December 18, 2013

Christmas Reality and Budget Strategy

Right about now, leaders in congregations are putting the finishing touches on Christmas liturgies and sermons, finding a part for everyone in the pageant and giving equal attention to clearing the office calendar so we all can take a well-deserved break after the Big Day. Up until just recently, though, there was also a lot of work on the pledge drive and the stewardship campaign and the 2014 budget …. oh, yeah, the budget. And then all that work stopped. Christmas is coming, after all.

I want to say that we’re mising the fundamental connection between what’s about to happen on December 24/25 in most every parish church and that other, somewhat less holy process called budgeting and raising money. 

The principle is simple: the vast majority of those who fill the pews on December 24 are your congregation. They are. They may not be your ‘base.’ They may not be as active as the few who serve well and faithfully in leadership roles. They may not have your ear all the time. They may not give as much or as regularly as others. And, yes, some of them are out-of-towners. But the vast majority are your congregation. They live right there, they don’t go to any other church, and when high holy days and life’s tragedies come around they come to you.

For starters, I hope this recognition changes the way everyone is greeted on December 24 and 25. No one should hear a snarky “You know, we worship here every Sunday, too”, nor should anyone hear “I’m glad you’ve joined us.” There is no us and them. Just say “It’s good to see you” or, very simply, “Merry Christmas.”

On another level, though, this should challenge and encourage those of us who serve in leadership roles to re-think the way we go about budgeting and raising time, talent, and treasure. If, in fact, most of those in our pews on Christmas are our ‘market,’ so to speak, it’d make sense to start asking what everyone would be willing to contribute. Maybe they’re not so interested in those fundraisers you turn out, year after year after year – the Annual Such-and-So. Maybe that speaks, too much, to church-as-institution, and it’s frankly hard to compete with all those other charities that have already sent solicitation letters. Maybe in our pews, at least on one night, are a lot more people who want this, their congregation to live into the message they come back to hear: a church that’s aligned with the plight of the poor and marginalized, the unwed mothers and day laborers; a congregation that’s more attuned to what’s happening in the barn out back than its own fading yet glitzy display of pomp and self-centeredness. Maybe they’d give and participate and contribute more generously if they thought that this congregation was really serious about proclaiming that that King of Kings who shows up as a vulnerable baby born to a frightened family is, in fact, the one who’s calling the shots.

It’s almost as if there are two worlds in the life of the average congregation: the Gospel World and the Secular World. From time to time, that is, on Sundays and certainly on these big festivals we center ourselves in the Gospel of Jesus and preach peace and justice and the Kingdom of God. But most of the time we act like a secular, not-for-profit institution, out to balance the budget and spend within our limits and raise as much money as we can. “Ne’er the twain shall meet,” it seems.

But what if they did? What if one informed the other? What if our Christmas reality became our budget strategy? Let me share some questions we’ve been asking ourselves at St. George’s, Valley Lee – questions which have led to the ways by which we’ve fundamentally revised ministry discernment, leadership functioning, budget processes, and financial solicitation. I’ll phrase them as questions that might lead to the re-framing of the ways you could better budget and spend your own congregation’s time, talent, and treasure.

  • If one of your parishioners, whether active or not-so-active, had a great idea or ministry project, how quickly could the church system respond? And how much internal credibility does one need to have in order to even get an idea floated?
  • Does your congregation believe and, if so, are you giving off clear signals that everyone’s presence is valued and input needed, just as much for the one who tithes her large income as the one who drops $10 in that plate when he comes?
  • What percentage of your congregation’s projected income is based on the money you get from fundraisers? What do those fundraisers point to? What do they serve: the church-as-institution or the Kingdom of God?
  • If you looked at pledge and plate giving as your ‘base’, what level of operational expenditures could you fit within that number? Can you live within your means?
  • Is there a sense that everything has to be cleared or controlled by the vestry or a few in charge?
  • Are the congregation’s ministries free, in a sense, to dream big and raise awareness and, even, raise money? Or does every key leader have to know what’s going on, lest it get sabotaged?
  • If every family / member who comes to your Christmas services and is on your mailing list gave regularly to support your congregation, how low would that average annual support be, per family / member? Without using terms such as ‘lazy’ or ‘afraid of commitment’, why aren’t they all giving regularly?
  • Besides member-oriented programs and focus, what marketable items could you point to as things your congregation does that are mission-oriented?

These questions may seem, to some, like common sense. To others, they may seem radical, even scary. But what if it’s true that when God, the Lord of all creation, chose instead to come among us as a poor, vulnerable baby, God was trying to show us that there is, in fact, no us and them. And that there is, in fact, no limit to abundance. What would appear lacking, then, is simply the willingness to put it in practice; that is, to do in our congregations nothing less than what God did for the life of the world.