November 2003
Church Budgets in a Bear Market

Facing Financial Adversity

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life; what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on....” (Matthew 6:25)

In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses our very human anxieties about having enough of the basics: food and water, shelter and clothing. As I explore this passage with vestries, I watch them struggle with what it means to listen to God and to be faithful stewards of resources in their care. 

As a former rector in the mid ‘90’s, I know what it is like to have a congregation that is the happy recipient of substantial increases in pledge and collection plate income, because the parish is in a growing neighborhood and basically affluent times.

Fearful people
But the consequences for congregations when such a cycle turns, and investment and interest income plummets, can be equally adverse. And what then? For then the phone lines of folks like me began ringing with very fearful people on the other end wondering what to do.

My response is to try to help vestries put this in the perspective of our faith — to help people to put aside their “money anxieties” — by focusing on discussion of passages such as the above, instead of “What do we cut?” and “How much do we cut?” 

Biblical reflection makes it clear that we are not alone in facing financial adversity. It also helps people to be accountable for what didn’t go well in an annual commitment program, including a possible over-reliance on endowment income instead of stewardship. And it can help in developing a budget that reflects the real mission and ministry of the congregation.

Stewardship: The bread and butter issue
So what might a parish look like that is doing well in financially challenging times? In June of 2003 a letter crossed my desk from the rector of the Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Maryland, the Rev. Mark Pendleton. In it he congratulated the members of his congregation for their best stewardship campaign. Giving had even exceeded expectations, allowing the parish to undertake new ministries.

The Church of Our Saviour is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, program-size congregation in a suburban middle class area of Montgomery County, Maryland. Its members are government employees, teachers, social workers, nurses and other health care professionals. Many parishioners come from West African or Caribbean countries. 

When asked what his congregation and its leadership did to have such a good annual commitment campaign and such a stable budget in trying times, Mark pointed to three things.

First, the leadership of Our Saviour decided that stewardship was the “bread and butter” spiritual issue of the parish, with all households pledging as the goal.

Second, they were clear about their mission and ministry and the relationship of the budget to accomplishing this God-given purpose. 

And third, the rector and wardens were committed to teaching members what stewardship means and what it means to pledge, using leaders of the various African and Caribbean communities to do this teaching. The work also assumed that new people might not have a clue as to how the church functions financially.

It is quite a success story. Every year at Our Saviour, 98% of the pledges made are paid and, in a parish of 380 household units, 262 pledge. As more new people have become members they have also become pledging members. A fear among the long-time members that the new people wouldn’t care like the old people did has dissipated.

Relationships are key
The emphasis at the Church of Our Saviour is not on the dollars. Rather, the focus is on the development of significant relationships with God and one another.

In sum, the problem may be presented as not enough money, but is rarely that. And the rush to cut, reduce, and cross this unpleasant task off the vestry agenda can rob the leadership of the deeper examination of a congregation’s stewardship, mission and place in its own community. There is no substitute for this good work.

The Reverend Mary Sulerud is canon for ministry and resource development in the Diocese of Washington.

This article is part of the November 2003 Vestry Papers issue on Church Budgets in a Bear Market