Church leaders who oversee church money have a fiduciary responsibility. The money is not their own – it belongs to the church – so there are certain standards to follow. That is, you can be as carefree as you want with your own money, but not with someone else’s money!
Most church leaders know about their fiduciary responsibility – it is the same principle that applies when acting as a trustee or executor, or when serving on a corporate board or finance committee. But what’s different at a church – or any nonprofit organization – is an added duty to consider the church’s mission.
Let’s review fiduciary responsibilities generally and explain how to carry them out at a church.
Success doesn’t just happen; we must plan for it. Many churches have an endowment fund, but not all have the markers of success. At ECF, we encourage churches to act intentionally and proactively to build a successful and sustainable endowment that engages the vestry, the endowment committee, and the whole church community. It’s important to continually assess your endowment strategy especially if an endowment lacks organization, if it is not growing with new gifts, or if many church members are unaware of the endowment’s existence or purpose.
How to Structure your Endowment for Success
Step 1: Identify the church’s vision for the endowment
The first attribute of a successful endowment is a clear vision of what it can help the church accomplish. Endowments are an excellent way for churches to ensure that the gifts they receive will continue to benefit the church for years to come, but that will only become a reality if there is a direct line from the mission of the church to the vision of the endowment. Are you clear about how your endowment fund can help your church fulfill its mission? (And are you clear about its specific purpose?) All church leaders – including both vestry and endowment committee members – as well as the congregation must “own” the endowment vision. Root it in your shared mission. Make it simple and compelling. And proclaim it clearly.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29: 18
Would you give money to a cause not knowing how it would be spent? Most people give to causes that affirm their cherished values, but donors are more likely to give when they know an organization will use their gift wisely … and believe the gift will make a difference. Churches face increasing competition for the time, attention, and money of their parishioners. Donors who care will give when they are moved by your mission, understand your plans, and trust you.
Endowment giving requires a special kind of trust. A donor must know a church will be trustworthy well into the future, beyond the time when the donor is part of the congregation. To inspire endowment gifts, to motivate new gifts and earn recurring gifts, church leaders can carefully build, nurture, and sustain that trust.
I hope you’re reading this blog post after your vestry has finished the 2022 budget. I hope it lands in your email or newsfeed after your 2022 Annual Meeting, and that your church’s finance committee and leadership are already well on their way in this year’s spending / resourcing plan. I hope you stumble upon this post long before anyone in your congregation starts talking about 2023.
Oddly enough, the lull between annual pledge drives, stewardship campaigns, budget setting and Annual Meetings is the perfect time to begin talking about spending and resourcing plans for 2023 (and future years). It’s the perfect time because you can talk freely about budget standards, using this Snapshot of Church Finances. It’s an excellent worksheet prepared by Dan Hotchkiss, senior consultant for the Alban Institute.
I called a friend when I got the Vestry’s financial offer: “I’m expensive,” I said. And I was.
That was years ago, starting my first position as rector. I was taking a pay cut from my curate’s salary at the time, but the benefit of a rectory and related cost savings made it more like a compensation increase.
Clergy are expensive. There is a real cost to our current, at least inherited clergy model in The Episcopal Church. This cost is a lot to bear for many local congregations. The model of a full-time, residential clergyperson includes salary / stipend, plus Episcopal Church Medical Trust health insurance, then pension, SECA, and reimbursements.
Say what you want about the model as I defined it. I promise I’ll come back to that.
In my previous post, I focused on the significant few expenditures and resources which really move the needle on what it takes to make your local church thrive, let alone run. When it comes down to it, there are remarkably few things church leaders need to pay attention to. These significant few focus on people: equipping lay leaders, resourcing clergy and staff, and connecting continuously with those people who regularly and generously invest in Christ’s mission (often known to vestries and finance committees as “pledge” and “plate”).
The challenge is that it’s hard to pay attention to the significant few because they’re such big items. The good news is that once you do a whole new world of opportunities opens up.
One of which is that you can (finally!) confront the insignificant many. I’ll be the first to admit that the institutions which make up The Episcopal Church have too much stuff: too many copy machines per Average Sunday Attend-er; too many buildings; too many inefficient, costly HVAC systems; way too costly an institutional model. I believe there’s a great deal of fat to cut. A colleague of mine says, rightly, that the problem of The Episcopal Church is not our theology, nor our faith practices, nor our liturgy, nor anything we keep harping on. The problem is our institution: we are driving ourselves out of business.
“Pay attention to the significant few,” he said, finally speaking up after what seemed like hours of endless back-and-forth about the Excel spreadsheet.
Others at the table looked as bewildered as I was.
“The significant few,” he went on, “that’s what we need to pay attention to – those significant few expenditures and resources that will really move the needle on this budget.”
I knew exactly what or, better, who he was talking about.
The checkout lines were long at the department store, and since I was just buying gift cards, Customer Service looked like a better choice. No one was returning anything at that moment, so the two clerks were chatting. As I approached the counter, they were discussing the shortage of coins. “Where have they all gone?” I asked, just to be friendly. “It’s the government,” one woman said. “They’re not making enough new coins.”
Back outside, walking to the car, I was still puzzling over that statement. Dollar bills wear out, but not coins. In fact, I hardly use them at all, making even small purchases with my debit card. Still, the cash economy is widespread, and a lot of coins are piling up somewhere.
Some things just don’t mix: Oil and water, bleach and ammonia, churches and debt. Or, so I have always believed.
