Why do committees so often act in a way that seems indifferent to and sometimes impedes ministry? The following practices may explain much of the problem:
—People making financial decisions are removed from firsthand involvement in ministry.
—People who are actually involved in the ministries have little or no input into the budget process.
—Little advance planning is put into the budget process.
—The focus is on the bottom line: How much did we take in? How much did we spend?
—Budget categories from previous years tend to dictate how money will be spent in subsequent years.
—The arrangement of the budget reflects an emphasis on maintaining a physical plant and paying staff salaries rather than fulfilling a corporate vision.
How can we avoid this approach? How can we move beyond seeing church ministry only in terms of budget numbers?
Staff the Finance Committee with Those Active in Ministry
When nominating committees consider candidates for the finance committee, they first look, and not without reason, to bankers, cpa's, and successful business people. Financial expertise is the first prerequisite, not involvement in ministry.
If you want the finance committee to be ministry minded, though, you need to recruit people who are on the front lines of ministry themselves. Only people involved in ministry are going to be ministry minded.
When the need arose for someone to manage the finances of Bellingham Evangelical Free Church, Charlie Culbertson was recruited for the job, even though he had limited expertise in financial matters. For several years, Culbertson had served in Thailand with Campus Crusade for Christ. Eventually he was overseeing ministries on several campuses.
When senior pastor Gus Bess went looking for an executive pastor, it was Culbertson's heart and mind for ministry that made the difference. "The church felt they could more easily hone my financial skills than a heart for ministry," says Charlie.
Some churches take this idea a step further by requiring anyone serving on any committee to complete a cycle of training in ministry first. In my work with churches, I coach them to train people in the basics of the Christian faith and then equip them to reproduce those basics in the life of another individual. Only then will they be asked to serve in advanced forms of ministry.
In the church I attend in Bellingham, Washington, no one is allowed to serve in leadership positions of any kind without first completing a basic course in discipleship. That course includes at least one session on stewardship—and those asked to serve in leadership are asked to model faithful stewardship.
As people involve themselves in personal ministry first, they are better equipped to serve on boards and committees with a ministry mindset.
Communicate Biblical Principles of Finances
Sometimes we who have been steeped in what the Bible says about finances and ministry can forget that others have not. I have found that I cannot take for granted that even long-time attenders of the church have built their understanding on Scripture. Without solid, consistent teaching on the priority of ministry, leaders may well have other values.
Nonministry values are especially tough—and necessary—to overcome when a ministry seems dependent on the bottom line. But it can be done. The church I attend is headed into a major building program. After seven years of existence, over a thousand people attend and ten people are on staff. To encourage people to give to the building fund, the pastor recently preached a series on giving. He had one serious reservation: during his first seven years, he had carefully cultivated a climate for outreach and discipleship; he did not want the focus to change during the building program.
He undercut the natural tendency to focus on the bottom line by emphasizing that our attitude in giving was just as important as how much we gave. The series therefore focused not merely on the giving of money but the offering up of our entire lives to God: time, talents, and treasures. All that we are, and all that we have, he reminded us, has been given to us as a trust.
Throughout the sermon series, various ministries were featured. Testimonies were given during worship. The pastor consistently shared stories about opportunities for ministry in the new building.
In short, as important as they were, the enormous financial needs of a building program were not allowed to take precedence over people and ministry.
Devise a Plan for Ministry
A finance committee is much more likely to be ministry minded if it's in a church that is ministry minded. That requires an overall plan for ministry. Here are some of the fundamental but often overlooked principles I follow in helping churches develop such a plan.
• Define the congregation's purpose. "More failures in the church come about because of an ambiguity of purpose than for any other reason," observes Howard Hendricks, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas.
A good mission statement answers the question, "Why do we exist as an organization?" or as I like to put it, "What on earth is the church supposed to be doing, for heaven's sake?" The mission statement of a church is the foundation upon which every ministry program is established.
• Nurture vision. I often travel on the Washington State ferries. Recently I was standing at the stem of one of these ships as it departed Edmonds, Washington, headed for Kingston.
A woman began to walk away when her husband asked her, "Where are you going, dear?"
"To the front of the boat," she replied. "I want to see where I'm going, not where I've been."
Actually, if you look at a ferry boat from a distance, it's hard to discern whether that vessel is coming or going, because the ship looks the same from both ends.
