Opportunity and Responsibility in the Financial Crisis

North American Christianity faces twin crises these days. The first is a leadership crisis, and the second is a funding crisis. There seem to be a record number of Christian organizations seeking middle- and senior-level administrators. And a disturbing number suffer financial trouble—especially during the current financial downturn around the world.

Leading publications in both Canada and the United States are struggling financially, with sometimes desperate confusion about how the Internet is affecting them for better and for worse. And they keep looking for capable editors and publishers to help guide them through these parlous times.

New Bible schools, colleges, seminaries, and even universities continue to pop up, but a number of long-serving schools have closed or merged with others. (I heard about two closing just today.) Many of them face the daunting challenge of replacing senior officers (Do you know any excellent deans or presidents you can recommend?). A large part of the burden of those officers is raising and stewarding finances that seem perpetually to fall short of what is needed to fulfil the school’s mandate. Moreover, no one should underestimate the strain of living on—and trying to hire and retain good workers on—what are generally meager salaries.

The word “crisis,” however, does not mean “disaster,” but it comes from the Greek word for “decision,” a fork in the road. As many shrewd leaders will admit, times of financial constraint can be good for an organization: Troublesome or unproductive personnel can be dismissed, misbegotten programs can be cut, extravagant expenditures can be reined in, and new priorities can be set with fresh self-understanding.

All of us who support such organizations with our money, our time, and our prayers are players in this serious game. And what we must do is both simple and drastic. We must prayerfully and informedly decide which organizations will live and which will die. It is out duty, in reverence before God and with determination to glorify him above all, to communicate to such organizations what will be their future.

We must recognize, in fact, that whether we do it prayerfully and informedly or not, we are deciding by our giving—and not giving; by our volunteering time—and not volunteering it; by our prayering—and our not praying. We are deciding which ministries will thrive, which will barely survive, and which will disappear. We also will be deciding which new ministries begin and grow.

So we must not be moved by advertising pitches aimed at inducing guilt, rather than prompting respect and enthusiasm. We must not contribute merely because we have a friend or relative in such-and-such an organization. We must not support something just because it is local, or spectacular, or denominational.

Let’s say out loud what we all know to be true: Some organizations are led by crummy boards that have hired inferior executives who preside over ineffective staff, and to give them one dollar more is just sending good money after bad. It’s about time that those organizations disappeared, and maybe this latest blast of financial trouble will remove them once for all.

We each stand or fall before our own Master. We must decide with the counsel of the Holy Spirit how best to devote the money, time, and prayer we have at our disposal.

Do we need all of the Christian schools we have in North America? Do we need all of the Christian publications? Do we need so many different Christian student ministries? Do we have too few good leaders spread among too many organizations? Do we need more or better in any of these cases, and thus ought we to provide more support for such persons and their ministries?

Some Christian organizations that exist today will not live to see January 2010. In at least some cases, that’s entirely a good thing, and perhaps more should be on the chopping block. But let us act on our responsibility before God to make sure that the right ones continue, and continue in robust health, with only the unproductive being pruned away.

[This post is adapted from a chapter of my book Church: An Insider’s Look at How We Do It, available from Regent College Publishing.]

10 Responses to “Opportunity and Responsibility in the Financial Crisis”

  1. Steve Shaffer

    Dr. Stackhouse.

    Hello from an old hockey buddy at Wheaton. I am a business guy—and it is interesting for me to reflect on your ideas here. I believe we are seeing in North America that our way of life has deep problems—years of living on debt, beyond our means, in a consumption mindset where our economy is driven (70%) by consumer spending. I think we are realizing our lifestyle is not sustainable nor is it a model for the rest of the world.

    Is it any wonder then that much of the North American Christian ministry “economy” may also be financially unsustainable? From World War 2 through 2000s the amount of wealth created in North America has been unprecedented. This wealth has fueled the rise of the massive Christian ministry system which many people rely for their financial support and livelihood. “Full-time” Christian ministry has become more and more common–with many using the tried and true model of a monthly support raising model.

    Like Joseph, if we indeed have seen years of plenty and now we face years of famine–I believe it will force dramatic changes in the American Christian ministry world. Maybe this is OK. I take solace in two data points—the early Church and the underground church in China. Both flourished without the benefit of having a massively resourced ministry system.

    Maybe it will also force Christians to rethink the potential dualism we have created with “full-time” Christian ministry model (while “supporters” work in callings that seem secondary).

    The fallout may be many of those in the ministry will be forced to leave and find employment in the “real world”. Skills in the ministry may or may not easily translate into the “secular” economy.

