Some pundits see a silver lining in our recent economic troubles: Americans have finally kicked the habit of conspicuous consumption. I’ll believe it when I see it. Over the last couple of years, I have consulted with a number of congregations and other religious bodies that have had to cut back their consumption, and it’s not a pretty sight. Typically, the leaders rave and rage and drag their feet—spending down endowments, digging out defensive bunkers, hoping for a miracle. As long as possible, we humans try to make ourselves believe we are exempt from the arithmetic that says a deficit can be reduced in only two ways: by shrinking costs or growing revenue.

For perspective, it is worth remembering that the phrase “conspicuous consumption” was coined by the American economist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 to make sense of the excesses of the Gilded Age. Churches participated fully in those excesses when they could afford to, as anyone can see by touring the old fashionable section of most any city. Not long ago I toured a downtown church that sports two choral robing rooms—one for men and one for women—each with its own brushed-copper door.

The Great Depression changed behavior temporarily, but not attitudes. Of course, people spent less when they had less, and taught thrift as a virtue to their children. The Depression generation spent and borrowed its way gladly through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years. Churches and synagogues joined in, building utilitarian “plants” rather than ornate palaces, just as the public sector built useful interstate highways rather than the dazzling town halls of yore. The style of spending changed after World War II, but the scale of spending mostly grew.

From 1950 to 1970, real income per capita—the amount of stuff each person can buy—almost tripled, and spending tripled along with it. Congregations participated fully in those trends: per-member revenue—and spending—of denominational churches also tripled in those decades. Our national concept of the minimum a congregation needs to provide each member has grown with members’ concept of the minimum they are entitled to.

Since 1970, income growth has stalled, but until recently consumption kept increasing. We made the difference up by borrowing: consumer debt, mortgage debt, and—especially since 2001—federal debt. Reliable statistics about church debt are hard to come by, but who can doubt that congregations have participated in this trend also? Over the last forty years, churches became as comfortable with debt as families did, and with the same result. “If you build it, they will come” is a nice slogan, but not Scripture. Like families, churches can go into bankruptcy or foreclosure. Some have, already; others will, if they don’t tighten up their belts, and quickly.

The real silver lining, for congregations as well as for households, is that when you must make do with less, you are forced to figure out what really matters. Here is where an economic crisis may conceal an opportunity. When budgets grow, leaders find it easy to say yes to every good idea. When budgets shrink, they sometimes have to say no to good ideas—even cherished, praiseworthy, excellent, and long-established ones—in order to say yes to what is central to the congregation’s mission.

How can a congregation take advantage of this opportunity? Scarcity alone is not enough: during the Great Depression, the established, mainline churches declined rapidly. One factor, I suspect, is that they generally chose to preserve the externals—clergy, staff, and buildings—and, with too few exceptions, failed to focus on each congregation’s core, distinctive ministry. Even when the ministry itself was vibrant and mission driven, the budget process began—and too often ended—with the institutional externals.

Expressing Ministry Priorities

Congregations still too often plan and budget as though planning were one thing and budgeting another. But the budget is part of a congregation’s plan for ministry. Especially in times of scarcity, the budget must express the congregation’s ministry priorities. The first budget document should have no numbers in it—only words describing the top ministry priorities and goals as understood by the top lay and clergy leaders.

This will seem odd to many finance committee members, who are used to starting work on next year’s budget by opening a spreadsheet with last year’s budget and adjusting. This approach tends to foster an excessive focus on the “fixed costs” of utilities, salaries, and building maintenance, and to assume that maintaining customary services and staffing is the top priority. All of these considerations are important, but before the spreadsheet crew gets started, it needs instruction from the top leadership about the vision that should shape their work.

One way to start the budget process is by holding an annual planning retreat. Typically, this event includes the governing board and senior members of the staff. Ideally the group spends at least a day and a half off-site with a strict no-cell-phone rule. The agenda varies, but the subject matter always is discernment, vision, and strategy.

An essential work product from the retreat is what I call the annual vision of ministry, an answer to the question, “In what new and different ways will we transform lives in the next one to three years?” The vision of ministry is the congregation’s short list of priorities—the things it will accomplish in the coming year no matter what.

Making the Short List

Why a short list? Because when a list of priorities is long, they’re not priorities! The fact that something does not make the list does not mean that it won’t happen. While creating the vision, the board will bank a number of ideas for the future: pieces of a long-term vision to which the board is not prepared to make an ironclad commitment now. There is no way to do this without sometimes saying no to good ideas.

