Are the financial “hard times” we face a test of our institutional resilience and savvy, or a test of faith?

Most of us would acknowledge that they are both. But are we aware of the spiritual challenges that lie at the heart of the financial crisis? How often does our assessment of those challenges inform the administrative decisions that we make and the leadership we provide? Where are the fault lines between prudence and fear, faith and foolishness, or—more problematically—realism and God-given hopeful imagination?

This much is clear: leaders who neglect the spiritual dimension in tough times are likely to make decisions marked by expediency that can jeopardize the church’s mission, betray its values, alienate its parishioners, and rob its parishes of the resources that will be needed when life is easier. Quick fixes, including blind, across-the-board budget cuts, the sale of property, and staff cuts may offer quick, practical, and temporary relief, but when they are made without the benefit of prayerful reflection they may create larger and enduring problems.

In attempting to frame the spiritual issues at stake, it is difficult to generalize across theological traditions. It is also hard to say with any certainty how specific congregations might address the hard times they face without knowledge of the specific history of a community or the challenges it confronts. But there are some helpful observations that can ground the leadership we provide in hard times.

One: God is present in good times and in bad.

Times of abundance are always welcome, but they also have a way of defining where and how we see the Spirit of God at work in the world. We can be tempted to identify the work of God with the programs, practices, and institutions that we develop during times marked by prosperity. But God is always present, even at the worst of times; and good times can narrow our vision of how and where God is at work in the world just as surely as bad times can obscure our ability to see. In good times we can associate the presence of the Spirit with success, and in hard times we can assume that God is nowhere to be found.

Spiritually discerning leaders know this and know that the circumstances of ministry are less important than the attention we give to the work of the Spirit. They also learn to trust God to care for them and for their parishioners—not naively, but deeply. To paraphrase the wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola, what matters are not the circumstances of our ministry, but the extent to which our ministries continue to draw those for whom we care into a deeper relationship with God and with others. “Good” times—times of consolation—draw us into deeper relationships. “Bad” times draw us away from those relationships. In a profoundly important sense the economic conditions are secondary.

For that reason, discernment—the ability to see how and where God is at work in the world—is the abiding responsibility of congregational leaders, whatever the circumstances. That is why even the pedestrian affairs of expenses, budgets, and shrinking endowments are a spiritual affair when we are faced with hard times.

Two: Hard times can be clarifying.

If we take the perspective that God is always present, then there are gifts to be had even in the hard places—not because God sends hard times our way but because the struggles associated with them can yield spiritual insights and strengths when we place ourselves in God’s care.

Our culture predisposes us to see crisis in largely negative terms. For that reason, we are hardwired to overreact and retrench. As with struggles in our personal lives, as leaders we intuitively maximize pleasure, avoid pain, and wait passively for circumstances to improve. But if we surrender to God in the midst of hard times—to God, not the times themselves—there is a great deal in the experience that can be clarifying.

Hard times can reveal what we really value and remind us what we should value. They can help us to recognize the excesses, imbalances, and waste in the shape of our ministries. They can even prompt us to make changes that we have long contemplated and knew we needed to make but resisted because times were good.

Insights of this kind, like the insights that come with aging and experience, cannot be achieved by any other means. Leaders can create an environment in which learning of this kind can happen and the insights can be appropriated, or they can spend their energy grieving what they believe are lost opportunities. Hand-wringing of this kind, though understandable, is done at the cost of the institutions we lead and at the cost of our own capacity to lead.

Leaders who know how to promote learning in hard times recognize the opportunities inherent in such times. They respond from a spiritual center marked by a Pauline confidence that in good times and bad we belong to Christ. They call attention to the spiritual issues at stake, remind their communities of their mission, and insist that the mission shape the decisions made.

Three: Fear is not our friend.

In hard times the difficulty in discerning the way ahead lies in distinguishing between decisions born of prayer and those born of expediency. Depending upon the context in which one ministers, the same administrative initiative can have radically different motivations.

This much is certain: fear is not our friend. It could be argued, in fact, that fear is the antithesis of faith. Compare, for example, the work of the prophets. Their appeals to Israel were often born of tough times—indeed their oracles were often addressed to the worst of times, spiritually, socially, and politically. Those challenges gave rise to countless questions about how and where God was at work in the world, but the prophets remained confident that God was at work.

This seeming contradiction is as it should be. A faithful response to tough times can and should give rise to difficult questions. Spiritual leadership does not indulge in wide-eyed naïveté or evade the truth. In fact, the best of spiritual leadership often acknowledges just how demanding the way forward will be. For that reason questions are always welcome.

