The shocking un-truth about church budgets

The church’s rapidly changing role in society requires new ways of looking at the allocation of financial resources.

By Amy Butler

This is, hands down, the least favorite time of year for pastors everywhere: church budget planning season.

Nobody likes budget planning, from the tedious work it entails to the way in which money necessarily informs the work of the church, but it’s just one of those things we have to do.

In fact, I was probably grumbling under my breath about it the other day when I happened upon an article titled, “The Shocking Truth of Church Budgets.”

In this short article the author claims that churches are closing all over the country because our financial priorities are wrong. Compared to other nonprofits who work to keep overhead low, he explains, churches spend an average of 82 percent on personnel, buildings and administration — things that are not mission and ministry.

That’s excessive, he believes, and with the institutional church losing credibility all over the place anyway, this state of affairs isn’t going to help us draw people in.

The article finishes with the claim that “congregations will need to re-prioritize their budgets to emphasize direct forms of ministry that givers will agree directly respond to Jesus’ two Great Commandments.”

This is a very common approach to church budgeting, but (how do I say this delicately?) he is wrong.

The reason the author is dead wrong is that he’s approaching a new situation — the decline of the institutional church in America — with an old solution.

In other words, long budget committee meetings where we labor over how to free up big bucks by cutting the copy-machine contract are missing the point. The questions this article raise do not address a larger, more fundamental ideological and societal shift.

I think before we do even one more church budget, we need a whole new framework for thinking about church and ministry.

In the past we churches thought of ourselves as the backbones of society, places where good, moral and faithful people gather to pool resources so we can go out into the world and feed the homeless and convert people in order to save their souls. Keeping administrative costs as low as possible would help us to help the needy.

While many good and righteous things have come out of this view of ourselves, the truth is that that way of thinking is a pretty arrogant self-assessment borne out of a climate of popularity and ease.

With our role in society shifting, we are no longer bastions of benevolent and overflowing food pantries that we graciously bestow on the less fortunate and then return to our churches filled with other scrubbed and spiritual do-gooders to plan new ways to do ministry.

What we are now is mission outposts. We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people. We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don’t need the church — until they do.

I cannot count the times people who never grew up in church stumble into worship looking for solace and discover — to their shock and amazement — liturgy, music and preaching that help them begin to connect with the tradition of the church and the message of Jesus, things they find they desperately need in their lives.

Or the inquiries I get from people looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, feeling they might vaguely enjoy some kind of traditional twist on things. After five sessions of required premarital counseling they begin to discover that maybe spiritual grounding of relationships has some merit they’d never considered.

How about the calls from the mayor’s office asking for a spiritual perspective on justice issues in the city? There are plenty of people around who can offer opinions about what’s most politically expedient, but it turns out that sometimes our leaders want to talk about what it would look like to do the right thing instead of just the easy thing. So they come to us.

And there are the times I get called to do a funeral, visit a hospital or intervene in a crisis for people I don’t know. They call because they don’t know who else to call. The church-free lives they’ve constructed don’t offer the kind of resources they need to navigate the death of a child, the loss of a job or the break-up of a marriage.

So they come to church, and when they do they encounter grace-filled community that changes their lives.

All these things require substantial investment of resources that we have labeled as “administrative” — pastors, musicians, church staff, bulletins, air conditioning, janitorial services, capital repairs, instrument tuning — but all of these things are ministry. In fact, they’re frontline, on the ground, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.

How we go about being church in the world is changing radically. With that change, now more than ever, our whole life together in faith community is mission and ministry.

And we’d better start seeing it that way soon, because the call to live “Jesus’ two Great Commandments” in this world is going to take a heck of a lot more than our church mission budget line. It’s going to take the full engagement of everything we have.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.