What a Severe Recession Means to Boomer Pastors


We do not know yet if we are tumbling into the abyss of a severe recession but it sure looks like it some days. Last week the Tuesday Column focused on how a severe recession might affect the church. This week we turn our attention to individuals—particularly to Boomer Pastors. I am fortunate to have two Christian economists (they like to say they are “Economists who are Christians”) as friends so I did a brain-drain interview and from my notes I’ll try to piece together what pastors (especially boomer pastors) might expect.


What boomer[1] pastors can expect

1. Staying put.

A severe recession usually means pastors stay put longer. Fewer boomer pastors will resign before they have another job (called “the first law of wing walking” [Don’t let go of your hold until you’ve got another hold]). In times of trial more people stay put. There will be even fewer ‘openings” than we are used to, with more ministers seeking those fewer openings. Many boomers will “ride it out” to retirement where they are. Indeed, the collapse of housing values have already sealed the fate of many older boomers—they no longer believe they can afford to sell their house. So, when they do finally retire, it will likely be in the same town they lived in the last ten years (watch out successors!)


2. Anger and grumbling.

A severe recession puts a big squeeze on people. When people are squeezed dark stuff sometimes comes out—if they have dark stuff inside. Boomer pastors who have been accustomed to cheery smiley-faced optimism will face growing anger and grumbling from their people. The leeks of Egypt may dominate the minds of some in the church who want to blame someone for what went wrong. These hurting people will come to worship feeling the need of balm more than bombshells. It will be a time for love and understanding and salve. We may even find that some folk only served God because He paid so well—when they lose their pay they may lose their religion. We must be ready for this.


3. Retiring later.

Last Friday one boomer minister in his 60’s checked his retirement funds to discover this: “I’ve been careful for two decades to save every penny I could for retirement and had it all invested aggressively in the market. One year ago I was able to retire and count on my pension & Soc. Sec. totaling $1000 a week—that’s more than I make now as a minister! Today I checked and it is down to $500 a week and falling. I now have to work at least another seven years and save like crazy to get back there. Rats!” While most ministers don’t have this kind of money in their retirement savings, many saw a 40-50% decline in the last nine months in what they had. This is especially true of boomers who had such high hope that they invested with bright attitudes. Boomers will probably have to retire later than they thought, hoping their health (and productivity) holds out.


3. Higher taxes.

All of us are going to pay higher taxes. Virtually no politician is telling us the truth about this. Americans prefer that our politicians tell us they will reduce our taxes, increase national defense spending, invest in alternative fuels, prop up failing businesses on Wall street and increase the services from government while reducing the national debt. It can’t be done. Somebody has to pay and we can no longer send the bill to our grandkids. Even if we reduce services and eliminate all waste in the federal and state governments combined we will still pay more taxes in the future—for past spending on wars and for future entitlements we’ve promised ourselves. There isn’t even enough money among the rich and corporations to stick them with the bill while we ordinary people enjoy more tax breaks. The bill for our consumptive debt-funded lifestyle is coming due sooner than we thought. We will face increased income taxes, increased Social Security taxes (which especially hits ministers), increased fees from local and state government, and on top of all that we may have new taxes like a VAT (Value Added Tax) or some other kind of consumption tax.  Higher taxes will make it harder for boomers to catch up on funding their retirement savings. Some boomers will never be able to retire—dying in the saddle while paying taxes through the nose.


4. Get out of debt

Wise boomers will wipe out any remaining consumer debt ASAP. A boomer pastor with credit card debt should start drastic measures to pay it off as soon as they can. In a severe recession cash is king and debt is the enemy.


5. Expect lower raises—even lower salaries.

If 10% of the laity lose their jobs it will be hard to convince the board that the pastor should get an increase. When times get tough the laity usually expects their pastor to sacrifice too. If the recession is really severe some pastors will even take a reduction in pay along with their entire staff.


6. Time to save

In spite of higher taxes and reduced income this is the time to save. Right now we only see the early signs of the precipice. If we indeed go over this time will be the seven years of plenty that we wish we’d used to save up for the lean years ahead. Save now.


