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.

Governance, Volunteers, and Boards, Oh My!

In this second week of learning about church administration, I read about boards, governance and planning. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on chapters 3 and 4 of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.

There was a great deal of helpful and practical content in this section on a variety of topics: the role of a council, its theological foundation, how to call and orient new members, how to manage risk and conflict, how to have good meetings, and how to keep on track.

As I read through these sections, I recalled specific situations and people from my congregation currently, but also churches in the past; good and not so good situations.

On page 55, Bacher and Cooper-White articulate the need for the chair (or president) of a council to draw from the quieter members who otherwise don’t speak up very often in meetings. Likewise they also encouraged the chair to intermittently, especially during discussion on “hot” issues, to do a “round table” and ask for the thoughts and/or questions of each council member before proceeding with more formal discussion or decided-upon action through a vote. Using a reference such as Robert’s Rules of Order is helpful to keep meetings moving, but the authors warned to avoid “heavy-handed legalistic meeting conduct.” At a previous congregation, I observed that one council member in particular was helpful with referring back to Robert’s Rules of Order when the meeting got stuck. She was outspoken and confident, helpful but also made me nervous.

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I couldn’t help but listen to the question rolling around in my head as I read these chapters:

How do you trust people to be leaders and bring their expertise and gifts…and trust them?

I could take on all the work myself… I could waste time searching for sixty name tags instead of asking my co-worker where the box is. I could cold-call dozens of people to help with my project instead of asking my co-worker for a list of her all-star adult volunteers. I could plan for five hours of large-group teaching content about vocation instead of having students learn about vocation by also serving and talking with a trusted adult.

These are some of the administration-related questions that surfaced during my internship project a few months ago. I had a dream that students and adults could discover and feel affirmed in their vocations by learning together, serving together, and debriefing together over 5 weeks. There were (and still are) 30 students. So with my 30 mentors, that’s 60 individuals’ contact information (& parents’ email addresses), schedules, assessment results, assessment codes, and booklets to track, manage, and somehow get into a tidy bin for the confirmation pastor at the end of five weeks to demonstrate their learning.

How do you trust people to be leaders and bring their expertise on a board, on a council, or for an internship project?

I’m still not completely sure, but I think it has to do something with this: It’s not about making people do things for you, it’s about seeing and pointing out an opportunity for that person to try out a gift that you’ve seen in them over and over again.

I’m so lucky to be in this work, because when I hear that someone at church is really into mentoring, and wishes that our church was more into mentoring, I can tap on their shoulder and say “Hey, I heard that you were really into mentoring, and I could use someone with your passion and presence as I try out this project for a couple weeks, could you help me?”

As an intern, I’m probably doe-eyed thinking that all things governance and administration can be significantly altered if we just identify and invite people into opportunities. Rather than the bulletin announcement, “NEEDED: 1 council member,” maybe it’s a tap on the shoulder that affirms someone’s quiet but persistent leadership, and without that tap on the shoulder, they would have never known they had that gift, or a gift.

Has there ever been a time when it was necessary to trust another leader and it was tough to do? Was there ever a time you trusted a leader with a responsibility, volunteer or otherwise, and they betrayed your trust? Why do you think it’s so hard to trust others and delegate responsibility? What are the gifts of trusting others with responsibility?

Wisdom takes her stand

This is a sermon I preached on Proverbs 8:1-11, 22-36 during a summer series about the Psalms and Wisdom Literature at Woodlake Lutheran Church in Richfield this weekend. The lead pastor was looking for some more preachers as they look for an associate pastor, and I said “Sure!” This lead pastor was also the pastor at our first church-away-from-home church in Minnesota in 2010, so that was fun. He’s never on the interwebs, but Fred: Thanks. I thank you, and blame you, for lots. P.S. I cut off like 8 inches of my hair after this. I’m not sure what that means, but I did it.

Hi, my name is Allison. You might remember me preaching here a few months ago. You probably know my husband pretty well by now, Timothy Siburg, who is the Intentional Interim Director of Music, Worship, and Stewardship.

I’m a Master of Divinity student at Luther Seminary, working toward ordination in our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. One of my last credits is being completed this summer in a different kind of classroom for 11 weeks: a hospital. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you any gross hospital stories, mostly because I haven’t come across that many (knock on wood). I’m a chaplain at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, and as crazy as it is, my class is almost done. The start feels like years ago, but in a weird way I can’t believe how fast it’s gone.

