The second of three negative trends for 2012 is this:
Liberal congregations will continue to focus more on short-term financial goals than on long term ministry and mission goals.
And here are three possible steps you can take to reverse this negative trend:
Step 1: Let’s begin by asking what is absolutely essential for a liberal congregation.
Only three things are absolutely essential:
— A liberal congregation must have weekly Sunday services.
— A liberal congregation must raise up the next generation.
— A liberal congregation must provide pastoral care and nurture to those who are part of it.
Nothing else is absolutely essential. Nothing. Really.
Step 2: Now let’s look at what is not essential, and what to do about the on-essentials.
— Owning and maintaining a building may be very important, but it is not essential; plenty of congregations rent space.
— Having paid staff may be very important, but it is not essential; there are congregations that have no paid staff.
— Carrying out social justice in the name of the congregation is very important, but it is not essential; what is essential is providing weekly religious services, and pastoral care and nurture, to support those who are doing social justice.
Once we’ve gotten that established, we can look at what drives short-term financial anxiety. A great deal of financial anxiety is about non-essential matters. You can lessen anxiety by being honest about what is non-essential. The two biggest financial outlays for most liberal congregations are staff and building — let’s see what’s not essential there.
If you can’t pay the staff, start laying people off. Remembering what is truly essential to a liberal congregation, protect your parish minister to the bitter end, and hold on to as many hours as possible for your religious educator. Every other staff position can go.
If you can’t maintain the building, then sell it, invest the proceeds, and go rent space somewhere. Congregational consultant Helen Bishop once said, “The only thing worse than not owning your own building [as a congregation] is owning your own building.” And honestly, based on my observations of quite a few congregations, you’re better off selling your building and renting space from someone else, than renting out your own space to tenants. It takes too much time and energy to be a landlord, time which is sucked away from what is truly essential; it is less destructive to a congregation to lay off staff and/or sell the building.
In short, when you focus on what is essential, it becomes much easier to make financial decisions; and with that ease comes a great lessening of anxiety.
Step 3: Now let’s look at how to stay focussed on what is essential.
The congregations that do best have a mission statement, covenant, or other short, memorable statement of who they are and why they exist. Here in my congregation, we say our mission is “Transforming ourselves, each other, and the world.” It may be an implicit mission statement, but everyone will know it, and all congregational leaders will be able to repeat it.
Every financial decision you make should be evaluated to see if it furthers the mission, and to see if it supports the three essential functions of a liberal congregation. This is not an easy task; too many of us want our own pet projects to continue to be funded, and will make endless Jesuitical arguments in support of our pet projects (I’ve done this myself).
A key strategy here is to watch out for “mission creep” — the addition of programs that aren’t essential and that don’t really further the mission, but that hang on for years and years, sucking energy, time, and money away from what is truly essential. To counter mission creep, you have to be willing to cut every program in your congregation except for Sunday services, some kind of children’s program, and pastoral care. Since it is a rule of nature that programs proliferate while you’re not watching, it’s good to get in the habit of cutting programs on a regular basis — at least one program or committee a year should be cut, unless you can demonstrate that you have added absolutely no programs since the previous year. The only exception to the rule is this: if you have cut all programs to the bone already, and you experienced a 5% growth in Sunday attendance in the past calendar year (including summer services), then you can add one program or committee — maybe.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. If you’re spending a lot of time and energy on congregational programs for social justice, so much so that your Sunday services suck, your children’s programs suck, and those who are ill and housebound aren’t getting care — then it’s time to throw those social justice programs under the bus. Sure, you’ll lose some members over this kind of decision — they’ll go join the Sierra Club or Planned Parenthood, and they’ll be much happier there, and the congregation will be able to focus once again on the essentials. The interesting thing that I have observed is that congregations that have excellent Sunday services, that care for their children, that provide excellent pastoral care and nurture — those are the congregations that can really unleash their energy to carry out effective social justice in the world.
Most financial anxiety has roots in confusion over the purpose of the congregation. Get clear on why you exist — be willing cut away non-essentials — and you’ll stop worrying about short-term finances.