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Church budgets -- choices that reveal ethics Print E-mail
By Robert Dilday and Ken Camp   
Thursday, October 10, 2013

It may not feel like it to number-crunchers huddled around a Sunday School classroom table, fine-tuning annual financial proposals for an upcoming church business meeting. But church budgets are moral statements that reflect ethical priorities — and may be key indicators of a congregation’s passions.

Ethical considerations are part of the church budgeting process.

“All budgets reflect embedded choices that are morally significant, whether that budget is personal, familial, ecclesial or governmental,” said David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University. “Jesus says, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ Budgets reflect what we treasure and therefore where our hearts are.”

“Everything has a moral and ethical dimension about it,” said Bill Tillman, director of theological education with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “There are moral and ethical values both explicit and implicit in church budget operations.”

Money possesses power in itself, and it represents how power and influence are exercised, he added.

“Where we spend our money shows what we think about other people and what we think about ourselves,” said Tillman, who formerly held the T.B. Maston chair of Christian ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas.

Jason Edwards, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., said a congregation’s priorities may reflect past choices — often important ones — about ministerial staff and commitments to a geographic location.

“Those items are a part of ministry fixed expenses for a congregation,” said Edwards, a graduate of Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. “And, by the way, providing health insurance for staff does reflect the ethics of the church in a positive way. These are needed ministry expenses.”

But he added, “Beyond these basic expenses, I think what a faith community does with its discretionary funds can be very telling in regard to their ethical and moral character.”

Roger Olson, Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at Truett Theological Seminary, agreed.

“For a Christian everything is — or should be —a matter of ethics. Nothing’s neutral. Unfortunately, many churches have adopted a business model that tends to downplay issues of faith and morality,” Olson said.

Some observers find churches’ moral and ethical commitments in the balance their budgets achieve between administration and ministry. Others say that distinction isn’t always easy to make — and may be a false choice.

The average American congregation allocates about 80 percent to administration and facilities, according to a study this year by the Evangelical Christian Credit Union (tinyurl.com/eccu2013churchbudget).

Staff salaries represent about 58 percent of that amount, the ECCU found, although earlier studies by Christianity Today (tinyurl.com/HowMuchForStaff) cited a figure just below 40 percent.

But those percentages tend to reduce a church’s mission engagement, said church consultant George Bullard, president of the Columbia Partnership.

“The total combined cost of staff and buildings should be no more that 70 percent of the congregational budget,” Bullard blogged (tinyurl.com/ABP-BudgetAsStraightjacket) last year. “When it is higher, funds available for missional formation and mission engagement are too small to creatively carry out these essential areas of ministry.”

When funding of personnel and facilities reaches 75 percent of a church’s budget, “the congregation is strangulated in its ability to do missional formation and missional engagement, and is making brick without straw,” he wrote. “At 80 percent for staff and buildings, the real work of a congregation — missional formation and missional engagement — must be altered, limited or funded from other sources.”

Church budgets are not just about supporting the organization of the church, Bullard emphasized in an interview. “They are about serving as a vehicle for the generosity of the people connected with the congregation. There they need to honor the need for a high priority on spiritual formation and missional engagement,” he said.

But Pastor Amy Butler believes so-called “administrative functions” are in fact “frontline, on the ground, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.” That assessment reflects a societal shift, she wrote in a recent blog (tinyurl.com/ShockingUntruth).

“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,” said Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. “Keeping administrative costs as low as possible would help us to help the needy.”

But that role has altered, Butler said.

“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.”

That requires substantial investment of resources in administration, she said.

Churches need to consider their purpose as they decide how much money to spend on building maintenance and how much to devote to missions and ministry, Olson said.

“The church exists to participate in the mission of God to the world and not perpetuate itself comfortably,” he said.

Tillman likewise emphasized the importance of churches understanding their reason for being. “The primary focus is the Great Commission,” he said, citing Jesus’ command to go into all the world to make disciples. If a church recognizes the Great Commission as its purpose, then “Great Commission values should mark the means to that end,” he added.

At the same time, churches should recognize the missional and educational value of their facilities, Tillman insisted. “Recognize there is theology in the architecture,” he said, noting the facility may communicate to the community and to church members messages about what the church believes and values.

“Churches should ask, ‘What is there about it that makes this conducive to worship and makes it teachable and educable space to learn about and become acquainted with God?’”

As churches make budget decisions, they should listen to voices both inside and outside the congregation to determine what people perceive.

Tillman noted when he taught seminary classes, he advised ministers to keep in mind “the view from the pew.”

“It may be that the Spirit of God has found residence in the people of God more firmly than in you,” he recalled telling his classes.

Likewise, if a church wants to reach its community, leaders must ask people in the community to determine what draws people to church or drives them away. “And they must be ready to hear the answer,” he added.

Churches should pray for wisdom as they seek a reasonable balance between the amount spent on programs and ministries for members and how much they dedicate to missions and ministries beyond the congregation, Olson said.

“I don’t think there’s any formula that fits every church,” he said. “I don’t think lattes in the church foyer is a big issue. But spending millions on luxurious accouterments should be.”

Congregations need to seriously confront how much they spend on their own comfort, Edwards said.

“We should wrestle with this. If we’re not wrestling with the dichotomy between our American bent toward luxury, consumerism and entitlement, we’ve probably stopped taking Jesus too seriously,” he said. “However, I also think that coffee shared within community is a way of connecting and offering hospitality. I’d say that’s part of our mission, too.”

Finding a balance is key, Gushee said. “I think that sometimes practical and missions-minded Baptists forget that the mission of the church does include worship, theological reflection, Bible study, moral formation of disciples and other ‘inner’ directed work,” he said. “It also includes mechanisms for pooling resources for care for the needs of those in the family of faith. So we should not feel guilty for spending money on these priorities, sometimes congregationally and sometimes through shared collective efforts.”

That said, essential components of congregational life need not be expensive, Gushee added. “I am convinced that the most important work the church does costs very little money: gathering in community to proclaim gospel truth, study Scripture, worship, love and care for one another, and be equipped for living out Christ’s love in the world,” he said. “I think budgeting should begin by asking whether we are doing this basic work well. Then we ask what resources might be needed, including paid professional staff, to help equip us more adequately for this work.”

How much a church spends on ministries beyond its doors is a fair indicator of a congregation’s “mission-mindedness,” but not the only one, said Bullard.

“The time and energy of volunteerism is also a characteristic,” he said. “The Christlikeness of congregational participants to all demographics of people is also a characteristic. The social actions and political philosophies and actions of congregational participants...is also a characteristic.”

Edwards agreed indicators of a church’s “mission-mindedness” should be broad. “A missional Christian community also is a worshipping community,” he said. “A missional Christian community must value discipleship. Our communal worship and discipleship are necessary not only for faithfulness and effectiveness, but they distinguish us over time from an NGO. As we go out to serve, we go as a people who follow and worship Jesus.”

That doesn’t diminish the importance of missions and ministries beyond the congregation, said Gushee.

“That’s why I think Baptists had (and have) it right when they saw the benefit of pooling their resources for well-considered collective social and evangelistic ministries which develop ‘best practices’ with proven track records,” he said. “These are worth funding, and every local congregation has its share in that funding responsibility.”

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