Q&A: Is there ever a time in a church’s financial accounting when it’s best to completely rebuild?

When I was in college in South Dakota, my pastor at the time called me

When I was in college in South Dakota, my pastor at the time called me up and said, “The church treasurer is moving out of state. And you’re taking accounting classes; I was wondering if you’d do that.” I would just like to say, A) don’t trust college students to do your books. They don’t know what you’re doing. But B) how dumb was it of me to say, “Sure, I’d be happy to!”

So they brought over the information, and it was on an old agriculture program. They weren’t even using anything remotely related to a church. When I loaded it onto my computer it crashed, so I had to recreate everything. I started with the reports that already existed, but shortly into my time, people kept asking me—the pastor and some of the board members—how much was in the building fund.

There wasn’t a building fund—not at all. But they insisted that there was $200,000 in a “building fund” and I needed to look for it.

We went back and recreated old financial records, and what we found was the person that had done the work two people before me had spent the building fund. He didn’t steal anything, or do anything improper. But during his time as treasurer, the church was running a deficit, and instead of really calling it to anyone’s attention and dealing with it, he was covering those deficits with the building fund. And so the building fund was gone.

I think there are cases where you really do draw a line in the sand and say, “Okay. Here’s where we’re at,” and then, as a church, you can either start over or go forward, because the records are in such poor shape. And there will be times when you have to go back and recreate an old budget, because you need to find what those balances are and why they exist or don’t exist.

There isn’t a simple way to do it. And it’s going to wear out the people that are involved, and so you have to be really mindful of taking care of them. And at the end of the day, those people who are involved will really know the finances of the church. I’ve always tried to look back on that experience in college as a huge blessing, because rather than just taking over and doing what had been done before and going forward with that, not knowing the church finances, by the time that project was done I guarantee you that I could answer questions and that I knew those numbers inside and out.

Vonna Laue has worked with ministries and churches for more than 20 years. Vonna was a partner with a national CPA firm serving not-for-profit entities through audit, review, tax, and advisory services. Most recently, she held the role of executive vice president for a Christian ministry that works to enhance trust in the church and ministry community.

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