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But, to use Busby’s phrase, these are whitewater times economically. When you’re going down a rapidly moving stream of water in a kayak, things aren’t so easy to control. It’s the same way for pastors and church leaders. We are in perilous times, and we have to change the way we do things financially. The kayaker gets in trouble if they panic, and we must not panic as church leaders. We understand that God is in control. This is his church, and we can respond appropriately.

Recently, Stewardship Ministries hosted a webinar with Mark Berry, Alabama South District Superintendent and Mark Lail, Director of Stewardship Ministries. The following conversation is based on that webinar.

Grace & Peace Magazine: Dr. Berry, you talk about three core priorities a local church should cling to in times of financial crisis. What are these priorities?

Berry: The first priority is faith. When we look at what’s happening in our churches right now, the fact is that we have to bring hope in the midst of some tough times. I use an acrostic (H-O-P-E) which is: have faith (H), outreach (O), pray (P), and evangelize (E). We need to have faith and trust that God will help us to reach out to people and help hurting people. We’ve got to pray like we’ve never prayed before, and then we have to continue to evangelize. The second priority is mission. Our mission as a denomination is, of course, making Christlike disciples in the nations. So I just say it this way—keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t get sidetracked by financial woes. Don’t let the economy sidetrack you from the mission. You may have to make some adjustments in that mission but stick to your mission.

The third priority is communication. Teach your people the principles of blessings through giving. Malachi tells us, “Test me in this and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of Heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room for it.” Communicate this to your people through Bible studies, conversations, preaching, and newsletters.

Communicate to your people that we also need to use common sense. Communicate the need to eliminate waste. Tell them that we have to make some changes and eliminate some excessive spending. Finally, give people a reason to give. If you do this, they will give. They will give to a challenge, a ministry, a need, a project.

G&P: You talked about the need to make changes. It’s not fun making these kind of adjustments.

Berry: No, it’s not. Pastors fight against it. Churches fight against it. But, we must make adjustments. The problem is that many churches have not been good with money in the past. This economy uncovers those churches very quickly. If they’ve not been good about budgets, if they’ve not been faithful with their funds, their monies, if they have done excessive spending through the years, these are the times when it really shows.

Lail: That reminds me of a recent conversation with my family. We were talking about adjustments at home and how things can’t be the same. In spite of hard economic times we’re going to have just as much fun; we’re going to have just as much life; we’re just not going to spend as much money. My children looked at me with this hollow look in their eyes that said, How can you be serious? Possessions and activities are tied to fun. The dollars we spend are tied to our enjoyment of life. I felt this was a real opportunity to teach my children; it just takes some creativity to make those adjustments.

G&P: How should pastors prepare for and respond to financial disaster?

Financial gurus consistently state how important it is for us to have savings. Churches need an emergency fund.

Berry: Financial gurus consistently state how important it is for us to have savings. Churches also need to have an emergency fund; in fact, if it were not for an emergency fund in some of the churches on my district, they would be in a desperate situation right now. I would say three to six months is a good rule of thumb. Don’t use those funds unless you have board approval. I am amazed at how many pastors get into trouble, because they spend money that they did not get permission to spend. The board needs to know what’s happening, and it needs to approve all spending.

Also, as a pastor, you need to be an example. I see pastors who do not have a plan themselves; consequently, there’s no plan at the church. My wife and I sit down and talk about our budget often. We go over all of our finances. It’s not something we live with constantly, but we take time, and we talk about it. Begin by talking with your team (staff and/or church leaders). Your team needs to be meeting together and discussing what you’re going do. Then, develop a plan. Write it down and share it with your lay people. Get everyone involved.

I have heard laypeople say their pastor never talks about the finances of the church. They don’t know what’s going on financially in the church, and yet those very same people are tithing to the church. How can they give more, or how can they help through these times, if they don’t know?

You should have a finance committee. Maybe you say, “We’re too small.” All you need is a pastor and two or three other people.

