Why Church Leaders Shouldn’t Avoid “Practical” Topics
Preachers may not want to talk about finances—but it’s critical that they do so.
Why Church Leaders Shouldn’t Avoid “Practical” Topics
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The gospels attest that Jesus talked a lot about money. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables found in the gospels deal with handling money and possessions. Howard Dayton, who has written and lectured extensively on the Bible and finances, claims that “the Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,350 verses on money and possessions.” I haven’t checked these statistics, but it is surely true that the Bible and Jesus himself were not afraid to deal with the singular importance of money and possessions in human life.

The Scriptures engage the realities of human life in all its dimensions, including finances as one of the most important. The resources—financial and otherwise—needed to sustain human life are a common concern of everyone who works for a living.

An experience I had a few years ago has become something of a parable for me whenever I think about pastoral leadership and such practical matters as money, fund-raising, and the nuts and bolts of administration. We had a retreat weekend for our board members, and one of the sessions focused on the profile of a “typical” urban Catholic parish in the United States.

Based on census data and other studies, [our presenter] commented on the circumstances and experiences that are likely to shape a contemporary congregation: stresses and strains on marriage and child raising, divorce rates, dating patterns, incidence of addiction to alcohol and narcotics, notions of authority and volunteerism, quality of religious education, influence of media, etc. It was an impressive list, laid out on a grid that appeared to touch every aspect of modern life.

When the speaker opened the floor for discussion, however, one of the lay members of our board raised his hand and said, “One thing is missing from your list . . . work!” The awkward silence that followed was an eloquent commentary—how could one overlook something that commands people’s time and shapes their attitudes and aspirations in such a profound way?

But silence about work and professional life—and all of the practical realities about money and management that go with it—is not uncommon in the pulpit and in the consciousness of many pastoral leaders. That little is said in the pulpit about the experience of working for a living is a consistent lament from laity. Preachers may feel they have little to say about one of the most defining experiences of their parishioners’ lives. And parishioners may wonder if any significant connection can be made between their faith and their professional and work-a-day world.

And yet the financial and economic dimensions of institutional life ground us in reality like few other matters do. While the leaders of a religious institution may have a thoroughly noble mission and a beautiful vision of how they want to fulfill that mission, if they do not have the resources to sustain their work, little will be accomplished.

The often-repeated slogan—“no margin, no mission”—has an inevitable truth about it. And here, perhaps more than in any other part of the responsibilities of an administrator, the need to be attentive to the common good, to keep in mind the welfare of the entire community, is paramount. A recent study of presidents of seminaries and theology schools conducted by the Auburn Center for Theological Education concluded that financial stewardship was the single most important factor in determining the success of a president’s tenure.

A prime responsibility of the administration of any institution—and in particular religious institutions who seldom suffer from an abundance of financial resources—is to maintain what some have called an “economic equilibrium.” An “economic equilibrium” means that an institution maintains enough financial resources to sustain its mission; that is, having enough resources to compensate its personnel with a just wage; being able to provide and sustain physical facilities needed to carry out its mission; providing the everyday resources (equipment, operating funds, etc.) for the members of the institution to do their vital work; and maintaining the purchasing power of the institution’s assets (e.g., its endowment or financial reserves).

Most religious institutions hope that their mission is important enough that they can do more than maintain “equilibrium” and want to expand and develop—for this, of course, even more financial resources will be needed. But on a basic level—given the economic status where in fact many religious institutions find themselves—even maintaining “economic equilibrium” is a bracing challenge.

Donald Senior, CP, is professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He served for twenty-three years as president of CTU and is now its chancellor. He is a frequent lecturer and speaker throughout the United States and abroad and serves on a variety of boards and commissions, including the Pontifical Biblical Commission. He has published extensively on biblical topics, with numerous books and articles for both scholarly and popular audiences.

Excerpt taken from The Gift of Administration by Donald Senior. © 2016 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used by permission.

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