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Ministry in Hard Times

Ministry in Hard Times

by Bill Easum, Bill Tenny-Brittian

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In hard times, you can either panic, decline, or grow. Which do you choose to do?

This is not a time to tweak your church budget. It is not a time to slash and burn it indiscriminately across the board. Nor is it the time to hunker down in the bunker and wait things out. Now is the time is exercise wisdom and to act strategically. In fact, it's a great time


In hard times, you can either panic, decline, or grow. Which do you choose to do?

This is not a time to tweak your church budget. It is not a time to slash and burn it indiscriminately across the board. Nor is it the time to hunker down in the bunker and wait things out. Now is the time is exercise wisdom and to act strategically. In fact, it's a great time to be the church. People need us to live out our mission as radically as we can possibly imagine.

This book will help you make wise decisions about how to weather the economic storm and emerge on the other side of it a much stronger congregation. It’s a simple book with a simple message: you don’t get to choose when you go through hard times, only how you respond to them.

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Abingdon Press
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Ministry in Hard Times

By Bill Easum, Bill Tenny-Brittian

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-2671-2



Even if you haven't been paying attention, you must be painfully aware that we're living in difficult times. We've had difficult times before, but these times are significantly different. We're living in a time when the world is being whipsawed by a number of potential wildcards, any one of which is enough to disrupt the fabric of society.

Wildcards are major events that come out of nowhere, totally unforeseen by the common person, and change everything. As a result, virtually nothing is the same as it used to be; it's a whole new world.

Most of our (BE: Bill Easum; and BTB: Bill Tenny-Brittian) lives have been lived in a world of probabilities. Probability is the likelihood or chance that something will happen. Probability theory is used in statistics, mathematics, science, and philosophy to draw conclusions about the likelihood of potential events. For most of our lives, it was easy to survey the landscape and have a fair idea of the probability of where the future was heading. The only really serious wildcard was nuclear war—until recently.

Today's world is filled with more wildcards than probabilities. If we were to list all the wildcards, this book would be too long. So let us mention a few of them in the order of their potential negative impact.


Global warming

Nuclear war

U.S. decline as a world power

Rise of China and Iran


Volatile world stock markets

Oil prices

These wildcards haven't been played yet. They are just potential wildcards. However, two wildcards not on the above list have been dealt and they are changing the balance of life throughout the world, making for hard times for the vast majority of people.


We have the dubious privilege of living in a time of two gut-wrenching wildcards. The first wildcard began sometime around the middle of the twentieth century and is what many historians describe as a "five-hundred-year hinge of history." In my book Dancing with Dinosaurs I called it a "crack in history." Every five hundred years or so the world goes crazy and empties itself of all its guts. We like the metaphor Phyllis Tickle uses in her book The Great Emergence—every once in a while the church cleans out its attic and holds a giant rummage sale.

The last such major cultural upheaval was the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago. Just as the Reformation and the printing press changed the world forever, so the midpoint to the end of the twentieth century changed the world forever again.

This cultural upheaval is wreaking havoc in most organizations, turning them upside down. Only the strongest and most nimble organizations are surviving this wildcard. Just look at the Fortune 500 companies. Very few of the companies on the list in 1980 are still among the top 500.

Our churches haven't escaped the ravages of this cultural upheaval either. Just about everything traditional Christianity was based upon since the Protestant Reformation has been under siege for the past fifty years, and in the last ten years the sacking of traditional Christianity has become almost complete. All one has to do is take stock of the shape of the vast majority of churches more than thirty years old and it is clear that most of established Christianity is in shambles.

Recently we have been using two new metaphors to help explain what has happened as a result of this cultural upheaval. We characterize the world prior to the cultural upheaval as the "National Park world" and the new world emerging as a result of the revolution as the "jungle."

Let your imagination run wild as we briefly unpack these two metaphors.


Most people have been to at least one national park at least once in their lifetime. Driving through a national park, one can't help but notice how everything is neatly laid out in a highly controlled environment. You don't need a compass. There is never any doubt you are on the road that will take you where you want to go. It's tough to get lost in a national park.

National parks are extremely safe if you follow the rules. They are full of "do this" and "don't do this" rules you are supposed to follow. National parks even warn you about dangerous animals, making the national park a safe place even when you are around things that might harm you. You are warned when you are about to enter an area where you shouldn't go or get out of your car or take a hiking trail that might be too steep for you. Since national parks are so safe, it is OK to travel them alone, even at night, so long as you obey the rules.

National parks are predictable and slow to change. You can go to a national park year after year and never see much change, and what change you do see is slow and incremental.

