Well, my weekend in Washington, D.C. was fulled with food, fellowship and a lot of fun. While catching up with friends, preaching at CHBC, and doing a little work for The Front Porch, the Federal Government crept toward and entered a shutdown by failing to pass a budget. At issue was Obamacare. At work were the same old partisan politics and clashes in political vision.
I watched with slight interest, until a question came to me. I wonder how many local churches approach shut down each year because of church factions, rival visions, and unclear stewardship priorities? I suspect there are many.
While the Federal Government was shutting down, First Baptist Church was coming to the end of its budget approval process. Like a lot of churches, our budget seasons force the elders and congregation to consider its priorities and face its constraints. And like a lot of churches, we sometimes find ourselves having to negotiate what feel like competing priorities with limited resources. It can be a tense time.
Though we’ve never been able to do everything we’d like to do or able to satisfy every group hoping for a change of some sort, by God’s grace, we’ve had budget seasons that have been peaceful, unifying and engaging. Over the years, I’ve tried to teach the congregation a few things about our budget that I hope preserve unity and strengthen our focus. I thought I’d pass them along in case they help others.
Don’t Let the People Forget That It’s All about the Gospel and Its Advance
It’s very easy to enter discussions about the numbers or the resources, about real cuts and changes that affect people, and forget the Good News. In fact, I think this is perhaps the most serious mistake a church can make. For once people forget Jesus and His saving work, they lose sight of why the church exists. So, it’s useful to present and discuss the budget as a document embodying gospel priorities. It’s useful to talk in terms of gospel and kingdom investments, perhaps organizing the report in a way that shows how the congregation’s giving gets distributed into gospel ventures (in church ministries, in the community, over seas, etc.). But keep the people’s eyes on Jesus.
Don’t Let the People Forget They’re One Family
Once people lose sight of Jesus and the gospel, they also tend to forget they’re a family, united to each other, and on the same team. They forget to extend grace to others as they turn to their “camps” or individual desires. It’s helpful to use the family language of the Bible rather than the business language of the corporate world. It’s helpful to create a familial tone–hopefully a tone that’s regularly used throughout the year. We try to liken our church budget to the budgets of our families. Just as we hopefully balance our budgets at home, live within our means, and focus on major family obligations, so we do the same in the church family. And just as our biological families stumble and wobble if the family isn’t on one accord about the budget, so our church will pull apart at the seams if the church family doesn’t remain on one accord. We’re a family. We stand and fall together.
Don’t Let the People Forget the Budget Is Just a Tool
God’s word is forever settled in heaven; church budgets are not. Budgets are simply plans. They’re not chiseled into granite. With an eraser or a push of the “backspace” button, budgets can be edited and recalculated. They represent our best thinking at the moment. As things change, we should feel the freedom to come back to some initiatives or initiate new ones during the year. The congregation should know it’s not passing some inflexible law but adopting an operating plan. Moreover, that plan is simply one financial way of defining our unity. The approved budget is the church’s tool for saying, “This is what we purposed to do with God’s blessing.”
Don’t Let the People Forget Their Responsibility
Frankly, I’m not very good at this. I hate talking about giving and money and budgets. I have to work to remind myself of the first principle–it’s about Jesus and the gospel. Then I’m able to champion the priorities in the budget, not the budget itself. I feel more comfortable keeping budget data before the people when I’m keeping Jesus before my own eyes. Then all that’s left is to connect the average member to our gospel priorities. We do that by turning our top line income projection into a per household or per member figure. This year we turned our projected budget increase into a per member per month giving increase. People have a difficult time with understanding seven-digit figures. We’ve never handled or seen that kind of money at one time. But they have a good sense of whether they can give another $100 per month or so. They know what that means for their discretionary spending, entertainment choices, groceries and the like. As the leaders call them to commit to a new budget, they’re able to think about whether they can make such a commitment and how to respond to the leaders’ proposal.
Don’t Let the People Forget to Pray
Nothing happens without prayer. Nothing extraordinary for the kingdom anyway. Conflict happens without prayer. Division happens without prayer. Harsh words and hurt feelings happen without prayer. Worldly wisdom and the flesh creep in without prayer. So, it’s important to pray. From the beginning of budget season, through the many reports and committee meetings, during the vote and on into implementation, we need to pray for the priorities and investments represented in the budget tool. Don’t just pray when you miss an important budget target. Pray before you know the numbers and especially pray when God blesses the giving of the church so you don’t take God for granted “when you enter the land.” Use the budget to encourage the people in prayer.
I pray that the Lord’s churches would not be shut down because His leaders and His people can’t agree on priorities. I pray the need to make Jesus known would be so deeply understood and embraced by all God’s people that budgets take their vastly secondary and utilitarian place. May our churches know great unity of purpose in Christ each budget season.