What will happen in the church

if we experience a deep recession

(or mild depression)


Congress is congratulating itself for solving America’s fiscal crisis but most insiders think the tough times are just beginning. American families and their government have been living off credit and the credit bubble is about to burst. We thought we could spend billions per week on war and pay for it later. We have given ourselves tax cuts when the cost of what we do far exceeds the tax income. Nobody will tell us we should pay as we go. At least nobody who expects to be elected. So we pile up debt for the next generations to pay off.  We are determined to have both guns and butter—borrowing money for wars, borrowing money for our own tax breaks, and borrowing money for a profligate lifestyle in government and families. Boomers hoped the bill would not come due until they were gone. It is coming early.


Only a few old-timers who experienced the real depression are around to tell is what to expect. It would be messy. Americans who assume college degrees, vacations, cell phones, cable TV and automobiles are entitlements could face “suffering” faster than their great grandparents did. But recessions are about sacrifice; depressions are about suffering. Put another way, deep recessions mean we worry about dropping out of college, giving up our vacations, losing our job, turning in our cell phones and canceling cable TV. In a depression we worry about food. We don’t know if we are at the brink of a recession or depression. However, even the most optimistic economists expect some very rough years ahead. (Most of us can’t even bear to listen to the pessimists!)


So, if we enter a deep recession (or a mild depression) what could it mean to the church? This column is about raising significant issues for church leaders to think about. So we offer this week possible effects in the church of a serious recession or worse. If this fiscal scare turns out to be like the Y2K panic and everything turns out fine, then goodie.  But, wise leaders prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. 


What could happen in the church if we face a deep recession or worse in the coming decade? Here are a few stabs at it. What would you add?


1. Some will turn to religion.

Obama was only partially right in claiming blue collar workers in Pennsylvania clung to guns and religion because of fear. In times of fear religious folk cling more tightly to their religion, but all kinds of secular people flock to religion too. In touch times church attendance grows, sometimes simply because it is cheaper entertainment than the theater.  After 9/11 there was just such a boomlet in seeking God, though unfortunately it lasted only a few months. In a major depression it could last longer. Also, some churches might grow while others lose, especially when people cancel their commute to faraway churches choosing instead to attend a church nearer home. So, even a severe depression doesn’t bring all bad news to the church. Of course none of us are praying for suffering just to build our attendance, and if we are we’d better not say so or we will look as foolish as Obama did.


2. Church income declines.

We ministers like to pretend that since a depression might prompt revival it might increase our church’s income. We are wrong. If your church has 100 working folk who give a percentage of their income to the church each month and 20% of them get laid off they will tithe their unemployment check, When unemployment runs out and they have no income at all they will tithe their income--but “10% of zero is zero.  Sure, some dedicated Christians will take food out of the mouths of their children to support their church, but most will say, “I’d be worse than an infidel if I didn’t care for my family first.” If the economy goes into a decade-long tailspin, both individuals and churches will have to learn to live on less.


3. Churches default on loans.

With reduced income, other problems emerge. If a recession lasts for several years or a decade some churches with huge building debts will default on their loans when more than 20% of their people get laid off or flee to other churches. If your thousand-strong church has a mortgage of $4000 a month and your income drops to $5000 a month what will they do? Will they lay off the entire pastoral staff so they can pay only the mortgage and heating bill? Or will your board try to renegotiate your mortgage and keep at least the senior pastor?  Most churches will lay off half or more of the staff then try to renegotiate their mortgage. Others will simply default on the mortgage figuring, “What good would this church building be to the bank—they wouldn’t dare foreclose.  Some Christians from larger churches could even flee to smaller churches with fat savings accounts and paid-off buildings to escape the large-church pressure to pay huge debt payments.


4.  Building plans get put on hold.

This is already happening as confidence declines; It will only get worse. Interest rates soaring, construction costs rising and church income declining—who will build in that environment? In this atmosphere most board members will urge caution and delay “until things start getting better.” If we enter a long recession, it will be hard to launch any big new building program. This of course contributes further to the problem of recession as contractors lay off people who reduce their tithe to their own church and so the cycle goes. But, most churches won’t take a building risk just to give a surge to the economy.


5. Competition for ministry jobs increases.

This one affects the students I teach. In a recession, it is much harder to get a ministry job. First, churches who were thinking of expanding by hiring new staff often delay their expansion plans and these new ministry jobs disappear before the interviews. Second, churches save money by not replacing their youth pastor or worship pastor who is leaving this year. In these cases often a lay person steps up and volunteer to “fill in until the economy gets better.” Third, a great host of lay people feel called to the ministry when they get laid off from their jobs. These unemployed lay people compete with ministers for church jobs.  Some in this group really were called in college but they had moved on to other careers and forgot their calling. Forget it that is until they lost their job. Unemployed and sitting around the house they started reflecting on their original call again. Besides these lay people who really were called there are others who do not claim a call who compete for ministry jobs. Teachers, coaches and YMCA workers apply for the open youth pastor’s job. Unemployed musicians apply for the open worship leader position at church. These local lay staffers are insiders and often corner ministry positions before ministers from other towns or colleges even hear about them. It even affects pastors of small churches for almost every small church has a lay person who is a sort of resident lay-minister. When the money gets tight in these small churches this lay person often steps up to take the role of lay pastor until the tough times pass and a regular minister can be hired. Fourth will be the delayed retirement of boomers. Boomer ministers have their retirement finds mostly invested in securities now that many denominations have left a guaranteed “defined benefit plan.” While this helped the solvency of denominational pension plans, it means many ministers have gambled their retirement income in high gain/high risk) securities. Now they are paying for that risk.  As the money evaporates these boomers will delay retirement, after all boomers are used to having it all. Boomers clinking to their jobs five ore years to rebuild their pensions will further shrink the available jobs if we have a (fast or slow) recession/depression. If times get really rough it will be harder to land a ministry job.


6. So, what do you think?

What effects would you add to this list? (OK, you older folk who read this column every week and never respond… this is your week to say something … you were closer to the real depression and the younger folk need your insight now.)


So what do you think?

During the first few weeks click here to comment or read comments


Keith Drury   October 7, 2008