I know every church doesn’t follow the same rhythms, but in the last two churches I pastored, Labor Day to Christmas was my most hectic time of year. In addition to the normal busyness of congregational life, we created our annual plan for the next year. And at the top of the list of significant planning was the process of creating the next year’s budget.
Most of the time, we look backwards before we look forward. We make our decisions about our financial future based on the recent past. Of course, that suggests a certain amount of stability and predictability, but what are we supposed to do when the recent past has been anything but stable and predictable? Can anyone tell me what unemployment is going to look like six months from now? Does anyone know when we’re going to have global access to a vaccine? Yeah, me neither.
So how are we supposed to plan during all this uncertainty? Here are three suggestions you might consider as you start your process.
- Make a plan but build in flexibility.
A few years ago, I was pastoring a church and we were in the middle of a major stewardship campaign that was going to have an enormous impact not only on the budget but also on the strategic direction of our congregation. We had decided, however, that we were going to base any plans we made on actual pledges that year. That made budget planning a real challenge. So, believe it or not, we made out three different budgets. We called them our Chevrolet budget, our Buick budget, and our Cadillac budget. The basic idea was that we had some definite costs that were in all three budgets but variations on the theme that made up the rest.
Taking that kind of step involves a lot more work for the staff and lay leader(s) that oversee the process, but it also enables you to be intentional with your spending no matter what happens. Every church budget has some costs in it that are basically set. You’re going to pay your electric bills, your insurance costs, and you’re almost certainly going to pay your personnel what’s in the budget. So, when a downturn hits, churches tend to cut back on mission and ministry. There are ways, however, to structure your budget to make certain you pay for what’s most important in your mission and ministry budget – not just what happens first in the year. If you start with a lean budget but with the flexibility to scale up as the year progresses, then as long as you’ve got what’s most important in that lean budget (even if it’s later in the year), you’ll have the funds to carry it out.
Part of the reason we took the step of creating several different budgets that year was for planning purposes, but another reason was more about what that kind of effort communicated to the congregation. Doing that kind of work earned our leadership a significant amount of trust from the congregation. We didn’t just make a plan – we told them what the plans were and why we were making them.
- Over-communicate what you’re doing and why.
Information relieves anxiety and builds trust, and I probably don’t have to tell you this, but these are anxious times on a variety of levels. On the other hand, if the members of your church know that you’re taking the challenges into account and making a plan not just to keep the lights on but to engage in meaningful mission and ministry even during this pandemic, they’re going to do everything they can to support that. You may feel like what you’re saying about any financial plans that you’re making is incredibly obvious, but not only should you be stating the obvious, you should probably be repeating it over and over. People always gravitate toward calm certainty in the midst of crisis, and so one of your most important jobs in the coming months will be to calmly remind your people that the work of God is still ongoing and that they can help make it happen with their stewardship.
And speaking of stating the obvious, I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s also a good idea to name (acknowledge) that some of the people in your church are being pinched by the financial aspect of this crisis and that you expect that to have an impact on their ability to give. In its own way, naming that out loud and reminding them that part of the financial ministry of the Church is to care for its own will also stir the ones who can give to do so. Words matter – even more so in a crisis. Use yours to build trust and set direction.
- Emphasize impact.
Providing information is one of the two most important things you can do to build and maintain a positive spirit in your congregation in the midst of this crisis, but there’s a second thing that’s just as important – giving people a way to make a difference.
Part of what makes this pandemic so challenging for so many of us is that it feels so out of control. There’s nothing you and I can do to make a vaccine get here faster. And yet, while that’s true medically, we can certainly provide a way for the people of God to make a real impact on those who are hit the hardest by this pandemic. Over the past few months, I’ve been paying close attention to the congregations who seemed to have side-stepped the worst financial aspects of this pandemic. The ones that are doing the strongest financially almost all seem to have something in common – they gave the people in their congregations a way to make a substantive impact on the people who were hurting. One staff team in Richmond, Virginia, asked the Finance Committee of their church to take all the staff development money in the budget for this year and next year and shift it to local missions. The word got out in the congregation, and checks started coming in to match the amount. In a few weeks, the church quadrupled its local missions line item and started advertising that they had a fund to help the unemployed and the underemployed. A church in Florida set a goal to help a local non-profit focused on hunger relief. A member of the church gave a matching gift and once again the word spread. When it was all said and done, the church doubled the amount of its highest donation ever.
It would be easy to look at next year’s budget and simply hold the line or make a small cut, but a budget isn’t just a bunch of numbers. It’s a statement about values and about your faith. You may very well need to cut next year’s budget for your church, and you shouldn’t feel like a failure if that’s the right decision. But next year’s budget should still make a statement about what’s important. My advice is to make a plan that gives your people a way to make an impact on the people hit the hardest by this crisis. If you make that kind of plan and you spend some time and energy telling them why that’s the plan, you might be surprised at the result.
For Reflection and Discussion
- What has been the most challenging aspect of budget planning over the last year?
- How can you incorporate the concept of a flexible budget into your planning?
- What steps can you take to communicate effectively with your church/community about budget needs and plans as you prepare for the coming year?
- How can you celebrate the impact of what God has done and is doing through the faithful generosity of your community?