by Warren Heckman.

As I watch our churches and their members struggling bravely to get through this recession, something reminds me of an earlier time. My father was a Nebraska farmer during the period called the “Dirty Thirties.” It was dry several years in a row, with very little rain, so that we had little or no crops to harvest. The summertime dust blew like snow in the winter. We had dust drifts on roads that had to be plowed just like snow drifts.

The expenditures were still there, of course: fuel, seed, fertilizer and crop sprays, mostly using borrowed money. We basically had no cash income. We four kids and our parents didn’t suffer from lack of food because we had a huge garden, plus our own beef, pork and chicken. But otherwise, it was tight. We certainly didn’t have much to put into the Sunday offering plate at Friend Gospel Tabernacle.

I remember our pastor expressing grave concern over the financial needs of the church, as income dipped to a desperate low. I often wonder if he got paid, or if anything was left after the church paid the utility bill.

Throughout that season God was preparing me for hard times to come as a pastor once I grew up. Living and pastoring in Green Bay Packer country for more than three decades, we heard a lot of “Vince Lombardi-isms.” One that comes to mind was “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Easy to mouth, but not so easy to master, I learned. Sincere pastors feel deeply the heartaches of the faithful. When their members are going through deep waters financially, cutesy little quips won’t cut it.

Weeping with Those Who Weep
I remember the Sunday a man named Jerry came to me and said, “Pastor, we will be moving as soon as we can, because my company was bought out, and they’re downsizing the plant here. Many of us have been laid off.” I was shocked, deeply moved. He and his wife were great tithers. He was a major part of our orchestra; he taught other young people to play instruments; she was a teacher at our Christian school. What will we do to fill their shoes? I wondered.

Then realizing how self-centered this was, I felt remorse. Where would they move to? Could they sell their house for what it was worth? Would he be able to find a comparable position? They needed our prayer support, emotional support, love and assurance that the church would walk through this with them.

In a time of crunch, I wish, as you do, that churches could help everyone financially, find them better jobs, make their house payments, and get them through the crisis. But of course that’s impossible. Recently I did witness, however, a marvelous thing in a brand-new church plant. A man in the church had serious health problems and missed so much work that he’d been fired. Bills were piling up, and his wife was in a panic. The pastor called them up front on a Sunday morning and explained their dilemma to the congregation of new converts, asking people to consider what they could do to help out. Then he prayed.

People started coming forward, young and older, putting money into this couple’s hands. It was a tearful moment of excitement and worship. We were told later that the amount of several hundred dollars came to the exact amount needed to catch up their bills. Praise the Lord.

The Watchful Shepherd
There’s another part to pastoral work during a recession. We are responsible for our church’s budget—its income, its expenditures, and the oversight of new projects that can escalate in costs. During the 30-plus years Donna and I pastored in Madison, Wisconsin, we mostly saw a wonderful increase in attendance and income year after year. Therefore we expanded, relocated to a new campus, added staff, began a preschool/daycare and a Christian K-12 school, built buildings, and increased our missionary commitments. All of these things greatly increased our budgetary expenses. I admit now that I tended to operate on “questionable faith.”

So when things in the economic world got tight from time to time and income sagged, we had trouble paying bills. It was embarrassing and stressful. What did that teach me? That faith is very important in the work of God, but so is being realistic.

It is wise to “go to the ant, thou sluggard” and lay by in summer for the winter months. Does your church have a contingency fund, a reserve account for times of crises? If you don’t, you may live to regret it.

Here are my thoughts if you are going through a financial crisis in your local church and have no reserves. Pray for God’s help and wisdom regarding what to do. Cut back? Oh, it’s so painful. I remember telling our part-time junior high pastor and our part-time singles pastor that we would have to cut out their pay—in essence, lay them off. I felt sick, embarrassed and humbled. But it had to be done. We had to cut some ministry programs and our advertising expenditures as well.

You cannot live above your income, or it will only get worse. Go to your banker, tell him exactly what you are facing, and ask for his help. If you have a building payment, ask for more time. (Been there, done that.) Talk to your creditors if you are behind, explain your situation and how you are cutting expenses so you can catch up. If you’ve faithfully paid your bills up to now and have a good record, they will work with you.

Keep your congregation informed. Be humble enough to tell it like it is, and ask them to pray and give above and beyond if they can. But don’t ever berate them, hound them, intimidate them or try to manipulate them.

Lead the way in giving above and beyond. Claim God’s promises; have special prayer meetings. Rejoice publicly over every victory and let the people in on it.Hold steady, don’t despair, and don’t be negative. Encourage faith, teach faith, practice faith, and glorify God over each and every answer to prayer. If need be, take a part-time job yourself and contribute more.

I believe God wants his church to be victorious even in finances, but he also wants us to be accountable, responsible, diligent and faithful. Some of us need to learn more about financial dealings, accounting, budgeting and planning. With God’s help we can do it.

Warren Heckman is the U.S. National Coordinator for Fellowship of Christian Assemblies.

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