Ian Evison, Congregational Service DirectorIn conversations with congregations this Fall one of the key questions seems to be—how to do well, how to prosper, in a time of austerity. Beginning last Fall congregations began to see indications that they were being impacted by a downturn in the economy that is likely to last a while. Not all congregations have felt this. Some finance drive and capital fund drives went very well last year. But other congregations, especially those vulnerable for other reasons, are clearly headed into a period of austerity.

How do we lead well in such a period? Many of our favored images of leadership presume a wider prospering wider environment. Our images of leadership in times of austerity tend to focus on cutting of budgets and staff, and moth-balling of projects and—in general—contenting ourselves with a paler, weaker version of what we had hoped and dreamt. Must being a leader in a time of prosperity mostly mean raining on the parade?

I don’t believe so. My mother, a superb business woman, believed that there more opportunities to be found in adversity than in prosperity—if only because fewer people think to look. It was, in fact, in such a period of austerity that she was finally able to increase the size of our family farm after years, decades of waiting. For those with resources to invest it is an exceptionally good time to invest them. And, it is also a time when more people are willing to try new things than they might have been had not circumstances pushed them in that direction. A lot of people who did not like the quality of light emitted by those new compact fluorescents are going to get their energy bills this Fall and start to think that maybe it isn’t so bad. And quite a few who had been against telephone meetings might be willing to give it a try as gas hovers around $4.00 a gallon. I like seeing people but—at that price—maybe I can do without that sometimes!

Our congregations have discovered, for example, that while their regular stewardship drives have been weaker than expected (by about an average of 10%, it seems) they have found surprising willingness to invest in some things that were not planned: like energy projects. Indeed, every week seems to bring new reports of a Green projects—from simple upgrades of insulation and installation of programmable thermostats to very sophisticated solar and geothermal projects. Especially in larger congregations, another area that deserves to be rethought in a period of austerity is staffing. When times are good, congregations add staff to meet needs as they arise and often to make use of skills that present themselves. The unfortunate result is having many people doing important things within an increasingly incoherent structure. I would even be willing to venture the general rule that periods of austerity tend to lead to confused staff structures. Though painful, a period of austerity can provide an opportunity to creates something a little more coherent. When a staff person leads, it may not be possible to simply refill the same position or to leave the work undone. Good leadership in such a circumstance can raise the question of overall division of work that will both cope now and position the congregation better for the next period of prosperity.

None of this is easy. But I find myself thinking a lot about my mother these days and about a vision of leadership that finds the opportunity in austerity.