Apportionment formulas, budget requests, salaries, pensions, line items, giving patterns, reserves, expenditures, capital costs, stewardship, reductions, audits, revenue projections . . . welcome to the vocabulary of church finances! This is the language we use to navigate and deliberate the fiscal aspects of our mission at congregational, conference, and general church levels. Understanding the nuances of church finance and aligning our resources with our mission is a daunting task.
Every single dollar spent by a congregation or conference was first placed in an offering plate and offered up to God. Multimillion dollar budgets begin as coins from children, folded bills stuck in envelopes by young families, and checks written by retirees. Each dollar has been voluntarily contributed by someone following the promptings of the Spirit, and each has been prayed over by a pastor during worship and counted by a church treasurer and deliberated over by congregational leaders seeking to fulfill the mission of Christ. Each dollar has been sent on a mission.
As a pastor and as a bishop, I’ve remained keenly aware that every financial resource and expenditure I oversee comes from the generosity of people seeking to serve God faithfully, and this has made me conscientious to a fault when we make decisions about money. Does this use of money honor God? Does it further the mission of the church? Do donors feel well-served?
In a large, complex, multitiered organization like The United Methodist Church, the distance between the people who offer their gifts to God during worship and the ultimate decision about how some portion of those gifts will be used grows with each layer of ministry. If leaders become too disconnected from the original giving, they risk losing sight of the spiritual meaning and missional intent that the money represents. “It only costs a thousand dollars” in the congregation’s finance committee becomes “It’s only ten thousand dollars” in annual conference discussions, and this leads to “It only costs a few hundred thousand dollars” at General Conference.
Jesus notices the woman who drops two coins in the temple treasury, declaring that she has given more than all the others because she, out of her poverty, gave everything she had. Her two coins make no noticeable impact on the temple budget, but Jesus perceives the sacred and sacrificial quality of her gift. God uses her gift to reconfigure her interior life, to reshape her character and spirit. The gift represents an element of her love for God and her desire to further God’s purposes. It’s not merely about what she does, but about what she becomes through the gift, a person of remarkable generosity and largeness of heart. She grows in the image of God.
Usually we think of this story as contrasting the size of her gift with the offerings of the wealthy. As we prepare for General Conference, let’s think of the story another way. How do you suppose the two coins were used by those who had responsibility for the treasury? Merely to enrich self-serving religious leaders? Were they lost in the vast treasury of funds or wasted for extraneous and unimportant expenses? Were the coins mixed in with all the other gifts to cover the costs for the oil burning in the lamps that lit the temple? Were they distributed to the poor to help someone in even more dire need than the widow herself? In short, were the coins used in a manner that truly honored the spiritual depth and personal sacrifice of the donor?
Many of the Call to Action recommendations derive from what we learned about ourselves in the Towers Watson study of our denomination. One of the most remarkable patterns the study revealed is how rapidly our costs for operating congregations, conferences, and general church ministries have increased during the same period that our membership and attendance in the United States have precipitously declined. Per capita giving (average annual donation per member) and per capita debt (amount of local church debt per member) have increased year after year for decades. Giving goes up while attendance goes down. Annual budgets for churches, conferences, and the general church are up while the people to cover those costs become fewer and older. While we honor the great generosity that has sustained these models of ministry for so long, we also realize that the overall trend makes these models fundamentally unsustainable into the future.
Conference delegates carry an immense responsibility. They make decisions that have huge consequences for local congregations, for seminaries, for attempts to eradicate malaria, for initiatives to reach young people, and for infrastructures that support disaster relief. The numbers are mind-numbingly large over which delegates will pray and deliberate. We are a vast denomination with an expansive vision and extensive responsibilities. But we can never allow the size and complexity of the task to distract us from our responsibility to align money with the mission of the church. After all, it’s not our money; it’s God’s. It’s not our mission; it’s Christ’s. It’s not merely dollars and cents; it’s the faithful offering of children, young adults, families, and the elderly from around the world.
How does the fact that the money we discuss at church councils and conferences derives from the offerings of people to God in worship shape your decision making about budgets?
What values do you think should drive financial decisions for church leaders? How should money relate to, shape, or serve the mission? How well do you feel your congregation and conference do with prioritizing and aligning resources?
For deeper consideration, read and meditate on Luke 21:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-7.
Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership offers excellent analysis of the giving trends of The United Methodist Church in Focus: The Real Challenges that Face the United Methodist Church. For deeper exploration about personal generosity, reread chapter five of Five Practices of Fruitful Living by Robert Schnase, or for daily devotions on giving, consider Practicing Extravagant Generosity by Robert Schnase.