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The New Shoestring

Rick Chromey

The financial earthquake many economic pundits predicted has indeed shaken the worldwide economy to its core. In 2008, U.S. home values plummeted while foreclosures soared. The unemployment rate is rising, the markets are struggling, and even massive and unprecedented government bailouts haven't served to stem the tide of bankruptcies looming on the horizon.

Since December of 2007, the U.S. economy has officially been in a recession, and every major economic indicator suggests that 2009 could be worse. A global recession is at hand.

Nonprofit organizations usually feel the financial squeeze first when economic hard times hit, and many ministry and social agencies are reporting significantly lower contributions. Hiring freezes are up. Budgets have been slashed. Churches aren't immune to foreclosure and bankruptcy either. A number of congregations that financed new facilities in the past five years could face foreclosure as adjustable rate mortgages balloon.

That's the bad news. The good news is that every crisis -- including financial -- creates opportunity.

In many ways, children's ministry as we know it has never experienced economic hardship. For churches and their children's ministries, though, this economy has potentially dire consequences as some congregational leaders can view children's ministry as a luxury. And since children have little voice or financial influence, it may seem sensible to slash their programs for ministries in favor of ones that deliver financial gain (such as the Sunday morning music ministry).

This economic turbulence has created the new shoestring, where everybody is cutting back and holding on. With offerings down, many children's budgets must cut the budgetary fat -- but where should the trimming begin without cutting the essential meat of children's ministry? Of course, just as in your personal financial life, there are financial keys to help you resist getting all tied up in knots in children's ministry.

1. DON'T DUMP YOUR INVESTMENTS

As the Dow tumbled, nervous investors emptied their portfolios, sending the markets into free fall. At the same time, savvy traders bought low and found bargains. Most financial advisors encourage investors to ride out an economic storm. The markets will eventually regain their footing and probably return stronger than ever.

"Ride it out" is also great advice for children's ministries.

• Invest in the future. The most logical staff cuts may seem to be children's leadership -- but that decision has long-term consequences. Children's ministry is an investment. Many families commit to a congregation for its ministry to kids. For nervous church leaders who count nickels and noses, the very last staff to go should be the children's pastor.

Similarly, many children's ministries may consider cutting investment programming that serves as the gateway for connecting new children and their families to a congregation. Halloween alternatives, vacation Bible school, and any critical outreach event are three investments that demand financial footing.

• Build now for later. When you invest, you realize the gain may not be immediate. Similarly, churches that continue to invest in their children's ministry, even though it might seem illogical and counterintuitive, will ultimately reap stronger attendances. One essential to avoid cutting back on is good curriculum. While it's tempting to write your own or reuse old and outdated materials, such practices can damage relevant learning and burden volunteer teachers -- many of whom are unskilled in lesson design. Invest eternal truth into the hearts and minds of children; you will reap the reward.

2. SIMPLIFY YOUR MINISTRY

Downsizing is hip these days. Generic brands save consumers thousands of dollars a year in grocery bills. Thrift and consignment stores -- not to mention yard sales -- are increasingly popular. The simple life has its advantages. So how can you simplify your ministry without a high cost to your mission?

• Slash your schedule. For many children's ministries, simplicity means a dedicated, difficult analysis of your calendar. Now is an excellent time to reevaluate programming priorities. For example, do you really need three preteen lock-ins this year, or will one suffice? A serious reevaluation may require dropping some "sacred cow" programming or retooling how things are financed. And remember that adding fundraisers to offset costs could complicate your calendar.

• Retrain thriftiness. Another place to simplify is your training budget. Can you attend a children's ministry leadership conference closer to home, saving travel time and expense? Could you create digital mailings, saving postage and paper? Though it'll be tempting to cut volunteer training, resist the urge to purge this valuable item. Save elsewhere; use pawn and thrift stores to purchase ministry equipment. Amazon.com is a great online re-source for discounted electronics, books, and movies.

• Learn to borrow. Larger churches are a resource for smaller congregations. Why buy when you can borrow? In some cities, children's ministry networks pool their media resources to share.

• Purge the clutter. Simplifying is about reducing the clutter. If electronic culture (BlackBerry, iPhone, GPS) creates more stress, then eliminate it. If you can cut programs (even cherished ones) that've lost their attraction and ability to minister, then do so. Summer programs, in particular, can often be eliminated, reinvented, or put on a budgetary diet.

3. SAVE FOR A RAINY DAY

Many financial advisors recommend having six to eight months of savings in this current economic crisis. The problem is the U.S. now has a negative savings rate (meaning most of us spend more than we make) -- for the first time since the Great Depression. But saving means more than mere money. You can also save time -- and even talent. Here's how.

• Understand realities. Children's ministries must master saving opportunities. For example, how expensive are your activities to families? A $10 water park fee might sound reasonable, but for a family of five it's exorbitant. Are you aware of your families' financial situations? Do you know which families have unemployed parents or which live on welfare? Unlike the Great Depression that had no credit cards to mask financial distress, many families today seem okay when, in reality, they're paying bills with credit.

• Understand efficiencies. Children's ministries can save time by cutting unnecessary programs, training staff to be more efficient, and mastering time management techniques. Reinvent your programs into service opportunities. Rather than an expensive Christmas musical, develop a brief program to share with local nursing homes (parents still invited!). Design family events that are fun, easy to coordinate, and affordable. For example, host a family fireworks barbecue on Independence Day. Families bring food and fireworks for all to enjoy.

• Understand effort. Funneling your best volunteers toward the greatest needs and limiting their work and time conserves their talent. In an economic crisis, time is money and volunteer retention is crucial. Many business leaders know it costs up to 10 times as much to find an employee as it does to keep one. Children's ministries save time and money through motivational training, affirmation, and rest. I used to give my regular volunteers the summer and December off and recruit auxiliary staff to lead the limited programs in these months. That was a great investment in my team.

•••

Ultimately, tightening your financial belt is a good thing; it'll reveal purpose and priority in your program. It'll also unveil God's blessing. We may not think we have much to bring to the table -- maybe only a few loaves and fishes -- but God can miraculously manufacture a banquet. We may feel understaffed -- holding only a sling and stones -- but God can make giants fall with our faith. We may have to cut back -- to where all we have are a few financial mites -- but God can take our sacrifice and cause growth.

It's simply a matter of perspective and faith.


Rick Chromey (rickchromey.com) is a pastor and professor currently living in Boise, Idaho. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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