Budget Blunders

Perspectives, Podcast

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Whether your church has sixty-five people or sixty-five hundred, money matters. Even so, many pastors tell me that they find budgeting to be—at best—a necessary-but-distracting process. I’ve never heard a young pastoral candidate confide that the initial draw to ministry was the joy of managing resources. You know how divisive talking about gathering, stewarding, and spending money can be. Even worse, addressing it poorly can hamstring opportunities for church growth. No one wants that.

However, if approached well, the budgeting process can sharpen a church’s focus. It can free the church to leverage resources in a way that maximizes return on the resources invested by staff and volunteers.

Consider these five common budgetary blunders.

Blunder One: Thinking about cost only in the form of dollars

Wouldn’t you love it if every financial decision was simple? “Let’s spend X to accomplish Y.” What if you didn’t have to consider the fallout caused because updating the foyer decor meant retiring Aunt Martha’s handmade “Welcome Home” banner? For better or for worse, people connect their expressions and activities at church with their sense of spiritual identity. I’m not just talking about sacred cows like the inconveniently bulky baby grand piano on the platform dedicated to a former pastor’s deceased wife, but also to making appealing “cost effective” choices now that will result in greater expenditure later or even disallow growth or expansion down the road. Cost factors also include how simple and easy you make it for volunteers and staff to serve effectively. Sometimes the funds involved are least significant part of actual cost. Human cost includes time, energy, passion, equipment, facilities, and relational grace, as well as funds. By identifying how God moves in and through your church, you can ask how to best leverage all of your resources, including money.

Blunder Two: Uninformed Decisions

Good church leadership works to make thrifty and responsible financial decisions. But sometimes a well-intentioned decision goes awry simply because of factors outside leadership’s awareness. Who would have thought that changing to a different bathroom soap would result in a significant volunteer stepping away from ministry because the new scent activated allergies so they could no longer clean the restrooms? The new digital sound board looked like such an improvement, but no one considered that the learning curve would eliminate key volunteers and make running sound a staff-dependent position. Consider the consequences that could result from cutting an expensive innovative approach that was key to new growth and resorting back to the approach that brought you to your current level of growth; now you may become stuck in the past and unable to reach that next growth level.

How can you know what you don’t know?

Ask. Trust your staff and volunteers enough to listen to their responses. Dig past submissive agreement to identify true concerns. You may have to train your staff and key volunteer leaders how to communicate to you about resource costs in terms of difficulty, time, money, or volunteers. Otherwise it may be simply easier for them to agree without helping leadership to make informed decisions.

Blunder Three: Assuming what worked elsewhere works for you

Have you heard this conversation when pastors get together? “Hey, Steve, you’re happy with your new auditorium redesign. Who was the architect?” Then the follow up conversation with that contractor starts with, “We like what you did with Steve’s church; could you do that for us, except at a budget of $X?” If the contractor either doesn’t take the time to really understand your distinctives or is more concerned about their bottom line (consider that they are a business), choices will be made that may work great for Steve’s church or for the contractor, but not for you. Besides, your congregation much more easily supports choices that clearly reflect their understanding of your mission, vision, and values.

Blunder Four: Setting amounts without considering what human resources can problem solve

Your staff and volunteers may supply creative solutions that totally change the cost picture. Empowering your people to address issues may take you miles forward. Avoid the temptation to automatically throw money at an issue, even if you are in a financial position to do so. Sometimes thinking within the box of your constraints can lead to surprisingly effective problem solving solutions with great results.

Blunder Five: Amount-driven conversations instead of goal-driven conversations

Obviously, financial decisions must consider the actual dollars being spent. But rather than throwing out an amount and determining what can be accomplished within that limit, being driven by mission, vision, and values means that early on in the decision making process, you have a discussion that’s led by how you believe God wants to move through your church. Budget may limit available options, but by considering goal-driven factors first, you’ve incorporated the impact of your decisions as you move forward. This will help save you from the “Well, we spent $200,000 to resolve this, so you’d think that it would work now” disappointment. As soon as you ask, “That sounds great, but what can we get for $X?” you’ve slipped back into making an amount-driven decision that may easily be taking you away from your mission, vision, and values. That may mean tabling something until a later time when adequate resources become available or other avenues can be found. It may mean taking a step in the right direction that will allow for later development. Or it mean reprioritizing your budget to align your use of funds to better match accomplishing your goals.

Is there a better way to budget?

I asked Rick Stauder this question.

He was a good person to ask and influenced many of the thoughts I’ve already presented. His experience includes serving at Grace Church (St. Louis), Bethany World Prayer Center (Baton Rouge), Perimeter Church (Atlanta), Grace Baptist (Knoxville), The Crossing (Brandon), and Bayside Community Church (Bradenton). I’m inspired by his passion for clarifying mission to maximize ministry and his intense commitment to set up volunteers for success and growth.

His recommendation to better budgeting begins with doing the homework ahead of time, long before the first number are crunched.

“Begin by really ironing out your mission, vision, and values. That’s what should drive your budgetary conversations. It doesn’t determine the conversations, but it guides them.”

He suggests that for a church to leverage the budget process, it needs three more things:

  1. Really healthy, honesty loving relationships
  2. Smart, thoughtful, intuitive systems
  3. The ability to plan and communicate well

He begins talking about budget early. “I don’t come up with a plan four days before. We want to take our people along, build ownership and buy-in. Give them time to prepare, to really listen to one another and speak into one another.”

Stewardship is not about being careful with money. It’s about leveraging all your resources, including human resources, to maximize your opportunity to accomplish the work to which the Lord has called you.

Timothy J Miller has served for over 30 years in small, medium, large, and multi-site churches. In addition to being the technology director at Bayside Community Church – WSC (an 8-campus, 12k+ congregation along Florida’s Gulf Coast), he writes for church leadership and worship-related publications. His recent book, Born For Worship: The Best You Can Be In Worship Arts Ministry, uses mini-chapters to help teams and individuals explore the biblical foundations that result in growth and effective service. Find him at htworship.com or drop a note to grow@htworship.com!

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