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Pastoral update


Dave Swaim

Pastoral Update: Staff Reductions and Our Financial Situation

An update from Pastor Dave Swaim

| August 19, 2023

Dear Church,

I have some unwelcome news. For those of you who prefer to cut to the chase, the bottom line is that although…

Attendance has increased significantly in all our congregations and ministries,
Giving has decreased significantly this summer and after three consecutive years of not quite making budget, our savings are depleted.

So effective immediately we are implementing:

  • an across the board pay-cut for all pastors and staff
  • reduced hours for some support staff
  • a total hiring freeze (including open positions that have been vacated)
  • tighter spending restrictions

All these steps will not get us to sustainability, but they will avoid a liquidity crisis to give us time to discern what further cuts will be required.

For those of you who prefer the whole story...

  • There is a popular perception that “Highrock has lots of money.” And that was true at one time, which is why we were able to plant so many churches and support so many ministries locally and around the globe. Wise stewardship from our Board established a “rainy day fund” to help us weather inevitable challenges.

    That “rainy day” began with the Coronavirus Pandemic.  The common wisdom among churches during that time was to stop spending until the crisis passed. Highrock believed that God called us to do something different. On top of all the money we had already budgeted to support many ministries, we donated an additional $160,000 to partner congregations around our nation and the globe who were literally saving lives among their impoverished neighbors.

    We also invested significantly in creating online discipleship materials in order to continue caring for our congregation and reaching new people who were asking new spiritual questions during that difficult period. We also chose to hold on to our staff, and even increase staffing to meet all the new emotional and spiritual needs that were emerging among our congregation and neighbors.

    Of course that “rainy day” lasted a lot longer than anyone expected.  We fell slightly short of budget each year during the pandemic but covered that from our savings.

    As the pandemic waned, and anticipating a new building in Arlington that would make space for newcomers, we invested in hiring pastors and developing discipleship programming at all our congregations that would enable us to minister effectively to the new folks who arrived. However, we underestimated how long that building would take to complete as supply chain issues and other issues frustrated our progress.

    As a result, last year we held spending flat (which is a de facto reduction in light of inflation) and gave staff only a cost of living adjustment (that slightly lagged the actual inflection rate). Few other people in the congregation felt these restrictions because our stellar staff team creatively found ways to continue improving our ministry without increasing costs.

    It was much later than expected, but finally, Arlington opened a new building this spring, and it turns out that our investments in facilities, programming, and staffing bore even more fruit than we’d anticipated. Participation in our worship services and ministries has exceeded our hopes at all of our congregations! Thanks be to God!

    What we never imagined is that income would decrease as attendance grew, such that instead of replenishing our savings, we have exhausted them.

  • This may not be the full explanation, but here are a few factors.

    1. We are in a “richcession,” such that many of our largest donors have experienced significant reductions in income over the past 18 months. Other people may be feeling financially fearful, so they are limiting their giving.
    2. Meanwhile, some of our most consistent donors have reported perceiving that “Highrock has lots of money,” so they have redirected their tithe to organizations that seemed to be more desperate, including some of the same organizations that Highrock has been supporting.
    3. I have not done an adequate job discipling people about tithing… because for so many years, I didn’t have to. Many of Highrock’s earliest members had been well-discipled around generosity, which allowed our church to be exceedingly generous with ministries serving people with fewer resources. So we focused our discipling efforts on other issues, but as our congregation changed, I did not adjust our discipleship efforts soon enough.
    4. Since Arlington’s new building opened in May, we have 100 new giving units (a family is counted as one unit). This is amazing! But typically newcomers give at a lower rate while they are still discerning whether to commit long-term.
    5. We felt compelled by the Spirit to transform Highrock into a “boundary-breaking” community that reflected heaven and demonstrated the Gospel’s power by reconciling people across lines of ethnicity, income, ability, and ideology. Many of you share this vision, but some of our longtime givers did not, and some of our newer people may be just as generous but are tithing faithfully on smaller incomes.
  • We communicated each year when our budget numbers were falling short, but probably with inadequate urgency. This year we told members that although our giving fell way below budget, our expenses had also come in below budget. Nevertheless, we estimated our budget shortfall would be approximately $200,000. It turned out to be closer to $400,000. That was a shock.

    More shocking is that we discovered in July that our Finance Director had delayed paying around $400,000 of bills until the expected increase in income arrived this summer, leaving the total loss closer to $800,000.  I believe the intention was good — trying to help us avoid a liquidity crisis, but because that information was not shared, we were unable to recognize the severity of our situation. Someone new is now overseeing our finances, but let me clarify, the former Finance Director’s decision did not create our budget shortfall, it just made it impossible to see, which is why we have been caught by surprise.

