Finding redemption in recession
Many pastors face the challenge of their careers. Pastors across the country talk about what they see when they look out at the pews and what they say from the pulpit.
June 16, 2009 |
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Divinity magazine.
From one angle, the national recession can bear an unsettling resemblance to original sin: a steep and sweeping fall from economic grace that touches every soul, regardless of status or profession, age or creed, and with little respect to human standards of innocence or guilt.
Of course some are suffering more than others, and in different ways. And the greater sins of a few outrage the rest. But in interviews with pastors and preachers working around the country, often in widely divergent situations, there is also the sense that everyone is touched in some profound way, even if this common bond requires a response pitched to the specific context.
The question, they say, then turns to whether the crisis may offer an opportunity for not only economic, but also spiritual and ecclesial, transformation. This opening has both individual and communal dimensions, the pastors say, that traverse and connect the worlds of work and worship.
Questions to consider:
- What can Jesus teach us about ministering to the poor and the wealthy in a spirit of honesty and grace?
- What did the preaching and teaching in your church concerning possessions sound like before the economic downturn? What does it sound like now?
- The economic downturn has opened many Christians’ eyes to presence of poverty and financial difficulties. What else are we not seeing or hearing in the American church because of our relative comfort and prosperity?
- What can you learn from those whose socioeconomic and educational status differs from your own?
Challenging the leaders
For many pastors, the greatest and most immediate challenge is gauging how to address anxious congregants where they are. Two examples can illustrate the differences and commonalities.
At Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., the Rev. Steve Eason’s congregation successfully completed a $30 million capital campaign. But Charlotte is also the “Wall Street of the South,” the second-largest banking center after New York (no other city is even close) and a ground zero of sorts for the financial collapse.
Myers Park Presbyterian has taken a hit as well, in economic terms -- its $5.2 million budget for 2009 would be the envy of most churches, but that figure is down from a projected $6.2 million a few months ago. Congregants are losing jobs or moving away, and many have seen their incomes drop dramatically even as some of them -- like Bank of America executives -- become targets of populist anger.
Eason rejects any temptation to scapegoat: “Everyone loves to take a poke at the rich. But you’ve also got to step back and realize that a lot of rich people are doing a lot of good in the world.”
But such comments won’t hit home with his congregants, nor will simply saying that genuine contentment is not based on material things, he said. It’s true enough, but if you push that too hard, said Eason, “It gets Pollyanna-ish.”
Instead, Myers Park Presbyterian has taken a twofold approach. First the church created practical ministries like job networks and counseling programs. Next they recognized there are a lot of successful people in the church -- “These are not people who need their hand held,” as Eason put it -- that need to be challenged.
“I came at it from a leadership angle,” he said. “These are leaders who are getting hit, and their No. 1 job is to lead people out of this.”
The church launched a four-part preaching series in January and February on the leadership models of Moses and Jesus, for example, calling on those who can lead “to have a servant’s heart” to help others.
“Now is not the time to get cocky and brassy. We need to serve people who are hurting,” Eason said. “We’re still a very blessed people for all the hits we’ve taken.”
God will take care of you; we want to help
West of Charlotte, the Rev. Brad Thie, of Friendship United Methodist Church in Newton, N.C., sees his job as more like triage for a region where hardship is deep and wide.
Unemployment is above 15 percent and rising, and symptoms of the affliction can be seen in the huge spike in demand for medical and social services.
Thie does not avoid the recession in his sermons, but preaches on passages such as the Sermon on the Mount (“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”) or the laments to God of the prophet Habakkuk: “Though the flocks disappear from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, Yet will I rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God.”
But he adds that even the best homily must be complemented by practical ministry -- counseling and spending time in prayer with people. His church has a fund to disburse money anonymously to those in need.
As the number of out-of-work parishioners has increased, so has attendance at daytime Bible study group, Thie said. “It’s been a pleasant surprise to see these unemployed people throwing themselves into Bible study.”
“We are living through the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to minister and witness,” Thie said. His message: “Not only will God take care of you, but we want to help.”
Emergencies, natural and unnatural
The Rev. Jim Huskins also tries to present that message to the people he ministers to around Goldsboro, N.C. A retired United Methodist pastor, he works as program director at Marion Edwards Recovery Center Initiatives (MERCI), a United Methodist disaster relief program.