Thursday, December 29, 2011

Money in the Church

Every congregation I've ever been part of has struggled with finances. Contrary to the popular opinion that the church is swimming in extra money (though the Roman Catholic church may well be, I'd venture a guess that individual RC congregations struggle to make ends meet), many congregations aren't able to bring in enough funds to do the ministry to which they feel called.

My own congregation has wrestled with this issue over the past couple years, and is doing so again as we anticipate the upcoming fiscal year ~ which has got me thinking about how we decide what to pay for and what to cut when there's not enough money to do everything we feel called to.

For instance, we may well say that youth ministry is important; we may well say that evangelism is important, that expanding our presence in the community is important; we may say that adding to the church staff is important, that providing a free vacation bible school is important, or that hosting a huge party/bar-b-q/carnival for the neighborhood is important.

We can say out loud that these things are important. I learned long ago, though, that if we want to know what's actually important to a congregation (or a household, or a government), look at where the money gets spent. *Now, bear in mind, I'm not talking about those households who have to make choices about whether to pay for food or rent ~ when I mention households, it's those who have discretionary funds available.*

For some households, what's important is having a boat; for some, they spend their money on cruises and other travel; some spend a lot on home improvement. The list is potentially endless. But where the money goes, I believe, indicates what that household views as important.

Also, consider our nation (USAmerica). If we were to assume that what's most important is that which we spend the most on, we'd probably conclude that conducting war is the most important thing to our nation, and that bolstering healthcare or poor communities or school districts is pretty far down the list (but that's a post for another time).

I'm not thinking about those things right now ~ I'm thinking about congregational budgets. If a person were to look at the budgets of many congregations (especially many ELCA and other mainline congregations), we'd have to conclude that the most important thing to the congregation is the building. This is particularly true if we add to the mortgage the heat and light bills, the insurance, the lawn and building maintenance, and all the rest of the upkeep on the physical property.

We can say all we want that evangelism or youth ministry or outreach is important. The trouble is that our budget sheets tell a different story. Even if we really and truly believe that buildings are not important, we're stuck with them. Congregational leadership is stuck with decisions that were made before they entered the decision-making process. Other people made the decision to build a building on credit, and to saddle the future of the church with that debt. Sure, most of those decisions were made at a time when the neighborhood was booming. Thirty years ago, the neighborhood where the congregation I serve is situated was the new part of town, the growing edge where people with means went to live. Now, people with means live farther out, and the neighborhood is substantially poorer … but we're stuck with the debt incurred by previous leadership.

So I'm stuck lamenting. We can't stop paying the heat and light and mortgage. But if push comes to shove, and the budget has to be cut, it's not the heat and light and mortgage lines that will get reduced. We have to reduce the lines that go to ministry. We have to reduce our vacation bible school budget; we have to reduce our youth ministry budget; we have to reduce our outreach budget, and all the other non-essentials. The trouble is, if we're only making loan and utility payments, how are we different from a social club?

It's getting to the point where I wonder, What's essential to being the church? What one thing is it about church that, if it were gone, we would no longer be the church?


1 comment:

  1. "We are the Church. The body of our Lord....." I remember singing this song at church camps and youth gatherings. I believe this to be true. Without the people, the church literally just becomes a building. With no one to pay the mortgage. No one to carry out the ministries of the church.

    As someone who does not work in a church, might be naive, and certainly understands that there is a lot that I don't know about budgeting and everything that may have already been suggested or tried, I will offer another solution that comes from my background. From an entirely different angle - that of membership. The essential part of church -- the people -- can you find more of them?

    I wonder what success might be had if there was, in addition to the necessary cuts to meet budget for the short term, a focus more so on increasing membership. For example, could you have current members elect to get your monthly newsletter emailed to them, or read it once it is posted to facebook, or even recycle the newsletters once they have been read, and then use the savings to mail out a post card (along with your newsletter) to families in the neighborhood. Could the preschool families be asked to fill out a survey, and seeing if they are looking for a church home and what they might be looking for in a church. Recruiting new members, if you you will.

    It might be counter intuitive for churches to think about recruiting members, but as someone who spent her career as a recruiter (in the non-profit healthcare world) before staying home with the family, I am pretty experienced with this concept. Oftentimes, what people forget when thinking about recruiting, is that is a two way street. No only does the candidate have to be a good fit for the organization, but the organization equally must be a good fit for the individual. As a recruiter, it was my job to "sell" or "market" the organization, culture, benefits and opportunity to the candidates we wished to extend an offer of employment. They could chose to accept or decline based on this information and/or other external situations.

    As a church, however, there is no picking and choosing of members. That is the beauty of it -- all are welcome! However, people still have a choice whether or not to walk through the door. And, if they do, to come back. Just as as a resume and cover letter gets the recruiter to make contact and get the interview (or not, in many cases), so should a church have tools in place (recruiting, marketing, selling, evangelism, what ever you want to call it) to get community members to check out your website, and walk through the doors. The goal of the interview is twofold -- to get the job, but then decide if it is a job you want. For a potential member, they can experience worship, see the church, check out the community and decide, if they want to return. That's where the "selling" comes in.

    I imagine a balance needs to be struck between meeting the needs of prospective members versus those current members. Current members of the church may or may not be looking for change. Prospective members may or may not be looking for something different from the current worship experience.

    I am sure there is some cognitive dissonance about "recruiting" or "selling", but increased membership means more volunteers to carry out the ministries for which the church has been called, and one would expect an increase in the budget as well. This would allow for fewer difficult decisions to be made like the ones you are facing today.