Today’s a little bittersweet for me. This is the last sermon I’ll be preaching in Minnesota and at Woodlake Lutheran as we move in a few weeks to my internship congregation in Washington state near family. Thanks for accepting me, not just as a staff member’s spouse but as a person all on my own. It’s been a blessing. So here’s what I have to say:

My chaplain orientation was at the end of May. I sat in front of my computer with all of the Allina healthcare system chaplains in the Twin Cities metro and we learned how to record our visits with patients in the hospital-wide chart system. Imagine the fanciest Excel page you’ve ever seen, color-coded, almost a mini-internet of every detail you could ever want on a single patient. Yes, I am legally-binded to not share details about any patients, so don’t get too excited, this isn’t going to get too juicy.

Now on that first day I clicked on the page that showed specifically all the patients at Abbott who had requested a chaplain visit.

My heart broke. In the weeks to come, reading about diagnoses, blood pressure measurements, social work records, and physicians notes would become a daily routine, but in this first encounter, my breath was almost taken away.

First, in this feeling of emptiness I thought, “this is what God must feel like.” Anyone see the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” where Jim Carrey’s character is trying to answer all of God’s emails, and is just goes on forever? That’s what this felt like.

Which led to my next feeling: anger. Who was on this spiritual care staff anyway? Didn’t they do any work? It’s like assuming pastors have nothing to do during the week after the Sunday service – HA. But in the moment I had no empathy for my colleagues. All I had was contempt. I didn’t want to understand their meetings, their self-care, their preparation, complex visiting schedule, and under-staffed situation, most likely due to budget constraints. Which led me to my third feeling:

Shame. I must have to become the most super pastor-chaplain to do all this stuff. Notice that sentence started with “I,” not “we,” as in, why don’t we join the movement of care already happening at this place. In the face of my anxiety I put all the weight on my shoulders. Not only feeling afraid of the unknown (walking into a sick person’s room, probably blood spurting onto my clothes, which by the way was an incorrect assumption, that hasn’t happened yet), but feeling inadequate as I mentally compared myself to all the fabulous pastors I’ve known in my life. My first tactic then, naturally, was to imitate those pastors I knew, my uncle, my friends, my home pastor, my professors: walk like them, lead like them, and talk like them. You see where this is going.

I was in need of a little wisdom.

Today, we’re going to sing: “Wisdom calls throughout the city/ knows our hunger and in pity/ gives her loving in invitation/ to the banquet of salvation.”*

What a pleasant picture. You can just taste it now, right? Maybe some spaghetti. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. But wait, the pasta’s a little crunchy like it’s boiled too short. The potatoes taste a little bland like there’s not enough butter. My grandma would have a problem with that, and honestly so do I. I guess I’m having a hard time tasting it.

Wisdom! What is this banquet of salvation? Who is wisdom? I know I’m in seminary and supposed to see this perfectly abundant feast, and yet I see an abundance of violence around me, people being shot in church in South Carolina, churches being set on fire, earthquakes striking nations that cannot sustain the damage to their buildings and infrastructure, college graduates finding work that only barely makes a dent in the heap of student loans whose interest only climbs year by year. I see best laid plans in the world, in our lives, falling apart.

As I read about the book of Proverbs I learned that it was written to men to seek out “the good life.” It is a book that was written by bureaucrats, full of their wisdom and has folk wisdom woven into its pages. This is a beautiful image for how God weaves the haves and have-nots to serve the world and make a difference; but I’m just not seeing it. Wisdom takes the form of a woman, some argue, to lift up women’s work, women’s essential work in Israelite history of teaching children, caring for the home, and supporting the family, but even this makes me feel like women are then told to dream only in one particular way. Yes, woman, you are wisdom – but Jesus, he was a man, and we most often use male words to describe God, he, himself, our Father. These ideas and questions still stick with me. What does it mean to be the same sex/gender as an embodiment of God?

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So where is the banquet of salvation and will I know it when I see it? Wisdom, what are you inviting me to see?

