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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