Rick Warren has a hard-earned reputation as a hugely successful megachurch pastor who specializes in mentoring other pastors in the United States and around the globe -- when he's not pitching his bestselling books or counseling presidents and world leaders, or jetting off to Davos for high-level talks.
But even Warren's gifts weren't enough to protect his wealthy Southern California congregation, the Saddleback Church
, from the pounding that the recession has delivered to many houses of worship.
Just before New Year's, the situation reached an unprecedented crisis and on Dec. 30, Warren put out an urgent alert
to the congregation -- Saddleback has 20,000 worshipers each weekend at its five Orange County campuses -- explaining that the for the first time in its 30-year history the church was about to finish the year in the red, and by nearly a million dollars.
Warren explained that even with 10 percent of the church's members out of work over the past year, and expenses for helping out the needy soaring, Saddleback was able to stay on budget right up until the Christmas weekend, he said, when "the bottom dropped out."
"On the last weekend of 2009, our total offerings were less than half of what we normally receive -- leaving us $900,000 in the red for the year," Warren wrote.
He pleaded with the congregants to help make up the difference, and on Saturday announced that they had done so and more, as donations over the last 48 hours of 2009 came to $2.4 million and counting.
Warren was exuberant about the response, writing on his blog
on New Year's Day that he would title his sermon this weekend simply, "The Miracle" -- and adding that the donations were a rebuke to the media and the "hatefulness and insults by some who immediately jumped to wrong conclusion."
It's unclear what criticisms he was referring to, but the strategy certainly worked: According to an Associated Press story
, Warren made the announcement of the $2.4 million haul by bringing out 24 volunteers each holding a sign for $100,000.
"This is pretty amazing," Warren told congregants at the main Lake Forest campus. "I don't think any church has gotten a cash offering like that off a letter."
Warren said all the donations were from church members and all were under $100. "We're starting the new decade with a surplus. It came from thousands of ordinary people. This was not one big fat cat."
The end-of-year crisis showed that Saddleback is in some respects like many other churches around the country facing a recession, though perhaps not as successful as most in preparing for the downturn.
A comprehensive survey last fall of congregations both large and small showed that during the first half of 2009 nearly 37 percent of churches reported an increase in fundraising receipts -- though less than in 2008 -- while 34 percent stayed the same and almost 30 percent saw a drop in income. The survey
from the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Center on Philanthropy, Indiana University, also showed that just over one-third of the responding congregations reported making budget cuts in 2009.
Saddleback's financial crisis may also be unusual in that large congregations with wealthy bases of congregants under 50 years old -- much like Saddleback, which is the sixth-largest church in America -- have largely been immune to the recession's effects, even if they have had to tighten their belts to some extent.
On the other hand, pastors at struggling churches would love to have Rick Warren's problems. Orange County still has one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States, and, as Warren noted, few other places would be able to collect $2.4 million in 48 hours from an e-mail appeal.
So, does this episode point to some weakness in Rick Warren's gospel of congregational success? Or was it a vindication of his pastoring abilities?
Maybe geography has something to do with it. California has become a symbol of both the excesses and paybacks of unrestrained economic exuberance, and wealthy areas like Orange County have experienced some of the ugliest falls from grace. The same goes for its huge congregations, like Robert Schuller's famed Crystal Cathedral, which in 2009 had to sell off
some $65 million worth of its Orange County property to pay off debts.
There is an upside to all of this in that, according to the Lake Institute report, the recession has provided congregations with "a teachable moment to talk about money and the faithful use of possessions." Almost 40 percent of churches reported that they talked more openly and frequently about money and giving, and 36 percent said they have launched new initiatives to increase fundraising.
Sounds like Rick Warren could have the topic of his next bestseller, with some useful first-hand experience to draw on.