As congregations continue to wrestle with the adverse effects of the recession, they have also discovered that it has brought them opportunities to engage more deeply with each other and the world.
The First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, Mich., is a case in point. When the recession began in the fall of 2008, the church “felt a real punch,” said the Rev. Gail Geisenhainer. Several members lost jobs, retirement incomes took a dive and so did giving to the church.
As the months went on, the church staff went into “creative mode,” said Geisenhainer. “We made sure we saved money wherever we could so that every dime counted. I refer to it as ‘rebending paperclips.’”
In the middle of 2009, with giving still down, the church was faced with cutting salaries. That was prevented only when an older member died leaving the church a large bequest. Then six months later came another financial crunch. “This time we were faced with actually cutting positions,” said Geisenhainer. “We’d done all the easy stuff, like savaging building and grounds and administrative functions. We had cut out everything that wasn’t ministry.”
And then a second person died, leaving another bequest. That money, plus a “second ask” that netted $40,000 after last fall’s stewardship drive came up short, was all used to maintain church operations and ministries. “I call what happened ‘salvation by ancestry,’” said Geisenhainer, “for which we are grateful and humbled.”
In addition to the financial struggles it brought on, the recession created the opportunity to talk about money in new ways, said Geisenhainer. “We encouraged people to sit down and talk about what matters to them, including the role of religious community in our lives. And now it feels like we’ve come through the worst part and we’re really going to be okay. It feels like a garden that’s been pruned so it can flourish.”
Dr. Wayne Clark, the UUA’s director of Congregational Stewardship Services, notes that the economy has shown some improvement in recent months, but he cautions that recovery will continue to be slow.
“It’s going to be a very slow return to normal,” he said. “And even then that new normal will mean that fundraising will probably be flat from one year to the next for awhile.”
He said congregational leaders seem more interested in talking about money now, especially about how to raise it. Recently he did an online webinar that drew 97 people. His advice to church leaders: “Congregations that were healthy before the recession are still healthy. The ones that are good about talking about money are more likely to be meeting their budgets. Those that are anxious about money, where no one sees the list of contributors except the treasurer, create a culture of scarcity.”
He added, “There are no secrets out there to raising money. Talk to people individually and with real clarity of purpose. Tell them why it’s important to give.”
The Rev. Dr. Ian Evison, Congregational Services director of the Central Midwest District of the UUA, cautions against “organizational depression” as the recession slogs on. “Even as we see signs of recovery in some places the effects of the downturn continue to bite deeply and with that, people get tired, savings and reserves are used up, and nerves fray.”
“There can be a sense of cumulative fatigue and strain as we realize that we are likely to come out of this slowly,” he said. “We need to be forgiving of ourselves and not try to make a heroic push to get out of it.” He said a prolonged recession could also lead to the temptation to blame someone, like the minister, for problems that persist.
He summed up where many congregations seem to be this spring. “Everything easy to cut was cut last year. Any cutting now involves real loss.” He is urging congregations to not simply cut this year to balance a budget, but to work at “reinventing how things are done so that when the money does come back we are not going back to doing things exactly as we did before.”
The Rev. Sarah Stewart, at Starr King UU Fellowship in Plymouth, N.H., detects a little more optimism this spring in her congregation. “My sense is that people are feeling more secure now than even last fall. That’s also true for our retirees now that the market has come up some. So we’re less worried than we were.” She said three of the 140 adult members of the congregation lost jobs in the recession.
Starr King is in the second year of taking in pledge payments for a capital campaign to pay for doubling the size of its building. “We had some worries about pledge payments, but we’re right on track, so we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Stewart. This year’s stewardship campaign, which started in early March, is also going well, she said. “We’re in a better spot than a year ago.”
Still, it seemed harder to get people to volunteer for the stewardship team this year, she said. She told volunteers, “It’s not a matter of twisting arms, it’s a matter of providing an organized structure in which people can give and then giving them reasons to give. After that, it’s up to them.”
The economy is having deep personal consequences in many congregations. One minister, who asked not to be identified, was cut from full time to three-quarter time a year ago when the money didn’t come in. Other staff was also cut back. “It’s been very painful for everyone,” said the minister. “Some people felt shame that we had to do this. Now projects are taking longer because there is less leadership from staff. For me there’s now a feeling of vulnerability. I know I’m very dependent on what people give.”
The congregation is hoping to restore its minister to full time with this spring’s stewardship drive. “I do feel supported by lay leaders,” said the minister. “They also know that if I can’t be restored to full time I will have to consider other options.”
The recession seems to be drawing people to church in some cases. The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, Fla., said attendance is up by 10 percent over previous years. “People are seeking a spiritual toolbox to help them stay hopeful and energized about life. They say they need church in order to face the world.”
Janamanchi said conversations at church seem different this spring. “There’s less talk about the economy and more about what do I need to work on to grow my soul in order to be of service in the world.”
When All Souls UU Congregation in New London, Conn., fell $60,000 short on its stewardship drive last year it had to cut two part-time positions—a custodian and clerical worker. Other salaries were frozen. Committee budgets and professional expense lines were trimmed. And Fair Share contributions to the district and the UUA were eliminated.
This spring there is cause for optimism. Two groups of volunteers stepped up to handle the two cut positions. “We look at it as creating two new ministries,” said President Jan Larson. The spring fund drive is also off to a good start. “We adopted a new vision statement about acting boldly, and many of our leaders increased their pledges 10 to 35 percent.”
Larson is troubled about the Fair Share cuts. She is hopeful some of that can be restored this year. To that end, she’s writing a column in the church newsletter to demonstrate the importance of those ties. She said that more than 80 members have come forward to individually pay their share of contributions to the district and the UUA.
The Champlain Valley UU Society in Middlebury, Vt., moved into a new sanctuary last June. A capital campaign to pay for it, begun in 2007, is proceeding on schedule. Two members of Champlain Valley lost jobs early in the recession, then found new ones. Overall, Vermont fared better than many areas, said the Rev. Johanna Nichols. “There’s still a general anxiety about how it’s all going to play out. Last year we came in below our goal on our stewardship campaign. But we have reserves to get us through this year and our new building has given us momentum. We should be fatigued after spending five years planning and building our new sanctuary, but instead we’re excited and energized.”
The UU Church of Ventura, Calif., developed an ambitious five-year plan in 2008 that it planned to pay for, in part, by paying off its $700,000 mortgage that was costing about $71,000 a year in interest. The recession struck in the middle of the drive to pay down the mortgage. “We gave serious thought whether to continue,” said Board President Jim Merrill.
The congregation pushed ahead, raising enough to pay off two-thirds of the mortgage. It refinanced the rest at a lower rate. Then when the annual stewardship campaign came up short a year ago the budget was balanced with savings from the mortgage refinancing, sustaining progress on the five-year plan. “That we are still moving forward in tough times is, I think, an important part of our story, and our generous donors have made that possible,” said Merrill.
This winter members were asked to covenant with the church and with each other in support of the church’s mission. They were also asked to consider pledges of 5 to 10 percent of their annual income this spring. “Will our members like this? We don’t know,” said Merrill. “But we’re going forward with faith. We have tremendous confidence in our congregation. And we are also mindful that in a time of fear and loss our members will need their faith community to sustain them.”