As the effects of the Great Recession continue to ripple outward, many churches are having a difficult time meeting their budgets. There has been an uptick in foreclosures of church properties across America, and this is in addition to the budgetary belt-tightening that congregations are performing in order to stay solvent. And as local governments face shortfalls as well, bureaucrats are increasingly casting covetous eyes on properties that do not generate tax revenue. These are all factors in an economic context that bodes ill for the fiscal future of many American churches.
It would be natural to assume that as the economy shrinks, when people lose their jobs and see their income decrease, the pool of support available to churches also gets smaller. And it is true that over recent years giving to local congregations has declined. But this decline is all the more noteworthy when it is juxtaposed with the reality that giving to religious organizations and causes has overall increased, rather than decreased, during the recent economic downturn. What this suggests is that church-goers are less and less satisfied with how their congregations are spending money. So as money available for charitable causes decreases, so has giving to local churches.
Many churches simply took on commitments that were too ambitious during times of plenty. Multi-million dollar building and expansion projects may seem appealing when the economy is growing and property values are increasing. But when bubbles burst on Wall Street, and the effects flow outward onto Main Street, expensive investments in ostentatious brick-and-mortar projects begin to seem imprudent, even foolhardy. When congregants are barely able to pay their own mortgages or are losing their own homes, the local church’s building debt becomes a burden that chafes and is cast off, or at the very least ignored.
This aspect of the fiscal crisis facing many churches illustrates the fundamental interconnectedness of civil society. The poet John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This is as true for institutions as it is for individuals. Churches as well as governments depend on the economic activity of their members for their ongoing maintenance and support. In an important sense this reflects the biblical model for the relationship between the priesthood and the tribes in ancient Israel. The Levites, for instance, were forbidden to have tribal land of their own and were entirely dependent on the tithe of the rest of the nation. This is the system that God set in place to support the system of public worship: “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD” (Leviticus 27:30 NIV).
But despite the Christian mandate to give to the church, if the individual members are suffering, then the whole body suffers, too, and there is less to sustain churches. In this way, this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.
One such danger is that in hard times we lose this sense of relationship and interdependence. We are tempted to turn against one another for our own survival, carving out our space for existence at the cost of our neighbors. It is this survival instinct that is at work when local governments turn a programmatic focus on vulnerable churches as a means to boost flagging property tax revenue. This is a phenomenon that was at work even before the current downturn, and it has only been exacerbated as cities and municipalities face tough budget choices. In many cases it is more expedient to place pressure on a church to close its doors than to make cuts to pet spending projects and line items.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession many churches will close their doors for good, just as many businesses and many homes have done. In some cases this is deserved, in others less so. But the challenge of this economic downturn can be an opportunity for churches, as well as individuals, businesses, and governments, to learn again the lessons of fiscal discipline, thrift, and stewardship that are the hallmarks of sustainable economic growth and social flourishing. These are lessons that we all must learn and put into practice if we are to enjoy a brighter future as we move toward realizing the common good.