Like many congregations and organizations, at the beginning of 2009 Western Presbyterian Church faced a serious budgetary shortfall. To deal with this painful situation, our session (governing board) needed to exhibit both leadership and management skills: leadership skills to bring our congregation along with us, management skills to work the numbers. We also needed to develop a transparent decision-making process.
As a session, our first challenge was to create a process to make the tough decisions we had to make. A flawed decision-making process could divide the congregation and us. Much to my surprise, a rather heated debate developed over this question. We were far from united about how to move forward.
Some elders wanted to move quickly to cut the deficit. If we were going to reduce staff, we needed to do so quickly so that some salaries and benefits would stop being paid. If we were going to reduce benevolences, they needed to stop immediately before the treasurer dispersed them.
Other elders wanted to take a slower planning approach. They said we needed to pray about and meditate upon the overall direction of the congregation and that we needed input from the congregation.
By the end of our January session meeting, the elders merged the two approaches. Wherever possible, they froze payments that didn’t need to be made until May. They asked committees to look for immediate cuts they could make to their budgets. They also authorized a condensed five-month planning process—complete with time for prayer and reflection—that would end no later than the June session meeting.
In February the session had an all-day retreat led by one of our members, a skilled facilitator. There was frank discussion as to what changes might need to happen to resolve the budget crisis. At times, “frank” became “contentious.”
We began the retreat with small-group discussions about what we most valued in Western’s ministry. People were asked to speak from their hearts, not their heads. As we focused on values rather than budgets, it provided a lot of unity. When things got heated, we kept coming back to the unity we embraced during this part of our meeting.
As with most congregations, the biggest single piece of Western’s budget is personnel. Some members stated unequivocally that there was no way to address a budget problem this large without reducing staff. I was grateful to those who raised this issue because I knew it was being discussed in the parking lot and elsewhere. It is always better to have these conversations where they belong—among elected leaders—rather than among folks who may or may not have access to all the information.
Some, including me, argued that reducing staff would cause some members to leave (I had already been warned/threatened by a few members in this regard). Therefore, the net gain from salary reductions might well be offset by the lost pledge revenue from members who left the church.
There was an equally heated discussion about the benevolence budget. Some elders viewed it as discretionary spending. Others saw it as money that had to be spent. They also argued we would lose members who were proud of and committed to our mission efforts.
Finally, there was a lengthy discussion about revenue. If we went back to the congregation and asked them to increase their giving, how much could we expect them to give? Some thought it would be very difficult for people to increase their giving in such a financial crisis.
With major issues identified, the session created small groups to flesh out information and possibilities in four discrete areas of our ministry: mission and benevolences, program, building/administration, and personnel. They asked a fifth group to think about creative ways to generate additional revenue, and they asked the Stewardship Committee to conduct a special fundraising campaign.
We planned a retreat in early April to hear the reports of the work groups and make decisions on a revised budget for 2009. Finally, the elders decided to create a budget not just for the rest of 2009 but for eighteen months (June 2009–December 2010). They hoped this would preclude facing another crisis in the near future.
Prior to finalizing their decisions, the session sent a detailed, seven-page letter to the congregation explaining the issues, the decision-making process, and the proposed outcomes. For the next three weeks the elders held four focus groups to which members of the congregation were invited. The feedback was extremely positive with several helpful fundraising suggestions, including better stewardship education with new members and small group stewardship meetings in the homes of members. With the feedback in hand, a relieved and excited session gathered. As it turned out, the June session meeting was anticlimactic. The combination of budget cuts, increased giving by the members, and additional revenues from other sources effectively closed the gap.
What We Learned
Our process was educational. Here is a summary of what it made clear to us:
- Communication between the pastors and elders, the session, and the congregation was crucial throughout. We used e-mail letters to the congregation, announcements in worship, one-on-one conversations with key players, and small, open discussion groups to keep the process participatory and transparent.
- It was very important that we had an active strategic plan in place. (It is reviewed annually by the committees and session). The plan gave us our starting point. Our priorities were already established, our values clear. Therefore, we were able to move directly to the question, “What do we want to eliminate from the plan?” When the answer was “very little,” we knew we had to solve most of our problem on the revenue side of the budget (through things like pledges, building rental, and fundraisers).
- Growth fuels a commitment to growth. Despite fears that the congregation would devolve into competing interest groups (mission vs. music, education vs. personnel, etc.), it never happened. As a growing congregation, our members did not want to step back from our strategic plan for growth. To sustain growth they put their treasure where their vision is. They also realized that everyone was going to have to experience some cuts in their favorite budget line items.
- Resolving the personnel piece was crucial. It was clear to everyone that we couldn’t move forward with our staff intact if we didn’t get more money. This was a key to members deciding they wanted to contribute more financially. To protect the core of our ministry, sacrifices by members were required and made.
- Working in small groups was very successful. When the session discussed issues as a bigger group, things got heated. When we talked in small groups people were pragmatic and in a problem-solving mode. The small groups unleashed a lot of creativity on issues ranging from fundraising to cutting building expense.
- Trust builds trust. Prior to the crisis, the congregation had a high level of trust in the session. While there was some impatience that the process took months, most members realized the decisions being made required time. At every stage of the process, the session kept the congregation informed as to what was happening.
- It is alright for people to have heated exchanges in a time of crisis. At one point in a session meeting, I clashed with an elder who is also a friend. We raised our voices as we argued with one another. Everyone wondered what would happen to our friendship. We remain friends—that is what happened. As a rule, most congregations fear conflict. When it happens naturally and we don’t fall apart, the church is a much better place.
Hopefully, Western has not only resolved its own financial challenge but has been a good model for our members as they face their own personal financial challenges. An economic crisis isn’t a time to panic. It is a time to pray, to clearly identify issues, to utilize—not abandon—the strategic plan, and a time to have open communication with all stakeholders.
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Adapted from “What to Keep, What to Cut: Reshaping Budgets in Times of Adversity” by John W. Wimberly, Jr. in Congregations Winter 2010 (Vol 36 No. 1), copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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