Many churches, non-profit organizations, and businesses are navigating the realities of a post-Covid world. People have changed: their habits, comfortability, and circumstances have all shifted the way they experience church and community. Most large churches have experienced significant decreases in in-person attendance and contributions. In our informal network with other large churches, we know of only two churches experiencing attendance and engagement beyond 60% of their pre-Covid numbers, with many around 50%.
Willow has not escaped this reality. We reopened all our doors for weekend gatherings in April 2021. At the end of 2021, we were averaging 43% of our 2019 weekly average attendance and we continue to see attendance increasing (we are up about 500 in attendance from the end of 2021). Although contributions haven’t been hit as hard, we have still seen a decrease from prior to the pandemic.
We teach our congregation to be good stewards of all that God has given them: their time, talents, and treasure. We, as a church, want to do the same. We want to operate with a balanced budget, in confidence that God will provide all we need to do the work He has called us to. As we projected into 2023, we identified a significant gap between our expenses and our reality. We have healthy financial reserves for emergencies, but do not want to fund ministry with reserves.
We have analyzed every area of our income and spending to close our budget gap. Our church is incredibly generous–our per capita giving meets or exceeds churches our size or larger. And yet, we still have a budget gap to close, which ultimately, had to be reduced by rightsizing our staff. The best rule of thumb for multi-site churches like Willow is to keep staff costs at or below 50% of the overall budget. Our staffing costs are 72% of our overall budget, which is too high to be sustainable.
On May 4, we announced to our staff that we would need to rightsize our work and staffing across all our campuses and ministries, resulting in the elimination of positions. We shared that news with the congregation on May 9. We met staff members from May 16–18 to share the impact on their role: that it was eliminated, changed, or staying the same.
These changes are difficult on staff members whom we love who will no longer have a staff role—some of them have been with us for many years. We are providing generous financial care for each of these individuals, ranging between three months and one year based on tenure. Those on our healthcare plan will also see their insurance benefits extended. We care deeply for our staff, both those staying and those leaving, and are committed to walking alongside everyone well during this season.
The result of the staff cuts will be about $6.5 million in savings and will reduce our staff expenses to 52% of our overall budget in 2023.
This was an extremely difficult decision, made during a season of increased energy at Willow, making it incredibly hard. Every week, more people continue to worship with us in-person; thousands continue to gather online; more than $1.5 million was given in the least few weeks through Celebration of Hope, designated for our global partnerships; more than 4,700 people gathered earlier this month to assemble one million seed packs that will grow up to 150 million pounds of vegetables in villages in South America and Zambia; last Sunday 650 people signed up to run the Chicago Marathon to raise money for clean water in India; and every single Sunday for the past two months, baptisms have taken place live during services to represent a commitment to follow Jesus. This is a time of “both / and” for our staff and church community: We are both deeply sad and immensely grateful. We invite you to be praying for our staff and families as we navigate the days and weeks ahead.