5 Proven Principles of Leadership During Economic Downturn

Contributions By: Kenton Beshore, Sean Morgan, Dick Alexander

On a video call in 2020, with 17 lead pastors from Germany to Seattle, we processed key leadership roles pastors need to play during economic downturns, unemployment, and general crises.

Having led through four recessions, Kenton Beshore (former lead pastor at Mariner’s Church in Southern California) brought amazing wisdom and clarity to the conversation.

Be A Pastor. Be A Leader.

The pastor has two jobs in the midst of crisis—pastor the people and lead the organization.

With the congregation, it’s about being their pastor—helping them navigate their personal crises of fear, uncertainty, possible sickness, job loss, etc. When some leaders rush toward appeals for giving to the church, it separates them from the hurt and felt needs, plus it feels uncaring. The pastor must pastor.

But the pastor also lives with organizational issues, including budgeting, staffing, abrupt program changes, etc. Pastors must lead in a way that serves well in the present and brings the church through the crisis.

Kenton: “As you hear me talk about these roles, you should feel some contradiction in that. There actually is a contradiction in that, but you can’t do the job unless you can learn to embrace it and thrive in it.”

Good ministry leaders live in that contradiction of pastoral care and leadership boldness.

Get Ahead Mentally

Sometimes, it’s too early to tell what’s going to happen to the economy, and you shouldn’t have to…leave that to the economists.

What you can do immediately is project multiple scenarios that help depict various possible paths the future may hold. (Note: we cover further detail on how to do this in our Navigating Crisis paper here).

Bring the finance team together with possibly another good business mind or two, and look at three tiers of possibilities:

  • Tier 1, “Optimistic”: 0-10% drop in giving
  • Tier 2, “Moderate”: 11-20% drop in giving
  • Tier 3, “Pessimistic”: 20%+ drop in giving

Ask your team to determine what kinds of cuts would be needed in each tier. You can often find ways to cut 5-10% in short order and have solid team buy-in and support.

Next, take those projections to the elders, who look at it from a faith perspective. Ask them to weigh in on which scenario they believe is the best course of action.

Understand Your Givers

Understand clearly up front: the givers that will carry your church through this are the givers that are already giving and committed. Although your wealthiest givers may take massive hits in their businesses and investments, they will still likely be the wealthiest people in your church even after those multimillion-dollar losses. Have a plan to be personally connected as their pastor, and regularly communicate with givers during this time.

Share what the ministry is doing to further the mission of the church, and remind them how significant their generosity has been to the success of the past.

Crises Always Expose Weakness

Having bald tires on your car doesn’t pose much of a problem on dry road, but when it rains you quickly find out you should not have ignored the issue. Also, that old rubber band looks fine sitting there, but when you stretch it you find out it’s brittle and cracked.

What do these stories have in common? 

Simple: stressing a system (like in crisis) will expose weaknesses.

Crises can bring about new problems for sure, but they most often expose weaknesses that were already there under your leadership. Examples would be weaknesses in your staff/team, structure, thinking and strategy, and systems.

We are finding that about 20% of churches were prepared to function in a digital world. Interestingly enough, about 20% of the churches we surveyed had neutral giving or even increased giving during the crisis of 2020.

Don’t beat yourself up over where you may or may not be today. Learn from it, and remember as a leader you may have to stress the system to learn what your organization needs to work on.

Be Human

Leaders are human too. If you think you’re bulletproof, you’re missing something.

In times that require bold leadership, you’ll likely find the mantle of leadership gets heavier.

Why? Well, boldness requires decisiveness and clarity. That means people will see and understand things they didn’t before…and, some of them won’t be happy about it.

If you’re making cuts and reshaping your organization, you will inevitably deal with a sense of shame and guilt. Don’t ignore what you’re feeling, but do find a place (and likely a person who understands leadership, ministry, and cares about you) to process this with.

If you want to learn more about leading your church, check out our Podcast: Leaders in Living Rooms, available anywhere you listen and of course our website: https://theascentleader.org/leaders-in-living-rooms/.

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