One recurring theme as I’ve talked to executive pastors lately is, “How are you budgeting for 2009 in light of the current economic uncertainty?” The other day, however, the question took a little different shape. One of my friends is preparing a flat budget and a contingency case with a significant cut. He asked, “What’s the difference between how we handle this and the way it’s done in the corporate world? Where’s the spiritual dimension?”
To be perfectly honest, I fumbled for an answer. At the church-wide level, it’s clear that our external communications (with church members and the community as a whole) should be very different. Our security and hope is not in the things of this world, a refrain that many pastors have declared in recent weeks. But for those of us whose primary responsibility is the internal operations and management the question remains: What’s different in the way we handle a financial downturn?
Now that I’ve had more time to reflect, here’s what I would tell my friend:
1. Be faithful and pragmatic. Jesus taught us to have faith, but he also taught about shrewd managers. To me, this means that we can’t approach our finances in blissful ignorance of the economy, because that would be foolishness. Neither should we panic, because God will provide for our needs.
2. Be a good steward. Whatever we’ve been entrusted with should be spent wisely for Kingdom purposes. If we have to cut programs, the pruning should focus on the areas that are not bearing fruit or that have the least long-term potential. This also means that we must have clarity within the leadership team about what our core programs/ministries are.
3. “Rainy day” funds don’t impact eternity. Many churches have an endowment or some other contingency fund. I won’t get into the broader debate about this, but you might consider the “parable of the rich fool” in Luke 12:16ff. For now, I will say that if a financial shortfall threatens a core ministry, it’s time to dip into these accounts.
4. Demonstrate compassion toward staff. One of the biggest differences in the church versus the corporation should be the way we treat our employees. If reductions are necessary for financial reasons, we should treat people with love and dignity. This may include more generous severance packages, longer time for transitions, or other creative arrangements.
5. Rediscover hidden parts of the body. In boom times, some churches may have filled roles with paid people because it was easier or more reliable than using volunteers. God may have just the talent we need sitting in the pews.
We may not be able to escape a certain degree of a business mindset when we’re looking over a spreadsheet and making hard decisions about how to allocate (or cut) funds. If that discourages us, we should remember that a corporation can’t call its constituents together for prayer or expect everyone to make sacrifices for the sake of a higher calling or have confidence that God is in control.
So how do you respond to the question?