Finding Redemption in Recession

Many pastors are facing the challenge of their careers:
What they see when they look out at the pews, and what they say from the pulpit

By David Gibson

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.”

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