    Anyway—thanks for your timely blog.

  2. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these good thoughts, Steve. Your mind is still as quick as your skates used to be! 😉

    I agree that the Church has often done quite well in evangelism, worship, and holiness without much in the way of financial resources. And God knows we rich folk maybe need a scaling back of secondary matters to recover first things.

    Still, some good things do cost money, such as schools, publishing houses, and public policy research and advocacy. So the current financial pressure shouldn’t prompt us to worry (yet) that we’re all headed to the very basics, but instead should prompt us to look hard at priorities and whether this or that organization–or even type of organization–is what is needed in this place at this time.

    When you’re next up this way, Steve, please get in touch and I’ll show you Regent–and buy you the steaming beverage of your choice at our coffee bar!

  3. T. Schmidt

    I agree with the call to becoming involved. We all take sides each day by what we do or do not do. When you first realize the gift that you have been offered through the sacrifice of Jesus you begin the process of living for something other than yourself.

    By means of question and not suggestion I wonder if we have failed as a community of those that trust Jesus to have an impact within the institutions that have led us into the current turmoil? Is it believable or even compelling to think about the impact that the grace, love, and truth seeking would have in the mundane professions of finance, business, sales, marketing, administration, politics etc. – work that is probably closer in proximity to carpenters and tax collectors. Perhaps our calling is much broader in expression and narrow in origin.

    Is it also possible that we have allowed wealthy sponsors to drive the vision and scope of ministry whether it is in church, schools, para- church organizations etc.? I cannot find a consistent example in the gospels where Jesus sought and relied upon wealthy individuals to communicate truth, in fact it seems quite the opposite. Everything has a price and some things are priced in dollars, but is it possible that the currency of Jesus is a life set aside, a life lived for others or in short a currency of people and not of things. At the end of the day I understand the practical issues that what we do costs money, but perhaps we need a different model that is weighted more to the currency of Jesus.

  4. T. Schmidt

    I agree with the call to becoming involved. We all take sides each day by what we do or do not do. When you first realize the gift that you have been offered through the sacrifice of Jesus you begin the process of living for something other than yourself.

    By means of question and not suggestion I wonder if we have failed as a community of those that trust Jesus to have an impact within the institutions that have led us into the current turmoil? Is it believable or even compelling to think about the impact that the grace, love, and truth seeking would have in the mundane professions of finance, business, sales, marketing, administration, politics etc. – work that is probably closer in proximity to carpenters and tax collectors. Perhaps our calling is much broader in expression and narrow in origin.

    Is it also possible that we have allowed wealthy sponsors to drive the vision and scope of ministry whether it is in church, schools, para- church organizations etc.? I cannot find a consistent example in the gospels where Jesus sought and relied upon wealthy individuals to communicate truth, in fact it seems quite the opposite. Everything has a price and some things are priced in dollars, but is it possible that the currency of Jesus is a life set aside, a life lived for others or in short a currency of people and not of things. At the end of the day I understand the practical issues that what we do costs money, but perhaps we need a different model that is weighted more to the currency of Jesus.

  5. T. Schmidt

    I agree with the call to becoming involved. We all take sides each day by what we do or do not do. When you first realize the gift that you have been offered through the sacrifice of Jesus you begin the process of living for something other than yourself.

    By means of question and not suggestion I wonder if we have failed as a community of those that trust Jesus to have an impact within the institutions that have led us into the current turmoil? Is it believable or even compelling to think about the impact that the grace, love, and truth seeking would have in the mundane professions of finance, business, sales, marketing, administration, politics etc. – work that is probably closer in proximity to carpenters and tax collectors. Perhaps our calling is much broader in expression and narrow in origin.

    Is it also possible that we have allowed wealthy sponsors to drive the vision and scope of ministry whether it is in church, schools, para- church organizations etc.? I cannot find a consistent example in the gospels where Jesus sought and relied upon wealthy individuals to communicate truth, in fact it seems quite the opposite. Everything has a price and some things are priced in dollars, but is it possible that the currency of Jesus is a life set aside, a life lived for others or in short a currency of people and not of things. At the end of the day I understand the practical issues that what we do costs money, but perhaps we need a different model that is weighted more to the currency of Jesus.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Friend Schmidt, I appreciate your concerns very much. At the same time, I wrote quite a bit in my new book, Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World, to offer a different way of looking at these matters from asking, as I think you do, “What did Jesus do?” as the guide for “What should we do?”

    I don’t mean, of course, to ignore what Jesus did! He is our model of what it means to live a human life authentically and fully before God.

