Good Friday 2018

Here it is Good Friday 2018, and I’ve got a boatload of stuff to do. Aside from normal day-to-day business I’m helping a client move their business office (as the guy who needs the financial computers to be up and running on Monday morning). I got up rather early in order to get to church, since each year we have an all-night prayer vigil where different parishioners sign up for an hour of prayer. And of course I’ll go to Good Friday service this evening… hopefully not a sweaty, smelly mess!

But in some ways it’s appropriate to be a mess on Good Friday. Our contemporary and sterile Western perspective on major biblical events doesn’t convey the reality of what happened. A bloody execution took place on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and those around would have seen blood and gushing from our Lord’s body at the distressing climax of the event.

I suppose there are a number of things that I could say in perspective of this in an attempt to relate it to church finance and administration. But really, at the end of this (and every) day I’m forced to confess that it’s not about finance and administration. If it were, I’d be making an idol out of this vocation. No, it’s about our Lord, remembering his sham trial and very real execution.

So today, in the midst of business and busyness, it will be that commemoration.

Have a blessed, thoughtful, Easter.

Why we do what we do

I started attending my current church, Calvary-St. George’s, the second Sunday in Advent of 2013.  It’s not the first time I had been in an Episcopal Church, but it was the first time I stayed.  My life had mostly been in Presbyterian churches up to that point.  I’m a bit of a traditionalist, so being in an environment with a structured, traditional liturgy really appealed to me… choir processional at the beginning of service, check… gospel read in the middle of the congregation, check… communion every week, cool… but the reality is that that this liturgy appealed to my traditionalist chops, and that was is all it was for me.

That is, until one day when one Sunday in early 2014 when it all changed.

A couple of weeks before, the church made an announcement that there would be a five-week class called Why We Do What We DoMatthew Paul Buccheri led this class to walk through the liturgy and talk about the meaning behind the liturgical practices Episcopalians engage in, from the processional until the final blessing.  We learned why we do the peace (to make things right with our neighbor, sometimes symbolically and sometimes literally) and why it is placed right before the offering (make peace, then give your offering per Matthew 5:24).  We found out why the priest walks to the middle of the congregation to read the Gospel (to be heard better in pre-amplification days, now symbolic of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us). It was a wonderful class, changed my perspective on the liturgy, and really changed my Sunday worship.

At this point you might be asking what this has to do with ministry and finance.  After all, it’s a church and ministry management blog!

Well, just like understanding why we do what we do in church has benefited my spiritual life, knowing why we do what we do helps us become better administrators.  For example, offering needs to be collected a certain way to both prevent fraud and to meet IRS compliance.  We all would agree that the checkbook needs to be reconciled regularly, but who reconciles it and how often they reconcile it makes a difference.  Likewise, closing the books monthly and checking for accuracy is a practice that ensures that financial reports are accurate, that they have been reviewed by management, and that they are being used as part of making informed decisions.

Regardless of your ministry’s size or how sophisticated your financial function, knowing the why behind a policy, practice, or process keeps its importance in mind, keeps the focus on what the outcome needs to be, and makes the administrative side of ministry an intentional instead of haphazard.  If you are like me and in administration, then this is a great way to get your minister on board with following procedures.  And if you’re a ministry leader, then be thinking about the reasons behind why your financial team might want you doing things a certain way.  Either way, it will make help your ministry steward God’s resources a bit better!


The Goal of Financial Management in Ministry, part 2

In my last post a few of weeks ago I wrote about how the goal of finance in ministry was to create sustainable ministry—a ministry that can last for years to come—and offered a list of things we need to do to have sustainable ministry. But as I said in that post, sustainable ministry is not the only goal.

Back when I first entered business school, I spoke to my program director about getting a second major. I entered the MBA program to get a specialization in arts administration, which was a natural transition from music, and I thought that my analytical side would do well with either accounting (what happened to money in the past to get to where we are today) or finance (how we can use money we have today to make more). So my program director had me talk to an accounting professor and a finance professor. The accounting professor effectively said to me, “You’re in a program where you’ll be working in nonprofits. Nonprofits don’t want to make more money, so your second major should be accounting.” Then I went to the finance professor. The finance professor effectively said to me, “You’re in a program where you’ll be working in nonprofits. Nonprofits don’t want to make more money, so your second major should be accounting.” So what did I do? I double majored in finance. To this day I have no idea why I chose the path I did against the advice of both professors as I am hardly the rebellious type, and can only assume that God meant for it to be.

