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The Great Recession and the Exceedingly Long Recovery will accelerate cultural trends that are shaping church life in America – and may cripple local congregations.

As the Exceedingly Long Recovery drags on, congregations need to reshape the business plan undergirding the church’s ministry. We live in a new financial world and congregations need to adjust – quickly.

Churches must reduce building, debt and personnel costs permanently. The temptation is to cut back on expenses assuming better times will return. This is a very dangerous strategy for most churches and could cripple congregations for a decade or more. The better strategy is to assume the financial world of local congregational life has been forever altered.

Building costs may be reduced in a number of ways. Lease space to an organization with similar values, a pastoral counseling practice or a church consulting group. Think creatively about reducing building costs.

Avoid debt at all costs. The vast majority of churches do not need more buildings. Instead of building larger facilities, add multiple worship services and expand off-site programs, such as home Bible studies and fellowships. Schedule church fellowship events at a county or city park.

Personnel costs – as a percentage of the church’s operating budget – need to drop significantly. The rule of thumb in local congregational life has been to keep total personnel costs between 45 percent to 55 percent of the church’s operating budget. In the future, personnel costs for local congregations need to fall between 40 percent to 45 percent or less.

Only exceedingly wealthy churches will be able to afford devoting 50 percent or more to personnel costs in the future. The typical response I get is, “But you can’t fund our church’s ministry with less money!” I offer as a response, “You can’t fund your ministry the way you have been doing it with less money.” There is nothing sacred or biblical about the ministry model most churches used at the close of the Industrial Age. The Information Age will reshape the way we do church; the sooner we change our business plan the better.

Decrease the percentage of the operating budget going to mission enterprises beyond the congregation. While churches vary with regard to how much they give to missions, no more than 10 percent of the congregation’s operating budget should go to mission enterprises beyond the local church (excluding the congregation’s hands-on mission efforts like mission trips, local Habitat projects, home repair ministry and so on). Churches must prioritize mission gifts.

While some costs – as a percentage of the church’s operating budget – need to decline, others need to increase.

Churches should increase the percentage of the operating budget devoted to “program” ministries. Consider doubling the amount now budgeted for this area. Music, youth, children’s and senior adult programs will help grow the congregation. Grow the “program” area of the budget as a percent of the operating budget.

Increase the percentage of money going to hands-on mission projects, even if it requires a reduction in mission giving to denominational structures. Mission efforts carried on by the congregation, especially in the church’s community, will add excitement and increase participation by church members and prospective members.

Increase the percentage of the operating budget devoted to training laity and providing for part-time employees.

The Exceedingly Long Recovery is an opportunity to reshape a congregation’s business plan. In the midst of economic pain, a congregation’s mantra should be “Let’s prepare for the future,” not “Let’s avoid pain at all costs.”

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.

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