Church treasurers might wince at the title of this article. After all, salaries and benefits must be paid. The building requires heat and lighting, insurance, cleaning, and maintenance. The Sunday school needs juice and crackers. Everyone knows it costs money to run churches from day to day.
My intent is not to lessen the role of the treasurer, the work of the finance committee, or the need for an effective budget process. There is no doubt about the value of the budget, the necessity of accurate figures, and the legal requirements of adhering to accepted accounting principles.
The operating budget is not important, however, in regard to how the pledge drive is conducted. Consultant and author Ashley Hale writes, “Almost all budgets are compromised, watered-down documents. The average budget provides no reason for generous giving and countless excuses for token giving. It is at best hesitant and fearful and at worst static and apologetic."1
I agree with Hale. In most congregations, clergy and lay leaders make cautious financial decisions. Expenditures are modest. Costs are kept in check. New ways to spend money are viewed with suspicion. Many congregations routinely operate on the tradition of `just enough money to scrape by and no more.” To use a retail analogy, I believe churches return far more in value than members pay for. Church is one of the great bargains of all time, and the typical budget process ensures that this will remain the case in the future.
Many congregations use the budget as the centerpiece of the pledge drive out of habit and not because the practice is effective. As a result, pledge drives focus on incremental increases over the previous year. Insurance will cost $90 more. Dues to the denomination are increasing $3 per member. Other small costs creep in. Thus, running the church will cost 2 percent more than last year. These inconsequential increases create the belief that parishioners can give the same or only a few dollars more—just enough to cover costs. The church pays its bills and will endure for time eternal.
During the economic boom of the 1990s, income rose for 90 percent of American households, yet charitable giving to churches per capita decreased. I believe the traditional budget process, with its emphasis on negligible increases and paying the bills, has inadvertently created and perpetuated low-level and same-level giving among church members.
The conventional wisdom is that parishioners want to know how their money will be spent before they make pledges or gifts; that is, they want to see the budget. That is a myth. People want to know that their money will not be spent foolishly. But unless the church has a history of financial impropriety, few parishioners take more than a fleeting interest in the annual operating budget.
For example, as a consultant I recommended to church leaders in a growing congregation that they not include the budget in the annual pledge publication, as had been the custom. Instead, a sidebar paragraph stated that copies of the budget were available in the church office. Anyone could stop by and pick one up. Not a single person requested the budget. This congregation of about 450 members passed the budget unanimously at the annual meeting a few months later with only minor questions from members.
The Pledge Drive Should Come Before the Budget
In many congregations the operating budget is formulated by the treasurer or finance committee, then forwarded to the pledge committee. The budget figures are presented to the congregation as an integral part of the annual pledge drive. If this is the case in your congregation, you need to reverse the order!
Regardless of a church’s fiscal year or whether the congregation conducts its pledge drive in fall or spring, the pledge drive should always come before the budget is formulated. Giving to a budget is not inspiring. Giving to the budget defeats the whole idea of generosity as a fundamental religious principle, of returning to God some proportion of what we have been given, and building a stronger faith. It doesn’t matter what the operating budget is. In fact, a congregation that gives more to the church might break out of that hesitant, fearful, apologetic tradition, as Ashley Hale suggests, that budgets impose on congregations.
Why the Budget Is So Uninteresting to So Many
Let’s take a brief look at how the budget is formulated to see why so few people are interested in it. The budget process often covers a period of weeks or months, usually beginning with the treasurer’s requesting estimated costs for the coming year from each committee chair. How much will the church spend for salaries, benefits, denominational dues, religious education, mission and outreach, Sunday-school materials, snow removal, air conditioning, and dozens of other items?
Many people don’t like dealing with budgets—at home, at work, or at church. Committee chairs often view preparing budget figures as a slightly disagreeable chore. Lay leaders who don’t know how much to ask for are often told, “Just base your request on last year’s figure.” Some committee chairs, including a few of the old-timers, don’t respond to requests for budget figures at all because they know the board will allocate about the same amount as the previous year anyway. In addition, since most church budgets are tight, with little extra money, a zero-sum game goes into effect—spending more in one area would require taking it from another. Most committee chairs will not risk a confrontation by asking for more money, which would mean budgeting less for another area of ministry.
In addition, since this year’s pledge drive is expected to raise the same amount as last year’s, the budget process relegates committees to doing about what they did the previous year. The eventual result of the traditional budget process is that committees will get the same amount of money from year to year, give or take a little.
Budget figures should be part of the information shared about how money is raised and spent in the congregation. But keep in mind that numbers are boring to many, misunderstood by others, and uninspiring to just about everyone—not ingredients for a successful pledge drive!
1Ashley Hale, The Lost Art of Church Fund-Raising (Chicago: Precept Press, 1993), 78.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Excerpted and adapted from Creating Congregations of Generous People by Michael Durall, copyright © 1999 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Creating Congregations of Generous People
by Michael Durall
Now avilable for your digital reader
Asking parishioners for money is very different from creating congregations of generous people. In this provocative book, stewardship consultant Michael Durall argues convincingly that annual pledge drives inadvertently perpetuate low-level and same-level giving in congregations. Written with the voice of experience, this book will help clergy and lay leaders initiate and sustain effective stewardship programs. Durall believes that asking for money eventually becomes routine, even tedious-but creating a congregation of generous people becomes ever more meaningful with passing time.
The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management
by Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont
Pastors are called to be not only leaders with vision but also managers of congregational systems, says John Wimberly in The Business of the Church. Drawing on his thirty-six years in ordained ministry, Wimberly weaves the realities of congregational dynamics and faith-centered purpose together with practical, proven approaches to business management, helping readers avoid common pitfalls and put into practice effective techniques of congregational management. The author's conversational writing style and many real-life examples make what is for some a seemingly complicated, mysterious topic an engaging and easily applicable read.
Preaching and Stewardship: Proclaiming God's Invitation to Grow
by Craig A. Satterlee
Both new and veteran preachers alike find the annual stewardship sermon a challenge and are eager for encouraging, practical advice. In Preaching and Stewardship, Craig Satterlee offers a nuts-and-bolts handbook on preaching stewardship, raising issues preachers need to consider when preparing stewardship sermons and offering advice on how to address them. Satterlee argues that stewardship preaching must include a bold and concrete proclamation of God’s love, will, and justice, as well as an invitation to grow as stewards in response to this proclamation. He focuses each chapter on a question preachers ought to ask themselves as they prepare the stewardship sermon, beginning with, “What do you mean by stewardship?” and “Why should we give to the church?”
Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Ethics and Money
by James Hudnut-Beumler
Author James Hudnut-Beumler explores the economic and theological assumptions that are at the root of congregations’ difficulty in talking about and dealing with issues of money, and presents an inspiring challenge to consider what it would mean to craft lives of generosity, as individuals and as congregations.
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