Why does God use money?

A number of years ago I attended an ethnic church in my neighborhood in Queens.  It was a wonderful experience, I love the congregation and the clergy, and it had a strong impact on my spiritual life.  It also came with it’s challenges, mostly in the way of communicating with others my age since they were all immigrants whose first language wasn’t English.

One year the church undertook a project to transcribe the Bible.  A deacon coordinated the project, assigning different books of the Bible to different members, who then transcribed their respective book(s) onto beautiful gilt-edged paper.   I was invited to participate and ended up transcribing I and II Peter.  It was quite the challenge in that my language skills were nominal, my writing looked like a child’s, but nevertheless I proceded with the project and completed it.

After the project was over the deacon presented this Bible to the senior minister which, to the best of my knowledge, still sits atop the altar.   The church asked different participants to share the story of their experience transcribing the Bible with the congregation.  When it was my turn, I posed a question: why did God entrust the continual publication to human scribes from the start.  Did God not know that humans are fallible?  Weren’t there more efficient ways of doing it?  Why didn’t God simply deliver new scrolls when needed?  It’s been long enough since I spoke that I forget what my conclusion was about that topic, but it does lead me to a new question that I’ve been thinking about recently:

Why does God require his people to use money? 

Why do churches need people to give?  Why do churches and ministries need to budget?  What is the purpose of finance committees and boards?  Wouldn’t it be easier and more efficient to drop money from the sky, or every Sunday let the minister wake up and see crisp new $100 bills in the aisles–moolah instead of manna, so to speak?

As with many things I have more questions than answers, but I am going to suggest two reasons.

First, I find that my relationship with money says a lot about what is going on in my heart.  If I’m consumed with a financial issue, then it means that I’m putting my trust in my bank account instead of on God.

And this leads to my second conclusion: trusting in God for provision leads to better ministry.  I’ve worked with a number of ministries over time, and two examples come to mind that demonstrate the contrast.  In the first case, a Wall Street type gave a significant amount of money to the ministry.  They went all out with advertising, hired a bunch of new staff, created new programs–the works.  About a year afterwards they let a bunch of people go, closed down a major program, and cut costs.  In the second case there were some substantial gifts, but not to the extent of the first ministry, the staff relied on prayer and careful budgeting to manage finances, and the ministry grew significantly.

Now, there may have been other factors that were in play that I didn’t know about, and I don’t have the knowledge that God has about what happened.  But it was always my perspective that the different outcomes were greatly influenced by where trust was put.

Why does God require us to use money?  We’ll ultimately know in the end.   But I think that we have some decent clues for now.

Multicampus Accounting

In my last post I talked about the purpose of accounting being to measure things.  There are really many things that can be accounted for in ministry, as I mentioned in that post.  In this post I want to talk about a very specific application: accounting for multi-site churches.

Before getting into how to account for it, it might be helpful for me to describe how I got to this approach since it will explain the progression of my thinking, the rationale behind my approach, and perhaps give you some ideas about how this type of accounting might apply to your ministry directly or indirectly.

It was probably in 2010 that one of my church clients was getting to a point where the initial worship sites were stable and established, but the church was considering bringing on an additional pastors to plant additional locations.  Up to this point it was multiple locations but with one lead minister / pastoral team, but a combination of new locations / additional ministers added a new dimension to the mix.  Since the church was moving to a more complex structure it was time to review our reports to see if the information we were getting supported the decisions that needed to be made.

In conversations with leadership I recommended that the church structure its financials so that it could track income and costs by location in order to a) monitor how much each plant was relying on outside support for revenues, b) understand to what degree, if any, each plant was relying on the established congregations to support its operations, and c) track internal giving over time to see how well internal giving was progressing over time.  My reasoning behind these three points was that a congregation needs to be financially sustainable from the beginning, that sustainability would be initially achieved through a combination of outside gifts and support from the “mother” church, but that over time the external sources would diminish and internal giving would need to cover expenses.

The solution is to this type of accounting, and what I created for this church is to create a cross-tabulated report that let us track income and expenses.  It looked something like this:

In short, this is a solution for any church that has multiple locations, or even different ministries that it wants to track.  I worked with single location church where the ministries were straightforward, but it had a number of significant bequests left over the decades that the board needed to monitor both for continued contributions into those funds and that expenses were used according to the donor’s stipulations.

Since each church is different in how it works and tracks things, it might be the right thing or it might not be for your situation, so I certainly can’t make a recommendation for you on a blog post.  But I do hope that this stimulates thinking about what the possibilities are and how it might apply to your ministry.

Measuring Ministry

This past weekend was a busy one, and mostly with family.  My niece was in a field hockey tournament on Saturday so I went down to watch a game, then on Sunday I went to church, stopped by the World Trade Memorial to reflect and remember, then went out to New Jersey to spend more time with them.  They hosted a pot luck barbeque for their block, so I got to know some of the neighbors.

I particularly got involved in conversation with one neighbor who serves as the head of a 150-strong police force in a nearby community.  When he found out about my work in accounting and finance, he began explaining the changes he made when he began using crime statistics to manage his department and the impact those changes made.

