June 20, 2009

Financial Meltdowns--Is the Church Susceptible?

2009 1517 page20 capn September 14, 2008, Senator Barack Obama met with his top advisers in Chicago. His campaign had lost momentum after Senator John McCain gained points in the poll following his choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.1 Obama had not foreseen what was going to happen the next day, which, in the eyes of many, was the winning factor in his election as the forty-fourth president of the United States. On September 15 the sky fell: Lehman Brothers, a giant investment firm, was filing for bankruptcy, starting a game of tumbling dominoes that led the United States to the financial meltdown it’s now experiencing.
Since then, people all over the world anxiously anticipate what each new day will bring, trying to determine what financial impact the latest news will have on them personally. If you are one of those people, I say to you: STOP! It’s impossible to forecast the future.
Just listen to all the financial pundits and pseudo experts who regularly pontificate on television and radio—none predicted the situation we are in. Even the guru of the financial market for so many years, Allan Greenspan, had to admit that he may have misjudged the weakness of the free market, which was supposed to regulate itself. No one can predict what is in store for tomorrow.
2009 1517 page20Almost daily we hear how governments have put out gigantic amounts of money to help revitalize the economy: $700 billion by the U.S., more than $2.2 billion by the European countries, and $586 billion by China. Then again in the U.S.: $570 billion to rescue AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac; $1 trillion to fund credit card, auto, and small business loans; another $787 billion for a stimulus package; $1.4 trillion for purchasing toxic assets; and $300 billion to purchase treasury bonds. The sad news is that we—and probably our children and even our grandchildren—will eventually have to pay the bill.
The slowdown in the economy also translates into higher unemployment, which will eventually affect everyone in the global village in which we live.
What About the Church?
How will all this impact the Adventist Church? Will the mission that is ours to finish be influenced by the financial situation? The simple answer as to how to deal with these circumstances would be to streamline, trim the programs, and reduce costs by all means possible. These are the typical decisions that one would expect in the marketplace. But we are managing God’s business. Can the business of God—the Creator of all things, the One who owns everything—be run as a regular business? The answer is both Yes and No.
Yes—because as God’s stewards, no matter what the situation we’re in, we should manage His resources in a prudent and conservative manner, trying to get as much out of the “church dollar” as possible (in the marketplace they would say the best return on investment [ROI]). We should have the courage to discontinue programs or close institutions that are no longer accomplishing the mission or that have too low of an ROI.
No—because God is not limited by the church’s balance sheet or by the amount in the bank. The Bible provides sufficient examples of more than enough funds or supplies being available to finish the task whenever God’s people worked together to accomplish His plan or agenda. God always provided what was needed before they even knew of His plan, such as the building of the tabernacle in the desert (Ex. 36:3-7), the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 2:68, 69), and the love offering of the Macedonians (2 Cor. 8:1-5). There is no limit to what God can do through us—if only we have faith. God doesn’t depend on tax laws or the generosity of churchgoers to fund His church. He will provide in whatever situation we find ourselves.
“But the meltdown is here,” you might say, “and the church is going to lose money, or at least will have less revenue to carry on with its mission!” Really? Well, let’s look back and see what history can teach us.
History Lessons
The biggest financial crash in the United States happened in 1929. But if you research the history of world finance, you’ll find several other financial crises listed, beginning in 1907, when Wall Street, the mecca of world finance, lost 35 percent of its value in nine months. This was followed by an 85 percent loss during the next three years. A 40 percent loss over two years resulted from the first oil crisis in 1973, then a 34 percent loss within a three-week time period in 1987, another 34 percent loss within three weeks in 1997, and the present financial crisis, in which Wall Street has gone down 36 percent in 14 months.2 Note that for the financial world, the two world wars were not considered financial crises!
Tithe Income and Financial Crises
Let’s consider tithe income for the North American Division (NAD)—which represented more than 70 percent of world church revenue for several decades—during the three greatest crises that rocked the beginning of the last century: World War I, the financial crash of 1929, and World War II. What happened to our church’s finances during these periods of time?
In the five years preceding World War I (1910-1914), each Adventist Church member in the United States gave an average of $347.94 a year for tithe. During the conflict itself (1915-1918), that average rose to $422.40 per member/per year, a 21.4 percent increase. Just prior to the 1929 crisis (1924-1928), the average annual giving per member was $443.75. And during the worst financial crisis of all (1929-1933), the average went down to $376.40, a decrease of 17.8 percent. We have to remember, however, that during the same time period, Wall Street lost 84 percent of its value.
During the next five years (1934-1938), average tithe incomes in the U.S. stayed constant at $376.43. These recovery years were just before another conflict, which was going to affect the entire planet: World War II. But contrary to what any financial expert could have had predicted, tithe revenues throughout that period of time (1939-1945) went up to $609.81, an increase of 61.7 percent. Try to explain that!
What makes these numbers even more amazing is that during World War II, tithe giving represented 8.2 percent of the average revenue. As a comparison, the average tithe giving per member in the U.S. in 2006 was $851.17, or 3.02 percent of revenue.3
Contrary to general belief, history shows that giving trends go up in times of uncertainty.4 For example, the Salvation Army reported that “their annual Red Kettle campaign set a record of $130 million in donations last year, despite the financial crisis. Donations were up 10 percent from 2007.”5
A Vote of Confidence
Are you still afraid of the financial market affecting the operations of the church? If so, you shouldn’t be. From the beginning of time God has been in control—and He still is. Throughout history God has provided consistent proof that He will not let His people be without resources. Do you think that He has lost some of His power recently? Or that He needs us to help Him find solutions to crises?
Current world events are just more signs that He cannot delay His return too much longer. We have never seen so many catastrophes, and every continent is afflicted by one type of conflict or another. But we’re assured that we don’t need to worry about the financial crisis—or even about our retirement funds—because our Lord has promised that He will soon come again to take us to the home He has been preparing for us from all eternity. 
1Washington Post, November 5, 2008.
2Le Point, October 16, 2008.
3Data based on Seventh-day Adventist annual statistical reports: www.adventistarchives.org/documents.asp. All numbers are given in constant 2000 dollar value. CPI Department of Labor and Statistics: www.bls.gov/pub/special.request/cpi/cpiai.txt; U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of Economic Analysis: www.bea.gov/national/nipaweb; Seventh-day Adventist 2006 statistical report.
4Philanthropic Giving, Russell Sage Foundation, the New York Times, December 8, 1931, quoted in “Fund-raising in Times of Uncertainty,” Sharpe Group, October 20, 2008: www.sharpenet.com/resources/pdf/SharpeUpdate2008.pdf.
5Washington Post, March 19, 2009.
Jean-Luc Lezeau is associate director of the General Conference Stewardship Department in Silver Spring, Maryland.