In late 2008, as we officially entered a recession, a survey revealed that one out of every five households began giving less money to faith institutions. Another 22% stopped giving to the church altogether!
The sad truth is that this problem has been developing for a long time, as per-member giving as a portion of income has decreased steadily for 38 years. Between 1968 and 2006, giving received for the church budget decreased from 2.45% to just over 2.17%.
Giving for external benevolence causes dropped from 0.66% to just over 0.37%. No coincidentally, money management skills have been on the decline as well. Seven out of 10 Americans would have no choice but to leave some bills unpaid if they missed one paycheck.
As a result, many churches have gotten a rude awakening to the problem.
When It’s Urgent
In financially stressed churches, clergy and church officers are reluctant to discuss their worries for fear of alarming the congregation and harming their relationships with their lenders and church members.
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Whipping up enthusiasm at a church-wide dinner or delivering a passionate sermon on giving may cause some members to reluctantly dig deeper, but that kind of externally applied motivation never lasts. When people can sense that they don’t know the whole story or that you just want something from them but aren’t being up-front, that’s when their walls go up.
If your church is already in financial straits, the best thing you can do is be honest with the congregation about it. If the church leadership has made money mistakes, own them. If you've just avoided teaching about money because you didn't feel equipped, humble yourself.
If there are specific needs, present them. You might be surprised by people’s response to gut-level honesty. Consider sharing something like, “Guys, giving is down this month. It's going to take $1,345 to keep the power on, and we are coming up short.”
Maybe you’re considering cutting a staff position, or you’re in trouble because the AC went out. You don’t have to hide it! You’re a church family. Make the decision with your leadership to let people know what’s going on. If the church has a problem, it’s everyone’s problem—not just the leadership’s. Let them know what they can do to help.
When you present the need, make it clear that you’re taking a hard look at how you can adjust the church budget to keep it from happening in the future, but that right now the church needs help from those who are in a position to give.
Then, crack open a healthy church budget plan, and discover what it means to truly offer financial discipleship so people know how to be excellent stewards—asset managers—for the God who gives them all of their resources.
When the people’s finances are healthy, the church’s are too, over time.
Once immediate needs are met, it’s time to develop a healthy, long-term budget to prevent the same mess down the road. Strive to achieve these six goals in the order they best fit your church’s mission.
- Save three to six months of operating expenses and set it aside for emergencies: Life happens! Be ready for it. You can turn what could have been a crisis into an annoyance. Let’s say there was bad weather one week, so you had to cancel the service and only a handful of people gave online. Would it really be that big of a deal if you have this emergency fund in place?
- Pay off all church debt, excluding the building mortgage: You’ll gain momentum as you knock out debts, one by one, and free up cash flow to reach other goals.
- Invest in your staff: Pay market rates! No one goes into ministry for the money, but they shouldn’t have to take a hit on what their skill set would bring elsewhere because they have a heart to work in the church.
- Establish a separate sinking fund for big-ticket building and grounds maintenance expenses based on the size and age of the facilities: Trust us, you’ll be glad you took the time for this when these expenses roll around. Paying for a new roof is no big deal if you’ve been saving for it for the past 15 years!
- Pay off the mortgage and lavishly fund your mission: Attack the building debt with focused intensity to set your church free from debt once and for all. Use the extra money that once went toward the building toward the ministries your church is all about. Help the people you got into ministry to help in the first place!
- Set aside a percentage of savings specifically for future needs: Start saving up for future needs before you even know what they are. Who knows when you’ll need a new computer, a new staff role, or more parking. Start dreaming big about future growth—and prepare your fields for the harvest!
Getting the church from a financial crisis to a healthy place isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. If you take the hard steps to change, the results are not only rewarding, but lasting.
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