By Russ Rankin
Some churches are not only weathering the sluggish economy, they’re flourishing.
According to a study by LifeWay Research, the lethargic economy has continued to negatively impact the financial situation of many congregations in the United States. However, some congregations are finding that the gloomy forecast hasn’t necessarily translated into slashed budgets and financial damage control.
A May 2012 LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors found a large percentage of pastors serving in large cities and the suburbs (72 percent in both areas) cite a negative impact on their church from the economy in 2012.
Steve Collins, senior pastor of The Harvest Church in North Dallas, does not count himself among that statistic.
When the economic downturn began to take a toll on ministries and churches in 2009, The Harvest was still getting used to being in an actual church facility on a plot of land after spending a decade in a storefront location in Plano, Texas.
The congregation moved north in 2006 from Plano to the city of Allen, a fast-growing community in North Dallas, with the intent of reaching a largely unchurched and multiethnic population, explained Collins.
The Harvest purchased an older church building in Allen with sufficient space to accommodate their congregation with the intention to purchase adjacent land for expansion. When other churches began feeling the economic pinch in 2009, The Harvest found itself already outgrowing its space.
“We had about 250 people in 2009, and now we’re close to 500 in four Sunday morning services,” Collins said, adding that nearly doubling attendance in three years has naturally led to higher giving.
“I’m exhausted, but God is so good,” he said with a laugh.
LifeWay Research found the trend indicates a stabilization of giving rather than widespread increases. Through May 2011, 36 percent of churches saw giving the same as 2010. And through May 2012, 40 percent of churches saw giving the same as 2011.
Collins said giving at The Harvest rose 40 percent in 2011 and is up 50 percent in 2012.
“The key for us has been about communicating with our folks how God honors faithful financial stewardship,” Collins said.
As a church, The Harvest also prays intentionally for members to be used in the marketplace for Kingdom impact.
“The fact is, when you reach the hearts of the people, you reach their pocketbooks,” Collins said. “We pray our people generate creative business ideas that would lead them to make an impact in the business world and through their finances.
“We’ve always been very open with where we are financially,” Collins said. “We make quarterly financial reports a part of our regular church communications and anyone can see the breakdown on what we’re doing financially.”
Even in the midst of recession, “we’ve been able to buy that adjacent land which will double our footprint,” Collins said. “We’ll be breaking ground in the next couple of months on a new sanctuary, which will greatly help our seating capacity.”
As churches have adjusted to the depressed economy, the LifeWay Research survey found fewer churches are failing to meet budget expectations. Through May 2011, giving for 27 percent of churches was below budget. At the same time in 2012, only 22 percent of churches reported giving below budget – a 5 percent decrease from the year before.
Willow Pointe Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., has weathered the economy, and like The Harvest Church, has continued to grow.
“God has blessed us so much these last few years, even at a time when other churches around us are dying,” said Jim Burnett, senior pastor of Willow Pointe.
Planted 10 years ago, Burnett said he believes Willow Pointe has thrived in part because of its outward focus.
“There are a lot of churches that are suffering and even shutting down because of a lack of vision,” Burnett said. “From the onset, Willow Pointe has been about teaching our people to look outward instead of inward – how are we going to meet the needs of our community and share the gospel? A lack of vision turns a church inward.”
In spite of the economic challenges faced by other churches, Willow Pointe’s 2013 budget is 25 percent larger than the previous year.
“It’s a God thing,” Burnett said. “We ask God specifically for clear vision on where to step next.”
Burnett described the budget process at Willow Pointe as being driven by vision. He said it is something they evaluate constantly even if it means stopping a particular ministry project in midstream or infusing a new ministry or process.
“Vision is the fuel,” he said. “We have a big, bold budget because we have a big, bold God.”
Burnett said the church does not budget according to what they can afford, but rather what God is leading them to do. “One of our elders made the statement ‘Where God guides, He provides.’ The church has really bought into that.”
With a vision to impact their city, Willow Pointe piloted a mentoring program in the local school district that has now been replicated in every school district in the county. The church also facilitates Celebrate Recovery and hosts block parties and community leader luncheons.
The church does maintain a frugal “if we don’t have it, we don’t spend it” approach, Burnett said, but when “our folks see God in something, they go for it.” As a church, Willow Pointe committed to make four extra payments in 2012 toward reducing debt.
“We wanted to attack the debt so we could move on to the next phase,” Burnett said. “Our people are all behind it. We actually made two extra payments one quarter.”
According to Burnett, Willow Pointe is not feeling the stress of the current economic situation because they have been called to be available.
“God has called us to be obedient and available, and He will do the rest,” Burnett said. “We believe we’re to get ready to be used in an even greater way for a greater impact upon our community.”