This past week was one of the most heart-quickening weeks in my 18 years of ministry. It started on Monday when our Central Team at Grace Church got another discouraging financial report about November. We are in a $22K hole already this fall (our fiscal year starts in September). What’s concerning is that historically the fall tends to be a strong financial season for us. We don’t fully understand these giving trends since other indicators are generally good – attendance is strong, we’re constantly hearing stories of life-transformation, many are experiencing forward motion in their faith, our people are active and engaged in serving the community, etc. Certainly, there are some new realities that we can’t ignore; the economic downturn, a bit of a turnover in our membership due to some recent transitions, a very young demographic that we’re reaching. (you can read the letter we sent to our congregation here).
We needed to quickly create some margin in our budget so that ministry can continue as planned. We believe strongly that God has called us to do the things that are in our budget this year. We also can’t keep going further and further in the hole and considering using our line of credit to fund ministries or salaries until things turn around. I was not ready to move toward ministry reductions (we would have to eliminate an entire department) or staff layoffs (I believe we have the right people on the team). And truthfully the ultimate answer isn’t cutting staff or ministries – it’s moving the people of our church toward generosity in their giving. But how does one do that? Our leaders decided to lead the way.
In order to spark a movement of generosity at Grace, Kim and I talked and prayed and decided to reduce my salary by 50% during the next three months. I also proposed this to our Central team and our staff... voluntary salary reductions. I was overwhelmed by the response. On average our staff is taking a 20% pay reduction over the next 3 months until we right the ship and figure out what’s going on. I was moved to tears so many times last week as I got reports of what staff members were doing. In addition, our elders started sending emails – some of them are committing to increase their giving up to 50% and 100% during this time. It’s as close to Acts 2 as I have felt in a long time. All of the leaders at Grace, including Kim and I, are going to feel this deeply. Everyone made a sacrificial decision that will lead to a different kind of Christmas this year.
But among all the other options, here’s why we chose to take the approach we did.
- Church leaders must lead by example. As church leaders, we can scold our churches into generosity, we can preach them into generosity, or we can lead them into generosity through our example. This decision by the leaders at Grace was a clear demonstration to our church that we believe in our mission to the core. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. Our leaders stepped up to the plate this week and said to our church, ‘follow us as we follow Christ.’
- The church must solve problems in community. The impact of this past week on our staff is immeasurable. The most frequent response I got from staff members was “thank you.” What a strange response from people who just had their salaries reduced for three months! Why would they be thankful? I suppose everyone was aware that we could have simply started laying people off, but instead we chose to address the problem together – all hands in (We may eventually still need to consider layoffs, but at least we gave it our best shot first). As we walked through this hands-in-the-middle moment together, our staff is as close as we’ve ever been to one another. There are stories of staff and their spouses sharing deep and intimate moments together as they considered what they would sacrifice for the cause. We are better for having turned to community first and tried to solve this problem together. It reminds me of Acts 4:32 - All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
- Church leaders must embrace opportunities to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. Jesus has always called his followers to sacrifice. He said in Luke 9:23, whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. Sacrifice means giving to the Lord whatever He requires: our time, our earthly possessions, our energies to further His work. Christians have always been tried and tested to see if they will put the things of God first in their lives. And I’m convinced that we are most like Jesus when we choose sacrificial generosity. This week the leaders at Grace Church were put to this test, and they stood up.
I pray that many more in our congregation will also stand up – and learn the beauty of sacrificial generosity.