Some congregations decide that one item is the right length for a list of priorities. “This is the year for children.” “This year we will take a big step forward in service to our neighborhood.” “We will become known as a great synagogue for young adults.” Whether the list has one, two, or three items (no more, please!), it becomes a guide for budget-makers who must say yes to what fits the vision, no to what does not. At no time is this more helpful than when the pie threatens to shrink.

The exact process for creating the vision of ministry will change from year to year. In some years the ministry priorities may be so obvious that the board creates the vision quickly and uses the planning retreat for other purposes. Most of the time the vision of ministry emerges from a yearlong conversation, followed by deeper reflection and exchange during the retreat.

Keeping Some Questions Open

In addition to a vision of ministry, the planning retreat produces “open questions.” In discussing the congregation’s work and drawing out the hopes and worries of its leaders, retreat participants may find technical challenges surfacing that all but suggest their own solutions. If the boiler is broken, you fix it. Other challenges do not lend themselves to quick or even slow decision making. Perhaps your congregation needs to decide whether to abandon, renovate, or replace a building that has been the main symbol of its identity for 150 years. Or you may wonder how to serve a neighborhood whose residents are different from the people of your congregation. You may have a nagging sense, as Jonah did, that God is calling you to make radical changes, but the subject is too hot to push it to decision making. The board could make up its mind and announce a solution prematurely, but that seems likely to increase division rather than encourage movement toward a decision. With such challenges, the board ca
n make a major contribution simply by stating the issue clearly as an open question—one it expects the congregation to address sometime in the future, but not now. For now, the next step is sustained, reflective, and inclusive conversation.

Translating Vision into Goals

After the retreat, everyone has work to do. The staff needs to translate the board’s vision of ministry into goals and objectives. In larger churches, the senior staff has goals of its own. Even a slogan like “We will integrate social outreach into everything we do” can be counter to the tendency of staff members to draw back into their departments. The staff’s goals take the board’s vision of ministry and move it to a more practical level. If the vision of ministry says “We will make room to welcome more people,” the staff might say, “After the first of the year, we will add a second session to our children’s Sunday school. By then we will be ready to double the number of parking-lot greeters skilled at hospitality to families with children.”

Individual staff members set goals next. Beginning each staff member’s goal-setting conversation with the board’s vision of ministry and goals set by senior staff helps put parochial concerns into the context of the wider mission. It is the job of every ministry team leader to set the stage for goal setting in this way. Then the team proceeds to set goals for itself and the staff member (in consultation with his or her team, supervisor, and colleagues) sets goals for himself or herself.

The budget itself may be assembled by a finance committee and presented to the board for approval. A better process, though, is to put responsibility for creating the budget in the same place as responsibility for achieving the vision of ministry: the staff. At the very least, the head of staff should be required to sign off on the budget, saying to the board, “I believe this budget is a reasonable plan to achieve our vision.” In many congregations the normal budget process sails right from the committees to the board without the clergy leader having to express an opinion. Under that procedure, it is a stretch to hold the head of staff accountable for much of anything.

With a budget created in this way, the annual fund drive can be based on the vision of ministry. Contributors are asked for amounts that, if most of them say “yes,” will make the vision possible. The board, clergy, and staff make it clear that the vision is not just something they hope to shoot for; it’s a goal they mean to reach. Year after year, people learn that when the congregation asks for gifts it means what it says. If the members give what is asked, the results promised—the vision of lives changed through ministry—will happen.

Money decisions in a congregation are never simply about money. To persuade decision makers to make hard budget cuts and donors to open their reduced pocketbooks, leaders need to connect decision making to a clear-eyed understanding of the congregation’s mission. That’s where the sense of urgency created by a global recession can actually create opportunities. Because we all need to make do with less, it can be easier to get leaders to focus on distinguishing the core mission from the external “nice, but peripheral” cost centers that naturally spring up when funds are plentiful.

In economic hard times, people need the church more than ever—to comfort them when they lose jobs or have to adjust their lifestyles or postpone retirement, to provide them with meaningful opportunities to serve those worse off than themselves, and to advocate for justice for the weak. In the process, we may gain new eyes to see the frills in our own institutional life, and to recommit ourselves to what is most essential.

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Questions for Reflection

  1. What vision will you use to shape your budget process? How do you answer the question, “In what new and different ways will we transform lives in the next one to three years?”
  2. How might your congregation express its vision in a simple slogan or statement?
  3. In what budget areas are your congregation’s expenses unusually high compared with others of your size? (For reference, see the “Snapshot of Congregational Finance” at /conversation.aspx?id=3150.
  4. What’s on your short list of priorities?
  5. What concerns might best be left as “open questions,” as described in the article?
  6. What must your congregation manage to afford, no matter what?

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