UMs Preserve Worship Despite Shrinking Financial Resources

March 24, 2010

By Tom Gillem*

NASHVILLE, Tenn.|GBOD – In the face of the current worldwide economic downturn, United Methodist congregations preserved their worship life despite shrinking financial resources, according to the General Board of Discipleship.
 
The recession's impact on local congregation finances was assessed as moderate or serious, but the actual effects on the worship life were generally zero-to-mild, in well over half of the congregations contacted by the General Board of Discipleship.
 
"One of the things that actually surprised me in looking at the responses was how few congregations ended worship services as a result of the economic crisis," said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources. "There was just a very small handful of the entire sample that actually said they stopped a worship service. To me, that spoke volumes about how important worship is to people in our Church."
 
Half of the 646 worship leaders contacted by GBOD indicated almost no impact on worship programming as a result of the economic turndown, Burton-Edwards said. Another 32 percent reported some reductions in budgeting for worship-related programming, but only 2 percent indicated that either a choir or worship service had been discontinued.
 
Of those responding, 64 percent indicated almost no impact on staffing for worship, while 18 percent indicated a moderate reduction in staff expenses. Only 8 percent said worship staff members were laid off, and 7 percent said the impact on worship staffing was significant, affecting more than one staff person.
 
"If the general assessment of fiscal impact on the congregation as a whole is correct, it appears that staffing and programmatic expenses for worship, generally speaking, may have been 'protected' relative to other areas of the congregation's life," Burton-Edwards said. "What this may indicate is that, when push comes to shove, worship holds a high budgetary priority."
 
The GBOD analysis, conducted during the summer of 2009, represents a point-in-time snapshot of the recession's effects on United Methodist congregations. It identifies characteristics of the congregations at the time but not trends or changes in response patterns over time.
 
Although no definitive conclusions can be drawn from the results, Burton-Edwards said that in addition to the tendency to protect worship activities, there was another possible finding related to smaller vs. larger congregations. Smaller congregations seemed to be less likely to perceive financial threats or respond to them by cuts in worship staffing, programming, or resources than were larger congregations, he said.
 
"Overall, it appears that large congregations (average worship attendance more than 451) in this sample experienced significantly greater impacts on local finances and worship staffing, programming, and resources than smaller ones did," Burton-Edwards said.
 
"Against the common wisdom that larger organizations may be in a better stead to 'weather' economic storms, these data indicate larger congregations may be more likely to perceive the threats to be more severe and respond in a more dramatic way than smaller ones, even in an area such as worship – widely deemed to be a core ministry of the congregation's life," he said.
 
A complete report of the GBOD findings and data is available at http://www.kintera.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=nhLRJ2PMKsG&b=5819089&ct=8003235.
 
GBOD's mission is to support annual conference and local church leaders for their task of equipping world-changing disciples. Visit www.gbod.org for more information.
 
GBOD is unveiling a new website on Thursday night, March 25 at www.GBOD.org. The link will continue to be active after the changeover to the new site.
 
*Gillem is a Brentwood, Tennessee-based freelance writer for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.