We have all heard stories about churches that got in over their heads with debt. We have all heard stories about churches that planned on resources becoming available, either because of congregational growth or forthcoming generosity, only to find themselves disappointed and overleveraged. Churches just need to stay out of debt. Or, so I have always believed.
My own congregation recently completed a major capital restoration project. We said from the beginning that we were not going to spend any more than we raised. And, while we did make some exceptions along the way, we generally stuck to it. The overall gap between our actual capital expenditures and our total pledged revenue was only about 5%.
Recently, the Rt. Reverend Shannon MacVean-Brown, Bishop of Vermont, reported that the diocese was heading toward a “financial cliff” and that budget cuts alone would not prevent the fall. In her July 21 message, MacVean-Brown also announced a new task force that will consider long-term strategies for sustaining congregations and ministries, including the possibility of greater collaboration and resource sharing with the dioceses of New Hampshire and Maine.
The Diocese of Vermont is one of the smallest in the Episcopal Church with 5,700 baptized members in 2019, 10 full-time clergy, and 45 congregations with all but three reporting an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of less than 100. Like the rest of the Church, Vermont has experienced membership and ASA declines from 2014 to 2019, but unlike the other New England dioceses, also had a pledge and plate income drop of 3 to 7% in those five years. And Vermont is not alone. I would wager that there are dozens of other Episcopal dioceses facing the same fate but are unable or unwilling to admit it.
Every month ECFVP offers resources on a theme. This month we've asked James Murphy, Managing Program Director at ECF, to choose five resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
For 13 years, I have been blessed to be a part of the ministry of the Episcopal Church Foundation to lay and clergy leaders throughout the church. My role has been focused on overseeing programs and guiding leaders, as well as many donors, in a variety of areas including planned/estate giving, stewardship, endowment management, and donor philanthropy. I remain encouraged that after the many difficulties and challenges of the past year and a half, I believe that the Episcopal Church continues to be a beacon of hope to many. However, leaders always need to demonstrate they can be trusted with the gifts they receive and oversee.
At this critical time of resurgence after the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, it is important for church leaders to demonstrate to supporters that they can be trusted with the financial gifts their donors make. I am happy to note a small sample of the many useful resources on ECF’s Vital Practices to help Episcopal leaders build confidence among their supporters in the months and years to come.
Every month ECFVP offers resources on a theme. This month we've asked our own Dr. Sandra Montes to choose resources from Vital Practices to highlight. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
Every month ECFVP offers five resources on a theme. This month we've asked Miriam McKenney, Forward Movement’s Director of Development and Mission Engagement, to choose five resources for healthy churches that resonated with her. Please find her choices below.
The arrival of COVID-19 will mean fewer people attending church—and probably some services cancelled altogether. Yet churches need to pay the bills whether people come on Sunday or not, and innovative ministries that adapt to the crisis (Zoom Bible studies, streaming sermons, etc.) require resources, too.
How can you pass the plate when people aren’t there to pass the plate? And how can your church safely receive payments if the virus can possibly survive for hours on printed materials (i.e. the mail)?
The answer is online giving
They may not have the fragrance of frankincense or the mystery of myrrh, but here are three gifts worth their weight in gold to your faith community.
Bless your church treasurer, rector or your entire Finance Committee or Vestry with copies the recently released Finance Resource Guide. According to the Episcopal Church Foundation, this book is of value to newly ordained priests, veteran parish treasurers, and everyone in between.
The Finance Resource Guide offers a basic, practical, and theologically grounded resource for lay and clergy leaders to navigate the complex but essential tasks of raising, stewarding, and expending financial resources for local mission and ministry.
A history day offers an opportunity to engage a group of leaders and perhaps even the entire congregation in recognizing and reflecting on how the faith community understands and uses money. This is an especially useful exercise early in a new pastor’s tenure or in conjunction with a capital campaign or other finance initiative, but can be enlightening anytime.
Depending on the number of participants involved and the number of years a congregation has been in existence, such an exercise requires anywhere from two hours to the better part of a day. The exercise can be constructed around a meal. The ground rules call for no history books to be used – the important information to be gathered is what the congregation remembers as its story.
In my role as a capital campaign consultant for the Episcopal Church Foundation, it’s not unusual to hear Vestry leaders hoping for grants to help pay for building improvement projects because…
“We serve our city in unique ways.”
“Our building is historically significant.”
“Our feeding ministry serves the broader community.”
Yes, but, in the world of grant-giving, the stark reality is that your congregation may not be all that special. When you identify a granting organization that will allow a church to apply (many don’t), expect the competition to be steep from established not-for-profit organizations. Agencies that provide food, clothing, health care, or other services as their main mission have honed their compelling “case statements.” A church that serves a community meal once a week or a free clinic once a month may be deemed to have a weaker case.
Is your church community putting its money where its mouth and mission are? This month we are highlighting five resources on mission-based finances. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry, and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1. Greg Syler, in Facing Financial Uncertainty—Testing and Re-testing the Budget, illustrates why having a nimble budget can help your community of faith live more fully and more intentionally in its mission. This article is packed with good resources to help your church be more flexible.
This month, we are highlighting five resources that can help your faith community invest in and maintain an endowment. Who else do you know who might appreciate these articles? Please share and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1. In Four Steps to Maintain and Increase Your Endowment, Jerry Keucher shares the Dos and Don’ts of how to use your church’s endowment. If your church in considering establishing an endowment or wondering how an endowment might be beneficial, this is a very helpful read.