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?