Church budgeting in a crisis

April 27th, 2020
This article is featured in the Giving Generously issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Finances might not be your favorite, but you can’t ignore them. Not looking at the budget is to miss why the budget was written in the first place! You don’t write a budget to forget it; you write a budget to follow it. A good budget followed lets you forget about the financial times…so long as the finances and the times stay the same. But the times have changed and your organizational finances will change, too. We don’t know for how long and we don’t know when. Thom Rainer reports that church finances are holding steady—excellent![1] If your finances haven’t yet changed, you’ve got a breather; if they never change, you will have done some important, necessary budgeting work. Perhaps you have already looked at the budget, broken the budget, and are prepping to write a new budget. Wherever you are in this process, here are some things to keep in mind:

Give and take PERMISSION

Budgets were created for organizations, not organizations for budgets. You may have influencers for whom simply thinking about reconsidering the budget is a sign of faithlessness or fear. Pastor Jamie Dunlop, in his book Budgeting for a Healthy Church (Zondervan, 2019), says that part of budgeting is knowing when and how to break the budget. It’s natural to break a budget and to redraw when necessary. If a global pandemic that has completely changed the context in which you are leading worship, mission, fellowship, and discipleship doesn’t qualify as a time to re-think and possibly craft a new budget, then nothing does. You’ve got permission to do this work and you need to give permission to your team to do this work.

Control the PASSION

Fear is natural. If you haven’t felt it yet, you will. After heroic efforts (and many pastors have been working heroically), anticipate fear. Elijah felt afraid of Ahab and Jezebel after a key victory over false prophets; David fled from Absalom. As a leader, you must find people with whom to share these feelings openly. Your people are feeling afraid, too. You don’t scorn your people for feeling afraid, so don’t scorn yourself for feeling it. Here’s where it gets sticky: You can—and should—admit these feelings to those you are leading, but you cannot show them. Fear is contagious, and it often leads to irrationality, even stupidity. And stupid is contagious, too. You’ve got to act with courage when leading these conversations. Good news: Courage is also contagious. Courage is neither conservative nor progressive. It is not permission to be foolish. Courage is faithful action in the face of danger. Some people won’t be able to handle these conversations. Just as you gave permission to reconsider the budget, give permission to people to be excused from these conversations. And if you decide someone shouldn’t be included in the process, tell them and talk it out. Don’t let them find out about it from someone else or after the fact. You must schedule a time to circle back with every person who is struggling. Permission to do budgetary work is not permission to stop being a pastor.

Reassess PRIORITIES

Budgets are exciting documents! Budgets connect missional priorities with financial expectations to facilitate preferred futures. But they don’t always feel exciting. My friend Curtis says that if we forget the missional nature of budgets, then they will feel restrictive. When my fiancée (now wife) and I looked at our finances which were about to be joined for the first time, there was laughter and there were tears. Both came from clarity. It was painfully clear how tight things were going to be, but it was also crystal clear what our priorities were. We could not fund everything, but we were clear on what needed funding. Remembering our budget was going to help build our home reminded us why we weren’t vacationing and eating out weekly. Without the mission, the restrictions wouldn’t have made sense. Dr. Eric Hallett says that budgets reflect priorities. In re-writing the budget, you’ve got to reassess priorities. What was important six weeks ago might not be important now. What was important six weeks ago might be even more important now. Something brand new might be important.

Focus on PARTNERSHIPS

How many times over the last six weeks have you seen or been encouraged with something like, “We’re in this together!” or “Alone. Together”? At the same time, there has been a plethora of unsolicited advice and unhelpful judgment. It’s a ripe time for partnerships, but partnerships don’t just happen and they don’t stick without help. When budgets are being redrawn, it’s easy to hunker down on one’s own interests. Which ministry will be cut? Which department will be “right-sized”? When things change, people wonder what they will lose. Remind your team they are partners together in a common mission, not independent contractors in a loose network. The budget is a team effort.