  • No. The construction costs are kept separate from our operational budget, so this multi-year gap between expenses and income is not affected by construction costs.

  • In the longer run, we need to reduce our expenses and develop better financial discipleship and communication. However, in order to avoid liquidity problems, immediate steps are also required.

    So effective immediately we are:

    • giving a pay-cut to all pastors and staff
    • reducing hours for some support staff
    • ending our contract with our wonderful spiritual directors, Doug & Adele Calhoun
    • for years we’ve given away our resources to support other churches at no cost. We will continue to serve other congregations, but will start charging for some services.
    • maximizing paid rentals of our facilities
    • reducing the financial support we give to other ministries and church plants
    • imposing new spending restrictions
    • enacting a hiring freeze, including:
      • High School Director for Arlington, meaning that Pastor Brian will redirect his attention here
      • Middle School Director for Arlington, meaning that Pastor Michael will need to continue serving both Arlington and MetroWest
      • Communication Administrator, meaning these duties will be absorbed by another staff member

    These steps are insufficient to address our financial shortfall, but will buy us time to discern what steps we must take next. I am eager for God to surprise me, but it is difficult to envision a scenario that does not involve layoffs among our pastoral staff.

    Beyond cutting costs, Pastor George will lead a team devoted to developing financial discipleship.  Their primary goal will not be to raise money, but to help all of us grow in generosity and faithfulness in response to our heavenly Father, who is so generous and faithful to us.

    Happily, long before we knew of this problem, we had already prepared Theology Lab to examine the intersection of God and Money, which feels especially relevant now. And our winter sermon series will follow the Gospel of Luke, which happens to be the book of the Bible that most directly addresses the spirituality of money.

  • That is the perfect question to bring to our Lord in prayer, because the answer may be unique for each of us.

    If you are passionate about our mission but have diverted your giving because you had thought Highrock was financially stable we would love for you to join the many Highrockers who give sacrificially to make this ministry possible.

    If you have joined us more recently, are being blessed through Highrock, and are eager to partner with us to share that blessing with others, you might consider making a financial gift, or setting up a recurring gift that transitions you from occasional donations to truly tithing.

    If you are someone who has been imprisoned by a spirit of fear around finances, and tends to trust in money more than in God, giving sacrificially and committing to tithing may be courageous steps toward spiritual vitality and freedom from fear.

    These four responses might apply to all of us:

    • Let’s pray together as a church, asking for God’s wisdom and provision, and for the faith to follow joyfully wherever the Spirit leads.
    • Let’s have honest financial conversations with our families, friends, and small groups. Satan prefers secrecy so that he is the only one talking to us about money, and filling us with fear. But we can speak grace and truth to one another… if we’re willing to speak about it! Talk about tithing and finances more broadly, including any fears you feel, and what faith might look like in your situation.
    • Let’s care for each other, disciple each other, and encourage each other in this season where our pastoral staff will be stretched thinner. God created and calls all of us into ministry — we all have gifts to share with others. Ask where He might be sending you in this season.
    • Let’s care for our staff team. Everyone is feeling the effects of inflation these days, and these cuts will only make that more true for our team. Meanwhile, each of us will be assuming more responsibilities as we cover for unfilled positions. Please pray for this team, and encourage them as you have the opportunity.
  • Yes, please! You are invited to a Zoom meeting this Wednesday, Aug 23 at 7:30PM. On Sunday, Oct 1, we will have a members’ meeting and vote on an amended FY24 budget.

Final reflections

I am sad, but not afraid.

Our ministries are thriving and producing fruit to a degree we have never seen before — including among teens who are living out their faith and leading younger children, and among spiritually hungry not-yet-Christians who are meeting Jesus for the very first time. Meanwhile, A spiritual community is being built that defies the dividing lines plaguing our nation. There is too much holy and beautiful for God to let this fail! God may prune us, but I believe it will be so that we can be even more fruitful in the future!

What will that fruit look like? Perhaps God will use this season in which we are unable to simply pay for ministry to invite more Highrock members to actively participate in ministry by doing things staff can no longer do on their own. Perhaps by joining the welcome team, worship team, Kidsrock team, youth leader team, small group leader team, or serving in some other way.

Or perhaps the Spirit will use this season of pruning to invite us to pray more fervently — not only sharing our needs with our Father who loves us, but seeking His wisdom and directions so that we can follow Him in every part of our lives.

That said, pruning is still painful.  The people most affected by these cuts are not simply faithful employees, they are close friends and spiritual family. I grieve the steps we have to take, but in the words of 1 Thes. 4:13, I “do not grieve like people who have no hope.” Instead, the Gospel enables us to hold our grief and hope together.

Thank you for your partnership in this ministry.

Dave Swaim
Pastor – Highrock Church