A View from the Pew: The Budget

Our church recently approved a budget for the new fiscal year, which for us begins July 1. It was a painstaking process led by our Finance Committee, in which they solicited two proposals from each committee, a more conservative financial plan and a higher, “stretch” amount.

The experience prompted me to contemplate the deeper meaning behind the balance sheets, financial statements, and budgets. What did this process say about church and about our church in particular? You can tell a lot about a church by both its budget and its budget process.

Admittedly, some churches do not handle the budgeting process well or even at all. They just pay the bills as they come in, and when they’re short, they pass the offering plate again. Other people slavishly adhere to the spending plan and, when giving doesn’t match, they enact fiscal tightening and budget cuts, even laying off staff members. The pandemic has been a period of cuts for many churches.

For rigorous planners who treat church finances as a stewardship of other people’s contributions to God’s work in the world, the budget process is more than a mundane task. It is a reflection of priorities, an allocation of resources to what God is calling them to do.

In various churches I have been a member of, I’ve seen funds allocated to such priorities as personnel, building maintenance, missions, marketing, and flowers. Some churches made staffing the priority while others ensured the buildings and grounds were maintained as the chief concern.

All churches I have been a part of have, to some degree, claimed to be devoted to missions. The proof, though, was found on the financial statement and in the budget.

I contend that you won’t truly understand your church, its priorities and health, until you know what’s in the budget and how the process is handled. If we have an offertory prayer in our worship on Sundays, it only makes sense to me that our entire budgetary process should be an exercise in spiritual discernment that is bathed in prayer. We should not be willy-nilly rolling over budget plans from one year to the next without thoughtfully considering what our church’s priorities are. And we should not be content for a small, though surely beloved, portion of our church body to determine our financial spirit and health.

This year my church did a good job of involving more people in the budgeting process. The Finance Committee asked each Committee to start at zero, build a plan, estimate the costs, and submit two proposals, a conservative request and a less constrained spending plan. I can’t speak for all the committees, but for the committee I chair, we had a thorough discussion over several meetings that led to a prayerful and thoughtful submission.

In the end, the Finance Committee and the church took a step of faith to approve a stretch budget at our quarterly business meeting last month. I’ve seen such steps go both ways in the past. Churches have stretched to reach a goal, much to the surprise of the congregation, and churches have missed a spending goal and had to lay off staff, forego programs, and pause ministries and events. I pray that this stretch budget inspires giving and participating in missions.

If you aren’t familiar with budget sheets and financial statements, or if you haven’t felt the need to pay attention to the process in the past, it can be confusing. If this has been you, I encourage you to take an active interest when you first hear the words “budget” being brought up in the halls, asking questions and attending business meetings.

I also encourage you to spend a few minutes with your church’s financials, either last year’s budget or the proposed budget for this year, and see for yourself the reality vs. the talk. It’s great when they line up, but when they don’t, it’s a good opportunity to understand why and see if there isn’t an opportunity to adjust.

Whether your church is in the season of financial planning now or it comes later in the fall or even the end of the year, I think it’s worth considering how your church is going about it. There may be something to learn about God and about yourselves from a spreadsheet.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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