Religious denominations face a looming financial crisis

Lovett H. Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership sounds the alarm:

Lovett H. Weems, Jr. – UMC Realities from Lewis Center on Vimeo.

Most congregations know the financial squeeze of recent years from the economic recession. What is more striking is that the financial downturn for denominations is even more pronounced and perhaps more long lasting. Recent developments in the United Methodist Church may serve as a bellwether for others. As Loren Mead recently noted, it was the Methodists in 1966 that for the first time ever had a decrease in membership that signaled a downturn soon matched by all the mainline denominations.

Fewer people giving more money. As membership decreased over the decades, giving continued to increase even after factoring in inflation. Every year, fewer people gave more money. That model worked for a long time. For United Methodists it lasted until 2009. In fact, for a 30-year period through 2007, total giving for all purposes by United Methodists increased from 100 to 300 million dollars a year (before inflation) every year. In 2008, the increase was a modest $4.8 million. Then, for the first time in the memory of most, total giving declined in 2009 by about $60 million. Does this begin to sound like another bellwether moment?

The coming death tsunami. But won’t denominations return to the previous performance when the economy improves? Not likely. The practice of depending on fewer people to provide more money is unsustainable in the face of the coming “death tsunami.” The U.S. death rate is currently in a stable period that began in 2003 and continues until 2018. But what follows this plateau is a death wave in which there will be more deaths and a higher death rate than at any time since the widespread introduction of antibiotics and other medical advances. The total number of deaths each year will go up until 2050, and the majority of these deaths will be older non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, the two largest constituencies of mainline churches.

Resetting the financial baseline. Therefore, a major financial reset is needed by most denominations to position them for these seismic changes ahead. As with any organization facing the future after 45 years of unabated decline in its constituency, there must be a stepping back to a new and lower baseline in order to move forward. Otherwise, all energy must go to maintaining the old unrealistic financial baseline.

How should churches prepare for significant and long-lasting declines in financial support?

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  1. Richard E. Helmer

    I think part of the answer is what we are already undertaking in The Episcopal Church, and that’s identify and fold down institutional structures that worked during the post-war boom but that now have become a burden both in human and financial resources.

    There also seems to be a move afoot to keep more financial resources local and start to build more intentional networks between local congregations and other agencies serving the wider community.

    Congregations that are growing have learned to adapt to the changing needs and demographics of their communities. The “legacy” churches will die naturally or reinvent as they have always done.

    Finally, I’ve expressed elsewhere my irritation with “the sky is falling” reporting on this ad nauseum. We are not in the business of sustaining an institution. (Nor or we here to sustain full time employment for our clergy, says a rector as his knees shake!) We are here to proclaim the Gospel. Nor are we here to simply survive as we are. Katharine Jefferts Schori said something very wise at a clergy conference I attended a few years ago. It was something to the effect that The Episcopal Church as we know it today may not be here in a generation or two. But, she added, we do believe death precedes resurrection, don’t we?

  2. Peggy Blanchard +

    Thank you, Richard Helmer! You have directed us to the heart of God’s call to us to be transformed. “We are not in the business of sustaining an institution” and “we do believe death precedes resurrection.” Much of the shape of our national church as institution has its roots in the time of J.P. Morgan and the flourishing power of the large corporation. To whatever extent the Gospel has been suborned by the “corporation” model shaping our national institution, death and resurrection are not only to be welcomed, they are inevitable. The challenge for us in the Church, as I see it, is to seek and pray for new visions to shape the Church that is to come. We can weep and wail, or we can proclaim the Good News of new life in Christ. The choice is up to us.

  3. DnWillets

    Church growth and money seem to get in the way of being the church instead of growing an institution. Maybe we’ll be much better off is we simply go bankrupt and get about doing the gospel. Imagine what can die and be resurrected in that scenario!

  4. All of this was, I think, precisely the speaker’s point: to the extent that we focus on financial sustainability and institutional preservation we will fail to focus on reaching more people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As he noted, we’ve tried to do both and failed.

  5. If we cannot clearly articulate the Gospel, then indeed we are facing death and bankruptcy. And we seem, from the Presiding Bishop on down, not very able to articulate it, though we have many gifted communicators in this Church.

    There is nothing wrong with the “product” we are selling, but the sales force has got to believe in it. Brand revitalization is not an unknown science. The hottest commercials on television are for an old and much-maligned brand called Old Spice. (Not that we should employ a shirtless Black guy with special effects, you understand!) (Or maybe we should.)

