November 21, 2017

The Budget, aka The Other Half of Good Stewardship

By this time, the well-organized among us will have carried out our carefully laid stewardship campaign plans and will be reaping the harvest of generous pledge cards. The rest of us will manage somehow to keep things flowing for another year, using whatever combination of grit, habit, late mailings and frantic or low-key appeals.

In the pledge-driven madness, let us not forget the other half of good stewardship: faithful and realistic budgeting. Whether we have had glorious pledge campaign success or more of a white-knuckle experience, the church budget -- now under preparation in most of our congregations -- can elevate or sink the best efforts at generating support for our ministries.

To be useful, budgets have to be realistic. This might seem to go without saying, but I have seen many churches trim ruthlessly on the expense side, while taking a wildly optimistic (if not downright fantastical) approach to the income side of the church budget. Heck, I’ve done it myself in more than one place, on more than one occasion.

Here are a couple of guidelines to start with.

On the expense side: you will probably have a regular year. That means that there will be some number of repairs and surprises. If you have budgeted for zero in the surprise category, if everything must go exactly according to plan for you to meet the expense goals in your budget, if this is the year that nothing is going to break, leak or fall from the ceiling -- you will almost certainly end up over budget by the end of the year. This will provoke wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. Special meetings of the Vestry to rework the budget or authorize withdrawals from savings. Finger pointing and anxious “I told you so’s”. Why put yourself through it? Plan for a few of bumps in the road. Look at the last few years and average out their bumps. Plan for a regular year, not an ideal year.

On the income side: you will probably have a regular year. If you didn’t make $30,000 renting your parish hall last year, you probably won’t this year either. Pledges will probably not go up by 40%, no matter how awesome your stewardship campaign was. Your investments will probably not return dramatically greater profits. People will make special gifts. Much as they did last year. And the year before. If you go wildly optimistic on the income side, you will spend all your energy trying to raise that last $5000 or $10,000 or $50,000 (or whatever number fits the scale of budgeting in your context). You will end up with those same special Vestry meetings and emergency appeals to the congregation. The same hands will be wrung and the same teeth will be gnashed. Unless you have done long-term strategic planning and preparation, or already signed a lease with a major new tenant (in which case I hope you budgeted for the administrative time and extra repairs that this welcome major tenant will likely and rightfully expect), you will probably have a year much like last year. Plan for a regular year, not an ideal year.

The purpose of our congregations is not fundraising. While we all have to be attentive to the ins and outs of income and expenses, we should resist putting ourselves in a position where we will have to spend most of our energy during the year solving money problems and desperately trying to raise the last few percent of our budget. It’s not good use of the time, talent and treasure that God has placed in our hands for ministry. In other words, not good stewardship.