From one angle, the national recession can bear an unsettling resemblance to original sin: a steep and sweeping fall from economic grace that touches every soul, regardless of status or profession, age or creed, and with little respect to human standards of innocence or guilt.
Of course some are suffering more than others, and in different ways. And the greater sins of a few outrage the rest. But in interviews with pastors and preachers working around the country, often in widely divergent situations, there is also the sense that everyone is touched in some profound way, even if this common bond requires a response pitched to the specific context.
The question, they say, then turns to whether the crisis may offer an opportunity for not only economic, but also spiritual and ecclesial, transformation. This opening has both individual and communal dimensions, the pastors say, that for once traverse and connect the worlds of work and worship.
But the greatest and most immediate challenge is gauging how to address anxious congregants where they are. Two examples can illustrate the differences and commonalities.
At Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., Steve Eason’s congregation successfully completed a $30 million capital campaign. But Charlotte is also the “Wall Street of the South,” the second-largest banking center after New York (no other city is close) and a ground zero of sorts for the financial collapse.
Myers Park Presbyterian has taken a hit as well, in economic terms — its $5.2 million budget for 2009 would be the envy of most churches, but that figure is down from a projected $6.2 million a few months ago. Congregants are losing jobs, or moving away to find employment elsewhere, and many who remain have seen their incomes drop dramatically even as some of them — like Bank of America execs — become targets of populist anger.
Eason D’79 rejects any temptation to scapegoat: “Everyone loves to take a poke at the rich. But you’ve also got to step back and realize that a lot of rich people are doing a lot of good in the world.”
And as he says, such comments won’t hit home with his congregants, nor will simply saying that genuine contentment in life is not based on material things. That’s true enough, but if you push that too hard, says Eason, “It gets Pollyanna-ish.”
Instead, Myers Park Presbyterian takes a twofold approach. First, the church created practical ministries like job networks and counseling programs for those out of work or struggling with the jobs they have. Next they recognized that there are a lot of successful people in the church — “These are not people who need their hand held,” as he puts it — and that they need to be challenged.
“I came at it from a leadership angle,” he says. “These are leaders who are getting hit, and their number one job is to lead people out of this.”
The church launched a four-part preaching series in January and February on the leadership models of Moses and Jesus, for example, calling on those who can lead “to have a servant’s heart” to help others.
“Now is not the time to get cocky and brassy. We need to serve people who are hurting,” Eason says. “We’re still a very blessed people for all the hits we’ve taken.”
In Catawba County to the west of Charlotte, Brad Thie D’98, pastor of Friendship United Methodist Church in Newton, sees his job as more like triage for a region where hardship is deep and wide. And prolonged.
Unemployment is above 15 percent and rising, and symptoms of the affliction can be seen in the huge spike in demand for medical and social services, as well as a rise in emergency calls.
Thie — who earned an M.B.A. before attending the Divinity School — does not avoid the recession in his sermons, but preaches on passages such as Jesus’ counsel in the Sermon on the Mount (“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”) or the laments to God of the prophet Habakkuk, who nonetheless takes solace in faith: “Though the flocks disappear from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, Yet will I rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God.”
“I continually find myself trying to connect [my preaching] with the economic hardships the people are feeling,” Thie says. But he adds that even the best homily must be complemented by practical ministry — counseling and spending time in prayer with people.
As the number of out-of-work parishioners has increased, so has attendance at daytime Bible study group, Thie says. “It’s been a pleasant surprise to see these unemployed people throwing themselves into Bible study.”
Thie does what he can to help with gas or transportation, because many can’t afford to drive to church more than once a week, and others have had to sell one of their cars. The church also has a fund to disburse money — anonymously — to help cover costs of medication, or help with rent or utility payments.
“We are living through the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to minister and witness,” Thie says. His bottom-line message: “Not only will God take care of you, but we want to help.”
Jim Huskins also tries to present that message to the people he ministers to around Goldsboro, N.C. Huskins, a 1985 graduate of the Divinity School, retired as a United Methodist pastor in 2007. Since last fall he has worked as program director at the Marion Edwards Recovery Center Initiatives (MERCI), a United Methodist disaster relief program in Goldsboro.
Disasters now, he notes, are both “natural and unnatural,” as unemployment skyrockets and donations drop — to the point that the MERCI program may be closed, even as its
services are needed more than ever.
