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Column: Small, lean churches roll with recession

September 13, 2009

My column about churches with small budgets and low overhead faring better in hard times than big churches.

For these small congregations, hard times don’t feel much different than good times

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I’ve been hearing stories lately about churches struggling under the weight of the economic downturn. I recently read about the recession’s effects on a Carrollton megachurch that had to cut 10 percent of its $6 million budget, which included a $10,000 lawn-care bill. And I began to think about the emergence in recent years of small congregations in Austin that have intentionally stayed lean and flexible. It would seem in frugal times like these, such churches would be faring better.

So I polled some pastors of churches that have little in the way of assets and direct most of their focus on community service. Churches that don’t have a lawn to maintain, never mind a $6 million budget.

Their response? We’re taking a hit, too. But the difference is, with small budgets and low overhead and largely volunteer-run ministries, these churches can bend with the economy without dramatically changing their mission and ministry.

The bottom might fall out at any moment, but then they always were operating on that premise.

As Gideon Tsang, pastor of Vox Venaie, put it, “scraping by is nothing new for us.”

In some ways, living hand to mouth is liberating. Without the trappings of a large, established church, some pastors say they have less to lose and more freedom to follow Jesus.

Members of Immanuel Austin, a house-based church, recently studied the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus exhorts believers to resist acquiring material wealth and instead seek their treasure in heaven. Jesus tells followers not to fret about their physical needs because God will provide.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount follows up the part about not storing up treasures with the part about not worrying,” said Kester Smith. “It seems to me that when you have one less thing, you have one less thing to worry about.”

That’s why, Smith’s wife Rachel stressed, “As Immanuel, we never want to own a building. We never want to own property.”

During the past few years, I have witnessed Christians in Austin reassessing what it means to follow Jesus. They are paring down rather than acquiring, collaborating rather than competing. They want to be lean and flexible and focused. I’ve seen church leaders and members sell their furniture and their cars and move into low-income neighborhoods. I’ve read letters sent by pastors asking family and friends to send money so they can continue their ministry. I’ve watched many walk away from secure jobs in established churches to start small communities of believers and, in effect, become missionaries in their own city.

The refrain I kept hearing from these folks is “God is faithful.” One way or another, the church community finds the resources to stay afloat and, more importantly, serve people in need in Austin, pastors say. They’re building houses, raising money to help a poor family pay their rent, donating to food banks and volunteering at nonprofit organizations.

“Overall, our philosophy is that we don’t need to spend a lot for bells and whistles for things that serve the church primarily, but rather things that serve our community,” said Jacob Van Horn, pastor of Soma Austin, which meets for Sunday worship at the Hideout Theatre downtown. “As a labor-heavy volunteer organization we are able to ride out recessions and still advance our mission.”

At Austin New Church, which formed last year and has about 200 weekend attendees, the focus is to be as outward as it is inward, said Brandon Hatmaker.

It’s not that churches with property and large budgets can’t or don’t promote a spirit of giving and outreach, he said. Austin New Church and other low-budget congregations have been collaborating with and often depend on the more established churches. Still, Hatmaker wants to stick to a model of church that maintains as low an overhead as possible.

“Our desire … is to be able to give away as much as we keep,” he said. “That includes serving as well as helping start other like-minded churches.”

Even in a recession, Hatmaker sees that attitude play out week after week as a service-based church, often seeing more people participating in service events than they do for worship.

Of course, even as they strive to be lean and outwardly focused, congregations can still become attached to a building. The worry that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount still can creep in.

At Journey Imperfect Faith Community, a congregation that meets in a rented warehouse in North Austin, the roughly 400 members have faced the temptation to borrow from or reduce the 10 percent of their budget allocated for charity. They’ve considered charging the community groups that use the warehouse during the week. It’s understandable. Times are tough. People are out of work. What if they can’t afford the rent on the warehouse and lose the space?

And then it hits them, said Rick Diamond. So what? So what if they don’t have their own worship space? They’ve managed without one before.

The staff took a pay reduction, made other budget cuts and left the 10 percent intact.

“(The recession) has made us dig down and figure out what we’re about and what we’re not about,” Diamond said.

Then he invoked an image that people of faith know.

“That’s the desert,” he said. “It gets really hot, and things get burned off and you get really clear.

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