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Tracking your money

No church that I'm aware of ever has enough money to do all the ministry it feels called to do or to hire all the staff it feels it needs to hire. Every church, no matter the size, always has ministry areas that get delegated to someone who may or may not have the gifts and graces to accomplish that particular task with excellence. Take, for instance, youth ministry. Every church I've ever talked to wants more "young people" in the church. And, every church I've ever talked to would like to have at least one, if not multiple, youth ministers. Some churches are blessed to be able to afford a full-time, highly-trained youth pastor who is truly living into a vocational ministry. So many others, however, rely on the Senior Pastor or a volunteer or a part-time bi-vocational college student working his / her way through school. Worse is when the Children's Director / Family Minister / Women's Pastor gets saddled with youth ministry because "youth are part of the family and really just older children." This model does not provide the highest level of ministry to the youth.

Everyone can probably see how this isn't the best model. And, most people would agree that it is not in the best interest of the church to take this attitude toward youth ministry. That's probably because people can easily see youth as A MINISTRY.

But, can the same be said for how a church handles its finances and accounting procedures? I would argue that your financial matters are just as much a ministry as youth or children or music. How you handle the money entrusted to you for Kingdom work says a lot about how you view this sacred function. Do you utilize highly-trained professional financial ministers? Or, do you delegate the bookkeeping to someone else to keep from having to hire another staff person?

Let's explore the theological implications of your financial ministry as well as some practical matters that we have encountered with our church clients.

Consider the Parable of the Talents. The rich master summons three of his servants and gives to them 5 talents (a significant amount of money), 2 talents, and one talent, respectively. The servants who received 2 talents and 5 talents invested the money and doubled their return. But, the one who received only 1 talent made no effort, instead burying the money for future use. The lesson from this parable is that when much is entrusted to us, we should not just safeguard it for future use, but seek to multiply its effectiveness for ministry.

Churches that simply take in an offering, have a volunteer or a non-trained staff person record debits and credits on a spreadsheet, and do not pursue an active financial ministry, are not making the most of that which God has entrusted to you. This is bad theology when it comes to money.

There is also a practical side to this discussion. A large part of our work is consulting with churches who want to build new facilities or expand existing campuses. They come to us and we help them with architectural design and construction of the project. Our first task is ALWAYS to ask questions and try to understand the ministry needs of the church. Our philosophy is to design and build what a church needs to accomplish ministry rather than asking a church to accomplish ministry with a facility that was not designed for their needs. However, when we start asking questions about facility size (How many people do you want your sanctuary to hold? How large do you want your youth area to be?) we inevitably receive answers like, "as big as we can get it," or, "however big we can build for $X,XXX,XXX." When we ask if they already have a budget set for the project we are usually met with blank stares or are given a figure that is totally inconsistent with the capacity and capability of the church. VERY FEW CHURCHES ever take the time to take an honest assessment of their financial health before they embark on a capital project. The pastor or a deacon or a trustee will sit down and figure out how much money THEY THINK the church can afford and then they will ask us to proceed with a project to meet that budget. This is not a practical way to approach your church finances.

We recently worked with a church to design a new worship and education facility for them. They had purchased a piece of land with an existing structure that they converted into temporary worship space until we could build their new dream church. They gave us a budget of $1.5M. However, this number had been arrived at simply by a couple of men in the church looking at the checking account, figuring out how much money they THOUGHT they had left over every month, using that amount as the amount of mortgage they could "afford," and then working backward using average interest rates to arrive at a budget of $1.5 M. When we began working with them and digging deeper into their finances, we sought the assistance of a trusted banker with years of experience working with churches. He immediately realized that, in reality, the church could only afford a loan of $70,000. There is a big difference between $70,000 and $1.5M.

The reason that this occurred is because the church had not intentionally approached their finances AS A MINISTRY. They thought it was enough to just record money coming in and money going out. However, this lack of intentional ministry caused them problems later on when they needed to finance a new building for ministry. Most people can record debits and credits and keep track of a spreadsheet. But, you really need someone who truly understands financing and accounting principles to keep your financial records. There is much more to church finance than just offerings received and bills paid.

Had this church approached their finances as a ministry and used a highly-qualified accountant rather than a volunteer, they would have been much better positioned to proceed with their construction project and would not have wasted valuable time and money trying to sort things out. Their lackadaisical attitude toward their finances ultimately cost them the project. It wasn't that the church didn't have the money to complete the project. The problem was, they hadn't accounted for their money in a way that the bank felt comfortable loaning them the money. Had they used a qualified accountant familiar with church finances, they would not have had any difficulties financing the building.

How you handle your money does matter. It's not simply a matter of making columns add up. Church finances should be viewed as a ministry and should be handled by someone who is called to that ministry.

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