I think that God is saying that wisdom is not something stuffed in the past, but alive in the now. God is speaking through woman wisdom when she says, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates.” This means we are radically together – we truly are one and are never alone. Wisdom is with us, in those around us, and in us. Wisdom was with God in the very beginning acts of creation in Genesis, and Wisdom is with us now as we try to make sense of today. Wisdom is with us when we try to answer, “How was your day today?” and we try and share with our loved ones the meaning and “take-away” of the day. Wisdom is with us in the ebs and flows of daily work. If there’s anything the book of Proverbs is trying to do, with all its voices that created it, this book is proclaiming, choose life, choose it daily, and choose the good life.

When I looked at that patient list in my chaplain orientation I tried to calm my worry by creating a solution to my problem all on my own. Wisdom in that moment was, I’m sure was laughing, saying, “Ok, you try that for a while.”

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Through the weeks since, my questions to nurses and doctors of, “How are they doing?” asking about patients, have turned, as I’m asked by the nurses and doctors, “How are they doing?” Some days I’m giving spiritual care. On other days, on every day, the nurses are giving spiritual care. On other days the social worker is giving spiritual care. Sometimes the custodian is giving spiritual care. They might not call it that, but when I see my colleagues take time to listen attentively to a patient’s story, walk with them in their pain, celebrations, or boredom, they are caring for that patient’s spirit. We are not alone as we care. I am not alone as I care. You are not alone as you care.

A nurse asked me recently while I was charting on a computer, “What’s going on?” and I pointed to the room of a retired baker who I just left, shouting, “The Twins game is on in there!” He smiled and we paused in the swirl of activity and asked about each other’s day, big questions, and where we grew up. Now, this was after a month of me approaching other staff for conversation or ideas about which patients to see. It took persistence and showing up consistently, but finally nurses and staff were coming up to me to talk about big things or little things.

I felt like I was finally being seen.

Someone saw me, and I’m betting that others do too, and have seen me all along. The way we relate to each other is changing. Our tone of teamwork and passing the baton to each other is changing – like we are co-creating the vibe of our hospital unit. We are shaping how we show up to leaders, and this could only be made possible by creating a new reality together, through the power of Wisdom and the God that works with her and through her. The banquet of salvation, of the good life, is within the gestures of generosity and time set apart to see the staff there as workers yes, but first, humans, and children of God. Helping hands are everywhere if you just see each other.

Help abounds. Kindness abounds. Hard words, true words abounds. Just a taste of this banquet – just a taste; it just might be among us, in the serving, in the leading, in the caring, in the trusting.

But, like, I have just rationalized this whole thing. It’s up here in my head, I can see the banquet. Ok yes, in this line of work, caring for sick people and the fabulous staff, yes, yes I get it.

But I don’t feel it. Where is the banquet of salvation? Wisdom, what are you inviting me to see?

We read today Wisdom “takes her stand” – at the crossroads, beside the gates of town, the gates of the city. Maybe she’s inviting us to see the crossroads at which we stand, within us. What does it feel like at that crossroad?

You’re at one. I know you are. I’m at my own too. What does it feel like to stand there?

Know that you stand at the same place as Wisdom.

She cries through you, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live… I was brought forth by God, I was there when he drew a circle on the face of the deep… when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight.”

You are daily in God’s delight daily and at all times. You were there. You were brought forth by God. You are a master worker. Through you, wisdom is at work. Wisdom lies in you. What does that feel like, to know wisdom lies in you?

Wisdom takes her stand. In God’s royal priesthood we love and care through our work, our lives, on behalf of those entrusted to our care. I know it’s hard to stand at those crossroads. It feels uncomfortable. But stay there. Stand there. Feel changed there. Know that you are seen there, even if by no one else than by God and the Wisdom God creates with. Wisdom lies within you, in whatever shape that takes.

So in closing, I got a call at 2:30am the other day for a family who wanted a chaplain to be with them as their grandpa died. So I came into a packed room, expecting to see silent, solemn faces, staring into the deep. Instead I heard laughter. I heard stories about grandpa. Yes, there were tears and big cries, but there were memories and gratitude shared in a sense of abundance that I have rarely experienced. They cared for one another as a family does as one passes into eternal life.

