Financially speaking, 2008 and 2009 will be remembered as two of the most troubling years in recent history. I was not alive in October of 1929 when the Great Depression came to America, yet they say this recent economic downturn rivals, if not surpasses, the Great Depression of the 1920’s and 30’s.
Who would have thought that we would see the three major auto makers in the United States in financial trouble at the same time? Who would have thought that some of the great banking giants would falter because of unwise business practices? Who would have thought that so many people with money invested for retirement in the stock market would see their investments plunge 40 to 50 percent practically overnight? Who would have thought that so many Americans would lose their homes due to this economic downturn? Yet, in these last two years, we have seen all of that come upon us like an economic tsunami. It happened very fast and impacted and devastated so many lives.
If your church is like mine, you have felt the effects of these economic issues through the lives of your people. I must say that for some people in this nation, this was just one more issue that had to be contended with in a long saga of economic problems. My church is located in Cleveland, Ohio, which at one time was a mighty manufacturing powerhouse. Since it is close to Detroit, there are manufacturing plants for both GM and Ford. This resulted in residual industries that fed off of these manufacturers. Sitting on Lake Erie enabled these other industries to have materials shipped in and out of the port of Cleveland. Steel manufacturing was huge in this region. I grew up in this town and in the church that I now pastor. As a boy, I remember that the church was filled with both auto workers and men that worked in the steel plants. Those industries ran three shifts, seven days a week. They were going full bore and nothing stopped them, unless it was a strike from the union pressing for more money and better benefits.
In September of 1995, I became the second pastor of Cleveland Baptist. By the time 2000 rolled around, this region had begun to reel from downsizings in all areas of the manufacturing realm. Jobs and manufacturing were moving south. At first, they went to southern states, and then they moved further south to Mexico. Many industries looking for cheaper labor began to build plants overseas and move jobs there. Cleveland began to see a huge shift demographically as people left the area faster than anyone could anticipate. I began to see good families leave the church because they no longer had a job. Young men graduating from high school or college were no longer able to go the factories to find good, secure jobs which would support a family. This region was not good at attracting new industries or businesses because of politics and a lack of real leadership. It is sad to go to the heart of this once great city and see a dearth of empty stores and deluge of vacant buildings. What the rest of the country has felt over the last two years, we have been dealing with for ten years.
There have been moments of great discouragement for me as a pastor as I have walked this path leading our people through such difficult times. Over the last two years, I have seen a lot of good, godly families face the hardship of husbands and wives losing jobs. Some have lost their homes and some have had to leave our church and this region to find a way to support their families. Yet, in the midst of all this economic uncertainty, God has taught me so many wonderful lessons. Allow me to share three of them with you.
1. We never walk a path that others have not walked before.
I am reminded of that truth in the pages of Scripture. The Bible is filled with men of God who also faced hardship as the people of God were devastated by economic difficulties. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the New Testament apostles all faced hardship and led people through hard times. I am also reminded of it when I read the book, God Is Real by the late Dallas Billington, founding pastor of the Akron Baptist Temple in Akron, Ohio. At one time, Akron Baptist Temple was one of the largest Baptist churches in the world. At its peak, it ran over 6,000 in Sunday school. In the book, Dr. Billington tells the story of how God led him to build the first building to house his growing church. It was during World War II. Money was tight and steel was almost impossible to get, but God led the young, faithful pastor to see this building raised and paid for in cash during that difficult time.
2. No matter how difficult your circumstances are, there are always others who have greater challenges.
I am thinking of our missionaries on the foreign field. Many of them have seen churches completely drop their support because of financial hardships. All of them have seen their support cut by a declining American dollar and incredible inflation. They know there is not much that their home church can do because things are difficult there as well. When we are tempted to complain about our issues, we need to remember these facts. I am thinking of men leading small congregations that cannot be paid a salary so they have to be bi-vocational. God has allowed my needs to be met through ministry for over thirty-one years.
3. God can do that which no one else can do.
The prophet Jeremiah found himself in a real dilemma as recorded in Jeremiah 33. He was in prison for being faithful to present God’s message to a people that did not want to hear truth. God spoke to the prophet in the midst of that difficult time and gave him a prayer promise: “Call unto me and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things which thou knowest not” (Jeremiah 33:3).
God has shown me the reality of this promise over and over in my years of ministry at Cleveland Baptist Church. Three years ago this ministry was facing some very serious financial issues. I was looking at the possibility of not making payroll for our staff. This would have been a first for this ministry, and I certainly did not want this to happen. I took this matter before the Lord and agonized over this problem in prayer. I told the Lord that I had done everything I knew I should do and that I had not wasted or squandered money. I knew that only God could do something about it. That very morning after that season of prayer, God answered my prayer in a very unusual way and showed me that He alone could do what needed to be done. He sent us a sizeable monetary gift from the most unusual source, and it was exactly what we needed!
Allow me to share one more example of God’s ability to do that which no one else can do. It was shortly after that incident that the Lord directed me to lead our people in a capital stewardship program to eliminate all the debt of this ministry. We were trying to do some physical things to upgrade our facilities and give us a more functional worship space. Some of that work was ongoing and was being paid for as we went. At that point, our church owed a mortgage in the amount of approximately 1.3 million dollars which meant a monthly mortgage payment of over $21,000. We were looking at a point in the future when we would finish the mortgage but would still owe a balloon payment of $600,000 to the bank. With all that we had going on (a bus ministry, a Christian school, a Bible Institute, and several families from our church sent out to do mission work) we were staggering with the load. I knew something had to be done. I was told by all that I consulted that this kind of money was the most difficult to raise; people don’t get excited or generous when you speak of paying off debt. I knew, however, that was where God was leading. The long story made short is that in March of this year our church made its last payment to the bank, and we burned the mortgage! Beyond that, during this time we put in a new parking lot that cost over $250,000, we remodeled our auditorium with a complete facelift (including new HVAC, lighting, pews and carpet), and it was all paid for in cash. This was done during the most difficult economic times in recent history.
As you face your moments of uncertainty, remember that God is able! What is even more exciting is that God has allowed our church to plant churches around the world as well as in this region where we minister. We are seeing people saved and baptized and our church is a dynamic place where God is at work. It is all because of God and our willingness to trust Him for things that seem impossible.