You should have a finance committee. That sounds like common sense, but some churches don’t have a finance committee. Maybe you say, “We’re too small.” All you need is a pastor and two or three other people. Create and live by a budget. Again, that sounds like common sense, but you’d be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, of the number of churches that have no budget. I would say that churches that have no budget have pastors that have no budget. If you have created a budget in your own family, more than likely you’re going to bring that into the church, and you’re going to want the church to do the same. Now that may be untrue for some pastors, I’m not going to say every pastor’s like that, but you must create a budget. It’s very important.

Finally, assess and analyze your ministry model. Review what you’re doing presently and see if you can make some adjustments. Sometimes, it means that you’ve got to release staff. It may be that if you are not paying the bills, and you are not paying your pastor properly, and there’s no missions giving in the church, you’ve got to do something to adjust to that. Something has to be done differently.

And one other thing: in the midst of this, we are seeing more con artists than we’ve ever seen before, and so, as a church, watch out. There are a lot of con artists out there who will try their best to try to help churches for their own gain.

Lail: In fact, fraud in the church and among non-profits has risen significantly in the last year or so. Fraud and embezzlement is often triggered by fears in the life of those individuals who are handling money. We have to have our radar out for things that might be going wrong during recession, and the things that might be going wrong in our own finances. Also, look for red flags that may show us that there is an individual who might not otherwise have crossed ethical boundaries who is committing fraud now because of financial pressures. This kind of pressure can easily take control and change us.

Berry: Another thing that we take for granted is this: pastors tithing. You would never think that you’d have to ask that question, I know. As a pastor I had to ask my board members, “Do you tithe? If you’re not tithing, this is not

As a pastor, we need to be an example of tithing. We cannot be the leader God wants us to be unless we’re examples.

the place you need to be as a board member.” As a pastor, we need to be an example of tithing. We cannot be the leader God wants us to be unless we’re examples. So pastors, I encourage you to do what we ask our people to do and tithe.

G&P: What if my favorite ministry or my favorite staff member is on the chopping block?

Berry: It’s a touchy subject. That is why it’s important to communicate ahead of time. Explain that these are days like none other, and there are things we’re going to have to do that may not be pleasing to everyone. I think sitting down with your staff and helping them understand where the church is, that’s very important. Your leaders need to know just what’s taking place.

Lail: It makes such economic sense. The economy can be expressed pretty simply—either you have to make more or spend less. I really appreciate what you had to say about creating a budget. It seems to me that the churches that operate without a budget tend to make decisions that aren’t as focused and prioritized as those

Without a budget, we tend to care for things that are urgent rather than things that work, and we tend to respond to the most recent idea rather than the best idea.

that do. Without a budget, we tend to care for things that are urgent rather than things that work, and we tend to respond to the most recent idea rather than the best idea. Also, we often default to the opinion of the most extroverted board member or congregant of the church: whoever has the most impassioned plea about what the church ought to be doing will receive the budget dollars. In reality, the church needs to make planned, thoughtout decisions based on the operation of the church.

G&P: Where does a pastor turn for help with these financial issues?

Berry: I want pastors to understand that you have resources through your district. If you are in trouble financially, don’t wait until it’s too late. It’s important to tell leadership, tell your district leadership where things are. Sometimes, as a district superintendent, I will go to a church for a visit, and then it will be revealed that things are terrible, and they can’t pay their bills. They want a quick out, a quick solution. Districts don’t have the money to bail everybody out.

I find that some pastors are afraid to tell their district leadership that they’re in financial trouble, because they may look like a poor leader. I want to remind pastors that it looks worse when you wait until the bank or the district has to step in and deal with something

G&P: Talk to us about prayer, faith, and being transparent.

Berry: I think if I were a pastor in a church right now, I would rally my people together in prayer. Prayer is equal to trust. That means we pray and realize that God has all the resources we need, so we trust him. I can read a lot of books, and I can go to seminars, but God really has the ultimate answers for us.

And we’ve also got to continue to be faithful in the midst of this, faithful to the Great Commission. We’ve got to continue ministry. Don’t just give up and run. This may be the very time that God is ready to pour out his blessing on your church.

Be transparent to the congregation. Never forget to share with your people. Share about the economic troubles but don’t get stuck there.