Some churches don't know whether they are coming or going. Others focus on where they've come from. In either case, faulty vision will impair effective ministry. Kennon Callahan, author of Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, observes that "Growing churches believe that their best days are ahead of them … declining churches believe their best days are behind them."
The vision of a church is its dream for ministry. And it is the role of leadership to keep that vision before God's people: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
A key way to develop vision is to ask, as I did at my last church when I arrived, "What kind of church do we want to be five years from now?" When taken seriously, that question will have profound implications for administrative structures, staffing, and facilities.
• Set congregational goals. After setting corporate vision, set specific goals to begin to move toward realizing that vision. Webster's first definition of the word goal is "the terminal point of a race."
A goal is a specific plan to achieve a specific result within a specific time period. A typical church goal would be introduced by the phrase, "During the next twelve months we plan to …" Goals should be revised regularly in order to keep pace with a changing environment.
In any case, a goal is a statement of faith, giving concrete expression to what we believe God is leading us to accomplish.
• Determine priorities. Not all goals can be accomplished at once. A ministry-minded church must sort priorities, determining which goals to pursue first, second, and third: "Do we build a building first or hire a staff member?" "Do we increase our giving to missions or add an outreach locally for youth?"
One of my cardinal convictions is that staff should take priority over programs and facilities. Staff will establish programs that will minister to people, and then buildings can be built to accommodate the needs of a growing ministry.
Priorities must also be established within every area of the ministry. Should the youth ministry department invest its time and resources in major events or in small-group ministry? Should the music and worship team do a major cantata this Christmas or develop a traveling music group?
If someone left $100,000 to your church in their will, what would you do with it? Answering that is a good way to start taking seriously the need for establishing priorities. It's a way to get people to see that they don't have time and money to do everything at once.
• Develop a plan of action. As we prioritize our goals, we must also develop a specific action plan for achieving them. A strategic action plan will define the action steps for each goal area, the deadline for carrying them out, the person responsible for each action step, and the budget needed to carry it out.
In a church that is ministry minded, then, the financial considerations come last. Ministry planning begins with purpose, moves through dreams, goals, priorities, and plans. Only then comes consideration of the dollar. When churches follow this outline, finance committees are biased to become ministry minded.
Let Ministry Leaders Determine Needs
It's vital that the budget process begins not with how much money a church has or can expect to have but with the needs it wants to meet. I've seen at least two ways to do that: from the top down and from the bottom up.
At Hillcrest Chapel in Bellingham, the budgeting process, described by administrative Pastor Bob Patton as "ministry driven," begins with the elders, which includes the pastoral staff. Their conviction is that the vision for ministry comes from the pastors, as God guides them. Staff members work with lay leaders to derive a plan for ministry, which results in a budget proposal to the church board.
The congregation ultimately reviews and approves the budget, but the kinks are worked out well in advance of the vote. Needless to say, this process begins well in advance of their congregational meeting. As a result of this well-orchestrated process. Hillcrest has not had serious conflict over the area of finances in the past fifteen years.
Across town at Immanuel Bible Church, the process begins with the rank and file of ministry. Marc Mullen, the church chairman, explains that people directly involved with a ministry help formulate the budget with those who oversee their ministry. For example, the leaders of junior high ministry would meet with the overall leaders of the youth ministry. An elder and a staff member are usually a part of these discussions as well. Budget figures are determined not only by needs but also by the goals and objectives of each ministry.
In addition, office staff submit their budget requests for office supplies, and the nursery coordinator requests her budget for disposable diapers—details that no pastor or finance committee is in a position to know about.
In either case, it's people involved in ministry, at one level or another, who decide what the church really needs in the coming year.
Plan for More and for Less
When a church is prepared to answer the questions, "What will we do if we have more money than expected?" and "What will we do if we have less?" it will keep mere numbers from dominating the discussion when those contingencies arise.
Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix has such a plan. Dick Stunden, the church administrator, says they always have more needs than funds available. If they project $975,000 income but receive from various ministry departments requests for $1,000,000, they will generally plug in an extra $25,000 into income as a "faith factor," trusting God for the difference. If the difference is greater, they begin restructuring the budget.
If they do have to cut back, then they let the individual ministries decide how exactly they will do that. If the youth commission, for instance, has requested $40,000 but only $30,000 becomes available, the board kicks the decision as to what to cut to the youth pastor and lay staff. They feel that each department is in a better position than the finance committee to know what they can and cannot live without. Such a procedure also makes the staff and lay leaders feel they are more in control of their ministries.
