Financially Sound but Ministry Driven

boulder up hill

It’s easy for churches to get so focused on defending themselves against fraud they kill both joy and the spirit of ministry in the process. The tail must not not wag the dog. However, it also shouldn’t be separated from it. Here are a few things you can do to keep ministry flowing:

  • Only pick people with a heart for ministry to lead any ministry. If they view it as their goal to protect the church from the ministers or simply preserve the church’s assets, you may be safe from fraud but you’ll also be saved from growth and joy in ministry. You’re looking for people who view it as their mission to provide support and guidance to the church by using their gifts for the advancement of the Kingdom–not the preservation of the church’s money. They don’t need to assume the worst of people. Rather, they can assume the best, and trust the processes.
  • The Finance Team should function as a “strong” advisory team. This means their word is trusted and heeded unless there is a compelling reason not to. I’ve always asked the Finance Team (I hate the word “committee”) to offer revenue projections and reports (including pro formas 3-years out), help me create and implement a comprehensive stewardship plan for cultivating generosity in the the church, make wise investment decisions with the church’s money, and work the auditing functions mentioned in yesterday’s post. That’s their charter.
  • Put the Senior Minister and/or Church Administrator on the Finance Team. It’s educational for the minister, and their knowledge of the church can be indispensable when it comes time to make key spending decisions or explain what seem like odd expenses. They can offer a sound word on how the church is likely to perceive certain actions. It also builds a relational link between the staff and the Finance Team. That’s never a bad thing.
  • Keep your budget process simple. I’ll offer a sample next week. Generally, it’s good to be rigorous on the total amounts you plan to spend for the year, but largely allow ministers to choose how they spend their allotment. I’ll talk about this more next week, but it heightens morale, builds ownership, and provides appropriate accountability. A minister is less able to blame their ministry struggles on others when they made the decisions. If you think they will make bad decisions–you either have the wrong minister, or you may have control issues.
  • Streamline your spending approval processes. For mid-size or larger churches, you can do this by providing pre-approval for ministry-related spending up to 80% of a ministry’s budget–provided it’s under $1000 . This allows enough contingency in case you need to cut, and your auditing processes will catch any hanky-panky. If your church is small, you may want to lower that number to $500 for cash flow purposes. Systems that make every check be approved by a Board of some kind are slow and provide little service a good set of internal controls (mentioned in yesterday’s post) can’t.
  • Keep your attitude toward your ministers right. I know of some churches who really feel as though every purchase needs the approval of some person or group that isn’t in ministry at all (i.e., elders, finance team, etc.). That speaks volumes. If you really feel like you can’t trust ministers with everyday purchasing…you probably need to find new ministers…or don’t hire any at all. They will know what a good spend or a bad spend is within their area of ministry better than anyone else in the church. What you’re guarding against with controls is malfeasance. You aren’t trying to micromanage ministry.
  • Separate Spending Powers between the “What” and the “How Much?” Stewardship, as the Bible defines it, isn’t saving the most money–in fact, that’s sometimes viewed as the wicked, lazy thing to do. There’s nothing wrong with saving, but rather with saving as as an end rather than a means. The Parable of the Talents teaches us that God is pleased when we maximize what He’s entrusted to us for His glory. So, you want the right people making the right decisions. You don’t want a CPA deciding whether the Teen Retreat is a good spend or not…and you sure don’t want the Youth Minister auditing the books. You want finance people performing finance functions, ministers making ministry decisions and elders making spiritual decisions. Let the people with the training, passion and/or experience in their area of ministry do it. Just be clear as to what those are, and be humble enough to relinquish control appropriately. No one is genius at everything. And, even if you were, you’re suffocating servanthood in your church by clutching tightly to everything.
  • At least once a year, have a “Vision Sunday” when you share the budget goals with the church and tell them what your practices are. I usually do it in early January. We print up a well-designed brochure with only major budget categories and major sub-headings with dollar amounts. The brochure explains what the terms mean, and how the church is organized. I spend about 5 minutes walking the church through the budget, about 2 minutes summarizing the previous year and our financial practices, and the rest of the time on the coming year’s vision and financial goals–inviting the church to join me in giving sacrificially toward it. It’s the Sunday during which we unveil new ministries, etc., so people generally love it every year and appreciate knowing how their church works.
Thoughts? What would you add or take away?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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