I regularly visit churches around the country and about this time of year, a new, semi-liturgical ceremony begins around the church budget. (I participated in it myself during my three decades in ministry. It became something totally normal for me; it’s only now that I’m in the pews most Sundays that I’ve realized how odd this little ritual is.)
It usually begins with the Senior Warden or the Treasurer (leaders on the Vestry) coming up and addressing the congregation. He/she says something about being elected or appointed. Then there’s something about bad news and being ‘behind.’ There’s a joke or two worked in—something is said about ‘not shooting the messenger.’ And lots of nice, reflexive phrases about ’reminding ourselves’ and ‘catching us all up’ are scattered throughout.
Isn’t there another way to talk about the resources that are needed for the important work of the church? Here are a few thoughts of my own on that subject.
1. It Is Better to Ask than to Remind
Most people who are giving sparingly to the church know it already. And they know that you know (or someone knows, at least). And the ‘friendly reminder’ that is usually sent out at the end of the year to ‘remember your church’ in year-end giving will feel like a guilty verdict.
Pretending that members have merely ‘forgotten’ to give and that you are only ‘reminding’ them is a setup that’s fraught with guilt, moralism, and pressure. Whatever people give from that point of view, it is going to feel a bit like paying back-taxes.
To coin a phrase, it is better to ask than to remind. Jesus did not say this, of course. But the entire ethic of freedom and generosity in the New Testament is built around this key concept. The old is past; the new has come.
Imagine saying something like this:
Friends, our church is getting ready to end the year and start up again next year with renewed strength. Can you help us finish strong?
Between now and the end of the year, read the income and expense graphs that are in the bulletin, prayerfully look at your own spending and giving, and join us in blessing this church with all the resources it needs to finish the year and get ready for the year to come. We need everyone in on this!
2. Red May Not Be Your Enemy. Develop TWO Budgets.
I wrote about this elsewhere, but few people really got the concepts I was driving at. So I am going to try again here.
There is a two-way road built into a church’s budget.
The outbound lane flows away from the church and goes to staff, program, expenses, utilities, insurance, missions, etc. That is usually the expense side of the ledger. And the traffic on that side of the road is highly governed. There are two or three freshly-painted, clearly striped lanes of traffic that flow one way out from the church. There is even a speed limit to regulate how fast the money can flow. That is the purpose of a church budget. It is supposed to govern the way money flows OUT from the church.
But the inbound lane that flows into the church cannot be governed at all!
- Some dollars arrive early with no apparent reason other than they were given.
- Some dollars come in steady during the first half of the year and then take the summer off. And then come back.
- Some dollars are just lazy. They will get to where they are supposed to go, but only after the donor has used them for other things all year long.
The current of money flows two ways. That’s why it is called currency! If the flow of resources is seen as a two-way street, there are times when income dollars slow down to just a trickle. (July??) Then, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, suddenly they flow steadily. They can actually create a traffic jam at the end of the year.
That is the way it happens.
But many churches set up budgets that presume a regulated flow of money in and out every month. This introduces needless weeping and gnashing of teeth…or really, worrying and hand-wringing. Take a step back. Breathe. If your church is like most other churches, there was a dip in attendance during the summer and a subsequent lull in giving. If all things are equal, it will come back.
So why not do this: Develop two budgets: one for Expenses and the other for Income.
- The expense budget is spread out over 12 months as most expenses would occur. Every month, expect to spend about 8% of your total budget. Adjust for known expenses or changes, etc.
- Then, open up a new worksheet and take the income needed for the mission of the church and spread it out over 13 months. Expect to receive about 7% of your total income every month.
- Then, make December two months. Most December months are ‘two-month months.’ In other words, about 15% of your total income will be given during the last 31 days of the year.
- Now, stack the income budget on top of the expense budget, link them together and look at the cash flow number at the bottom. It will probably turn red once or twice in the year.
Be patient; don’t panic. Christmas is coming!
But this little exercise will show the obvious. If the church’s expenses are 8% of year-end total every month and the income is 7% of the year-end total, the cash flow might worry some on the finance team. There will be months when income is less than 7% of the year-end total. But the point is this: red is not always an enemy. It could be a sign that your budget is dynamic.
3. Generosity is About a Mystery, Not Magic
When I think about my years of ministry, I am often moved to tears. The things I’ve seen done around and through the church that have been funded by God’s people voluntarily giving toward a mission—it leaves me staggered and, frankly, awed by mystery. Here are three examples:
- There is the mystery of conversion. People really do have their hearts changed by giving. God reveals the idols and trophies that people have clung to and gives them a freedom they’ve never known. He makes the heart not only glad, but generous!
- There is the mystery of prosperity. I wrote in Giving Up that I believed in the Prosperity Gospel—in a way. I believe that when God’s people give generously and faithfully, it is the Gospel that prospers, not necessarily the giver! But all of this is done by mystery too. The Holy Spirit seems to take the dollars that are given to a church and, in ways that cannot be adequately described, leverages them into all forms of Gospel ministry.
- There is the mystery of joy. Paul writes about this himself in 2 Corinthians 9. Cheerful giving was the hallmark of the Christian’s heart to give. And I have seen it happen in the lives of many…and in my own life too. People who previously might have been grumpy about giving feel a great joy in taking the resources entrusted to them and investing them in the ministry of the church.
All this to say that there is a lot of mystery surrounding the issues of giving and generosity in a church. But there is no magic. We (in leadership) aren’t pulling any sleights of hand under the table or in the shadows. Everything we do we must do in the light. That is why we always will do better with we are upfront with the facts of the matter.
Leaders must talk about giving, preach about it, teach about it, practice it personally, help other believers understand it, never shy from the topic, and always, always be above reproach in our oversight and management of the resources that we have been entrusted with.
When we are silent on the topic, people believe the budget is met with ‘magic’; when we invite everyone into the conversation, we all experience the mystery.
So What Is Your Budget Telling You? Questions for Reflection
What I’ve written above can help keep you and your leadership form how you talk about budget information. But there are other questions that will help you understand what your budget is telling you. These questions can get some tough conversations started as you consider how you close your year and create next year’s budget.
- Is our spending really targeted on a plan or a priority? Or are we just ‘running the church’?
- We don’t ever try to guess about the expenses year by year, but are we guessing about the income? Who thought of that number? Where does it come from?
- Do we really have an intention to expand, build, or plant? Where is that effort reflected in our budget?
- If we are trying to balance a budget without ever asking people what they are going to give, how will we even know what to balance?
- Do people in the congregation really know what this budget represents? Are they being told to support it because it will ‘pay the bills’ or because it will ‘accomplish a plan for mission’?
Maybe the bottom line is simply this: don’t let your end-of-year update become an unthinking ritual again this year.
Thoughtfully consider where your church is, where God is calling it to go and proclaim that message faithfully.