Since the 2008 economic collapse, a shift has been taking place in the American consciousness – from a culture of unlimited credit card debt and hefty mortgages to precisely the opposite of this mindset.
In today's tough economic times, churches could "offer classes in financial planning, debt and money management, and planned giving," McSwain observes.
Today, a culture of debt elimination has grown, especially toward credit card debt, as has a commitment to save more – even downsizing one's lifestyle and the square footage in personal housing.
Here are 10 things church leaders can do in these times:
Number 1: Church leadership should adjust to this "new normal" and "tighten its belt" on spending, debt service, salary increases and so on. They should be perceived by members as doing so without resistance or complaint by leaders.
In the next decade, churches and church leaders perceived to be addressing human needs, as well as the spiritual, local, global or "green" needs of the planet, will find people willing to support them. Those churches and leaders who possess an apocalyptic view of the future that focuses on escaping the challenges faced by humans and the planet will be increasingly marginalized and will accelerate their own decline.
Number 2: As a matter of practice, make sure you say "thank you" for member support at least three times as often as you say things like, "We need your help."
Make sure you highlight a specific ministry or mission accomplishment for the previous quarter (i.e., faith conversions, new members, a facility that just went "green" or the number of households served by the church's food pantry). People give to people and to projects they deem worthy in serving the cause of Christianity.
Number 3: Make use of "generosity testimonies" throughout the year and not just at budget promotion time. Listen for those stories from members who are facing hard times but remaining faithful in their giving and finding God's presence and provision to be adequate. Enlist them to share their story.
Number 4: Many churches report their giving totals for the previous week or month in their parish bulletins or newsletters. These churches typically report the "average weekly need" – the total annual budget divided by 52 weeks or 12 months. As a consequence, often the weekly or monthly receipts appear to be short of the average weekly or monthly need.
In time, this reporting method creates the perception that the church is always behind in its giving. Most churches have their best quarter of giving during the final quarter of the year and will often "catch up." However, by reporting weekly receipts against the average weekly need, the perception is nurtured that the church is always behind.
Here's what to do: Instead of reporting the average weekly receipts against the average weekly need, why not calculate the average weekly expenses based on the last five years' expenses for that same week? Simply average all weekly or monthly expenses for the last five years. This will give you a weekly or monthly average of expenses that is much more realistic and accurate.
Number 5: Teach generosity – regularly. Consider opening a financial counseling center. Most churches have one or more laypersons who have skills and training in this area (as in bankers, accountants, investors and financial advisors).
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Offer classes in financial planning, debt and money management, and planned giving. Invite a speaker who specializes in motivating people to live beyond fear and anxiety and more by faith and generosity. It is true that generous people are the happiest people. Teach and preach on biblical giving. Consider a teaching series or a series of homilies or sermons designed to expose The Giving Myths prevalent in virtually every church in America.
Number 6: Ask the right question. Since people give to vision, what is your church's vision? If it is unclear or cannot be stated by most members in the pew, it may be time to lead them to discover a new vision for the future.
Whether real or perceived, are more of your church's resources being spent within the church walls than on missions and mission projects beyond the church walls? According to Empty Tomb Inc., most churches spend 85 percent or more of their financial resources on salaries, utilities and brick-and-mortar maintenance.
Number 7: Before undertaking a new building or capital campaign, it is imperative to conduct a pre-campaign readiness assessment (or feasibility study) by a third-party professional firm. This will help church leadership evaluate whether members are willing to support the effort and, equally as important, whether their financial support makes it feasible.
Number 8: If your church has a large debt, it would be wise to consider conducting a capital campaign for debt reduction or elimination, even if you have just completed a capital campaign for new construction.
Number 9: If you have conducted a recent campaign, when was the last time information on the status of the worthy cause was shared with members? Too often what happens after a campaign concludes could be summarized in one word: nothing.
Number 10: Jesus said, "Seek first the Kingdom … and these things will be given as well" (Luke 12:32). The central thought in a capitalist economy is the "principle of scarcity," where it is assumed there are not enough resources to produce all the goods and services people need and want. The central thought in a Kingdom economy, however, is the "principle of abundance."
The problem in today's world is not a deficit of resources but the distribution of resources. On one hand, a scarcity mentality creates fear and competition. This, in turn, fuels greed, ego-based decision-making and a misguided, competitive bigger-is-better philosophy. This collective leadership ego has led churches to over-build and mortgage their future in excessive debt.
A Kingdom mentality creates trust. In this leadership environment, there is confidence in the church's leaders and a spirit of generosity. Members should feel the church's decisions are not being dictated by the economy but by leaders who are spiritual and interested only in building the "real" Kingdom.
Where this prevails, the church prospers.
Steve McSwain is president of the Foundation for Excellence in Giving Inc.