But Degrenia also sees opportunities for forging bonds that can help not only individual members, but also the church’s witness as a whole. In fact, before the recession really took hold, some United Methodist churches in her district — there are eight within a three-mile radius of Degrenia’s church — launched a “collaborative multi-site laboratory” in which congregations of all sizes and varying degrees of sustainability come together to share resources and ministries.

The laboratory was an effort to address inevitable transformations before they became crises, and to do it without the language and process of “mergers” and “takeovers” that smack of the power dynamic of the corporate world, which is itself discredited. Degrenia says the recession has only hastened their experiment in collaboration — and that’s a good thing.

Economic Crisis Calls for Leaders’ Best
Connie McNeil talks about the impact of the downturn

In a similar vein, Steve Eason of Myers Park Presbyterian notes that since the economy cratered he and other pastors have been doing a lot more networking, sharing ideas and best practices in a new Internet community with some two dozen other Presbyterian churches across the country. “We weren’t talking before, but now we are,” Eason says.

Myers Park Presbyterian in Charlotte has delayed brick-and-mortar upgrades to focus on maintaining ministry and outreach programs. That doesn’t make everyone happy, but, in the end, the church chose to emphasize mission over maintenance.

In Brighton, Scott Chrostek says the recession of 2009 has made people in the suburbs identify more concretely with the inner cities, because “people in the suburbs realize how close they are to that line” of true poverty.

Interestingly, he says, as times have grown tougher, the congregation has continued to push its stewardship campaign and emphasize the need to help others who are facing even greater hardships. It has paid off, as the church has raised more money in the past two years than ever before. Not only that, but at nearby Waterford Central United Methodist Church, where Chrostek’s wife, Wendy D’06, is an associate, they’ve also had increased giving of late — even though Waterford’s congregation is much more working class than Brighton’s.

Another question many pastors are asking themselves is how — or whether — the recession will transform American attitudes about money and possessions and even the dog-eat-dog ethos of today’s society.

Hauerwas

Steve Eason identifies several camps within his own congregation, including those who want — and are waiting for — life to return to “normal,” those who believe that this is “the new normal,” and those who are driving their cars longer and finding that a relief. “Not everyone is devastated, not everyone is depressed,” he says.

Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe professor of theological ethics, says preaching about the economy is always a challenge because congregations are so different and each congregation usually has many people in different situations and with differing attitudes about money.

“I often say that one reason the church seems to concentrate so much on sex and lust as a sin is because we think we know what it looks like when we get it wrong. We seldom talk about greed, because how would you know if you are [greedy]?”

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