I met with a pastor who is doing a fantastic job at his church. He’s starting new programs, engaging the neighborhood, and getting more people to join their vibrant spiritual community.
He’s also facing a huge challenge. Each year at least one of those stable, life-long members dies, and the income line of the budget drops precipitously. The G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation, who gave so much to our churches, are passing away. Even with growing congregations, sometimes it takes 10 new people to replace the steadfast generosity of one person from an earlier generation.
Pastors all over the country look at their diminishing budgets. They see how the larger economy affects their line items, and even the ones who have done everything well or the ones with growing vital churches, know their jobs are in jeopardy.
What will we do to prepare for the realities ahead of us? Can we become like those older generations who learned stewardship in a time of crisis? Here are a few suggestions:
Talk about money. A Korean colleague of mine said, “I know of churches that have 35 members, can support a pastor, and have a growing mission program. They are called Korean churches. Koreans tithe.” The Silent Generation grew up in the Depression and learned to give in in a time of economic crisis. Can we challenge emerging generations to do the same?
Understand costs of younger generations. When we talk about money, we should be aware of the realities of many younger people. The unemployment rate for young Americans is high. We have housing costs that outpaced our salaries long ago. Medical expenses continue to rise, which affects this generation substantially, since it’s the generation with the highest uninsured population in our country. Doing a simple exercise like looking up the starting salary in your community, checking the price of a starter home, and seeing what percentage of a person’s salary is going into his or her mortgage can be very enlightening.
Understand the debt of younger generations. I’m no economist, but from reading Elizabeth Warren, it seems like in the Depression debt looked different than it does now. Back then not everyone could borrow, and the lenders made sure the borrower could pay the debt back. Younger generations may look okay, but often they’re buried in student loan debt or using credit cards to cover expenses and make ends meet.
Reevaluate our own church spending. It’s easy for churches to point fingers at a younger generation for not giving money, but do churches allow a new generation ownership and responsibility in crafting the budget? Often churches hand younger leadership a budget that hasn’t been adjusted much for the last 50 years. If they question an item, churches respond with defensiveness. Yet, when a person is responsible for crafting the budget, then he or she has more ownership of it.
Think about our resources creatively. Other than cutting each line item to its barest bones, are we creatively thinking about our resources? Church members might shake their heads because a young family is living in a house they cannot afford, but what about our houses of worship? Are we meeting in a building that seats 500, while our attendance hovers at 50? If we do have a good space, are we using it to serve the community? Are we inviting other congregations to share our sanctuary with us? Are there parking spaces we could rent out or portions we could sell? If our congregation is thinking about doing something drastic like letting go of the pastor, shouldn’t we radically reevaluate the way in which we use our resources?
Become a model of what the world needs -- generational understanding. Men and women in their twenties often live with their parents. It’s not because there’s something wrong with them. It’s because it’s difficult for younger generations to thrive in our present economic landscape. Likewise, retirement-age generations are not ready to stop working. As the stock market and housing values plummeted, people who once had secure exit plans for their golden years will now need to look to their adult sons and daughters for help. Here’s the point: most of us -- young and old -- are going to be letting go of our American ideals of independent living. Our society needs healthy examples of generational cooperation.
Christians will need to work with each other across generations to gain understanding, set aside blame and appreciate each other’s gifts. Since church is one of the last places in our society where generations come together, we can be the place that models cooperation, compassion and creativity across all age groups. How Christians understand money across generations could be the church’s great gift to a society that often pits one generation against another.