January 27, 2022

Real Talk About Budgets, Part Two

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.

Let me say that again just so we’re clear: we are driving ourselves out of business. We’re not focusing on the business we need to be about (=restoring all persons to God through Christ) because the business we’re in (=maintaining costly inherited structures) is so incredibly time-consuming and exhausting.

Want to get on to those insignificant many? First, deal with the significant few. Then you can move on.

Move on to cutting the fat out of our outdated, costly, expensive institutional operating system. There’s a lot there. For instance, HVAC systems. The Episcopal Church has got a ton of mid-20[1] century buildings, many of which are still using period building systems, including heating and cooling systems. Not only is it wise but it’s theologically-responsible to cut our carbon footprint and install greener HVAC systems.

It’s equally responsible to ensure that more of our resources are outward-facing. If that means multiple congregations sharing payroll services, web hosting providers, databases, bookkeepers, copy machines, lawn mowers, phone systems, Parish Administrators and other internal, institutional stuff (that no one will actually notice on the front end, by the way, nor care much about if you told them) – that’s precisely the work we should be about.

But don’t confuse that work with moving the needle. And don’t confuse complicated Excel spreadsheets with complex systems. The former is a jumble of the insignificant many. The latter can be a vehicle for the Kingdom of God.

I’ll close with this real-life story, and you can be the judge of whether this moved the needle.

Years ago, one of my two churches realized that our utility bills were out-of-whack. It was the second-highest expense category, second place to what they spent on the rector. We applied for, and received, a grant to bring in a top-notch HVAC diagnostic company. They climbed through every attic and basement in all three buildings. They gave their report and what it would cost to improve the systems. We applied for, and received another grant ($58,234, to be precise) and set out to raise some money ourselves to do the work.

There’s nothing Episcopalians love more than funding projects which go directly to their buildings and grounds. And it doesn’t hurt to share that not a single penny will go to the diocese … no offense, bishops, but you get the drill. We thought we could raise another $25k and within the year it was close to $50k -- $49,627.11. From late-2016 through early-2018, our volunteer leaders from the Buildings & Grounds Committee oversaw a series of contractors who did amazing work: installing insulation, removing outdated duct work, completely remodeling entire HVAC systems in three buildings, two of which were not designed very effectively or energy-efficiently in the first place (thanks, 1960s building campaigns in The Episcopal Church). Total cost in the end: $107,861.11.

Did the annual expenses for utilities go down? Yes, they did. The very next year and over the course of the following years utilities expenses decreased. They are, now, our third-highest expense category: behind clergy and diocesan assessment (you’re welcome, bishops). How much did we save each year? $5,000.

Good news is that we now have a lighter carbon footprint. Good news is that we did the right thing. In fact, any sustainable, quantifiable energy + cost saving on the part of the church is a good thing. The church doesn’t think in terms of homeowner timelines – 10 years, 25 at most. The church will be here until Christ returns, after all! Good news is we trimmed some fat from the budget, proving that, yes, there are things every church can and should do. Even more good news is that we had the volunteers and leaders capable of devoting nearly three years to one significant project.

Pull back the curtain, however, and ask yourself how much staff time was devoted to coordinating those volunteers, managing meetings, applying for grants, meeting contractors and helping manage the process? A lot of my time, I can tell you. Time well spent, mind you, but not a small amount. And how long will it be until we ‘earn back’ in annual cost savings our total investment? Slightly more than 21 years, at which point we’d need to have already replaced those HVAC systems we installed in 2017, lest they, too, weigh heavily on our carbon footprint in 2038.

There are a lot of costs and resources to pay attention to, opportunities to make financial cuts and empower new resources. But the allure of the insignificant many is a dangerous enticement, and can only be dealt with in its own proper context. And speaking of the insignificant many versus the significant few, let’s talk about the costs and benefits of our inherited model of clergy in The Episcopal Church. In other words, I’m going to name the elephant in the room. Next blog post…

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