Present Financial Information to Inspire Vision
For years I received the monthly newsletter from a church I had once served as a staff member. Every month the report showed a deficit. I often wondered how they kept their doors open if they were always behind. And yet I know that during that time the staff was paid, an addition was added to the building, and the church's mortgage was later burned.
Obviously, the financial statement wasn't reflecting reality. If nothing else, a financial statement ought to do that. But if it can also inspire vision, so much the better. Then not only will the congregation and finance people know reality but they will also see clearly how finances fit into the church's goals.
One way to do this is to help the finance people figure out ways of presenting their financial information so that it inspires vision. Here are some ways I've seen congregations do that:
• Give more exposure to people than to paper. Lives changed demonstrate that the church is fulfilling its purpose. Testimonies remind us to focus on believers over budgets, and on ministry over money. Placing people instead of just financial reports in front of the church calls us back to our purpose—it reminds us why we're in business.
Bethany Baptist Church in Puyallup, Washington, has recently launched a three-year financial campaign to expand its ministry. Each Sunday for the six weeks prior to the kick-off banquet, individuals gave their testimonies about how the church affected their lives. One person shared how the church had provided him and his family strength and stability in the midst of a career change and a move. A young man told how the church had stood by him while his father succumbed to cancer. And on it went.
"While our campaign goal is to expand the financial base of the church and provide facilities for ministry," says pastor Lowell Bakke, "we don't want to forget that the church revolves around people first."
• Have an annual celebration instead of an annual meeting. The Orchards Community Church in Lewiston, Idaho, recently had an annual business meeting that drew twice the normal crowd. The meeting was held after the Sunday morning worship service and included a fellowship dinner with tables decorated with flowers and balloons. Trays of slides depicting the ministry were interspersed with business items and testimonies of God's faithfulness. Letters from people who had moved away but were thankful for the church's ministry to them were read.
They also held a dedication service for newly elected board members, with the new members kneeling on the platform. The meeting was so meaningful for people that afterward some attenders requested membership applications.
• Use images, not just numbers. Campus Crusade for Christ has an entire media ministry that prepares its annual report on behalf of the staff. Through a combination of slides, video, graphics, and background music and voice, the entire ministry is featured in a thirty-minute presentation. The result is that everyone's vision is expanded as they see the worldwide scope of its ministry.
Some churches assign one or two people to take videos through the year at various church activities. Testimonials could even be recorded in advance and woven into a total ministry report.
People give to what they can see—that's why building programs tend to generate more money than less visible ministry. Our job in presenting financial information is to help people "see" the ministry that is taking place behind the budget.
One way to accomplish that is to print budget reports that show expenses and receipts in pie charts or graphs.
In addition, if a report has to be given orally, it should be short and concise as well as focused on ministry. Many churches find that the best person for this job is a lay person. The reason is that staff are usually not neutral parties in the budget; they have a vested interest in their areas of ministry as well as their compensation package. By having a lay leader address financial issues, the church takes ownership for this important area of ministry.
• Prepare clear financial reports and budgets. When executive pastor Charlie Culbertson took over his post at the Bellingham Evangelical Free Church, he found that the budget reports caused his eyes to glaze over trying to make sense of them. Says Culbertson, "The budget was arranged somewhat randomly, and it was full of excessive detail. So I rearranged the budget in terms of major categories, and now I report only in terms of those larger categories."
Three categories that Culbertson chose, for instance, were (1) staffing, which includes all expenses related to keeping pastors employed in the church, such as salaries, housing allowances, benefits, and business expenses; (2) facilities, which includes rent, utilities, repairs, maintenance, and office supplies; and (3) missions, which includes all programming expenses, such as youth ministry and women's ministry.
"We can now generate reports that include all the information or relatively little," says Culbertson, "depending on how much people want to see. For monthly elder meetings, though, I prepare a one- or two-page summary showing income versus expenses and the balance in church accounts. The elders don't need to deal with the vast volume of details regularly. And for a quick update to the congregation, I'll use pie charts."
Certainly, finance committees will have to spend the bulk of their time crunching numbers—they're the committee that is given this arduous task. But there is no reason why the nature of their task has to determine how they view their task. They can be structured so that instead of numbers and pledge cards, the Lord and his vision for the church inspire their work.
Excerpted from "Mastering Church Finances," (Christianity Today International).
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