November 2019
Embracing Change

Why Budget?

Some of the most important work a congregation can do is to prepare the annual budget. A congregation without a budget is like a car without GPS – you can’t tell where you’ve been or where you are going. Preparing an annual budget is some of the most important work a congregation can do. When it’s approached to inform the congregation of the vital mission and ministry taking place, the budgeting process can indeed be reflective and spirit-filled.

Zero-based budgeting and narrative budgeting offer two approaches for developing a budget that is not only mission- and ministry-focused, but a way to re-imagine the work of the congregation as a work of the Holy Spirit. When woven together, the two processes are a powerful way to celebrate what is going well and, at the same time, to move a congregation in the direction the Spirit is leading.

Zero-based budgeting + narrative budgeting = increased focus on mission and ministry

According to The Episcopal Church’s Manual of Business Methods in Church Affairs, zero-based budgeting “is very time- and paperwork-intensive; it is not recommended annually but periodically (e.g., once every five years). Each program chair and/or staff member is asked to assume the program is new and has received no funding previously. This means that program groups must take an in-depth look at their programs and how their activities are conducted.” (Chapter 1 section A). This is true, and it is why joining zero-based budgeting with narrative budgeting is an important undertaking for any congregation.

What comes first – the vision/mission statement or the budget?

I recommend that the congregation’s leadership, with input from various ministry groups, develop a vision and/or mission statement to guide the work of the congregation. There has been much written about vision and mission statements, so I won’t cover that here. Prayerfully developing a vision and/or mission statement is imperative to ensuring that as each group looks at its ministry area with fresh eyes, it is focused on where the congregation has discerned the Spirit is moving it.

How do you approach zero-based budgeting?

The goal of zero-based budgeting is to have each mission and ministry area look at its work and how it is contributing – or not – to the vision and mission of the congregation. Members of the congregation working in a particular ministry area come together, perhaps along with some new members who have fresh ideas and passion for this work, to pray, talk frankly about the ministry and to dream. In this process, nothing is “sacred”. It is definitely not about “what we always do.” It’s a complete rebuilding of the work of the ministry area in light of the vision and mission of the congregation, including how the ministry is provided, who provides it and how much it will cost.

Included in this process is a reordering of expense categories by importance. Music and worship may have been high on the budget expense categories in prior years, but a burgeoning Sunday School and youth group may eclipse music and worship as the zero-based budgeting process comes together. It is indeed time-consuming, but doing this every few years allows a congregation to engage deeply in the work of finding where the Spirit is moving. It is akin to a new “startup” and is equally invigorating. Make sure you put the highest priority on what you give away – hard-dollar outreach in the form of diocesan assessments, as well as dollars given out in the community and the world are an important part of this process.

How do you approach narrative budgeting?

Narrative budgeting is the next stop in the process – telling the story about where the Spirit is moving, and what the ministry group feels is its particular contribution to the mission and vision of the congregation. Put it into words. Use pictures, videos – anything that can share the story. This is the part of the process where creativity in the presentation of the work is paramount. Most importantly, the narrative budget is the vehicle by which the Good News of this ministry is offered to the congregation. See if the message can be synthesized into one pithy line and let that be your motivation.

Remember – you are talking about mission and ministry. You are not talking about how much money you need to keep the lights and the AC on; you are talking about the lives that are changed, and the mission and ministry accomplished because you have the lights on.

While zero-based budgeting is done every few years, narrative budgeting can and should be done every year. New things happen in mission and ministry areas. Celebrate them. Share them. Tell the stories of the ways the vision and mission statements are being lived out in every area of the congregation. Turn the annual meeting into a joyous celebration of the year ahead!

Joining zero-based and narrative budgeting to focus on mission and ministry

Once the zero-based budget is produced together with the narrative portion, the building of actual budget numbers begins. Start by outlining the budget categories as you normally would: Income areas first, such as Pledge, Plate, Endowment Income, Facilities Usage, Easter/Christmas Offerings, etc. Next, plan out the Expenses as an expression of the Mission and Ministry areas discovered and fleshed out in the zero-based and narrative budgeting processes.

Arrange the expense categories by order of importance as defined during the zero-based and narrative budgeting processes. Begin with how much you want to give away. Yes, you read that right. Outreach – your diocesan assessment and then your hard dollar outreach monies. These are the first budget items and should be at the top of the expense area on your budget. Describe what those dollars help fund, both directly in your own outreach and indirectly, through the work of your diocese, The Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. When we are asking people to give generously to the church – to tithe – we must make what the church gives a priority in order to faithfully address the vision and mission of the congregation. In this way, the congregation is participating in God’s economy.

Does it make human sense? No. But it does make God sense. Think about it. God gave us God’s son — God gave us God’s first fruits in the form of Jesus. We are asked to do the same — to give from our first fruits. Remember — everything we have, everything we do, everything we are is a gift from God, and it is a gift that is meant to be shared.

The pledge and plate income you receive is a reflection of your work on stewardship. If you are asking people to give of their first fruits to the church, then the church must do the same. Order the rest of the expense categories in descending order of importance to mission and ministry. Sometimes, some of the highest dollar amounts needed will be in a lower section of the budget. That’s okay. If you determine your focus is on, say, Christian Education, it should still be listed after Outreach, and the budget numbers should make sense, given your Spirit-guided focus.


Budgeting should be a boost to the life and spirit of the congregation, not a dreaded task. When zero-based and narrative budgeting are knit together, the purpose and focus of the congregation becomes clear and people’s excitement about making a difference in the community around them while feeding them spiritually is contagious. Don’t dread it – do it!

The Rt. Rev. Diane M. Jardine Bruce was elected the seventh bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in 2009, and consecrated in 2010 after serving for 10 years as rector of St. Clement’s by-the-Sea Church in San Clemente, California. The first woman to be elected bishop in diocesan history, Bishop Bruce’s areas of specialization include multicultural ministries, stewardship and oversight of the congregations in the southern and northern areas of the Diocese, and in 2018, she was put in charge of Finance for the Diocese. Bishop Bruce speaks Spanish, Mandarin and some Cantonese as well as English. She holds a doctoral degree from Seabury-Western Seminary as well as a master of divinity degree from the Claremont School of Theology and a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to ordination she served Wells Fargo Bank as vice president, compensation management and analysis.


This article is part of the November 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Embracing Change