It seems as if every not-for-profit organization in Forest Park is having money problems these days. The village laid off workers a year ago. School District 91 had to submit a tax increase referendum to the voters. Main Street Redevelopment let its executive director go. And the churches in Forest Park are facing the same challenges.

When 70 St. John Lutheran Church members came to a voters’ meeting on May 16, they, too, heard some bad financial news and beg an making some difficult choices in terms of staffing.

The bad news was that St. John Lutheran School had spent $216,846 more than it had taken in last year, while their Early Childhood Center had experienced a $57,894 shortfall. Even a $102,454 surplus on the parish side of the ledger could not compensate for the losses, leaving the congregation $172,286 in the red.

The bad news was not a total shock to many St. John members, according to David Walz, the chairman of the congregation. He estimates that St. John has been operating with a deficit budget for at least the last four years, and before that only unfilled staff positions and deferred maintenance allowed the parish to balance its budget.

What was difficult and even painful was making the decisions needed to respond to the shortfall. Since salaries and benefits comprise over two-thirds of the congregation’s budget, the only option the voters saw was to consolidate, combine and restructure”resulting in the elimination of some staff positions.

Walz reported that in terms of the school, the Early Childhood administrator and the school principal roles will be combined into one position. Likewise, some of the classes in the school will be combined, leaving six classrooms for a program that covers kindergarten through the eighth grade.

On the parish side of the congregation, the position called Director of Youth Ministry and Information Technology will be eliminated, the music staffing was restructured to include two part time musicians, and the office of the pastor was restructured to include the equivalent of only one pastor. Walz said that that position might be filled by two part time people as well. No reductions were made to the support staff, including the business administrator.

What was clear was that the assembled voters were making a choice to keep the school going, even though it requires significant financial support from the congregation. 

Half a year before May 16, the congregation’s board of directors began addressing the money situation during the last months of 2004, Walz said. They realized that staffing could not be maintained at the levels then current and struggled with the challenge of how to continue what the congregation was doing with fewer resources. They asked for the creative thinking of staff and lay leaders.

In February some initial proposals were submitted to the staff and board for feedback and reaction. Based on that feedback a more detailed proposal was given to them again, and their reactions were considered in the writing of the proposal heard by the members attending the meeting on May 16.

Walz, who is an independent financial planner by profession, admitted that leading St. John during this challenging time has been difficult. “It has been a stressful experience,” he said, “but it has also been a spiritually building experience. The things that sustain me, that keep me going, are the support of my wife and family, encouragement from people at St. John, God’s Word and Christian books, radio and music.”

Walz sees St. John’s predicament as an opportunity as well as a danger.

“I see in this situation a great opportunity,” he declared, “for the people of our parish to use their talents and abilities to continue and expand the ministries of St. John. I’ve seen first hand how God has given great abilities to our members.”

What comes next for St. John? Walz stated that during the next six months, the board will do some strategic planning to develop a unified vision for St. John, a framework for future staff, finance and ministry.