    But Jesus is our example only in some respects and not others. Jesus was single, and most of us aren’t, and shouldn’t be. Jesus was Jewish, male, a carpenter by trade, etc.

    More to the point, Jesus didn’t need big, expensive hospitals to heal people–but we do. Some kinds of ministry do require lots of money, properly deployed.

    But perhaps I’m missing your main point, which is whether wealthy individuals should drive ministry. As a historian of North American evangelicalism, I’d have to say that I can think of a number of examples of where this happened and it was demonstrably a Bad Thing. Sometimes rich people really don’t know what’s the best thing to do, and they fund it anyway–and how!

    But sometimes they do know what’s the best thing to do, and God gives them the courage and faith to give generously and powerfully to get really good things done. It is simply the case that wealth is concentrated in the hands of relatively few people, and some people have piles and piles of it. They shouldn’t dictate to God or the Church, of course. But they also should prayerfully start trucking some of those piles where they can do the most good, and some of them–praise God–do so.

    Thus your opening remarks about ethics in business, finance, etc., are entirely on point. And that’s why, again, I write about what it means to follow Christ in those spheres, and not just in the “usual” professions of pastoring, teaching, healing, etc.

    Please tell me, however, if I have misunderstood you on any of this.

  7. kbartha

    John, I like how Jesus had nothing, yet possessed everything. No pillow. No purse. Just the Word, a kernel of wheat and mustard seed.

    Mammon promotes law and law promotes structure and structure promotes marketability and marketability is either feasible and sustainable… or not.

    I’ve worked a number of sides now: church, para-church, non-profit, NGO, and business… and seen the bad boards and awful spending and mismanagement and that dreadful polished story and ask for more. And publishers and schools? WOW. It’s like this season of “want” is just going to rake so much garbage out of the Church.

    I’m not sure God uses gold coins on that scale.

    What would Regent be without its voices and convictions, making straight something or other!? And what I like about you men and women is that most of you (can’t be blindly inclusive) wear the place so lightly on your shoulders.

    May your words and your financial books (two distinct yet interdependent stories) always be in clear, direct and simple order.

    Blessings friend…

  8. Marc Boatwright

    A lot to consider these days. No doubt we are seeing the effects of excess, both within the church and without. I think it comes down to Christian existentialism. At some point, the American church decided that actions determined identity, rather than vice versa. The dualism between the secular and the sacred is just a by-product – two different paths of trying to prove ourselves. They lead further and further apart.

    The real question now is, will we repent and believe that Christ is all? If so, He will certainly draw us together and equip us for good work. But if we stubbornly try to patch things together on our own terms, or perhaps simply wait for things to “snap back”, I think the American Church will disperse even further into the wilderness.

  9. Mark Hendrix

    Thanks for the posts. Good reading and it would be great to have this level of discussion on these issues in the circles I operate in. I have been working as a teacher and a business guy since I got out of college. After a brief stint in “church youth work” I recognized that I was not interested in being a full-time minister.

    Instead, I went into education. I found that I could minister to the afflicted and comfort the oppressed. I looked around and saw people doing what I considered ministry who weren’t even Christian and I was Christians getting paid in churches who weren’t ministering to much of anyone.

    Your posts have made me think about the rise of ministry as a career. I hesitate to use the word vocation, as that means at root, a calling. (How could so many people be called to do so many of the same things?) Your posts made me wonder who, if anyone, was providing the works that modern day ministries now engage in? Where there reasons beyond US economic largess that created the “professional ministerial, non-clergy?”

    My biggest question is this: Why are we called to engage in ministry in the first place, as Christians? By my reckoning, we practice being Christians. Being a follower of Christ is not a moment, but a path. Activities we engage in either draw us closer to God or further away. Ministry allows us to show the love and compassion that Christ not only talked about, but showed in real ways when he healed them and fed them. Who are we to delegate that practice (what the Catholics call a sacrament) to a professional class who will do it for us, in which our own participation is merely writing a check and watching voyeuristically as they do the work? How does that change our hearts? For some, it might be a great personal hardship to part with money, but is that the best we can do? Shouldn’t our lives be the practice of ministry, whether we a professional ministers or not?

  10. dopderbeck

    These are good thoughts, but here is one thing I worry about: the “market” for ministry projects in North America frequently over-supports the projects that really should die and under-supports the ones that should survive.

    The awful “Creation Museum,” for example, from what I understand, is awash in money. Meanwhile, a small school led by good people that is trying to develop a rich and varied base for missional theology is deep in the red. The “market” is just wrong here, I would suggest, as it very often is.

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