the shape of leadership

Leadership in a Time of Economic Uncertainty

The Great Recession taught me four important lessons

Ed Crenshaw on July 14, 2020

Last March, our congregation was ready to begin overdue building renovations. The full amount needed was already in the bank. Then came the pandemic, bringing new economic uncertainty.

Since that time, we have stepped up our outreach ministries but held off on the renovations. Thankfully, we’re somewhat ready for a recession.

This season of national economic uncertainty is not unfamiliar territory. In my 28 years at Victory Church in suburban Philadelphia, we’ve faced a few financial challenges. In fact, we were in a similar situation during the Great Recession of 2007–09.

Victory Church had outgrown our facility and was meeting temporarily in a school auditorium. We were progressing toward building on our property when the Great Recession hit. By mid-2008, we should have been breaking ground. But financing tightened, affecting church building projects across the nation. The church architectural firm we hired eventually folded.

As we considered what to do next, a friend who had pastored a nearby Assemblies of God congregation said God gave him a picture of our church in a rented facility next to an expressway. I dismissed the idea because we were still hoping to build. However, a few weeks later, a local businessman who owned a building next to the expressway talked to me about leasing.

Interestingly, we could not obtain the financing to build on our hidden away property, but by November 2008, we had a contract to lease 40,000 square feet of space in the highly visible location. Our landlord even invested $2 million to provide us a high-quality ministry space.

This was a strategic move, but it was also frightening. We knew if we didn’t double our attendance and offerings within a certain period of time, we wouldn’t survive. Eleven years later, we are still here.

This experience and the years of operating under financial stress taught me four important lessons:

1. Listen to God. Make plans, but keep listening to God. Hear from God, and then act on what you hear.

We were emboldened for our risky move because we had a word from God. Listening to God kept us from abandoning our vision when things began looking down during the Great Recession. Listening to God led us to pivot when we needed to pivot.

Avoid a mindset that automatically says “no” to ministry because of a tight budget.

God may speak directly or through wise counsel. When I was second-guessing myself, a respected missionary shared with me how his son’s church had invested heavily in a leased building. “You’re not crazy,” he assured me.

2. Encourage giving. Lean on God, but take responsibility. In a financial crisis, the first response is usually to cut back. A church can’t spend money that’s not available and should budget accordingly.

However, cutting back is only half the financial equation; the other half is securing resources for your church’s mission. Don’t shrink back from leading your congregation into generosity. When the time is right, consider conducting a generosity campaign.

Victory Church would not have been ready for either the Great Recession or the pandemic without successful giving campaigns.

Cast vision for your church, and encourage generosity. The Macedonian church gave in adverse conditions, out of deep poverty (2 Corinthians 8:2).

3. Reexamine staffing. You may need to put off filling empty positions, or even lay off staff. This is often the most painful part of leading through a financial crisis.

God can redeem this difficult time by helping the church establish a stronger volunteer culture. A financial challenge may become the impetus to identifying and raising up the leaders and servants who are already in your congregation.

4. Keep the mission in focus. Mere survival as a church is not likely to motivate people toward generosity. Make a difference in the community. Partner with existing organizations to help people in need.

You can do lots of ministry with few financial resources if you mobilize volunteers.

In addition to ongoing outreach, our church sponsors days of service when we send volunteers — representing up to two-thirds of our average attendance — throughout the community. As a result, our community and local leaders see our church as caring and engaged. We have also been able to assist other local churches in sending out their members as volunteer servants.

Avoid a mindset that automatically says “no” to ministry because of a tight budget. Find creative ways to share the love and message of Christ. God will provide the resources we need to fulfill His plan.

Even in the midst of crises, God has work for us to do. Historically, difficult times have been opportunities for the Church to arise for the glory of God. May the present season open such doors of opportunity for your church.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 edition of Influence magazine.
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