But fear kills. It drives us to make hasty, faithless decisions that can cost us the capacity to minister. Over and over again, I have encountered situations in which parishes and other ecclesiastical institutions have panicked, abandoning their mission or selling their property, all to the ultimate destruction of the ministries that their fearful decisions were ostensibly meant to save. Ironically, they were decisions made by institutions that were fundamentally dishonest about their circumstances and the shape of their future; and more often than not they were guided by leaders who were trapped by their own fear, retired in place, or willing simply to ride out the situation until they retired. As Ignatius of Loyola would be inclined to note, no decision made out of fear is ever the right decision.

Four: Listen hard.

An increasing number of congregations rely upon spiritual directors to listen with them as they do their business. The advantage to this process is that directors are not charged with defending a particular position but with listening for where God is at work in the conversations we have. Listening hard is not simply about taking in the realities we face; it is also about listening for God’s guidance in the midst of the realities. Using a spiritual director or, at a minimum, taking time to listen prayerfully and reflectively can help us to listen for that guidance.

Far too often we allow being “in the know” about institutional realities to substitute for the much more difficult business of listening for the voice of God. Visions born of being in the know are typically provincial and small-minded
no matter how seemingly influential an institution might be. Worse yet, the fruit of such visions is almost always tinged with cynicism. By contrast, the larger work of the Holy Spirit—spread out as it is across races, countries, and centuries—is a far larger and subtler affair than what is happening in your community or mine; and God has a way of unraveling the certainty of being in the know. The engine of our current economic crisis and the difficulty in addressing it has been behavior of both governments and businesses whose behavior was shaped by the assumptions of those “in the know.”

Is God indifferent to our concerns as leaders? No, but we are not just beneficiaries of God’s grace. We are also its emissaries. As such we are called upon to listen for the unfolding of a story far larger than our small chapter of it and to find ways in which to nurture its telling.

Five: Act with courage.

If fear is the antithesis of faith, then courage is not bravado or naïveté; it is the capacity to act faithfully, whatever the circumstances. Hard times may call on us to tighten our belts, but it is just as likely that we will be called to act creatively, boldly, and in spite of circumstances.

St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where I take a group of students on an annual basis, is a case in point. Monasticism has faced hard times for a long time now. New vocations, especially here in the United States, have been on the decline for decades, and St. Gregory’s has watched its numbers decline and the average age of its community rise.

In spite of those realities, they are now installing an elevator as the prelude to building a new retreat center. My students immediately wanted to know why they were doing this, granted the probable future of monastic vocations. The answer the community gives is instructive: This is our mission—to draw others into the life of prayer and the spread of God’s grace. We may or may not survive, but we “cannot not do” what we have been called to do.

Their work is, in the final analysis, the work of God. So, they continue to act with courage.

Our associate dean once displayed a sign over her desk that displayed a red circle with a slash through it and the words, “Stop Global Whining.” Church history is more fun to read than it is to live. But the faith we profess was first nurtured by people who lost their lives while witnessing to their experience of the resurrected Christ, and it is time that our spiritual practice caught up to our preaching.

Hard times and challenges are likely to shape much of the church’s life in the United States for decades to come. The high-tide denominationalism of the fifties and sixties was not the apex of a long development now lost. It was an anomaly—an exception to the rule. The church has been and is likely to be nominal in American life, and where it does thrive it is likely to be very different from the one to which we became accustomed. In that sense the latest economic challenges have simply given new point to a situation that was already in the making.

This realization should not be a cause for despair but an occasion for courageous discernment. The ministry to which we have dedicated ourselves is not about us or about this moment. It is about the redemptive work of God. As such, there is hope to be found in surrendering fond memories and comfortable patterns of ministry. The same discovery followed on the end of Israel’s captivity in Egypt and the disciples’ grieving on the road to Emmaus. In each case God-given, hopeful imagination followed on hard times. These are not just stories for preaching. They are stories to be lived.

For Further Reading

Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury, 2007).

Schmidt, Frederick W. What God Wants for Your Life: Finding Answers to the Deepest Questions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

Whyte, David. The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1994).

Since 2004 Frederick Schmidt has been engaged in the Congregational Discernment Project sponsored by George Fox University under the leadership of Professor Paul Anderson. Designed to foster conversation across denominational lines, the project is devoted to exploring approaches to decision making that are spiritually grounded. Resources developed by the consultation are available at http://www.georgefox.edu/discernment/index.html.

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Questions for Reflection

  1. Are we too deeply attached to the ministry we have had in financially prosperous times?
  2. How do fewer financial resources give us an opportunity to re-focus our mission?
  3. What are new ways in which we continue to pursue our mission?
  4. Is fear driving my leadership? What do I/we most fear?
  5. What would it mean to act faithfully (i.e., pursue our mission without being enslaved to our/my fears)?

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