Your taxes pay for the national park, so you are entitled to experience all of its wonders and delights. You may even feel a sense of partial ownership of the park.

You have no problem seeing the horizon in a national park. You can always see where you are going—and when you can't, you can follow the signs. There's no need for a compass or GPS in a national park.

Christianity is royalty in the national park. People respect the Christian church and want one in their neighborhood, so much so that developers set land aside for them.

People take on the appearance of being happy and content in the national park. Even when some difficulty raises its head and threatens to ruin one's stay, people in the national park put their best foot forward, keep their chins up, and keep a stiff upper lip.

In the national park world, men were the dominant figures. The wife mostly worked in the home, the family was nuclear, the world was described as a collection of nation-states, divorce was frowned upon, children were taught the Bible, Grandma was nearby, the nation was not as mobile, Scripture and the church were the basic authority, abortion was illegal, Lawrence Welk was in, and homosexuality was a sin. Ozzy and Harriet were the role models for life.

Most established church people are still very much at home in the national park world. Like an ostrich burying its head in the sand, many church leaders refuse to accept the fact that the national park world is swiftly disappearing—who are we kidding? That world is almost gone.


One of my (BE) favorite places in the world is a little place called Tropic Star Lodge, located at the end of the Darien jungle on the border of Panama and Colombia. The lodge is cut off from the world by two hundred miles of some of the densest rain forest in the world. I go there to fish, not to visit the jungle. But on one trip the allure of the dense jungle drew me in—and was it an eye-opener. I had never been in such a foreboding place in all my life. Nothing was familiar and everything shouted out a warning. My experience that day gave me a hint of what the emerging world was going to look like in full bloom.

The jungle is quite different from the national park.

In the jungle, nothing is neatly laid out and controlled, making it a really messy place. Nothing is where you would expect it to be and you have very little control over the environment. In a jungle world, intuition is one of the most needed talents of a leader, surpassing even passion. At best, messy and uncontrollable environments confuse most established church people; at worst, these environments shut them down when they are faced with making strategic decisions.

Predators are everywhere in the jungle and there aren't any hard and fast rules to follow, making it an extremely unsafe environment. The rules of the national park no longer apply. No signs warn about the various predators. It's almost as if the jungle dares you to test its will. Many established church people are too naïve to recognize the reality of the jungle and the heresies that leap out from every corner. The jungle does away with all rules except one—the survival of the fittest.

Nothing is predictable in the jungle. It changes dramatically from day to day. Trails can be covered overnight with all manner of vegetation; all markers can vanish, leaving a traveler lost without an experienced guide. Established church people find it impossible to move fast enough to stay up with the changes, much less get ahead of them.

You are on your own for shelter in the jungle, making it an uncomfortable place to spend time. One has to keep moving all the time—there's little time to sit and think. Established church people find no comfort or solace without their buildings, and that confuses them terribly.

You're not entitled to be in the jungle. It doesn't belong to us, and we have to earn our right to exist in the jungle. It's as if the jungle delights in making us feel like aliens in a strange world. Established church people are miserable when confronted with the fact that the world no longer owes them a living and their pastor isn't their spiritual babysitter.

No one ventures into the jungle alone because it is so unsafe and complex. You need a team to navigate it—someone to watch your back, both sides, and the front, just to survive, much less get to your destination. Established church people find it hard to transition from committees to autonomous team-based ministries.

In the jungle, when you look up there is no horizon. The sun rarely shines through the jungle canopy. The trees are so thick at the top they block the sun, making the jungle seem creepy, dark, and damp. The canopy is so dense a GPS won't work in many parts of the jungle, so when travelers come to a clearing they quickly enter the clearing and take a GPS reading to confirm their heading. Then they quickly return to the dense jungle because they know they are more vulnerable in a clearing than in the jungle itself. In such an environment one needs a very clear sense of direction. Jesus is the only reliable compass in the jungle.

As far as the jungle is concerned, Christianity lacks meaning or significance. Gone are the days when society gave credence and special favor to Christianity. Now it's just the opposite—the jungle dislikes Christianity because the jungle doesn't recognize it as legitimate. Fewer people come to the church on their own now. Established church people are shocked to learn that society talks about the day when Christianity will be taxed like any other business.

Most people and organizations in the jungle are basically broken. The jungle has a way of tearing families apart and enabling people to become addicted to one thing or another. Ozzie and Harriet have been replaced by Ozzy Osborne as a model.

