequent recession, 57% of churches reported that their income declined, forcing staff salary freezes and reductions, reduced savings and investments, postponement of capital projects and missions, and more. These problems weren’t isolated to either small or large ministries, nor solely issues for just protestant or catholic congregations—a down economy affects the Church at every level.

However, that last recession also taught churches how to weather the storm. We recently spoke to Dr. Steve Walker, Senior Pastor at Canyon Hills Church in Bothell, WA, who remembers all too well the struggles of the 2008 crash, and graciously shared several of their learnings that are still applicable today. 

Teach About Giving

Many pastors and church leaders worry about speaking too frequently on the topic of donations and tithing. That’s certainly understandable, given societal norms—but the Bible doesn’t shy away from the topic. By some counts, there are over two thousand mentions of money, giving, and finances in scripture.

Dr. Walker lays it out simply for pastors: Do you teach about prayer? Do you teach about reading the bible? Do you teach about sharing faith and discipleship? If so, you absolutely should be teaching about giving and money, because they’re just as central to faith as the other topics. 

If discussing finances still seems awkward, consider approaching the topic from a different angle. Increase transparency with your church family by sharing an impact report that illustrates how the funds they’ve given are being allocated and all the great work that their generosity makes possible. When your congregation sees the tangible results of their gifts, and once they understand that giving is a form of worship, they’ll be more steadfast with their generosity through seasons of financial difficulty.

Budget, Plan, and Save

In their enthusiasm to strengthen their communities and build His Kingdom, many church leaders’ eyes get bigger than their (financial) stomachs, and they move forward with ambitious projects on the assumption of future donations. This is risky at the best of times, but with a recession looming, overspending could trap your ministry in an incredibly difficult position.

At Canyon Hills, Dr. Walker’s team never allows the current year’s budget to exceed their previous annual donations. They never plan with ‘faith that money will come in’, but rather reflect on last year’s giving as God’s faithfulness—a strategy that has served them well for 27 years and counting.

They also stay very intentional about their large and long-term projects, often setting up a dedicated fund and growing it for one or two years before diving in. Besides allowing them to see steady progress toward distant goals, that money can serve as an emergency fund. If giving unexpectedly falls—say, during a recession—they can simply delay the project another year and pull from the funds now.

The Importance of a Bookkeeper

Church leaders are often guilty of taking on too many tasks and responsibilities. That desire to serve fully and wholeheartedly is undoubtedly noble, but it pulls their focus away from the mission and vision of their ministry.

No matter your church’s size, you simply must have a dedicated resource for tracking finances. Be it a volunteer with a background in accounting, a full-time staff member, or an outside firm, financial tracking is a critical task when managing a church. In Dr. Walker’s experience, your church needs someone with the knowledge and experience not only to manage the books and make sure every penny is accounted for, but also to accurately forecast and strategically plan for the future.

Look For Unexpected Opportunities

A recession will deliver plenty of challenges for your church—but don’t forget to keep an eye out for surprising opportunities.

By the time 2008 rolled around, Dr. Walker and Canyon Hills had repeatedly tried to purchase the building they were leasing for their church. Although their offers had been generous—to the tune of $15 million—they couldn’t even get a call back from the owners. 

But then the real estate bubble burst, the economy went into recession, the market landscape shifted dramatically—and Dr. Walker saw an opportunity. He had their building re-appraised, and now offered to buy for just $9 million. After brief negotiations, the deal closed, and Canyon Hills had managed to save nearly $6 million that could be reallocated to other projects and ministries.

Keep in mind, they were only able to seize that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because they practiced what they preach—Canyon Hills doesn’t shy away from teaching giving to their congregation, their leadership practices fiscal discipline, and they have a strong, dedicated financial team to help their ministry embrace the opportunities God presents for them this season.

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