Economic conditions–crisis or opportunity?

3/19/2009


By Kevin Conrad

It seems as if everywhere we turn, there is evidence of growing economic hardship.
 
Recently, the harsh reality of the economic downward spiral hit very close to home. As of March 1, 2009, the Connectional Ministries Office was forced to cut 32% of its budget, due to a 70% payout of apportionments for 2008.
 
Because of broader economic conditions, this initial cut may be the first in a series of tough decisions our Annual Conference will face.
 
Programming dollars for Conference Action Teams have been drastically reduced. No program grants are available for local churches and Conference agencies. A spring meeting of the CMT was canceled to conserve enough funds to be able to meet in the fall of this year.  
 
Furthermore, no margin is left for unexpected equipment repairs or operational expenses. It’s impossible to launch new initiatives. Further possible reductions due to the rate of apportionment payout for this year will have to be revisited mid-year.  
 
The few staff positions left, including District Lay Resource Leaders and our Director of Disaster Response (who has responded to four events in a year and a half), are threatened. 
 
The economic crisis has certainly hit home, but as the church generally and a connectional church specifically, there are more issues involved. 
 
The budget cuts are directly tied to a shortfall in apportionment payout. It’s clear that the impact of job losses and economic decline are having a drastic effect on local churches. Faced with further cuts in local programming or staff or property maintenance or improvements, many local churches are choosing to cut dollars sent away from their four walls. That is certainly understandable in regard to necessities.
 
But one person’s necessity is another person’s luxury. One person’s willingness to sacrifice closer to home is another person’s choice to pass the sacrifice down the line. 
 
When tough stewardship choices must be made, it is usually our first choice to protect what is closest to home or in our own self-interest. Unless a sense of shared mission and ministry guides those choices in our connectional United Methodist Church, we end up acting more like a congregational church system than a broader connectional community. 
 
The economy is so challenging we will continually face these tough decisions. It will test us to the core—and force us to identify what the essentials really are.
 
As we face the most challenging economic conditions since the Great Depression, is it a crisis for the church or a ministry opportunity? As a person of faith and certainly as someone charged with helping churches be as vital as possible, I think it is a tremendous time of opportunity- IF we seize it.
 
I don’t say that lightly or naively. What times of crisis do—if we use good judgment, common sense and spiritual wisdom—is force us to distinguish what is most essential. They drive us toward the necessities in a way that what is of most value—in the end—emerges. 
 
In that sense, times of crisis move us toward hidden kingdom abundance and kingdom ministry opportunities. 
 
When you have to make tough stewardship decisions and distinguish what is most essential, what you come to realize is that the most basic aspects of Christian faith, discipleship, community and service are what emerge. 
 
As long at those essentials are preserved, the church as a whole will be preserved—yet in greatly altered and hopefully refined ways.
 
That’s where we’re headed… an altered connectional church with what will hopefully be a refined vision and a more focused approach to shared ministry. That’s what our challenging times offer us as a kingdom opportunity.
 
So, what will we offer people all around us who are trying to make sense of increasing turmoil and a changing landscape of new realities?
 
When people are hurting or afraid of the future, they long for comforting relationships, caring community and a sense of home that only a genuine church family can offer. 
 
Those who have never been open to Christian faith or the church are more receptive to genuine Christian contact and experience. When they can’t make ends meet, they need basic life necessities that no one in the community will offer unless the church makes them available. 
 
Why not pool everyone’s resources in the congregation, like the early church did, and offer tangible relief to people who need it most, not to mention a helping hand and a good measure of hope? 
 
Every day now, people who never thought they would lose their job or their home are losing them. People who thought their retirement options were good are now afraid to look at their financial statements—and if they do, they find a harsh reality.  
 
The uncertainty is etched in faces you pass every day. What response will your church offer to these people who are all around you?
 
Times like these present the church with Kingdom opportunities for ministry. Instead of barricading ourselves behind sacred stones with a fortress mentality, why not open up your congregation to the community in ways you never have before? With the power of the Reign of God’s grace touching lives through your congregation as a place of grace, your local church can turn a crisis into a kingdom opportunity for exciting, life-enhancing, world-transforming ministry. •