Church congregation growth may run on God's timing, not the economy's. The ability to deal with that growth, though, is more dependent on earthly funds, and the dollars in a church budget may be fewer when members are losing jobs and savings.

So what happens to church growth campaigns when the economy is going downhill?

Bill Walter is president of Church Growth Services, an organization that helps churches plan capital campaigns for building and growth projects. Walter has been in the business for over 30 years and offers a historical perspective on what seems to be the current recession and how it could affect churches.

How is the current economy affecting church capital campaigns?

Churches are becoming more cautious in terms of taking on major capital projects. The very name capital campaign suggests people typically are challenged to make extraordinary gifts to the campaign from capital-type assets. And with capital assets such as stocks, bonds, and real estate having gone down considerably, there's somewhat less likelihood that folks are able to commit at the level that perhaps they could have in more prosperous times.

Many times there are only a relatively small number of folks in the church who can make a gift out of assets, but there are many people in the church who can make gifts out of income.

This is where the individual or the family will pray about this and discuss it and say, "Over the next three years out of our wages and our earnings, we'll commit x dollars per week or per month." Those types of gifts are less at risk and still available, whereas the gifts of assets have been somewhat decimated by the recent market turmoil.

When asset giving goes down, do you usually see a surge in income giving to make up for that or does giving just drop?

Giving to the church from income is a function of people's employment and their continued earnings from their job. If we were, for instance, to see the unemployment rate spike considerably from even where it is now, then giving from income might become more in jeopardy.

But most times, folks who are giving their weekly tithes and/or offerings will continue to do so as long as their employment hasn't been seriously compromised or jeopardized.

Do you have any thoughts on comparing this apparent recession to recessions in the early '80s and early '90s?

I began in 1973, which, if you recall a bit of history, was the time of the first Arab oil embargo. This was followed by the most serious recession since the depression, from '73 to '75. Through the early 1980s the economy took serious hits, unemployment was in double digits, and inflation and interest rates were well into double digits. And then, of course, there was the recession of the early '90s.

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So I've seen a number of these cycles. What I've discovered is that where there's a compelling vision and a need that is evident, wherever that may be, God's people will rise to the occasion. Sometimes generosity actually increases—at least the level of sacrifice increases—through tough economic times.

Is starting a campaign during a recession more difficult?

It's ironic but I think it's somewhat to be expected in God's work and in God's economy that many times the greatest opportunities for ministry intersect with the most difficult times economically.

As times get tough, people often have greater interest in the church and in faith. Churches see an influx of people and then are challenged with the need to accommodate them, and that might relate to a capital campaign.

In our experience, the need must be very compelling and very self-evident to the majority of the congregation to move forward with a major campaign in a tough economic climate. But you can go forward with a capital campaign in a tough economy. You just have to be a little more sure of your footing before you launch.

What would be a compelling need?

We have found that there's a hierarchy of needs for projects that challenge and motivate people to give. The most motivational projects are those that actually increase the capacity of the congregation to meet and conduct their ministry.

Do you have any advice for churches interested in starting a campaign right now?

Do all of the preparation and all of the legwork—but carefully weigh when you decide to launch a capital campaign, because timing is everything. The few campaigns we are in right now are proceeding despite the day-to-day drumbeat of tough economic news. The churches have said. "Look, we feel this is God's will, we've launched this and we're going to finish it out."

But I would say to churches that have not yet launched: Get everybody informed and on board, but don't declare the launch of the campaign until you're convinced that the timing for your church and the general economy is appropriate.

We're hearing that giving to some kinds of charities goes down in a recession but that church giving stays pretty much the same. Do you have any thoughts on why that would be?

In some ways the church is unique among charities. It's God's work. It's where people are getting their weekly fellowship, their weekly spiritual nurture, and is something that is seen as family—the family of God. [Also, church giving may go up because] when times get tough, people seem to get more serious about their faith again. Recall the weeks and few months after 9/11—there was a surge in church attendance. The same kind of thing happens when times get tough economically.

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Related Elsewhere:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has advice for capital campaign fundraisers.

Christianity Today has a special section on the economic crisis, which includes:

Q & A: Dave Ramsey | The popular Christian financial adviser on why he thinks the bailout is a disaster. (September 26, 2008)
After the Bailout, Government-Owned Churches? | But law profs say church-state problems are unlikely. (October 1, 2008)
A Christian View of the Economic Crisis | Is the economy really driven by greed? (September 29, 2008)