Do you remember the 1998 blockbuster Armageddon? At the beginning of the movie, a NASA executive named Dan Truman, played by Billy Bob Thornton, describes the incoming “planet-killer” asteroid to the President of the United States:
“It’s the size of Texas, Mr. President.”
With obvious surprise, the President asks, “Dan ... We didn’t see this thing coming?”
While Dan Truman and I share the same first name, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I am here to offer a distressing prediction. Since the pandemic began, many churches have been trying to ignore this threat. But I fear that things are about to change, again, and Bruce Willis can’t help us this time.
A Fragile Health
In the early months of the pandemic, many churches were suprised to see either a minimal reduction in giving or, in some cases, a spike.
In retrospect, budgets were buoyed by a combination of sympathy and stimulus. Many congregants deduced that the offering plate wasn’t being passed and, in response, gave diligently and intentionally during and after the lockdown(s). Faithful worshippers received and passed along part of their stimulus checks to their local church. Ultimately, the government itself handed out forgivable loans to churches for the first time in the history of the country via the Payment Protection Program (PPP).
Many churches received another round of PPP money in 2021. Additionally, organizations settled into their pandemic pivots of remote work and began to strategically hire and repurpose personnel in the midst of a challenging job market.
Buoyed by stimulus measures but frozen by uncertainty, many churches (and families) floated through 2020 and 2021, waiting for things to normalize. Churches expected attendance and giving would return to pre-pandemic levels.
An Unexpected Reality
As we begin 2022, the “new normal” looks less helpful for some churches. Government assistance is trailing off and, where attendance is not rebounding, some congregations are experiencing a rapid and alarming reduction in giving. I’ve personally heard reports of churches that went from surplus giving in the second quarter of 2021 to overnight reductions ranging from 20 to 50 percent in the third quarter.
The Great Resignation of 2021, which saw church leaders leaving the ministry, may become The Great Reduction of 2022-2023 as churches are forced to make drastic budget cuts at alarming and historic rates.
In other words, if you didn’t know already, there could be an asteroid headed our way.
Before the pandemic, many churches who were faced with a reasonable decline in giving (2-6%) could draw on reserves to bridge the gap. Also, church leaders could make slower, more strategic cuts. But the drop I’m seeing at some churches could force pastors to be laid off with little-to-no warning.
Many pastors, because of their dual tax status, do not receive unemployment benefits if they are laid off or fired. The ethical choice—to offer a fair and reasonable severance package—will be challenging, especially in the face of diminishing funds. Between paying out accrued vacation and severance payments, letting staff go can feel a lot like a balloon payment on a loan.
Three Warning Signs
Look beyond the pure numbers that indicate whether your church is ahead or behind budget. If any of these lights are flashing on the dashboard, the asteroid may be headed for your church.
Was year-end-giving down drastically for 2021? How does this decrease compare to any of the past five years? If you saw a decline of 10% or more, pay attention because it could be a bitter foretaste of things to come.
2. Number of donors
Has the number of donors at your church gone up or down in the past three years? Don’t look at total dollars or the number of donations because, in an age where people give (and attend) monthly instead of weekly, those metrics can be misleading. Look at the number of donors (giving units) who are part of your organization.
3. One time, large gifts
Did large gift(s) or a PPP loan make your overall giving look better in 2020 or 2021 than it really was? Be honest with yourself. What would your giving have looked like without those loans?
How to Avoid the Asteroid
So, what can your church do to try and deflect this potential staffing crisis?
1. Maximize your giving options
Has your church maximized your digital giving options? Or have you only made the minimum pivot possible? There are a plethora of giving options in 2022 that churches need to seriously consider—text-to-give, Apple Pay, Venmo, even crypto as donation. Don’t expect every person from your church to fill out their bank or credit card information to set up more traditional online giving. Find as many ways to receive money as possible.
2. Shift your email mindset
View your database not as an old-school church directory but through the lens of Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Manage relationships with your people digitally by segmenting emails to target specific groups. Do A/B testing on subject headings to optimize your open rates. And work your lists to keep people informed about how they can use their passions and gifts to help your church and the Kingdom.
This shift will require churches to abandon the “newsletter” model which crams all the information into a single massive email to everyone. Instead, to maximize impact, start targeting audiences the way other successful businesses do. It will feel a little weird at first, but I assure you, it is vital to the future of your donor base to communicate this way. Parachurch organizations have used these methods to solicit donations for a long time.
3. Be proactive and save for a rainy day
Be proactive about staff salary changes by at least one year. Pay attention to wage law increases and inflation, as necessary. If you are in a state where the minimum wage is increasing, plan now for how you will adjust your budget to meet these requirements.
One approach is to assume the minimum wage will go up and start making slow shifts today. Begin shifting toward job sharing or reducing benefit levels now, rather than pulling the rug out from under a beloved staff member. Also, consider sharing your financial plan far with staff as a way to alleviate or minimize stress during these uncertain times.
The Lord Will Provide
Have you ever heard the story of the rising flood waters and the man who wouldn’t leave his house. The police tell him to evacuate but he refuses: “The Lord will provide and deliver me from the flood.” As the waters rise and cover the first story of his house, the coast guard arrives with a boat. The man insists, “the Lord will provide.” Finally, the man is forced to climb onto the eve of his roof by the rising water. A helicopter comes, but again, the man refuses. The waters continue to rise and he drowns. At the Pearly Gates, the man looks at Jesus and asks, “Why didn’t you provide a miraculous escape? I had faith and trusted in you!” Jesus replies, “I sent the police, the coast guard, and a helicopter!” What’s the point?
In these ever-uncertain times, hoping and trusting in God is crucial, but so is planning and preparation. God always provides. The question is whether we are “wise and discerning” enough to set aside God’s provisions in the “years of great abundance” like Joseph, so that God’s people “will not perish” during the “years of empty grain” (Genesis 41).”
Dan Navarra has over 15 years of vocational ministry experience in sunny California and a M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary. In addition to his pastoral experience, Dan specializes in church finances, HR, generosity, and clergy compensation; having run the largest-ever (5,000+) salary survey of youth pastors. His work has been featured at Church Law & Tax, ChurchSalary, the National Network of Youth Ministries. His passion is helping pastors turn their calling into a sustainable career.
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