February 23, 2016

Budgeting: What's Essential? Who Decides?

It’s amazing how quickly the Cadillac SUV went to the wayside for a used Ford.

The middle school students were given a paper with a job, average monthly salary, and number of children (including zero). They had to make their way around tables set up in the gymnasium and make lifestyle decisions based on their budget. The tables included taxes (first stop!), health insurance, transportation, housing, childcare, communications (the almighty cell phone), entertainment, clothing, and my table, chance (where they would have to pay for the unexpected—flat tire, school fees, birthday parties, medicine, faulty furnace, etc.).

In some places, the students had no choice (like taxes), but in most places they could spend up—the Cadillac—or down—bus fare.

As you can imagine, the exercise was quite illuminating. By the time they made it to chance, they were desperate to draw a low-cost card. (Of course, I suggested that to make it more realistic, they should have to draw ten cards. It’s never just one unexpected bill in a month!)

The program instigated some good discussions among the teens and around our dinner table. And it got me to thinking: What if churches put on a similar program, but this time, for the budget?

Imagine tables set up around the fellowship hall: Utilities, Maintenance, Mission, Salaries, Diocesan Support, Youth Ministry, Formation, Communication, Social Activities, Community Outreach, Altar Guild, Grounds, Advocacy, Child Care, etc. Folks are given one of six estimated budgets. One is barebones; another assumes 10 percent tithing from members. The other four fall in the middle.

Ask members to visit each table and make decisions based on the budget. Not enough to pay the electric company and fund the youth mission trip? Salaries consume a chunk. Ready to move to part-time or supply clergy? Or get rid of the sexton? Mission is great, but will it make the cut in a tight budget?

This exercise offers plenty of opportunity for learning and discussion. Parishioners see the demands and needs placed on the budget. And they have a chance to make some hypothetical choices (and talk about the hypothetical consequences). The program also encourages members to see their own role in the finances of the church—the spending and importantly, the raising of money. Just as many of the students decided they would need to make more money to support their lifestyle choices, some members may see the correlation between their own giving and the church’s finances.

Fresh off a diocesan convention where folks were arguing about congregational support for the diocese, I bet this could make a good exercise at that level too. Which mission church doesn’t get financial support this year? Which diocesan staff member is unneeded? What ministry should close? Time to shutter the camp and conference program?

At what cost? Financial, of course, but also spiritual, formational, and relational.

It is easy to criticize from the outside. It is easy for 14-year-olds to imagine they will have enough money for the top-shelf cellphone plan and a smooth ride. But digging into the budgeting process changes the dynamic and forces important discussions and hopefully deep reflection on where our hearts (and wallets) are—and should be.

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