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Are Focus layoffs a sign of losing edge among evangelicals?

December 7, 2008

When Focus on the Family recently announced the deepest job cuts in its 32-year history, it was just the latest headline in a saga of a sad economy.

After all, layoffs are seemingly the norm in a recession where unemployment is at a 15-year high.

But supporters and critics of the Colorado Springs-based Christian ministry have been quick to question whether more is at play than hard times alone. Has its high-profile political stances hurt its public relations? Is its audience aging or shrinking? Did it reach a peak that, for some reason, has passed?

Based on numbers, Focus' situation seems tenuous. The organization cut 202 jobs cut last month, 149 through layoffs - roughly the same number of jobs that had been eliminated over the previous five years. Staffing has fallen from 1,350 in 2003 to 950 now.

But those numbers don't tell the entire story, Focus says. Some of the job cuts reflect a more efficient way of doing business in a technologically changing world and are not a sign of a lesser presence or a dwindling audience.

"The reach is more expansive and the demand has intensified," Chief Operations Officer Glenn Williams said.

Focus' programs, specifically those for young families, teens and children, are thriving. Until October, the budget was at a record high, and the ministry's audience is larger than ever with 230 million people, Williams said.

Some observers, though, have lingering questions about Focus' influence.

Patton Dodd is senior editor at Fox-owned, the Web's largest religion and spirituality site. Dodd lives in Colorado Springs and has been very involved with New Life Church over the years.

"I'm 34. I don't know anyone my age or younger that are paying much attention to Focus on the Family in the evangelical world.

They're more excited about other sources in media. ... The truth is, a lot of young evangelicals probably have more agreement with Focus on the Family than have disagreement, but they associate Focus with a harsh tone, a militant stance, a cultural-warrior kind of approach to public life that they're definitely turning away from."

After the layoffs were announced, critics chalked up the news to a backlash tied to Focus' expenditure of $600,000 to support California's Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage. Focus said the donation was a separate issue unrelated to the layoffs, but even other Christians wondered if the lines between politics and the organization's primary mission, Christian resources on family issues, had become too blurred.

"I do wonder what part of it (the layoffs) is the aging audience of FOF, and their lack of connecting with a new generation. Add to that the increased political tone of the organization in the past years. Almost like a perfect storm," wrote Todd Rhoades, a Christian blogger, on his news and opinion site His comments were echoed by several others in online discussions.

About 95 percent of Focus' budget comes from donations. Focus had $160 million revenue in 2008 and expects that to drop to $138 million for 2009. But when donors tighten their belts, how does someone gauge the reasons?

Colorado College religion professor David Weddle said that even the best pollsters struggle to discern motivations and human sentiment behind any behavior, including donating to a cause. Protestant organizations, in general, had been seeing fewer contributions before the economy hit a recession, he said. People can only speculate why.

Gauging donors' motivations is tricky at best, Williams agreed, but he suspected that just as many people might donate to Focus because of its political stand on moral issues as opposed to no longer donating.

And the younger audience, he said, has never made up the bulk of the organization's donor base.

If there's any doubt about Focus' reach with a young crowd or the technological shifts in media, Williams points to Plugged In, which is read widely by young parents and teens. The print magazine was discontinued as part of the cuts, but it remains online. Print was down to about 30,000 subscribers, while the Web site is visited by 1 million unique viewers per day, Williams said.

The organization, simply put, can reach more people with fewer employees. And some changes are about improved efficiency. Job losses in the headquarters' cafeteria, Williams said, came in part because restaurants have sprouted up all over the Briargate area.

When Focus was built, northern Colorado Springs was largely undeveloped. And certain programs were discontinued after Focus leaders determined they were trying to produce too many niche publications, such as a discontinued magazine solely for Christian physicians, that strayed from its core mission to help families.

When it comes to nonprofits, though, there's no reason to look beyond ailing economy for a decline in donations, said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing at Charity Navigator, which evaluates the financial health of nonprofits. Like virtually any sector, churches and charities are suffering, she said, and they tend to keep little money in contingency for a rainy day.

For Weddle, a scholar in Christian theology, ethics and American religion, the story behind the layoffs at Focus is a complex one that no one, inside or out, will likely understand in full.

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