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Todd Adams: We serve a God of abundance

Embracing the spiritual discipline of stewardship in tough times means that Christians must live out what they say they believe.

August 3, 2009

The Rev. Dr. Todd A. Adams makes decisions about money and ministry in his position as the associate general minister and vice-president in the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Adams, who has a background in corporate non-profit management and parish ministry, brings a unique perspective to his task.

Adams spoke with Faith & Leadership at an event for judicatory leaders at Duke University. In the interview, he talks about the challenge of serving a God of abundance in a time of scarce resources.

Q:  What are the challenges of the current economic situation in your denomination, both in terms of good business practices and in terms of ministry?

I have two roles in relationship to our funding system, first as the person responsible for promotion and interpretation to our congregations. This involves the receipt and distribution of our common mission fund with 72 ministry partners. The second hat I wear is managing the budget office for nine of our divisions within the Office of the General Minister and President. So, I’m on both sides of the house: I’m a fundraiser and a receipts-processing kind of person and I’m also a recipient.

On the fundraising/promotion/interpretation side, I’m seeing this as an opportunity. Rather than cutting back in those areas, we need to step up our efforts. We really need to articulate the message of hope, the good news that the church has to offer in the midst of all of this bad news that is going on around us. I’ve found pastors receptive to the conversation about the spiritual discipline of stewardship. If we can work with our congregational pastors and leaders to strengthen the spiritual disciplines in which our members engage, then the resources are there. 

I also think it’s a unique time for congregations to model what they expect of their congregants. If the leadership says, “Times are tough, and times are tight, and we’re not sure what kind of year we’re going to have financially,” and articulates to the congregation, “we’re going to cut back in our mission giving as a result of that,” what they’re telling their members is, “You go ahead and cut back as well.”

The message that we have to really indicate that we believe is that we serve a God of abundance who has provided us with more than enough for what we need. Rather than succumbing to a mentality of fear, driven by scarcity, we need to live into the reality of the abundance that we have.

With the other side of my hat, though, in managing nine different budgets, it is a really stressful time. We are watching income very closely; we are monitoring expenses and making sure that we are maximizing every dollar that is entrusted to us -- that we are transforming lives and doing ministry with it.

I hold my breath every month when the comparative report comes out. The report consists of our monthly contributions to Disciples Mission Fund, which is our overall mission fund in support of 72 different ministries around the U.S. and Canada. When the report arrives around the middle of each month, I kind of peer at it between my fingers wondering what it will be given the current economic climate. I write to our 72 mission partners every month and say, “Here’s the news. You know, we’re on a rollercoaster. We’re going to go up and we’re going to go down.  The reality is we’re all on this same rollercoaster together.” 

Q:  The day-to-day living out of difficult times must require sacrificing mission to financial realities. Has there been any budget-cutting decision that you’ve had to wrestle with particularly?

We have cut our budgets 12 to 18 percent in the Office of the General Minister and President, and similar cuts are being made in other ministries. While our congregational giving remains above current trends, we are trying to carefully manage our reserves during this time. We have also been informed by our Foundation that we should anticipate a decrease in our year-end gifts of 33 to37 percent. Our endowment support will return toward historical trends as the stock market continues to recover. Resultantly, we modified our spending plan in an effort to end the year in the black. 

Part of the reality of the church, too, is that we seem to be on this 12- to 18-month time lag. Partially due to the amount of our resources from our endowments, we’re kind of on the back end of the curve of the economic downturn. So I imagine that, if all the economic indicators are true, and if the stock market continues to climb and the economy begins to recover, as the rest of the world around us is recovering, that’s when we’ll really begin to feel it as the church.

The nice thing is it allows us to anticipate it. It allows us to plan for it and to budget accordingly. So it’s both our blessing and our curse.

Q:  What is your philosophy about how leaders can manage the financial crisis situation?

As leaders, we have to be ready for the conversations that the church has needed to have, that the financial reality is going to force us to have. Nobody looks forward to talking about reduced funding, reducing staff, eliminating structures, identifying areas of duplication. But we need to have those conversations in the church. The financial situation is going to force us to have them and bring them to some sort of resolution. The role for leaders during this time is to be in tune with where we’re going, what’s our vision, what’s our identity, what’s our mission, and how are we articulating that?  Be prepared to ask the difficult questions. 

Probably the most difficult question the church has to ask today, not only in relationship to its individual programmatic ministries but also at the congregational level, is, “If we didn’t have it today, is it central enough to who we are?  Is it core enough to our identity, that we would begin this ministry if we were not already engaged in this ministry?”  If the answer to that question is “no,” that’s the time for leaders to stand up and lead.  It takes a true leader to be willing to ask that question and to hear the answer, but that’s the most critical question.

Q:  Is that your experience as well as your belief?

I’ve seen it work as the launching point for the necessary conversations. When I was at Memorial Drive Christian Church in Houston, that was the question we continually asked: “If we didn’t have it today, would we begin this ministry?”  It was a church that was still structured to have 700 members, and to have 400 or 500 in worship. They were being crushed by their structure and by their expectations of representation. Eighty-four positions on a church board that had 125 members.

Q:  How many church board members did you end up with by the time you left Houston?

We downsized our church board from 84 to 24 members, in the process of transforming the church, bringing it back to life. We went from probably 25 committees to five ministry teams, to a very effective leadership team; from 14 board meetings a year, to six board meetings a year.  And to a real effective group of leaders working in particular ministries in the life of the church.

We had to ask that question.  And we had to be willing, as it says in Ephesians, “to speak the truth in love,” which means that you’ve also got to listen to the truth, when it’s spoken in love, and face the reality of the answer to your question. And it’s a difficult, difficult question to answer, but it’s truthful.

“Is this who we are today?  If we weren’t already engaged in XYZ ministry, would we begin it today?”  And if the answer’s “No,” then it forces the conversation about: “So, what is the future?  How do we allow this ministry, then, to gracefully live out its final life-cycle?” 

One of the things I think the church, regardless of what level or expression of the church you’re talking about, really struggles with is letting things die with dignity. We hold on, and we hold on, and we hold on to something because there’s a plaque on the wall.  “Well, we’ve always had that ministry!”  And then, by the time it finally does live out its life cycle, it no longer has the legacy that it might have had, had we let it die gracefully and give birth and life to something else.