The New Shoestring

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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.

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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).

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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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