But as the leader, you will need to set the example. Try involving all (or multiple) levels of ministry into the budget process. Ask those on the front lines of ministry what their priorities are. What’s important to them? Of course, this involvement will need to be managed and that is work. It’s also a risk. But inviting multiple voices into a budget process is often worth the managerial effort. Why? Because creativity springs from the frontlines of ministry. How are your ministry leads stretching their ministry finances? Can their practices be replicated? As part of a budget re-write, ask ministry leads and people empowered to spend to review their typical and upcoming expenses down to every line-item. Which programs are being re-tooled that might not need full financing or that might need more resources? Which assets can be shared across departments? Inviting this participation also allows the sharing of knowledge and information.

But a quick word of caution: If you involve multiple voices in the budget process, then you must work at implementing what you have received. Part of leadership is having a perspective that nobody else does. If creativity is often found at the front line of ministry, perspective is often found elsewhere. You won’t be able to implement every idea you receive and you won’t always be able to share why. You won’t be able to synthesize all smaller priorities. But a good effort must be seen at this hard, emotional work or else there will be cynicism—and cynicism kills teams.

Keep it PERSONAL

 
"Kairos Care" by Aaron Perry (coming soon from Abingdon Press)

Budgets are more than figures on a spreadsheet. Budgets are symbols and human beings take their symbols very seriously. What do budgets mean to your key leaders and staff and to your church as a whole? More than ever before, you will need to know the economics of your church. It is easy to deal with the economy as an abstraction, but right now the economy of your church needs to be seen in high-resolution—right down to details and personal stories. How have/will shutdowns and furloughs impact your people? If giving stays strong in your church, but chunks of the church’s members and attenders are losing employment, it can create a sour impression. Watch for and acknowledge the church body’s overall suffering.

The ability of the early church to share resources was a hallmark of its mission. This doesn’t go out of style. What is saved in one area can be given to another. Reports are coming out that women and people of color are losing employment at faster rates.[2] These demographics might not be applicable for your church, but be mindful of what employees face financial insecurities. If you cut expenses and build savings but furlough hourly employees, perhaps related to your facilities, take caution. Keep it personal.

See the POTENTIAL

Your church is facing two potentials with regard to its finances. First, there is the POTENTIAL to develop and strengthen non-financial resources. The following resources can often be taught, developed, and leveraged, even if they are rare or underutilized:

  • optimism
  • humility
  • gratitude (and notes of appreciation)
  • prayer
  • time
  • encouragement
  • communication
  • humor

Second, there is POTENTIAL for time-sensitive ministries and emerging ministries. Time-sensitive ministries need to be done at a certain time or not at all; emerging ministries will be available in the short- to mid-term and will continue to be developed. For example, hosting a midweek webinar is likely a time-sensitive ministry, but wider online teaching is likely an emerging ministry.

Use this as a time to teach vision casting to your team. Here’s a helpful distinction I picked up from Wesley Seminary President, Dr. Colleen Derr. Think of vision as a snapshot and as a video. Time-sensitive opportunities are like snapshots. Time-sensitive opportunities are moments caught in time. You can prep for them, but you can’t keep them. They make good impressions, but time goes on. On the other hand, there are emerging ministries that aren’t yet completely clear, but you sense they are coming. Emerging ministries are like real-time videos. They are not caught in a moment, but keep rolling, unfolding. What’s emerging that you can start funding and acquire the skills to do well?

Keep PRAYING and start PLANNING

This budget won’t last. It will end, and another budget will be needed. This pandemic won’t last. It will end, but another crisis will come. By God’s grace, it won’t be another global pandemic, but the effects of the next crisis will be personally devastating to some. Now is the time to start planning.

Start planning by asking what your organization needs to face the next organizational crisis. How will you stay nimble and active and generous? Do you need to build savings? Do you need to fund employee cross-training? Do you need more forms of oversight and leadership training?

Start planning by asking what your people need to face their next personal crisis that impacts their finances. How will they develop financial margin? What financial habits will help to foster generosity and gratitude even during critical times?

Once answers start to crystallize, start putting together your teaching files. Your organization will only get to this point if it is well-led. Your people have a better chance of getting to this spot if they are well taught. You will need to teach on finances again. Let this time help to form and sharpen the teaching content and relevance. You can’t prepare for the past, but you can plan for the future. There’s no time like the present.


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