Recently a colleague responded to a comment I made about the current economic situation by asking, “So, you’re saying that this economic crisis could be a blessing in disguise.” To which I answered, “Well, sort of. Granted, it’s a really good disguise, but there’s also a real blessing here.”
This doesn’t mean that the economic curse is not real also.
There’s plenty of hardship and heartbreak to go around these days, and the human costs of the financial crisis we’re facing globally have only begun to be felt.
But there are aspects of the present economic situation that are blessings, and one of these blessings has to do with the clarification of mission that becomes necessary in tough times. I think this holds true for churches as well as seminaries.
After listening to several of my students present case studies on congregational leadership during the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that many church leaders operate with a faulty understanding of basic, practical economics.
We tend to view the fat years as normative; and in fat years we often expand programs and hire new staff, not recognizing that fat years are relatively rare, nor anticipating how to respond when the gravy train is derailed.
We also tend to think of flat years as unusual; and in flat years some church leaders spend principal rather than interest (literally and metaphorically) in order to prop up the programming and personnel expansions of the fat years.
Then when we hit genuine lean years (like recessions) we can be utterly unprepared to weather the difficulties, with endowments already raided and real estate assets mortgaged or sold.
In fact, historically speaking, flat years are more common than fat years; and it is an unwise steward who does not prepare for lean years (See the story of Joseph, Genesis 41:17-42:17).
So, where’s the blessing?
Flat years provide the opportunity and lean years the necessity for reassessing a church’s or a school’s mission. Pruning, as every good steward knows, is crucial to making a garden grow.
For a theological school, tough times allow seminary leadership to reflect seriously on the question: “What is so essential to our mission that if we stopped doing it, we would no longer be the seminary we are called to be?”
For a church, tough times allow sessions and pastors to ask: “What is so essential to our mission that if we stopped doing it, we would no longer be the church God calls us to be in this community?”
Colleagues in leadership often complain about mission creep, the kudzu-like overgrowth of good ideas, programs and schemes that can choke the life from the essential mission of a church or a school. There’s no better cure for mission creep than economic tough times. There’s also no better time for reflecting on how a church or a school should change to meet new challenges than lean years.
I often hear it said that pastors should know something about reading a balance sheet in addition to knowing the Bible and theology. I agree. But just being able to read financial statements does not guarantee the kind of economic wisdom that is inseparable from good stewardship. We also need to be able to read the seasons, and know how to respond to them appropriately.
If this is the economic “winter of our discontent,” perhaps we should remember that smart farmers use the winter to study their seed catalogues and plan for the next spring. And if the best leadership is leadership by adventure (as someone has suggested) there’s no better time to dream up the next adventure than in an off-season, even if the season is protracted.
This certainly is not all we should be doing in tough economic times, especially in view of the human dimensions to this crisis, but it represents a start.
Michael Jinkins is Academic Dean and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. [email protected]