But Huskins also believes that rather than just reacting to grinding economic woes, churches and pastors need to be much better prepared to anticipate the pathologies that emerge from a recession so that ministry can head off problems.
When the anger and depression show up at the door in the person of an abused spouse or a backsliding alcoholic, Huskins says, “You’re way behind the power curve.”
The problem, he says, is that churches have not deployed their resources or advertised their services on economic issues and preparedness. “It’s a matter of this being seen as a ministry that can be done through the church.” It is, he says, akin to marriage preparation programs rather than just divorce counseling.
The fearsomeness of the recession, however, is also being viewed as something of an opportunity to create new connections among believers and churches, especially in places that are neither wholly affluent nor completely poor — places like Brighton, a Michigan suburb that lies between Detroit and Ann Arbor.
Scott Chrostek, who serves as associate pastor at the United Methodist Church there, notes that the congregation has members who would be considered upper-middle class, among them a number of auto industry executives. Yet recent months have shown that no one is safe, especially not in a state like Michigan, which is in the sixth year of a “single-state” recession that, if it were reproduced nationally, would qualify as a full-blown depression.
“We were always afraid,” says Chrostek D’06. “But now it’s ingrained in everybody.” In the metropolitan Detroit area one in eight is unemployed, and as Chrostek notes, “that becomes very real in a church of 800 people.” It also becomes very real as the automotive industry, already struggling and now the target of populist ire in other parts of the country, faces the prospect of bankruptcy.
Just talking about the economy isn’t enough, or can even be too much, if done every Sunday, says Chrostek, because people grow discouraged. On the other hand, the fear of losing a job or home or worse has become so pervasive that there is a growing reluctance to speak openly.
Before Christmas last year, the preachers at all three worship services asked everyone connected in any way with the auto industry to stand. Somewhat haltingly at first, people got up until nearly 80 percent of the worshipers were standing.
“We just said, ‘We want to be in prayer for all of you,’ ” Chrostek says. “That has done so much for our congregation. We feel connected.”
“I think this issue is so terrifying to people that a few sermons are not enough,” agrees Lisa Moss Degrenia D’00, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church, a congregation that averages 190 in worship each Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla.
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.
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.
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]?”
Since greed is so hard to recognize (even though it is a much greater concern in the New Testament than lust), Hauerwas says many people didn’t even know that they were suffering its effects until the recession hit.
Even now, he says, most people seem to be praying for things to return to the affluence of the recent past, rather than trying to address fundamental issues like the growing gap between the very poor and the very rich.
For example, he says the extravagant bonuses paid to financial executives aren’t new; they’re just in the news, and suddenly people are focusing on that aspect of the income gap.
“It always beats the hell out of me why people don’t get upset about it,” Hauerwas says. “It’s just obscene. The only reason I can think of is because people think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a chance to get rich, too!’ ”
And that desire, Hauerwas says, is another form of lust. “Churches need to help people frame their lives in the context of what Jesus taught. We haven’t been very good about that, in terms of our ability to see our greed through the light of the Gospel.
“This is not an issue of how we’ve been living beyond our means and aren’t we terrible people. We have been living beyond our means, and it has implications for those who had to suffer from our living beyond our means. We should feel appropriately repentant for that.
“What needs to be said is, ‘Look, you are possessed by your possessions. And Christianity is ongoing training in dispossession, to where you’ll be free,’ ” he says.
As to whether this crisis, and even the best preaching, will truly transform Christians — much less the nation — Hauerwas is skeptical. Others, including Lisa Degrenia of St. Petersburg, Fla., are hopeful that churches will seize the crisis as a time for transformation.
“There is an opportunity, brought on by the economy, to break down walls, to be more Kingdom-minded,” she says.
The danger before the recession was that congregations were able to stave off change by going into “survival mode,” as she puts it, in which the congregation’s energies are directed toward raising money to maintain the status quo.
That is often no longer possible, and today’s transformation, Degrenia says, “to me is very much of God. We’re seeing God take the situation and turn it for good.”
Congregations are like individuals, she says: “They have to reach a certain level of dissatisfaction in order to have the motivation for change. [The economy] is helping some congregations realize that they aren’t satisfied.
“Sometimes it starts from self-interest. But God can take a little crack like that and open it into something wider.”
David Gibson is a freelance writer and author who writes about religion. He lives in Brooklyn.