How parishes can cope with the 'Great Recession'

(Pat Marrin)


As the country reels from the effects of our current recession, as people struggle amid soaring housing foreclosures, increasing unemployment and stock markets in turmoil, a natural place to seek refuge is in a place of worship.

But churches are also experiencing many of the same problems as the private sector. As the director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania, I deal with Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity at all levels, ranging from parish ministry to diocesan officials. All churches are feeling the pinch of reduced financial giving and decreased investment income.

The current cohort pursuing our master’s degree in church management is dealing with an entirely different landscape than our inaugural class in 2008 faced, and a new set of skills needs to be taught when it comes to managing the parish or church.

Pastors recognize the bind they are in: saving souls while meeting the temporal needs of their parish. Some of our students wonder what the most effective strategy is to carry out their mission in an era of declining resources.

It is difficult to answer that question in the abstract, since every parish is different. Here are some general guidelines that every parish should consider:

Do: Be transparent and accountable in your finances. The more information parishioners have, the more willing they are to work with the pastor and staff in coming up with some satisfactory solutions. As a counter example, recently the pastor of my parish announced that as the fiscal year was rapidly coming to a close, the parish found itself with a significant budgetary shortfall, even though every effort had been made to slash expenses. Then he asked, “Would everyone consider increasing their weekly contribution by a significant amount for these next few weeks?” Not only was this appeal clumsy, but it could have been avoided. If my pastor and our parish finance council had chosen to be transparent and kept parishioners informed of the budget situation regularly, a discussion with parishioners (and it should be a discussion) could have taken place to consider options and prevent our unfortunate financial situation. Parishes should be transparent and accountable at all times, not just in times of financial stress, but transparency is even more critical in times like these.

Don’t: Decide that this is a good time to introduce stewardship to your parish. Stewardship is about changing people’s minds and hearts. It is not about giving to cover a temporary budget shortfall. Pastors looking for a quick solution will often turn to the concept of stewardship to raise money quickly. They are usually disappointed. Stewardship is not a euphemism for fundraising. It takes time to develop. Any attempt to use it solely as a fundraising scheme will turn parishioners off to the concept, both now and in the future.

Do: Try to avoid layoffs of parish staff. Most parish staff members consider their position to be more than a job -- it is a ministry. Laying them off sends a signal to them (and to parishioners) that this ministry isn’t really needed. This can destroy the self-image of the laid-off staff member. A parish is like a family. Most go to great lengths to avoid laying off a family member. Furthermore, any bitterness felt by a laid-off staff member (“Why me?”) could be disruptive to the entire parish.

Don’t: Be reluctant to try other, innovative, cost-saving measures. While layoffs are a bad idea, furloughs (unpaid vacations) are generally accepted by staff members, especially those with a ministry perspective. A similar approach is to reduce the workweek to four paid days. Some of the work in the parish that is currently outsourced (like cutting the grass) could be performed by volunteers. Again, the importance of transparency: The more information parishioners have and the sooner they receive it, the greater the likelihood that they can work with the pastor to be innovative in maintaining parish ministries while cutting costs.

The bottom line is that most parishes have better control over their expenditures than their revenues. I’m not suggesting that parishioners be let off the hook in increasing their contributions. We have a responsibility to contribute to the financial solvency of our parish. Rather, since many parishioners are struggling financially themselves, reducing expenses will likely be a more successful approach to the current financial situation in which many parishes find themselves.

Professor Charles Zech is the director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at the Villanova School of Business.

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