Organizations that were once vital no longer yield the same results. When someone comes into a church from the jungle, they have little understanding of Christianity. What they are looking for is a safe place to find themselves or to heal. Established church people still think all they have to do is repeat some predetermined formula, dogma, or doctrine and all will be well with the world.

In the jungle the nuclear family is dead; divorce is easy; abortion is legal; homosexual marriage is gaining acceptance; the wife is just as likely as the husband to be the major breadwinner; children grow up not knowing the Bible or Christian values; Grandma doesn't live next door but many miles away; no one knows who lives next door; and Scripture and the church are no longer the basic authority.

No wonder the last fifty years have been so debilitating for most established churches. They're living in a strange land trying to play by rules that no longer exist and they are being eaten alive.


As if the cultural upheaval wasn't enough to do most established churches in, the worldwide disaster has left most people in the West much poorer than a year ago. We've witnessed the collapse of stock markets around the world. Savings and pensions have been cut in half. Jobs have been lost. Banks and major financial institutions have failed. And there's a lack of confidence in governments and financial institutions around the world. Everyone seems to be waiting for the next shoe to drop or the next job to be lost.

Churches are not exempt from this downturn. All across the United States, church leaders seem to be hunkering down and turning their focus inward. Much of the world is gripped by fear and retreating into a bunker mentality.


I (BE) remember the first time it dawned on me in early 2008 that my life's savings were in dire jeopardy. For a couple of weeks I couldn't do anything. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I couldn't even bring myself to look at my portfolio because I knew what was happening—it was gradually vanishing, almost daily.

What you have to understand is that as of this writing I stand on the threshold of my seventieth birthday. I won't have time to rebuild what my family has lost the past twelve months. So this loss for us, like many people our age, is catastrophic. And the thought of my wife and me winding up broke in some state-supported rest home after more than fifty years of ministry was almost more than I could bear.

Finally God intervened and said three things to me: "Sell." "Be calm." "Write a book so others won't panic and harm the mission."

All across the United States, people just like me are shellshocked from losing a large portion of their life savings. Others have lost their jobs or are afraid of losing them. How the church responds to this crisis could determine much of what happens to North American Christianity for decades to come.

Panicking won't help. So don't do it! I (BTB) remember learning in the Dale Carnegie Course, many years ago, that there's no sense in worrying about things we cannot change— and if there's something we can change, then there's no sense in worrying about it if we'll do what we need to do.

We want to encourage you not to panic and freeze or slash the budget or go into a survival mode. It doesn't do any good to be recklessly reactive just because times are tough. Nor are hard times the time for a hunker-in-the-bunker mentality. Instead, now is the time to be more strategic and aggressive than ever before.


The purpose of this book is to give you calm, wise counsel on how to be proactive so you can remain strong until things turn around and emerge stronger on the other side of these cultural and financial wildcards. We don't promise the jungle will go away, but you can learn to live and function in it.

This book is neither long nor difficult to follow. We will strive to give you the best advice for doing ministry in hard times in as few words as possible. However, we won't pull any punches. What you are about to read is not always going to be easy to stomach. But it is the truth and it will help guide you through the jungle. Thus this book is designed to:

• Help churches make strategic decisions about how to spend their time, energy, and money during hard times;

• Help church people cope with the spiritual and psychological conditions Christians face in hard times;

• Help churches remain strong and emerge stronger on the other side of hard times.



Hard times can either bring great opportunities for service and growth or they can bring great hardships to churches and their leaders. Only one thing determines the difference—how church leaders react to the hard times.

If hard times are seen as an opportunity to make strategic changes designed to counteract the situation, the congregation can come through the hard times a much stronger church. If, however, the hard times are seen as a serious threat to the survival of the congregation, prompting church leaders to hunker down with a slash-and-burn mentality, the odds are the congregation will come through the hard times a much weaker church. Outlook and attitude can make all the difference.


Excerpted from Ministry in Hard Times by Bill Easum, Bill Tenny-Brittian. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bill Easum is President of The Effective Church Group, a church consulting and coaching firm. One of the most widely sought advisers on congregational health and vitality in North America, he has over 30 years of congregational experience, with approximately 25 years' experience as a pastor. One of the most respected voices on emerging forms of ministry and congregational life, he is the author of several books, including Unfreezing Moves, Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First, Go Big!, (with Bil Cornelius), and Ministry in Hard Times (with Bill Tenny-Brittian), and Preaching for Church Transformation, all published by Abingdon Press.
Bill Tenny-Brittian is Senior Consultant with 21st Century strategies, as well as Senior Editor of Net Results magazine. He is the author of numerous books, including (with Bill Easum) Under the Radar, also published by Abingdon Press.

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