It Happens: Budget Cuts

By Josh Bishop

When I became the student ministries pastor, I inherited a team of 11 staff members. Less than ten months later, only six of us were left—not because of power struggles or moral failings, but simply because of budget cuts.

I knew that the budget was not looking good, and I assumed that I might have to cut back a little. But national economic instability mixed with some local factors caused me to realize it wasn’t going to be as simple as a few dollars here and there.

My supervisor brought me into a room and pulled a complicated spreadsheet out of a folder. It had every position of our staff listed with a lot of different numbers and formulas. I did not need to understand the details of the spreadsheet to know what it meant. My heart sank as I realized I was looking at a drastic restructure of our staff. My mind drifted from my supervisor’s words, and I found the column labeled “Student Ministry Team.” I knew I was going to have to fill in the positions that would remain and the positions that would be eliminated. I instantly saw the faces of all the good, hard-working, talented people who were going to lose their jobs. In that moment, the reality of the situation was too shocking to fully grasp.

For weeks, we worked to figure out the best way to keep our church moving forward and functioning in the failing economy. Eventually, the only way to find some balance was for me to restructure my staff, eliminate some positions and let some amazing staff members and friends go. The most terrifying day was the day I had to look several people in the eye and tell them that although they had done nothing but work hard, make personal sacrifices, and do a fantastic job, they were about to be among the millions of unemployed Americans. These were friends. These were people I had mentored. I had told them how much I believed in them and how bright their futures were. I had committed to helping them grow into their full potential. Now, I was telling them how many days they had left to work.

It was one the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my life. As the dust settled, I looked towards a future that appeared to require my team to do all the same work, but with about half the amount of team members. The silver lining is that this difficult situation taught me some really important lessons.

The Dilemmas

A budget cut—whether it includes staff eliminations or simply a shrinking program budget—is a loss. Whether it’s programs, ministries, or jobs that are the casualties of a budget cut, something is being tragically lost. During the budget crisis I faced, I learned that any experience of loss requires a few very important activities in order to maintain health.

First, I had to name the loss as a loss. Yes, it’s just work; and, yes, no one died; but it is still a tragic loss. In order to move on from denial—a dangerous coping mechanism that prohibits emotional recovery—to some sort of recovery, I had to look myself in the mirror and admit it was a tragic loss.

Second, I had to allow myself to grieve. Pain and sadness are not emotions that we like to feel. In addition to that reality, we often live under the unspoken expectation that we are supposed to be happy all the time in ministry. This, of course, is an extremely unhealthy way of living, far from realistic, and a danger to our humanity. This is the lifestyle that leads so many in ministry to burnout, and to an inability to minister to others. Allowing myself to grieve was not only good for me, but it gave others the permission they needed to feel sadness along with me, which was the final step I needed—grieving with others.

I knew that the minute I believed I had to carry the tragedy of the situation alone was the minute I began to deteriorate as a leader and as a person. I needed to talk about my losses, and allow others to help me to feel and understand my emotions. I knew that if I did not work through the pain associated with my losses, they would become a lens through which I saw and understood myself, and my ministry. I had seen unresolved pain lead to bitterness, anger, cynicism, and depression; and I had seen good ministers’ abilities to help others quickly fade. Looking back, I only wish I had realized that going through these dramatic budget cuts and losses was a really good reason to schedule an appointment with my counselor. 

My Response

Navigating budget cuts required an intentional focus on my personal health, but it also required an intentional focus on the health of my ministry. It was a true test of the strength and resilience of my ministry. When finances and resources were stable, decision-making filters were loose, and it was easy to expand in several different directions. It was simple to say yes to a new idea, when adding that new idea would not come at the expense of something else. In fact, new ideas often brought life and energy.

During tighter budget times, things were different. Conservative budgets forced me to make decisions between two good alternatives. In that reality, new ideas became a source of stress, and I had to learn to ask, “If I add this new idea, what will I have to drop in order to keep my ministry sustainable?” But during dramatic budget cuts, the situation got even worse. There was no room for new ideas; in fact, I was solely concerned with how to manage the current programming.

Thankfully, I had a centralizing force to act as a filter for what was essential and what was not. I knew that having a vision or direction for a ministry was important, but I also knew that a vision was not a specific enough standard to adequately help make difficult decisions. The most important factor for successfully navigating my budget crisis was being aware of a distinct calling for the ministry I led.

A calling is not just some mystical experience where one hears God’s voice or a vision from a dream. A calling is an intersection of a couple very important elements. The first element is a fundamental awareness of a community’s greatest needs. This goes beyond knowing the demands or desires of the community. It is not just what students or parents are asking or hoping for, and it is not simply what we think or assume they need. It is a deeper awareness of where the community is and where it is going, as well as who the community is and who it is becoming. The second factor is a brutal honesty about a ministry’s strengths and resources. A community may need something specific—but if the necessary resources or the required skills to serve that need do not exist, the ministry needs a leader with the maturity to confidently and openly point it in a different direction.

Thankfully, in the year before our budget cuts, I had spent a lot of energy and hard work seeking to understand the intersection of my community’s needs and our ministry’s greatest strengths and resources. For me, the budget cuts sharpened what I considered one of the most important roles I have as a youth pastor, which is to absolutely know and be able to articulate the fundamental and unique calling we have in the lives of our students. An infinite amount of good ministry ideas exist, but the leader’s role is to decide which ones will be pursued. I had been taught earlier that I simply could not implement every good idea that came my way.

I had also been convinced that God is doing all kinds of amazing things in my students’ lives, and that I should not buy into the lie that my ministry was their only hope. I had spent a year answering the question, “What are we called to do in the lives of students?” And nothing helped me more during the budget crisis than knowing exactly what the answer to that question was. If you don’t know that answer to that question in your context, a budget crisis will force you to figure it out.

My advice? Don’t wait for a budget cut; find the answer now!

In Retrospect

Even though I absolutely did not want to experience these budget cuts, I knew they would force me to change. The question was whether I was going to, change for the good or for the worse. I wanted to avoid the instant cynicism, hopelessness, entitlement, and loss of passion I had seen others experience in similar situations. Instead, I hoped that this terrible situation would somehow cause personal and ministry maturation. I hoped it would bring people together and make my ministry stronger, more focused, and more effective.

Many have noted that we become like the things we worship. Budget cuts have a mysterious way of luring our attention (and worship) towards money. Ironically, the perception of having money taken away from us drives us to believe that we are more and more dependent on it. If we are not diligent, we begin to elevate money from its rightful place as a resource to an object of our affection. Money can become the elusive god that could rescue us from our woes if we could just find a way to get more of it.

Budget cuts offer us an opportunity to more fully understand Jesus’ warnings about the love of money and our inability to worship both God and money. His warnings are not simply ethical or theological; they are also ontological. If we allow money to define reality—as it so often can when we are faced with managing a shrinking budget—our very identity gets twisted. We move away from understanding ourselves as being made in the image of God, and we start to define our value in terms of dollars and cents.

Almost nothing was more effective than a budget crisis for helping me to see the necessity of finding identity in something larger than myself—something more valuable than money and more important than my work. If you have found yourself in the midst of a budget crisis, my prayer for you is that you will have the courage to lift your eyes beyond the horrifying role of budget-cutter to find a greater meaning and identity in the One whose love for you surpasses all line-items, expenses, and salaries—and who is with you through every tear, every difficult conversation, every blank stare at a spreadsheet, and every moment of grief.

Josh Bishop is the Student Ministries Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he’s been serving in youth ministry for 10 years. He is also earning his master’s degree in social work from Michigan State University.