At the request of a colleague, I recently attended a congregation’s annual meeting. Like most annual meetings, it was filled with reports from committees and organizations, thank you’s, and a celebration of their ministries. Everything went well until the time came for passing the annual budget. There was a fair amount of discussion, which then moved into a line by line scrutiny of the budget.
The issue wasn’t that the budget had not been well prepared or clearly presented. The discussion was not filled with skepticism or mistrust of the leadership. The previous year’s budget showed that the congregation had a $15,000 surplus. What seemed to be at the center of the questions was a sense of being unaware of the general expenses that make ministry happen.
In talking with the pastor afterward, she explained to me that people seem to believe that ministry just happens – with no awareness of the cost, work, or preparation involved. She described the “magic act” of Sunday morning worship in people’s minds. They arrive for worship, the lights are on, the building is heated, the organist is playing, there are bulletins available, the choir is warming up, the office phone is ringing, Sunday School teachers are in their classrooms….and the average person sitting in the pew has no idea the costs or preparations involved in order for all of that to take place. It all just magically happens! She said to me “I wish every member of the congregation could be the treasurer for just one year!”
This made clear the questions and conversation that took place at the meeting about the budget. For most congregations, the annual meeting is the only time that members have the opportunity to see or talk about the finances. Quite often, the budget passes with very little or no discussion.
The question becomes, how do we encourage healthy conversations around the finances of the church? Are there opportunities for educating members about the realities of the church budget during the year? How do we keep members informed on the financial condition of the church between annual meetings? When the church income is short of its expenses, how do we inform members about it? What are the best ways to help people understand that the “magic act” on Sunday morning, or every other day of the week, have expenses?
What is most important is being transparent about the finances of the congregation. Giving an update semi-annually or even quarterly to keep people informed. Maybe even taking the opportunity occasionally to explain the details of specific areas of the church budget. It could help the budget conversations be more healthy at the annual meetings.
Scott A. Jacob, Sr. Program Director
The James Company