Our church was not reaching its budget and had to make difficult changes to reduce expenses by 16 percent. The finance committee realized a reduction of this magnitude would require cuts in staffing — something no one welcomed. They asked the staff-parish relations committee to come up with a plan to reduce staff expenditures. Then, members of the church council were brought into the loop. Finally, the church itself was informed.
Deep down, everyone knew it was really no one’s fault. There is a time for every season under heaven. And this was a time for cutting back.
Grief spread as each of these groups became aware of the realities of the proposed budget. The result was a staggered wave of grief that spread its way across our congregation. As each group came to grips with the reality at hand, I observed them working through the classic stages of grief.
Stage 1: Denial
Denial was the longest stage. Our finance chair started waving red flags more than a year ago. But others did not see a need to change. We stayed out of the red by freezing spending in the last quarter of the year and by cutting support to the denomination. This made it easy to deny the situation without addressing the real problem — at least for a short time.
Denial manifested itself in these kinds of statements: “We just need to step out on faith that we will hit our budget this year.” “We did not go under last year, so why would we have a problem this year?” “I’m sure we’ll find some way to get by. We always do.”
Stage 2: Anger
Our treasurer finally said we needed to make changes or we would not be able to pay staff in six months. That got people’s attention. At the same time, our judicatory started billing churches directly for the pastor’s insurance and pension (rather than lumping those expenses into other denominational support payments), meaning that it was no longer possible to withhold payments to the denomination as a stopgap.
When people began to realize that the problems were serious, the reaction was anger. Everyone wanted to assign blame. “If the church would just step up and do something rather than just sit in the pews, we’d be ok.” “The pastor could be doing more to get people in the door.” “The conference has made it impossible to run a church these days.” “It’s the government’s fault. The President isn’t doing enough for the economy.”
While these statements might have some truth, the blame game did not help. Deep down, everyone knew it was really no one’s fault. There is a time for every season under heaven. And this was a time for cutting back.
Stage 3: Bargaining
This was the busiest stage. Almost everyone came up with their own budget, each cutting everything but the ministry they were passionate about. Committees would take hours to make a decision. Then, as this stage of grief hit, people would start trying to make deals. Some of the bargaining was good brainstorming. Some was simply motivated by grief.
“What if we cut staff salaries for six months and re-evaluate?” “What about another pledge drive?” “Let’s have another meeting to think about what we decided at the last meeting.” But none of these attempts to bargain the problem away offered a long-lasting solution.
Stage 4: Depression
The next stage was depression, manifest in comments like these: “I have never been more physically or spiritually drained than I felt coming out of that meeting.” “I want off the staff-parish committee because I never want to experience this part of church again.” “Church doesn’t feel fun anymore.” Because depression is mostly silent and private, these depressive statements were surely just the tip of the iceberg.
It was important to recognize these emotions — to allow people to sit with them for a while — and to honor their feelings.
Stage 5: Acceptance
After months of working through grief, the groups came together and made difficult decisions. People started to express opinions like these: “This is where we are, and this is what we have to do.” “We’ve got to do this, and we can make the best of it.” “We’ve been through tough times before. We can make it through this one, too.”
These statements were a joy to hear. There are still people in my church who are working through these steps, but with God’s help, we will make it through.
Leading a church through budget cuts is never easy. But it is helpful to remember that grief may linger through the night, but joy does come in the morning.
This article is adapted from Dan’s blog, www.churchandtea.com.