I’m Dreaming of a Church Budget: Not Like the Ones I Used to Know

In this third week of learning about church administration, I’m learning about finances and budgets. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on the chapters titled, “Budgets and Balance Sheets: Deeply Doctrinal Documents” and “Raising the Resources: Theology Talks and Money Matters!” (pgs. 93-142) of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.

I don’t know why, but I was tickled pink when I read this quote, this urging, in chapter five:

“…treat budgets and finance as ways to get there, that is, a means to mission fulfillment” (95).

Dear reader, this week we are encouraged to think of budgets and finances as a way to close the gap between the present and the day when our community’s mission is realized, when “we’ve made it.” The budget is a tool to make that mission come alive; with budget and finances we, the church, are granted the opportunity to make a difference in the world as articulated in our church’s mission statement.  It can happen. Missions can be fulfilled. Missions can come alive. Missions can change the world. Finances and budgets help us close the gap between today and the day that a mission is realized.

I’m pretty sure this is not how many congregations understand their finances. I’m pretty sure they understand them like this, like how I understand them way too often, which is through a series of fear-based, lacking-in-peace questions:

  • Are we in the red or the black this month?
  • Did we get enough money in the last month?
  • Will we have enough to pay off the mortgage/this month’s electricity bill/pay for the bulletin paper/[insert your favorite financial anxiety question here]?

This got me thinking: What if during an annual meeting, the budget and finances were talked about in terms of the fulfillment (& projection of fulfillment) of particular goals or the congregation’s overall mission?

I feel like that would lead to a whole different kind of annual meeting. If I’m being frank, that’s the kind of annual meeting I would want to go to.

I’m discovering that this kind of financial planning has a name: narrative budgets. Grace Duddy Pomroy writes that a narrative budget, “tells the story of the congregation’s mission and ministry, connecting every aspect of the budget to it.” I get the sense that a line-item budget can be partnered with this approach, but narrative budgets frame financial planning differently all together.

I’m sure I’m in a dreaming space that people fall into before they step into a first call, but think about it. In fact, look at it: Here are examples, and I like this one in particular.

Not to toot my own horn, but the part of me that designed the Storytellers curriculum is REALLY into these narrative budgets. When you get to run Storytellers in a small group, or a larger web of small groups, you end up strengthening a community’s understanding of how God’s story is speaking through their story and values. I think, ultimately, that’s what congregations’ annual meetings, and their material, try to achieve.

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Each individual in a congregation is not on an island of spirituality and Jesus-living. We are connected as one body of Christ, and as God works through us, we get to honor and co-create with God the next chapter of our congregation’s story. Even a single congregation’s story is bigger than that congregation (See Matthew 1)!

I think that’s how narrative budgets nail it on the head for me. When budgets are the “why” of “Why we need to hold an annual meeting,” our actions show that our ultimate trust and love is in money. But when you can show the story through pictures, video and/or art of the moments when money made possible a moment of the Kingdom of God breaking through – then you have a story, a narrative, that speaks to radical Spirit of God that powers, changes, and uplifts the mission, the “why,” partly made possible by the “how”: the budget and financial ministry of a congregation.

Do you have experience with narrative budgets? How is it going? Did you walk with a congregation through a transition to using a narrative budget and how did that go? I am curious how others have interacted with this, or church budgets in general, in their congregation.

Bacher and Cooper-White explain that the role of the pastor is to be an interpreter. Interpret the budget as a means, or the “how” to the “why” of the congregation (it’s mission). I’m sensing that there is a prime opportunity to not only strengthen and clarify the financial ministry of the congregation, but keep accountable and imagine big about what a congregation’s mission is. Now I understand why Luther Seminary’s class on finances is called “Money and Mission.” When they are aligned, there’s no other way to understand God’s grace, love, and gifts other than abundant.

I’ll end with this quote from Bacher and Cooper-White: “What is budget and finance stuff? Busy work or a way to serve?” (96). As tough as it is, I sure hope it’s the later.

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A Red Thread: An overlooked and necessary part of ministry

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You can’t see it here, but after I read this paragraph I wrote in the margin “anxious,” boldly underlined. Church, why do you require so much effort in areas that I’m not very good at? In Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White, we read how the burgeoning church, just decades after Jesus’ resurrection, responded to the call to follow Jesus by engaging in these administrative efforts:

  • fiscal challenges
  • ecumenical relations
  • raising money
  • establishing and managing volunteers
  • creative communication (no cell towers or phones)
  • reconciliation among congregations
  • “[preserving] of the church as a Christian institution”

Oh boy. How is an ordained person, who often is one of two or less paid staff in the average ELCA congregation, supposed to do all that?

