Thoughts on Church Budgets

Note: I used to keep track of the advice that I would get from time to time from older pastors concerning church budgets.  I’ve listed them in no particular order. I haven’t looked at it in years and now that I do it looks a bit depressing, but it's advice given through the school of hard knocks.

  • Church budget usually don’t change much, other than simply pumping more or less cash into old things. 
  • When a church starts dying, no one notices until the giving starts going down. The typical response is to start making cuts, which usually ends up being across-the-board cuts.
  • Budgets are predictable, but what churches often fail to grapple with are items that have diminishing returns and are riding off its former reputation. They are usually backed by a handful of supporters that are no longer relevant or connected to people in the church. Supporters will often try to argue that it is a communication problem or that people just don’t know about it or if people don’t connect then they are seen as deficient. It is always hard to admit that what used to be a thriving part of the church is simply no longer relevant.
  • Budget problems are never really about cash. The cash flow or budget is simply one indicator of the health of a church, usually an indicator of something that should have already changed. 
  • A healthy church is one that is growing and changing. Growing doesn’t always mean in size.  There are lots of ways to think of growth, but whatever the growth is the budget need to reflect it. Some other possible factors are the Gospel going out, people saved, lives changed, leaders coming in and going out, and churches being planted. When something starts to produce fruit or growth, always invest, invest, and invest as much of the reserved capital as possible. This is your window of opportunity
  • A budget is only one reflection of the church and it should never be the only factor in a decision.
  • How to evaluate a budget is seen in Matthew 11:4-6. The key is that the focus should be on lives that are being changed and the best indicator of that is people outside the established religious society that are receiving help.
  • When a budget is growing because a high percentage of people in the church are giving, it usually means that the church is in decline and heading for problems.
  • When the budget is growing but attendance remains the same all it means is that people are getting older and incomes and increasing. The church is more than likely becoming less and less relevant.  When this happens churches will often start to stockpile cash and the money it does spend is on broken ideas and ministries.
  • When a church has a low percentage of givers with new people coming in, this is a sign of a healthy church. It’s good news, be patient, and invest in the new people. Isolate old stuff and don’t let more money be put into them, instead steadily transition cash and resources to the things that the new people are connecting to. As they connect, get training, become leaders, as they grow, they will start giving.
  • When a church starts to grow people that have been giving often think of it as a time for them to cash in on all their years of giving. They will want new people to conform to their stuff and try and hold people hostage to their pet programs.
  • People often see missions, church planting, and community service as giving without seeing a return. The return is a spiritual one that changes the way a church looks to people.
  • Jesus explains how to move things forward in Luke 13:6-9. Give ideas a chance, then let go of them if they don’t produce. Isolate things that need to be cut off, don’t make announcements about it, don’t say anything about it, don’t waste time on it, just let it die (Matthew 13:24-30).
  • Make sure to include new people in the budget as they start leading. Make sure that the budget enables them to grow.
  • Don’t allow a budget to just maintain. Create space for research and development. Put tight financial restraints on old stuff, and relax a bit on R&D because this is your investment in the future.
  • You may need to have years where you use up capital, some years more than others. R&D is risky, some things work some fall flat.
  • People that don’t want change tend to focus on the failures to make a case for clampdown on the finances.  As you find stuff that works transition from old to new.