I have heard many stories of pastors telling their congregations they need to go into debt or stretch themselves financially as “a matter of faith.” The pastor stands up and challenges the congregation to have the faith that “God will provide.” Such statements suggest that those who do not go along with a particular financial proposal lack faith. I find this approach enraging and theologically false.
A church member who questions a particular use of funds, or who takes a conservative approach to financial issues, is not showing a lack of faith. She or he is simply asking a very basic question: “How are we going to pay for this?” Similarly, a member who wants to build up the congregation’s endowment fund is not necessarily advocating that the church stockpile money while the world is ravaged by hunger and disease. He or she may see a strong endowment as an instrument to alleviate hunger and disease in the future as well as the present.
Financial decisions are nothing more or less than choices between competing priorities. A congregation should welcome such debates.
To frame financial issues as expressions of faith (or lack of faith) grossly distorts the values and issues being discussed. It makes the mission‑oriented person appear to be fiscally irresponsible, while the appropriately cautious budget person comes across as opposed to mission. We simply have to stop this caricaturing of one another.
Surely, there will be times when a congregation adopts more of a risk‑taking approach to the use of its financial resources. However, it must be a well calculated risk. The issue is not of faith per se. The issue is whether a particular use of a congregation’s financial resources is appropriate, given the realities of the congregation’s situation. Do the things that will be accomplished by the expenditure of funds warrant the risk that spending the funds will incur?
When making financial decisions, a congregation needs to have a vision, objectives that will help translate the vision into reality, strategies to accomplish the objectives, and measurements that will allow the congregation to evaluate progress or lack of progress on the strategies. In the planning process, a governing body can begin to assign price tags to the various components of the ministry plan — allowing it to compare option A with option B, and make other strategic calculations.
Financial decisions are nothing more or less than choices between competing priorities. A congregation should welcome such debates. They’ve been taking place since Peter and Paul slugged it out over whether taking the gospel to the Gentiles was a good investment of resources! Why should we be any different? I wouldn’t want to be a part of a congregation whose members don’t feel passionate about how money is used for ministry. Nonetheless, when debating competing values and priorities, it simply is not helpful to describe some values as faithful and others as not faithful.
A conservative approach can protect and build tremendous resources for future generations to engage in ministry. My congregation puts $50,000 a year into a capital improvements fund. We decided to do this after conducting a detailed building management analysis that looked at what we will need to replace in the building and when. Our analysis determined that we need to set aside $50,000 annually to ensure that the building is maintained.
Periodically someone asks, “Why are we putting all that money aside when we could use it for mission projects?” Our response is that by maintaining the building today, a future generation won’t have to take $100,000 away from its mission funds to replace a boiler or air-handling unit. Are we right? I think so. But I don’t think the people who question our policy are wrong or lack faith! They simply approach the issue from a different perspective and reach different conclusions.
This article is an excerpt from John’s book, The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management, copyright © 2010, The Alban Institute. Used by permission. The book is available at Amazonand Cokesbury.