In many ways, last week's economic signals were strong. The stock market moved higher for the eighth straight week. Inflation, as measured for consumers (CPI) and producers (PPI), was tame, which should encourage the Fed to not raise interest rates. January's consumer sentiment increased to 95.5 from the previous 91.2—more than double the predicted increase.
But advance monthly retail sales for December were a huge disappointment. The U. S. Census Bureau reported that December monthly retail sales fell 1.2 percent (the largest drop in more than 9 years), retail sales excluding autos fell 1.8 percent, and retail sales excluding autos and gas fell 1.4 percent. Before the report, expectations were for a 0.2 percent increase, a 0.1 percent increase, and a 0.3 percent increase, respectively.
Holiday sales, reported by the National Retail Federation (NRF), were also a huge disappointment. The NRF reported that holiday retail sales (Nov. 1 to Dec. 31) increased 2.9 percent compared to the more than 4.0 percent expected. Online and other non-store sales increased 11.5 percent vs. the 11 to 15 percent expected.
Since purchases by consumers comprise more than two-thirds of the output of the entire economy, weak December retail and holiday sales are particularly troublesome. The reports were so bearish, particularly in light of other strong data (employment report for example) that many are looking for explanations. Some of the potential explanations follow.
- Although the partial government shutdown didn't begin until Dec. 22, the shutdown was anticipated weeks in advance. Consumers were naturally skittish.
- The report was delayed because of the shutdown, and the quality of the data might have suffered.
- The severe weakness in the stock market during December impacted consumers' willingness to spend during December, but the weakness should be short-lived.
- The weakness in retail sales should be a warning to everyone of the impending recession.
Weakness in consumer spending should be taken seriously, but should not the cause of fear. Time will provide answers of root causes to many perplexing questions. Economic weakness in Europe and China, implications of Britain leaving the European Union, and trade talks with China in particular are likely to dominate 2019 economic news for the first half of the year.
Kingdom leaders need to purposely go to the root of ministry problems. Symptoms can disguise themselves as problems. But treating a symptom instead of the root problem can delay the solution, and in some instances, create additional problems. Continuing to take aspirin to relieve the pain of underlying headaches can disguise a more serious medical condition and create other medical problems arising from the side effects of aspirin.
Ministry problems can be divided into four broad categories: missional, spiritual, relational and stewardship. Symptoms can be reflected in attendance, finances, gossiping, strife, cliques, favoritism, coveting and a host of other issues. The following questions could be used as a self-audit for those seeking to address ministry problems.
- Missional. Are we true to our calling, and are we equipping others to be true to theirs? Are we true to our original mission? Are we teaching others our God-given mission? Is the Lord in control of our ministry or is it man? What structures and procedures are in place to insure our mission carries forward to future generations?
- Spiritual. Do we correctly divide and teach the whole word of God in love? Do we provide a worship experience which encourages the presence of the Lord? Do we model and encourage a personal relationship with, faith in, and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ? Do we encourage repentance and holiness? Are we a ministry of prayer? Do we model and teach faith? Do we model and teach the love of the Father, the grace of the Lord and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14)? Do we model and teach about the ministry of the Holy Spirit?
- Relational. Do we love others? Do we show respect to all, even the least fortunate? How do we exhibit our love of God through service? How friendly are our greeters and other congregants; especially to visitors? Do we show partiality to the more privileged? Do our words demonstrate our love for others? Is our ministry free from internal politics? Do we manipulate others?
- Stewardship. Are we correctly managing ministry finances? Are we transparent in our finances? Are we providing the programs (Bible study, nursery, children and youth programs) which our congregants have come to need (expect)? Are we respectful of the time and resources of others? Do we practice good stewardship with our facilities and other ministry resources? Do we have a good communication system?
Although the list of questions may seem daunting, most are not usually a problem. But, when a significant symptom causes concern, efforts should be made to find the root of the problem. Extinguishing a problem at the root level keeps symptoms from growing and multiplying. Large organizations may have a multitude of symptoms which trace back to only a few problems. Let us solve the problem first, and then address any aftereffects of lingering symptoms.
If we are fervent in our love for one another, it will cover a multitude of shortcomings.
"Above all, have unfailing love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet. 4:8).
Dr. James Russell is a professor of economics at Oral Roberts University.
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