How pastors are soothing congregants in recessionary times
They search for the right words to express from the pulpit – a balance between compassion and urging worshipers to find deeper meanings.
When the Rev. Kevin McBride opens his office door on a snowy Sunday morning, he’s ready to preach a good word for tough times. He walks straight into an anxious crowd of cookie-eating people who could really use some deeper sustenance.
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There’s Jeff Bean, who was laid off 11 days ago from his manufacturing job and now sells identity-theft prevention tools on commission. There’s Ken Archibald, an unemployed contractor. And there’s Kim Sparks, a chicken farmer in a purple sweat suit and white T-shirt that proclaims: “My Savior Is Tougher Than Nails.”
She’s losing money on every egg sale because of the high cost of feed.
“I worry a lot,” says Carolyn Matthews, a freelance editor whose retirement portfolio has been “pretty much decimated” in recent months. “But Scripture is full of adversity. And in every story, there’s a triumph of this sustaining Spirit.”
Pastor McBride of the Raymond Baptist Church couldn’t be calmer. A narrow-framed man with a mustache and canary-yellow dress shirt, he smiles and jokes easily. Later, at the lectern, he explains why he’s so relaxed: Even when the economy crumbles, God is in control.
“Their attention has been piqued again,” McBride says of churchgoers in 2009. “Their eyes and ears are opened up to say, ‘Maybe I forgot something. Maybe I haven’t been listening as well as I should have been. And maybe it’s time to readjust my focus.’ ”
For preachers, the so-called Great Recession is doing more than boosting church attendance. It’s challenging clergy to find fitting words for a rare, tender moment when nearly everyone – including preachers – is hurting in a personal, all-too-concrete way. Most sermonizers seem to be making a stab at it, but the tactics and themes in use vary widely.
Some are urging confidence. The Rev. Amandus Derr, senior pastor of St. Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan, ministers among towering symbols of the financial crisis, such as the neighboring Citigroup building and the office of alleged fraudster Bernard Madoff.
Lately he’s seen a lot of worried faces pressed against his 54th Street office window as hurting people seek help. He gave out $10,000 in emergency aid during the last two weeks of December, up from $2,000 during the same period a year earlier. Attendance at the church’s weekly breakfast for the homeless is up 30 percent, to about 150, since September.
In this economic environment, Pastor Derr has preached one message every week for six months: Be not afraid. “What I worry about most is that people who feel powerless ... will find somebody else to blame,” Derr says. “And when you start to blame people, all kinds of things happen from that. It could be anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, anti-elite – a whole list.”
Others hope a little anxiety, rightly directed, might bear important fruit. Brian Larson, pastor of Lake Shore Assembly of God Church in Chicago, says God may be using this crisis to call America to repentance. He’s been pointing his flock to such texts as Psalm 65, where the psalmist sings: “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.”
“God does allow nations to experience times like this, to turn us from trust in portfolios and from general godlessness, to turn us to Him,” says Pastor Larson, whose day job is editor of www
.preachingtoday.com, a resource for preachers.
Pastors are grasping for guidance across cyberspace. At Larson’s site, which archives hundreds of sermons, the most-viewed one in September was, “What Would Jesus Do When the Dow Drops 700 Points?” At www
.workingpreacher.org, operated by Luther Seminary’s Center for Biblical Preaching (CBP) in St. Paul, Minn., preachers in a survey this fall identified the economic crisis as an issue of importance to them.