And be transparent to the congregation. Never forget to share with your people. Share about the economic troubles but don’t get stuck there. I think if I spent a whole year talking about the woes of the finances, then my people would be pretty depressed by the time I finished, and I would probably lose a lot of people. They want to go somewhere where they can hear hope. And so be transparent but don’t get stuck there.

Lail: I recall once as a pastor feeling like the world was all against me and nothing was working right. I prayed, “Lord, I know that we’re supposed to be going out into

It’s all right to ask for workers. It’s all right to ask God for resources.

the world, finding the lost people, getting them saved, and discipling them so they become people that know Christ and can give and support this kingdom operation. But, Lord, we’re tired. We just need you to send somebody that already knows how to give; someone that’s already got time to give and to work.” I believe the Lord answered that. The Lord sent a couple to us who were ready to support the church financially and ready to work hard in the church. They had excitement and enthusiasm. It’s all right to ask for workers. It’s all right to ask God for resources. We can say to the Lord, “Lord, we’re broke. We’ve got to have some help.” I believe the Lord will answer those things.

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G&P: Let’s say you have worked with your finance committee and church board to develop a plan, and you have shared that plan with your congregation. What would you do next?

Berry: I would say a good follow-up would be to take a Wednesday night or a particular service and maybe have a question/answer time. I’ve seen that be very successful. Just gather your people together. Maybe have a time where you’re just very relaxed and free, and the people feel like they can share from their heart what they’re thinking, and they may come up with ideas and thoughts that may be very helpful in your situation.

Lail: I would add that it’s not good to make an appeal to the congregation and not share the results, however small. If the only positive thing that happened in this appeal is somebody sent five dollars, I’d celebrate the fact that somebody sent five dollars. There’s five dollars that we have now that we didn’t have before. And report some of the good responses that have come back from people, especially prayer responses. Include the stories about people who say “We’re going to take some time, and we’re going to specifically ask that God would turn things around for us as a church financially.’”

G&P: What can churches do to proactively address the current economic situation?

Lail: A study by The Barna Group states that only one out of every eight church leaders was implementing what might be described as activities that proactively position the church as a valuable resource to churchgoers and those in the community. The elements rarely mentioned by pastors included providing more financial assistance to the community, hosting support groups and classes for those who have lost jobs and who have experienced money problems, increasing the amount of prayer, teaching people how to handle money problems, and intentionally communicating how the church was dealing with its own budget shortfalls.” (“The Economy’s Impact on Churches: How Churches Have Adapted,” www. barna.org)

Berry: I am surprised at how few churches have clearly and intentionally developed a pro-active response to the downturn. Perhaps they have been so busy keeping the programs running that they have failed to see the significant opportunities, as well as unique challenges represented in the new economic reality. We have to be proactive about this. And we have to develop responses. Do something; don’t just sit there. We preach that to our people. We tell them to get out there and invite people to church. And we need to, as leaders, step up and say, “I’m going to step out. I’m going to do what it takes to take care of my church through these times.”

Lail: I think that if we have our eyes open for ministry opportunity, God will help us. People come to the church with serious economic needs. Their lives are turned entirely upside down financially, but I believe in the church’s ability to creatively come up with solutions for these things. Despite these economic times, the Church is not willing to let anybody go hungry; the Church is not willing to let needs go unmet in the community.

G&P: Any final thoughts?

Berry: Remember, we need to continue to do outreach and evangelism. It is our lifeblood. Share stories of positive results, of life-changing results, things that happen because in the midst of this economy you have still reached out to a community. As I said, in churches where things are happening, people don’t mind giving. They want to be part of something that is exciting and vibrant. These can be positive times, positive times of outreach, of finding

So continue ministry like you always have. There are many things we can do that cost less money or no money at all.

various new ways of reaching out. So continue ministry like you always have. There are many things we can do that cost less money or no money at all.

Lail: We need to maintain a mentality of abundance, rather than a mentality of scarcity. We must keep our focus missional and our heart faithful, rather than focusing solely on maintenance and preservation. That’s why we’re here. It’s what we’re about.

MARK BERRY has served as Alabama South District Superintendent since 2007, and MARK LAIL is Stewardship Ministries Director for the Church of the Nazarene