How many congregational leaders know the size of the current budget for their church — within, say, $10,000?
How many can say with assurance whether the stewardship drive was more or less successful than prior years? On any basis other than the total raised?
How many church trustees understand the monthly financial report? Can tell (even in an “open book test”) whether stewardship income is meeting our expectations year-to-date, for example?
Frequently such questions bring embarrassed snickers. The uneasiness with which we consider such questions is dreadfully familiar, suggesting a widespread financial ignorance and disarray, a low grade infection in the body politic that keeps leadership in a continuous lethargic funk. So, we fantasize: “If only we could get average monthly giving up to $150. . .” Or, “If only we had 20 more members . . . “ Or, “if only we had an endowment.”
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Pogo
Recruiting wealthy members will not fix the problem; pleading for more commitment from the uncommitted is ineffective; an endowment of meaningful size will take many years to build and may detract from other giving. What is needed today is careful thought about the qualities that make a community healthy and whole, about Right Relationship. And, we need financial management practices to reinforce these principles. Rudimentary accounting and finance concepts can help secure the spirit of health we seek for our religious community.
“OK” you say, “I know money is important but do I really need to think about the church in those terms?” Yes! Money is neither the entire problem nor the entire solution; but, our patterns of thought about church finances give us insight into how we think about our church community. If the membership can see no programmatic progress in the budget, for example, it suggests that the leadership lacks vision. If we shelter the money of distinct groups, we reinforce a fractured, distrustful sense of our community.
Sound financial practices do not solve the problems of a congregation, but a lack of mindfulness creates barriers that can make existing problems intractable. So, if the suggestions offered here seem burdensome or irritating, it is more likely because of underlying and unexamined social norms than because of disagreement over accounting practices. In that spirit we need to state clearly how we intend to bind ourselves into a spiritual community. This is as true in finance as it is in ministry.
1) We need clarity of purpose in the present: We need to think about why our church community exists for individual members. What are they seeking? Most congregants give money to their church in exchange for something, to have something they value present in their lives. We need to know what it is to assure they are getting it.
2) We need a vision of what we want to be: Not all our purposes can be met fully this year. Some of them are worthy enough to pursue over a long time. That’s our vision. A discriminating articulation of a shared vision helps the congregation set its priorities for today.
3) We need to work toward wholeness in the community: A congregation is a single entity, not a collection of separate interests. Our minds dissect the community so we can understand it, but that is not the nature of it. So, our financial practices need to foster trust in each other and in our leadership, rather than reinforce the premise that particular interests in the community (“my” interests) need protecting against the onslaught of others.
4) We need to support each other in our efforts to do well: A community depends on individuals carrying out activities in ways that are supportive of the life journey of others. Sometimes we pay people and call them “staff”; others get a pat on the back and a potted plant at year end — we call them “volunteers”. They all deserve full and fair compensation or recognition for their efforts. No one should feel unappreciated by a miserly congregation.
5) We need to support our colleagues as excellent managers: Excellent management depends, in part, on clear financial information. If there are church leaders who do not understand the financial affairs of the church, change the format of the information they receive. This is more easily accomplished and is a more fruitful course of action than attempting to change the characteristics of the leadership.
6) We need to underscore the meaning of membership: A church is not made up of any who may stumble through the door. While we welcome diversity in our midst and take in the stranger, we must insist that membership is formed in expectations of communal support beyond that extended to those we chance upon at the bus stop. Each church community must wrestle with the meaning of boundaries for its own membership, yet surely our expectation of members includes supporting the principles and purposes we profess as a denomination. Surely our lives should manifest those principles and purposes by focusing our time, our energy, and our resources to bring our values to life, to our life.
7) We need generosity of spirit: It is part of our spiritual presence to be responsive to the needs of others. There are those in our churches who need more than they give, whether spiritually, emotionally, or financially. In truth, none of us is generous all the time. We each have moments of need. We practice a generous spirit while reminding ourselves of how we wish to be treated in our dark times.
The only way to have healthy supportive communities is to start today, and then to practice, practice, practice every day henceforth. As we master our practice the community becomes more peaceful, more manageable, more integrated spiritually and emotionally, and more energetic in its impact on the rest of the world. Such a community becomes attractive to new members as well as old, inspires commitment to Right Relationship and stewardship. This is the entire reason for our effort. It is a noble purpose.