So I’m standing there – what do I do? What wisdom do I have to share here? I have a Bible – so what? I have an order of service for healing or something – so what? These people need hugs, not Bible verses shot at them. So I put down my Bible. We gave each other hugs. I gave them oil to draw hearts and crosses on their grandpa’s forehead & share a word of love and gratitude. This is usually a ‘healing’ service, but he was about gone. His heart machine was toast. What do we do? How do we define healing? What is quality of life?

Wisdom takes her stand. She says, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” I was there when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, like a master worker, I was daily his delight.

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Wisdom shows up when we show up. Wisdom, all the different kinds of wisdom, shows up at our crossroads and says put down your instruction manual. Put down your guards, your solutions, your fears. I want you as only you can be. If you feel like crying, cry. If you feel like telling a story, tell a story. If you feel like coloring in a coloring book at 4:30 with squirrelly grandkids in a hospital conference room, do that too. If you feel like hugging, hug. But in all of your big and small decisions, wisdom call us to choose life. Stand at your crossroads, listening to wisdom’s weaving in and weaving out, proclaiming life in the Lord and living like you mean it. See the banquet as wisdom takes her stand, this day and forever more.

*”We Eat the Bread of Teaching,” by Omer Westendorf & Jerry Rae Brubaker, (World Library Publications, 1998).

Coloring books and being a chaplain

I can see those two fancy squatty buildings on the west side of the metro that I see as we drive on highway 100. I can see a half dozen cranes that look like they’re protecting the new football field construction in downtown Minneapolis. I can see the roofs and windows of hundred-year-old buildings that have been refurbished, repurposed, and reconstructed over and over again to house the now world-class medicine-organization, which is the hospital that I work for this summer. This is my classroom. This is my parish. This is by far the weirdest class credit I’ve ever taken. This is by far the most high-stakes class credit I’ve ever taken.

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Since switching from the Master of Arts back to the Master of Divinity, I get to take the pastor-track-related credit, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which many refer to as the, “just get it done” credit. Just get through it. Take it in the summer – it’s longer hours but fewer weeks. Sounds good to me.

But once I got here, got my badge, my employee parking pass, my pager, and our rotating on-call pager and code blue pager, something felt different than, “just get it done.” Once I saw the list of patients names who wanted a chaplain to visit them, once I read why they were there, once I heard their stories of purpose, desires to walk, meaning, oops, oops again, heartache, the people they miss at home, and the people they wish would move out, I realized this is much more than “just get it done.”

True, this is chaplaincy. My task in this credit is to be a chaplain, which is a different flavor of pastoral-congregational ministry, the route most consider when they enter the MDiv program. I’m the chaplain for my assigned unit, and each intern, resident chaplain (super intern), and board certified chaplain has an assigned unit. At my unit I’m the one who usually asks nurses and physicians, “What’s going on with them?” before I say hi, and sometimes I get asked by nurses and physicians, “What’s going on with them?” Here, I am becoming known. I’m their chaplain. I hope I get so lucky as to be missed come August.

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Instructions for life, and for chaplaincy, I think!

Sometimes a chaplain visit is requested on my unit, but more often than not my day is guided by following energy. I follow the energy as a nurse struggles to finish out recording a note and connect with other units and we talk about how lame it is when shifts don’t end when they’re supposed to. I follow the energy as a patient just glows at the mention of walking around the lake, and she tell me it feels like “freedom,” and then we draw pages together in a nature coloring book (yes that happened, it was awesome). I follow the energy when I pass a waiting room and glance at the serious folks in there, and then walk back to merely sit and talk about whatever they want to talk about for 20 minutes.

In the midst of this, Timothy (The best. Spouse of the year. Thanks for letting me beat you at tennis later.) and I are calling moving truck people and looking up on Google maps the distance between stops between here and Washington state, as we start a new chapter out there in September. That will come soon enough.

But for now I’m just trying to be as much Allison as I can while also being a chaplain. I’m sure some use CPE to “try on” what it means or feels like to be a pastor or a chaplain. I don’t think that’s for me. What I think is working, is being myself, while showing up in the world through this vocation as a chaplain/pastor. Who knew it took so much courage to show up as yourself. But it’s a good challenge, a good opportunity. And I get to use colored pencils and talk about where we want to live when we grow up.

I’m not sure what’s next. I just know who will be there: 1. Allison, 2. God.