I’ve never coached or consulted a church that told me they had too much money.
There are a few churches that are blessed with a significant margin, but that comes in great part from discipline among the staff and generosity among the congregation.
Most churches, however, face a tight budget to income ratio, often falling short and faced with difficult decisions.
(I have intentionally not mentioned the subject of God’s blessing. The purpose of this article is not to suggest that any church that struggles financially is without God’s favor. Or that churches who have great margin are especially favored by God.)
We can all agree that financial matters often bring more tension and pressure than nearly any other single topic in the church.
Board meetings can heat up fast when cash is low, and unpaid bills are forcing tough decisions.
Tough decisions like:
- Stopping a building project midstream
- Letting staff go
- Cutting back on ministries
A shortage of cash is difficult for any church to deal with, and the complexity is often compounded when the leaders are not aligned as a team with how they think about money.
It’s a great idea for your senior leadership to have a discussion about both theology and practice regarding money, independent of specific and live budget matters.
When it comes to money and the pressures of the moment, there is often too much stress and emotion to think clearly.
I urge you to have several open and honest conversations about your approach to biblical financial management. But not during actual budget meetings, again, there’s too much pressure then.
I’m offering a set of 12 practical questions to assist you in a productive dialogue that should relieve some tension in the boardroom.
Honest conversation guided by good questions doesn’t make financial difficulties and challenges disappear, but it helps you navigate them as a united team.
These conversations won’t necessarily be easy, but when you take this proactive approach, you can increase your effectiveness as leaders, improve morale and teamwork, and improve your overall stewardship.
12 Helpful Questions:
(In a few of these questions, I will risk meddling a bit close to differing theological views, but my goal is to remain practical.)
1) What role does prayer play in your church finances?
As mentioned, I’m not suggesting that any church with financial struggles is void of God’s blessing, but it’s always fair to ask about the consistency and focus of your prayer when it comes to money.
Financial prayers are about Kingdom stewardship and reflect your trust and dependence upon God.
2) In what specific way(s) is faith connected to your financial decision-making?
The intersection of faith and prudence is always a nuanced perspective when related to money.
How much of your decision-making is related to faith and trusting God, and how much is based on practical wisdom? It’s usually a combination of the two that provides the right answers.
3) Who is primarily responsible for the income of the church?
Again, theology! Yes, God is our provider, but God also has charged us with the responsibility to lead.
In some churches, the senior pastor takes point responsibility. In other churches, the board steps into that role. In others, still, it’s a lead team of senior staff.
The answer to that question should be clear at all times for the purpose of responsibility and accountability.
4) What is the last budget area you would cut in an emergency?
This question often stumps even the best of strategic churches because leadership isn’t static because the answer can change upon circumstances.
Nonetheless, wrestling down the issue of priorities help bring much-needed clarity.
For example, some churches will cut personnel as the very last measure; others want to preserve some monies for ministry to operate. What do you think?
5) What are you doing to increase the income of your church?
I’ve visited churches that talk openly, freely, and boldly about giving and generosity regularly. Others rarely talk about it, and when they do, it’s almost with an air of apology.
The point isn’t about any style or method that is right or wrong, but that you believe you are doing all you can to inspire your congregation to trust God with their finances and contribute to life-changing ministry.
This includes a wide variety of things from cultivating a deep trust for your financial management to practical classes for handling money in a way that honors God.
6) Do you believe you are too frugal or not frugal enough?
How do you base your thinking on frugality? It’s a subjective question. Good stewardship is essential, but there’s a difference between shrewd money management and a spirit of austerity.
7) What debt level are you comfortable with?
Debt is a subject of high debate. No church considers debt something to aspire to, but some churches avoid it like the plague, and others accept it if managed with sound cash margins and income to debt ratios.
8) If you have excess income above the budget needs, how will you allocate these funds?
Margin within a church budget and overall income is similar to momentum to the overall church; it’s pure oxygen.
For example, some churches will allocate all margin income to savings. Other churches reject that idea and believe that all income should be allocated for ministry use.
Most churches, however, are in the middle somewhere with a pre-determined amount of “days cash on hand.” (90 -120 days operating cash is standard.)
The most crucial factor is that you decide in advance about any excess income to budget (margin) and what you will do with it.
A more strategic move is to intentionally build margin into your church budget, even if it’s small to start. One necessary step to accomplish that is to set your next year’s budget based on last year’s income.
9) Who has primary decision-making authority for major financial decisions?
Similar to question # 3 (Who is responsible for income?) knowing who makes what financial decisions is critical to smooth and unified operations. In the case of this question, I’ve narrowed it to major financial decisions.
10) In what specific ways would your community or city see you as a generous church?
This question is meant to be straight-forward and practical. What ministries of your church are making a substantial impact in your community?
The word “substantial” isn’t necessarily about the amount of money. For example, you may give a modest amount to a food co-op, but it makes a big difference in your community.
11) Do you have a sufficient number of competent financial advisors?
Some pastors and church leaders are gifted when it comes to money matters, and many are not. (It’s not my gifting!)
If you don’t have spiritual leaders within your church who understand both church ministry and sound business principles, don’t hesitate to get wisdom and advice from trusted financial advisors outside your church.
12) Who is coaching your staff on how to manage their budgets?
Your staff is no doubt good at what they do, but don’t assume that they all know how to design and manage a budget. Make sure they have the much-needed training.
These questions will not remove all the financial complexities from your ministry, but they will help you solve them in a more team-oriented, productive, and morale-building way.