Since speaking with him I’ve been thinking about the lessons we can take from what he’s done.  The concept I want to focus on today is measurement.  The primary role of accounting is to measure things as far as I am concerned.  As a result we measure how much we have in the bank, we measure how much the congregation has given the church, we measure how much each member has given the church, we measure how much it takes to keep the lights on, and on it goes.  And like our police captain, we can take non-financial measurements: what the average Sunday attendance is, how many new professions of faith have been made, how many people have been served through the community pantry, etc.

Especially important is combining financial and non-financial information to make program decisions.  Let’s say as an example that it costs $25,000 to run a program out of the youth center, a handful of teenagers show up, their grades remain poor and they’re still making poor life choices.  Do we feel that the church’s money is being put to best use?  Maybe it’s time to make changes to the program.  Or maybe a little bit more investment would give much better results.  Or maybe the program needs to be shut down.

As I write further, I realize that there are a few more things that I should mention about the topic of measuring things, but I want to keep this post focused and will continue this conversation again later.  For now though, be thinking about what can be measured in your ministry.  Perhaps even just making a list of your programs would be a start.  In the meantime, I’ll plan on writing two more posts about this: one on how to make measuring easier and another giving some examples of measuring programs.

Somebody’s got to do it!

This past Sunday I was up in Albany for a short personal retreat.  Normally I’d go to Holy Cross Monastery or some other retreat center, but in this case a friend had an empty house they had on the market, so it saved me a little bit of money and forced silence on me.  And it really was what the doctor ordered!

While I was there I decided to go to the Cathedral of All Saints for holy Eucharist.  It was an early service, so it was perfect for me to nourish my soul and return to my retreat.  Afterwards I had the brief opportunity to speak with the clergy who led the service, and was delighted to find out that he was well-acquainted with my parish here in the city.

In the course of conversation he asked what I did for a living, so I told him about my business and specifically described my work with ministries.  And then I said something that is the title and theme of this post: “As financial work it is important, and regardless of who does it in the ministry, somebody’s got to do it.”

As I sit and write this, there are a ton of things that need to get done.  I’ll do some of them myself.  I’ll also, as I get better at delegating, farm things out to someone else.  Maybe I’ll send those things out because they’re things that would crowd out my schedule and prevent me from doing what is more important.  Or perhaps I’ll send them out because they’re things that someone else is more skilled at doing.  Either way, ultimately somebody will do it.

My point here is this: there are things that need to be done in your ministry.  Certainly financial management is one, but I’m thinking more broadly about daily administration.  Whatever it is, somebody’s got to do it.  You don’t have to do it yourself, you don’t have to do it alone, and someday I’m sure I’ll talk about what I’ve learned through books and experience about recruiting, delegating, and working with paid helpers and volunteer helpers to help us both think through how this looks like.

So my exhortation today is to be mindful of what needs to be done in the ministry and to be thinking about who will do it.  After all, somebody’s got to do it!

About Martha

There are certain people that I really feel for in the Bible, people who I feel got an unfair shake, are maligned, or got a bad rap.  Job is one of them.  Imagine being at the wrong end of a cosmic bet.  It makes the movie Trading Places look like peanuts.  Or think about Jonah.  Who could blame him for running away from being missionary to the enemy?  And what about Hosea?  What would you do if God said to you, “I have a wonderful woman for you to marry.   And oh, by the way, she’s a hooker.”  And then we get to Martha.  You know her: Mary and Lazarus’s sister.  Was toiling away in the kitchen when Jesus and the rest of the gang were out having fun in the living room.  And just think about it: if she hadn’t been cooking, they would have starved.  Or at least they would have until Jesus turned candles into bread.

Meanwhile, Mary was hanging out with the rest of the irresponsible gang, listening to teachings and what-not.  Now, we all know that there was a lesson to be learned—that of fellowshipping with Christ is most important.  Yet the challenge to me is that I, and many of my colleagues, are in Martha roles in the church.  We’re the administrative versions of cooks in the kitchen.

So what do we do about it?  Just stop our work?  I doubt that would do the trick.  For some strange reason, the master of the universe has entrusted stewardship of the Church’s assets to us for us to manage instead of snapping his fingers and making everything work out.

Now, we know that Jesus had a very specific message for Martha at this gathering: the prophetic nature of Mary’s actions and the importance of our fellowship with Christ.  But I think that there’s something else that went on at the event, as evidenced by Martha’s complaint.

I suspect, and this is purely speculation coming from a guy who has neither a theology degree or a psychology degree, is that the part of the problem is in Martha’s answer—”Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”  It sure sounds like a bitter, resentful response to the situation to me.

And that brings me to what goes on in my own heart at times.  My perception of others’ work is that they have it easier, while the reality is that I don’t see the struggles they go through.  All I see are my challenges and why it’s unfair.  Or I look at people whose careers took them to Wall Street and then ask myself why God didn’t take me that direction.  “After all God, if you had directed my career to Wall Street, I’d be a zillionaire and could give you a lot of money!  And I know you need my money!”

Ha!  Who’s lying to himself?

Well my friend, the reality is that we are both in God’s service—you in your ministry, and me in this weird financial / administrative world where I’m in a back office.

My encouragement to both of us in this post is to remember who we are serving, why we are serving, and not forget that we too need moments where we finish preparing our behind-the-scenes work and allow our hearts to fellowship with Christ.