7.  Lower government benefits.

Boomers have expected Social Security to “be there” in their retirement. It will probably be there, but the benefits will not grow like they have in the past. When working people are out of work or just scraping by they won’t put up with retired people draining the federal treasury to support their happyland retirement. Social Security may no longer be available for you at 65 if you continue working (as it never should have been). You may not be able to collect until you are 69, or 70 or even later when they “reform social security.” The Social Security COLAs will be lower in the future so it won’t go up as much as health care costs and Medicare premiums may soar. All of us will get less health care for more dollars in the future. When you are 79 you may not be able to expect a free heart transplant as an entitlement in the future. The “sacred trust” of these payments will continue but it will be more safety net than sacred boondoggle.


8. Living on less.

American life was once driven by production—we made things and sent them all around the world for people to buy. In the last few decades it has been driven by consumption—collecting things. As we switches from a producing nation to a consuming one we have been lucky enough that other nations (like China and Japan) have bought up our extra Treasury bonds from printing money to keep us afloat. If they ever decide to sell and there is a ‘run” on dollars the USA will collapse—our total retirement funds might buy a Snickers bar and we’d have to start over. This is unlikely however. More likely is a future of limits—higher taxes, lower benefits more saving mean less money for consumption—thus living on less. We’ll decide our car can last a few years—even ten years—longer. We’ll decide we don’t really need a new cell phone—perhaps we don’t even need a cell phone at all. Maybe we’ll decide our old computer still running on Windows ’95 doesn’t need replaced as long as it starts. Of course all this simple living contributes to further slowdown worse but simpler living it in our future. We won’t be able to spend our way out of this crisis. The good side of all this: maybe we’ll find out our happiness never came from “stuff” anyway.


9. End of the booming atmosphere.

Once the economy bottoms out it will eventually grow again, but probably at a slower rate. The booming days we boomers expected are over. In a shrinking (or even slow-growth) environment it will be harder to “sell” our latest greatest “expanding our borders” dreams. The Prayer of Jabez approach is strangely out of touch with suffering workers out of a job in a town with 22% unemployment.


10. Time to develop new sermons.

Boomer pastors who linger around an extra 7-10 years will get a chance to develop plenty of fresh new sermons. We preach differently in a land of want than we do in a land of plenty.  Happily there are plenty of passages in the Bible for us to use—even if we seldom used them during the booming years when we were stretching forth our tent cords. Some of us will have to function more as priests than CEOs. Comforting and encouragement and “hanging on” may find better traction than big vision, tremendous dreams and the magic of thinking big sermons. People will be hurting and we may be hurting right along with them. We can become hurting people ministering to a hurting people.


11. Opportunity to model.

The good news is that a serious and extended fiscal tailspin will give us an opportunity to model how Christians view such things. After all, “It’s only money.” Here is our chance to refuse to be alarmed at falling pensions, rising taxes, reduced benefits and downsized lifestyle. So what? If we lose 100% of our pension savings and Social Security completely collapses, so what? If our taxes double in the coming decade and we get nothing back for it except a receipt for paying off the debt on the profligate lifestyle of the last few decades, so what? If we can’t buy a new car or new computer or new cell phone and we can’t afford to take that vacation to Hawaii, so what? None of things really matter. Our life here is like one giant Monopoly game—everything goes back in the box at the end. If we do indeed face the difficulties of a severe recession—or even a deep depression—so what? Our hope is in the LORD, and we can model that our trust is not in pensions, armies and stock markets but God alone! When the squeeze is on, they’ll get to see what’s really inside.


So what do you think?

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


Keith Drury   October 14, 2008




[1] I am focusing this article on Boomers because they are (so far) the most concerned about the effects of a recession. The truth is the implications are far greater for those in their 40’s and 30’s and my students.  I had some notes on the effects facing these younger folk but decided not to include them—it is too depressing. If you are younger than a boomer, suffice it to say that your entire life may be lived in a “land of less.” And that is the best case scenario—it could be worse!