    Here is the central fact. We live in an age of postmodern cynicism, insecurity and doubt. If our spokespersons are unsure of God’s existence and Christ’s salvation, our market share will tumble, along with every other denomination’s tarnished brand. If we reassert (oh, that word) our certainty and our Creed, our share will rise.

    Unlike the fundamentalist salespeople, whose only tools are thunder and guilt, we are able to attract the public with humor, the arts, genuine service and faith – IF we empower our best communicators. Yet we consistently promote our worst salespeople, then expect them to magically turn things around.

    There’s something wrong with our polity that always gives us these bad results.

    The selection of the Presiding Bishop needs reform. (Not to put all the responsibility on her, because she also attracts and sells.)

    Now that the schism is over, we need to reexamine what it was about; why we were vulnerable; and where the schismatics were right about us. They do not want mealy-mouthed Christianity; they do not want labyrinths without Jesus or interfaith hybridizing. Neither, by and large, do we. What is good in one context reduces clarity in another, and clarity must be our goal. “We believe in one God…”

    The Episcopal Church is potentially the world’s greatest brand of Christianity. If our sales force doesn’t believe that, they should retire.

    Many of us do believe that but are blocked from exercising leadership.

    Jesus is the greatest brand of all. The Bible is the world’s bestseller.

    And we teach them better than anyone. Or we could if we were allowed to.

    Our power structures have stopped serving us. So let them die and be replaced.

    The affirmative Gospel – Gay-inclusive, women-powered yet muscular and male too – is an overwhelming force with real answers to the horrible dilemmas of modern life.

    TEC’s problem is that it hasn’t sold that affirmative Gospel nearly enough.

    We are the Christian alternative to Rome and Jerry Falwell. We’re better than both of them and we ought to say so, loud and clear and often.

    The sky isn’t falling; look, it’s still up there.

    We should set out to become, in humility and with all our failures, the Church of the United States. And Haiti. And Cuba. And Brasil and Japan and South Africa.

    Of course we’ll get lost in the desert. But that’s all right, as long as we have leaders who say, “Here’s The Way.”

  6. hls

    From the Diocese of Maine:

    A Collect for the Church in a Changing World

    God of unchanging power and eternal light, loving God, who is Mother and Father of us all; Grant to your people in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine grace and courage to be a new church for a new day. Give us vision and wisdom to discern your will in a changing world and persistence to go out to our neighbors and live your Good News in new and creative ways. Help us to trust the companionship of your Spirit on this journey even as we experience confusion and difficulty. Lead us, we pray, to that future, still unseen by us, where you are already waiting for our arrival and where, with your Son and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign now and for ever. Amen

    Bishop Steve Lane’s game changing convention address.

    Heidi Shott

  7. tgflux

    “Blessed assurance” is not expressed in the same language by everyone, Josh.

    Nor is Holy Doubt the enemy of Faith.

    I’m uncomfortable w/ your tone of “Believe, dammit!” or “Our Leaders don’t really B-E-L-I-E-V-E (like I do)”.

    Personally, when I hear someone table-pounding their own certitude, it sounds like they’re projecting their own doubts. (Of course I could be wrong)

    I don’t have any answers here, but if I want to see Real Change (growth) in TEC, I know I’ll have to begin (after prayer) w/ looking in the mirror. What am *I* doing to grow the Episcopal Church?

    JC Fisher

  8. David

    Thank you Josh for your comments. We all need to do a better job of articulating the Gospel. Our churches do a better job of articulating the job of the Warden/vestry than that of the Gospel. People are yearning for it- and quite frankly are tired of the mega church approach.

    One of our local parishes in the inner city, took the eucharistic prayers and formed them in the language of their neighborhood and attendance and commitment to church has gone from just around 40 in 2008 to over 350 this year. All in a city that lost thousands of citizens. It can be done and is being done. God Bless!

    [Editor’s note: Thanks for the comment. Please leave your full name next time.]

  9. JCF, the blessing of doubt is what got us here. And it can be a blessing indeed, but it has to be backed up by objective and demonstrable truth.

    We live in an age that doesn’t believe there is such a thing.

    (Personally, in the U.S., I blame Nixon. But in Europe I blame World War I, the “war to end all wars” that didn’t change a thing, and only resulted in mass slaughter. Europe has stopped believing and is now largely atheist. One cannot wonder why. People blamed God instead of their politicians.)