This is, of course, where I started. In a panic, thinking that I needed to gather all the information I could on a topic that I don’t have much strength in, so I can “do it all” and “be it all” to my future first congregation (God willing, I will be in a first call soon after internship). #superpastor (yes, I will reflect on my reflection).

If you know me at all, you know that I function from and believe in serving from a strengths-based place. God made and makes us all loved and worthy children of God who each have a unique set of experiences, stories, backgrounds, gifts and strengths (Luke 10:27). So why do we waste so much time fixing or filling the holes of places that we aren’t as good in, rather than asking for help and giving family, friends, congregants, or our fellow humans the opportunity to serve and lead from their strengths too?

I told my internship supervisor about this hidden assumption of mine. As I learn (and experience) my assumptions and questions on internship, we thought this was the best topic for my last class, a .5 online independent study with a hilarious, creative, and un-bounded vision caster for the church and the world, Dr. Terri Elton. So, I’m studying church administration. I will be walking through our main text, Church Administration, two chapters a week and interviewing church administrators along the way. I will post my weekly reflections here. I’m excited to book-learn and church-learn in my internship context, and I hope you also contribute in the comments on your contextual learning and questions. I have a feeling I’m not alone in my wondering about how to engage with administration while keeping myself from the temptation of doing it all myself.

Because here’s my starting point; my starting hunch (I know, hundreds of words later, but I’m getting there; you made it here, I’m proud of you!). Church administration is not something to visit or revisit only at times of crisis. It’s a red thread that is woven through every small group, every worship service, every quilters’ group, every late night council meeting, every community meal, and every staff and non-staff’s service experience.

You guys.

This is in everything. All the time.

And this isn’t something to panic about, like when you first learned about germs as a 1st grader; aahhhhh they’re everywhere! It’s something to reorient as a ministry alongside other ministries in a congregation. Bachor and Cooper-White explain that “administration” comes from the Latin ad + ministrare, meaning literally “one who ministers to.” To me, this means the ministries of a church are literally arranged and managed by those gifted in counting, governing, planning, and doing other administration-y things. These people are ministers.

“…[the] one whose work is primarily administrative is no less a faithful servant than those who mostly preach, teach or counsel…it is time for the church to reclaim the holiness of vocations that involve a major measure of administrative work” (vii).

This work, the behind-the-scenes of work of budgets, money, supervising, and schedules is holy work. This work is done by specific people in a congregation, but it’s also work that each leader does a little (or a lot) of in their role. In both ways, we’re reminded that all of our contributions are significant as we are each ministers, and part of the priesthood that God calls us to be (1st Peter 2:9).

You might be thinking, “Allison, but you went to school for and will make an awesome pastor-minister person! How can we all be ministers if you’re the minister?”

Good question. It’s both. A congregation has a minister or ministers (some have a synodically-authorized one if they’re tight on cash), and we’re all ministers. Those who are ordained in the ELCA administer communion and baptism and preach, and are in a separate space (or “office,” like the office of the president or the office of a superintendent) and get compensated. Those who aren’t ordained (or who aren’t on staff) don’t get paid by the congregation/synod/community.  There are other distinctions between ordained ministers and all other ministers (everyone else, as we’re all called and children of God), but the point is that this concept is not black and white. If you’re reading this, looking back at your phone or laptop screen, we’re the same and we’re not. All at the same time.

As you can see by all my parentheses in that paragraph, I’m not satisfied with my own answer, because to say “it’s a both and!” or “it’s just another Lutheran paradox!” is I think a cop-out. Are we the same or are we different? What is it? Where is the peace and justice in knowing that one of us gets all the Starbucks gift cards for our faithful public ministry, and one of us just doesn’t? (it always comes back to coffee, doesn’t it). We’ll leave this topic for another day. I can feel Terri looking at my word count so let’s move on, at least for now. Priesthood of all believers and ministers (the theme of), I’m coming back for you!

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What I wanted to land on as I reflect on these first two chapters of Church Administration is that when a group of motivated people gather to serve and discern God’s call, administration is a pair of glasses that they need to wear in order to carry out that service and discernment effectively. Bacher and Cooper-White write that administration and governance are enacted, “when two or more persons engage in a common purpose” (1).

When two brains, or two hearts, or two strengths connect and say:

  • “Let’s try this new church thing.”
  • “What if we try this church thing like this?”
  • “I wonder what it would be like if we did church this way?”

…there is one purpose. There is a common purpose. Administration is a color in that new portrait of what the church looks like today. We could leave out that color, but we could be leaving out the color that ties all the rest of the colors together, or makes all the other colors work together. They just work.

