The message from its pastor is straightforward: Honesty is the best financial policy
by the Rev. Jody Mask for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service
“Tell the story of Center Church honestly: the good, the bad and the ugly.”
This guiding principle framed the Rev. Tom Moore’s workshop at Stewardship Kaleidoscope 2022. Moore told participants the story of Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania, showing the importance of honesty and transparency when it comes to the church and its finances.
Located in an affluent community south of Pittsburgh since the 19th century, Center operated with the “Field of Dreams” mentality: “If you build it, they will come.”
The congregation thought, when it undertook a $1.2 million renovation around 2008, “it will pay for itself over time.”
That was just before the Great Recession of 2008.
At that critical time, Center was unaware of resources provided by ministry partners like the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, so they financed the renovation through a conventional community bank loan.
The church did not believe it needed outside help, so it began building before the campaign started. This led to a follow-up capital campaign a year later to alleviate mortgage debt. But with the building project completed, no one had an incentive to give.
And then the pastor received a new call two years after the project was completed.
Together, this collection of assumptions and missteps snowballed. Anxiety peaked. Key members and financial supporters left. By 2018, things looked bleak.
Fortunately, membership had stabilized by that time. The church hired Moore as a quarter-time pastor that summer. He was also working as a camp director then, but he lived close to the church and felt a call to journey with the congregation.
Through a series of “bold moves” that Moore outlined in the workshop, Center was able to overcome its crisis. These bold moves included:
Name reality. The church had to accept that it did not get to a crisis point overnight. Neither would it emerge from it overnight. Members had to be honest with themselves about the situation.
Ask for help. The church felt ashamed of its financial position yet was too proud to publicly admit the problem. Members had to set pride aside and ask for help.
Listen to advice. Center contacted the Presbyterian Foundation and met with Paul Grier, Vice President of Project Regeneration, who reviewed their financial predicament. The preschool and church mortgage were not included in the church’s operating budget. Combined with the school’s annual operating loss, the church realized it was losing more than $81,000 a year. As much as the church loved hosting a preschool, Moore spoke the words everyone was thinking: “This model of ministry was unsustainable.”
Living into painful changes. In such a precarious financial state, Center had to be honest with members and staff. Constant, transparent communication included naming the problems and listening to possible solutions from everyone. This led to difficult but necessary decisions such as saying goodbye to longtime staff, closing the preschool and selling two manses on the church campus.
Living into hope. Even though they tightened the purse strings, Center had to change its mindset. Members had to believe that God had a purpose for the church, even if they did not know what it was. Instead of asking “How do we survive?” they asked, “What is God doing with us?”
Faith in Action. Before the pandemic, Center was on the verge of being in the black (revenue equal to or exceeding expenses) for the first time in a long time. Center still managed to be in the black in 2020, despite the pandemic, and it has maintained that status. Covid tested the church’s faith, but the church continued to emphasize giving to local mission causes, since those ministries were hurting, too. This cultivation of generosity started with leadership, and their modeling inspired the congregation.
Center’s story may be unique in the details. But its spiral of denial and pride is a common reason churches face financial struggle. The church’s willingness to share what it learned the hard way can serve as both a warning and an inspiration to churches that hesitate to speak boldly not only to the world but to themselves.
The Rev. Jody Mask is a member-at-large of Central Florida Presbytery. He is a native and current resident of Orlando, Florida. He loves distance running and nature hiking as ways to be generous to his health. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org
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