    I’m not here to proclaim my own certitude. I’m here to call for bishops and priests and laypeople who are certain, because they’ve encountered the Christ.

    No one else can lead us. This journey is difficult. It’s easy to get lost and go the wrong way. Television is designed to hone all human longings into product-buying. The false gods and graven images of old are now TV commercials. Everyone on the planet watches TV, and there’s a sucker born every minute.

    Jesus is the alternative reality. And there’s plenty of interest in him as my little website has shown. I run the biggest megachurch in TEC, but I’m just some smalltown queer from Indiana; a layman, at that. All I do is present the Jesus of the Gospels and the Book of Common Prayer. Those are all we need to do, so hey.

    I’m sorry for those who nurture their doubts; I don’t know what that’s like, but it must be hard. I’d be one of them myself except I met this guy; he even deigned to meet me. I’ll never know why he bothered, but I’ll always be grateful he did.

    As long as the Episcopal Church elects bishops and rectors who really aren’t so sure about this Jesus guy – and as long as it gives power to the clergy, not the people – we’re on a straight path to hell, and denominational bankruptcy is only station 3 out of 15.

    But I have hope for my Church, which gets more things right than any other. Yes, I know it’s impolite to say so, but times are tough and this is TV.

  10. Paul Martin

    As long as the Episcopal Church elects bishops and rectors who really aren’t so sure about this Jesus guy – and as long as it gives power to the clergy, not the people – we’re on a straight path to hell, and denominational bankruptcy is only station 3 out of 15.

    Josh, I respect and appreciate the comments you have made over the past several years, but that is one heck of an accusation. Would you care to back it up with some facts? Otherwise, please take it down a notch.

    I will agree that we need to take evangelism seriously. So many of us are so put off by the evangelical brand that we haven’t been able to develop our own version. Perhaps some productive suggestions are in order.

  11. Josh Thomas

    Oh, “we need to take evangelism seriously,” do we? By laying off the evangelism staff? That’s dialing it back a notch for sure.

    Teach people to encounter the Christ. It doesn’t even cost any money. But you can’t do it if you haven’t encountered him yourself.

    We “are so put off by the evangelical brand that we haven’t been able to develop our own version.” Meanwhile the evangelists we actually have are frustrated at every turn, devalued, disrespected, punished. Lord have mercy if they happen to be laypeople.

    Teach the Christ; it’s simple. Teach the Daily Office and centering prayer. Teach the transformation; turn off the TV. Shut up and listen. Stop participating in this world; confine it to 9-5, then go home and celebrate, sit on the porch quietly; take the dog for a walk. God made every tree and bush and blade of grass.

    Tell someone else what you see. Ask what they see; let your eyes be opened.

    Teach the man who laid down his life for his friends.

    This isn’t difficult, it’s easy. We have the world’s greatest superhero as a role model, but somehow we find him immobilizing. Jerry Falwell preaches hatred and we let him get away with it. The Pope shelters pedophiles and we let him get away with it.

    I don’t have all the answers – I barely know the questions – but I do long for a Church that knows what it believes and teaches it. We don’t, and that grieves me.

    But we do know what we believe; every Sunday, the Nicene Creed. Every Tuesday, the Apostles’. Every Thursday, St. John’s food pantry; every Saturday a grandma loves her child.

    Find the Christ and teach him. Show him to others. Teach the classic disciplines. Be assertive; denounce the windbags. Toss off the tables in the marketplace.

    Sing the Hymnal. Follow the saints. Don’t get scared of the desert; “The Way goes here.”

    The affirmative Gospel – Gay-inclusive, women-powered yet muscular and male too – is an overwhelming force with real answers to the horrible dilemmas of modern life.

  12. Hgrayowl

    I am a layman who knows Jesus and who “walks” with Jesus. I am a layman who says the creeds with fervor (having long ago interpreted the meaning of the ancient texts for myself-an interpretation that is constantly updated). I am a layman who thinks that our Church has more than a little to offer the world.

    Having said that, I think I understand Josh’s frustration. We, as a Church, have a goodly amount of well though out, very intellectual talk and preaching about the Church and about our Lord, but show forth very little passion for our Lord in much of that talk and preaching.

    If we are to share the good news we have to offer to the world, we must do so with passion. We need to say what we believe as if we really mean it. I hope that we do.

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