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I think Paul had this hunch about administration when he was first leading congregations who were sorting out what it meant to follow Jesus; a resurrected savior with an unpredictable, unbelievable story. How do you spread that message? How do you engage an entire community around a faith in Jesus that doesn’t peter out, but blazes a new path and direction in a world that is ripe with possibilities for new life, second chances, and new growth for all? That’s the urgency. That’s the call. So how does a congregation utilize the gift of administration as a red thread that helps us do our diverse ministry and work, and respond to God’s call most effectively?

That’s what I hope to learn more about in these six weeks with you. When was a time when you felt in over your head with administrative tasks (yes, “conflict” is a topic that will be explored in the weeks to come)? What pushed you to ask for help in administrative stuff, or what are you hoping to find help in, as an ordained, otherly-rostered or non-official pastor person, when it comes to administration?

Tricks for Travel

As many people might be traveling this holiday season, I thought I’d contribute a few tricks I’ve learned along the way as a traveler myself for the most peaceful trip. And I call them “tricks” because that’s what they are – ways to distract yourself from the sometimes mundane and anxiety-producing processes that are required for travel. No offense to travel, but I find that I LOVE the destination to new or familiar places, and I’m NOT in love with the stupid Air Bus planes or bags getting lost that can happen during the journey. I’m very non- fung shui, but that’s just how I roll, or at least, for the time being.

So to get through it to reach your final destination in one piece, one mind, one body and one soul:

1. Learn how you distract yourself from reality – and bring it with you.

In high school and college I was convinced I was an expert multi-tasker (I’m laughing writing this now at age 26). So on planes I’d bring a million things to do: cards, sudoku, Oprah magazine, super junky magazine (Seventeen, which is SO not appropriate for seventeen year olds), movies, whatever. My carry-on was bulging every trip, to my row-mates’ delight I’m sure. But 2 hour flights to CA still felt painfully long, and I realized that multi-tasking was making me even more anxious as I flipped from thing to thing.

So I’ve reassessed and I’m realizing that all I need on a plane is (as stupid as it sounds): 1 Melody Gardot CD, 1 “Parental Guidance” -or- “The Holiday” DVD and 1 junky magazine. That’s it! I’m determined to fast from my other dozens of travel distractions. I’ll report back later on the results, but I truly think this will help. Honest to goodness, an evening at home after work breezes by, whole commutes breeze by when I listen to Melody Gardot and her friendly band of Pandora radio samba and bossa nova friends (and DVD-wise you can’t go wrong with Bette Midler and Billy Crystal & Jude Law). So think of what passes the time in the blink of an eye in daily life, and then bring it with you on your choice method of travel. 

2. Thank the crew before the flight takes off.

It might sound dumb, and they might look at your funny, but think about it. When you have a connection with a person – you feel better. There’s a feeling of trust, even for a second, that makes you feel safe. At least it does for me. So that’s why I say a quick thank you and hello to the crew when they welcome me on board to give me some piece of mind. And remember that you’re more likely to get struck by lightning that die in a plane crash. 

3. If the person in front of you reclines their seat, point your air thing at their head.

I’m not proud of this one. And I won’t tell you I learned from this one, but I tried it last time I flew and the person didn’t flinch. Foiled! How do you deal with people who cut off your foot room?

4. Sleep.

For the anxious flyer, this might seem impossible. But speaking as an anxious person I can say that I have napped on planes before. It’s possible!! Hallelujah. Dramamine is not the answer: peace is! And yes I am a hippie but seriously: I’ve found that I have I can sleep at the beginning of flights (wear a thick scarf that can double as a pillow). I don’t know why this is, but I can take naps right when we take off. In high school on orchestra tour, a fellow cello player hunkered down on her trey during take-off and was out for the longest time on her magazine. I was like “well that looks ridiculous” until I realized she was totally smart and had the right idea (and was a much more seasoned traveler than me, frequently visiting family in Korea).

5. Be thankful that even though you have to travel, at least you’re getting out of your daily rhythms. (Yes, you need it)

As an extrovert this is probably the most rewarding “trick” for travel – I love looking forward to the new people, the new places, the new experiences – even if you’re flying to a home-base, this newness is still possible because of what has changed (who has changed?) since you’ve been back. It’s an adventure! Choose to be thankful rather than be convinced the universe is out to get you! This is basically how Timothy and I are able to dream up crazy trips (honeymoon TBD). If I stayed convinced the universe was out to get me I’d just stay quiet and never bring up my dream vacations. Choosing gratitude is helping me to dream big – BIGGER than I thought possible, to places where I will have a rum & coke with be in hand and the beach will be beckoning just feet away from our beach chairs. 

What are your tricks for travel? Have you tried any of these with or without luck? Happy travels!