"I know my responsibility. I hate it, but I know it. Yesterday I did one of the most difficult things I've ever done. I eliminated the jobs of several friends," lamented Pastor Mark Beeson. "I cried. I hated every minute of it."
The recession at Granger Community Church in Indiana began in early 2007. As the local community was hit hard by one of the highest unemployment rates, the megachurch had to reluctantly record its first unemployed numbers.
Eight of about 60 staff members were laid off from Granger late January. It was the only time in the church's 22-year history that people were let go, according to Tim Stevens, executive pastor at Granger Community Church.
"In the past couple years, we have cut the budget in every area. No area has gone untouched," Stevens explained to The Christian Post.
"I've lost friends. My own personal assistant who is a dear friend is no longer on staff with me. He may have to move out of the area in order to find employment. That is hard," he said. "Our family has also had to find places to cut expenses as all the salaries at GCC have been frozen for more than two years."
During what is described as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, congregants were losing jobs and offering plates were coming back less full at Granger Community Church. Revenue decreased from $6.5 million in 2007 to $6.2 million in 2008. In 2006, the church had generated $6.7 million.
Lead Pastor Mark Beeson and his staff had tried everything possible to avoid letting people go. After all, they were all "family" and none of them were failing in their performance.
But the impact of the recession left the Granger leadership team with no choice.
"I've heard it suggested (from others and from the voice of temptation in my head) that we should reduce outreach efforts, stop launching new ministries, reign in multi-site evangelism work and stifle innovation," Beeson noted in his blog at that time. "Some of those tempters have proposed we stop helping other churches and focus on ourselves. These voices call for an inversion of orthodoxy; they recommend we turn our concerns top-side-down, making it our highest priority to keep every paid person on staff, even if it means we have to abandon our mission.
"Not a single person of GCC's staff would ever want that!"
The church cut $512,000 of staff positions, staff hours and benefits from its budget.
Although a painful decision, Stevens said they had to "face the harsh reality that [they] would be putting the good name of the church at jeopardy if [they] didn't make some tough changes."
"That meant letting people go out into a climate where jobs are hard to come by," he explained. "We made it as 'comfortable' as possible through great severances and paying extra money for a career transition coach to come along side each person. But it was still very painful. Some of us lost the daily interaction with best friends … some who have been beside us for more than 10 years on staff. I don't know how to minimize the pain of that – but I do know without a doubt it was the exact right decision."
When the going gets tough, the tough gets going...
Despite the economic challenges, Granger is now stretching its arm farther out to the community – a community in dire need of a helping hand – rather than withdrawing it.
Granger's Community Center in downtown South Bend – in the heart of an under-resourced neighborhood – is fully functioning and "has become a difference-making outpost that the entire city is talking about," Stevens commented.
The Monroe Circle Community Center helps at-risk children with tutoring, Bible lessons, games, sports and other activities, and also serves as a pantry and cafe.
"Granger is having a significantly higher impact in our local community than ever before," said Stevens.
And in the midst of a recession, the megachurch just recently went multi-site with the launch of a separate campus in Elkhart in October.
"We could find no better time to offer services in Elkhart than when they are in the greatest need," Stevens noted. "It's been said that people are most receptive to spiritual input when they are in crisis or transition. A growing percentage of the residents of Elkhart are in both crisis and transition. So we are finding a great community growing at that site."
The campus is a movie theater and offers people a casual environment to get to know Jesus. With hundreds of volunteers, the costs for launching a new location were minimal, according to Stevens.
The now multi-site church hasn't cut back on its creativity either. This weekend Granger is launching a "Sex for Sale: Are You Buying It?" sermon series. The series is being advertised in mailers to 80,000 homes, on billboards and in 186 radio spots to draw people from the community and show them the love of Jesus ("Sex for Sale" is one of only two sermon series Granger is spending advertising dollars on this year as part of its budget cuts).
Granger had made headlines three years ago when it first tackled the issue of sex and ran "www.mylamesexlife.com" billboards.
"There are a few issues (parenting, marriage, money and sex) which bear tackling over and over again," said Stevens, who is a sought-after speaker on innovation. "Those are the issues people are dealing with day after day, and so it is in those areas where people are most open to spiritual issues. We help people with those issues because, in doing so, they also experience the love of Christ."
Although the decreasing revenue and smaller budgets may seem like a setback for Granger, Stevens believes the recession can provide the church an opportunity for greater growth and impact.
"The greatest innovation, creativity and idea-generation comes when resources are limited and times are tough," he said. "Christians throughout history have been in dire circumstances and terrible persecution and made huge strides for the kingdom in their cultures. We could throw away the building and stop paying all salaries tomorrow, and there would still be thousands of Christ-followers in Granger who would continue to love people, meet needs and introduce our community to Jesus."