But here’s the thing: a couple of days before I graduated I went back to the finance professor and told him about my experience in the finance program. What I told him then is what I want to say now, and is the second, and more important, reason for finance in ministry. I said:

Professor Ramirez, contrary to what you told me about nonprofits not needing to make more, what I realized about finance in nonprofits is that they do want to make more, but it’s something other than money.

The whole “return on investment” concept in ministry is not about making money. It’s a different return on investment. In ministry, return on investment is measured lives changed: souls saved, homeless fed, teens with direction, addicts living the 12 Steps, and on and on it goes.

So my question for you is this: what does “return on investment” look like for your ministry? How do you define it? Does your board what this is? Do your contributors know what it is? Do your constituents know it?

Think about it, write it out, pass it around, get feedback, and then base everything you do on it—from programs to developing administrative support, and see how it impacts your ministry in effectiveness and financially.

The Goal of Financial Management in Ministry

Sometimes I get philosophical about the reason for why things are done a certain way or why some things even exist.  This is true of even the whole purpose of financial management within churches and ministries.   What is the goal of finance and accounting in churches and religious ministries?  In the world of for-profit business, the purpose is very clear: to make money.  Or as we would say back in my business school days, it’s to maximize return on investment to investors.

But ministries are different–there are no investors looking to make more money (or at least shouldn’t be, which very well might be a topic for another day!).  So what is the goal of finance in ministry?

In my thinking, there are really two goals, and today I’d like to discuss one of them.  As I see it, the purpose of finance in our work is to create sustainable ministry.  To ensure that the ministry has impact… to make sure that the ministry lasts beyond our lives and ministers and blesses generations to come.  In my thinking, this really is what good stewardship is about.

So what does this look like in our approach to finance and how we manage our ministries?

First, it calls for prudent budgeting.  Certainly we want to stretch our organizations to reach more and do more, so we proceed, but we proceed with caution.

Second, it calls for partnership between our minds and the Holy Spirit.  God gave us minds to think, and God gave us the Holy Spirit to guide.  Instead of relying on one or the other, why not both?

Third, be wary of temporary fads… or at least don’t commit to them.  We certainly need to pay attention to trends and adjust to them, but sustainable ministries start by thinking long term, and temporary fads are contrary this sustainable approach.

Fourth, develop solid systems and processes.  These create administrative stability, and stability helps create sustainable ministry.

Finally, make sure that you have a solid financial team.  The operative word that goes hand in hand with sustainable ministry is team.  Having one person doing everything for finance creates risk for the ministry, because once they go, stability goes out the door.  On the other hand, if someone leaves a team, the other members should be equipped with the knowledge and skills to cover the missing member’s talents, thereby sustaining the financial work and ensuring ongoing support for the ministry.

As I mentioned earlier, this is one part of my answer.  The other part will need to wait until next week as I delve further into the topic.   In the meantime, but bug I want to plant in your brain is whether or not your financial function is helping you create sustainable ministry.  Is it?  Is it in only some areas?  Or aren’t you sure?  Let me know what you think with comments below, or by contacting me.   I’d love to hear from you.

In the beginning…

Two beginnings stand out in my mind as I think through the Bible.  The first is of creation itself, and the other in the first words of St. John’s gospel… “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”  and “In the beginning was the Word…”  The latter is an anomaly… the writer tells us what things were like from the start—the Word was already there.  But creation is a different story: the universe we know didn’t exist, then upon command it began.

This is normally how we think of things: something didn’t exist, then there’s action, and now it exists.  A congregation is without a minister, it conducts a search, then there’s a minister.  The youth program is small, has few activities, while the kids are hanging outside the corner deli without an adult mentoring them about the ways of life until a grown-up steps up and starts a program.  A financially strapped government has discontinued support services for the mentally ill, and a segment of the community is at risk until a group of mental health professionals form a nonprofit to bring pharmaceutical companies, doctors, psychiatrists, and social workers together to form a solution.

Doesn’t exist / action / exists.

But there’s one other component to add to this: the idea.  The thought.  Possibly the vision.  Whatever goes on in the mind that precedes action.

Ideas are very important to action, and I’m sure I’ll cover them at some point in my musings.  For now, I want to focus on one thing: for some time I’ve had the idea that I should formalize my financial work with ministries, write a book, create training materials, and a host of other activities that supports ministers, nonprofit directors, and lay leaders on how to effectively steward the financial assets under their care.  After all, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost?”  So here we are, the idea was there, and now Tower Ministry Finance has come into being.

Unlike God, I can’t see the future and I don’t know what to expect from this journey.  I’m relying on the clues that I have in front of me, the encouragement of others, and a prayer that I’m doing correctly interpreting the signals to move ahead with this financial ministry.

So let’s see where the journey takes us!