Do You Know Your Church’s Money Story?

Are you wondering why your church does what it does around money? Some congregations never believe they have enough. Other churches have a crisis in December year after year. They always come out all right in the end, but they have to panic first. Patterns which don’t make sense, and even those that do, but still never change, often have their roots deep in the past. In a recent Christian Century article, “The Past Isn’t Past,” Margaret Bendroth points out how the events of the past can repeat themselves, sometimes almost mysteriously.

Instead of tearing your hair out, do a little research. Make friends with the church historian. Read the annual reports. One pastor read through the reports for his church and noticed every pastor tried to make the same changes, going back before he was born. He realized the chance of him shifting those patterns significantly — as he’d hoped to do when he arrived — was small. In a way, this takes the pressure off.

You may say, “We’re facing a huge budget crisis here, and you want me to waste a week digging through old papers?” Well, there may be clues in the papers that can help in the present. James Lamkin, in January’s teleconference, said that he found in his own research that his church also dealt with recessionary times in the 1970s. He says, “When the anxiety rises, tunnel vision also comes about. It feels like we’ve never been here before, the sky is falling, this is the end of life on the planet. I made a copy of our church newsletter from 1975 about budget cutbacks and layoffs, etc.” He asked his leaders, “How in the world did the church handle this crisis? It looks worse then than it is now.” He used this to remind leaders of the resourcefulness the church had shown in the past, that was still available in the present. He adds, “It’s kind of like sliding Grandpa’s picture in front of the family and saying, you know he was a rascal, but man, he had tenacity, don’t you think?”

Every church story, like every family story, has its strengths and weaknesses. When we are honest about both, we allow room for shifts to happen — but don’t try to make people face their own patterns or their past history. It’s a way to open the door. You might say, “Hmm, I noticed this — what do you think about it?”

Here are some questions to ask along the way:

* How did the church get started? How was it funded at the beginning?
* What has been the pattern of support over the years? Annual giving? Endowment? Denominational subsidy?
* What financial crises has the church faced? How has the congregation weathered them?
* Are there particular areas of ministry, now and in the past, that become the focus of people’s anxiety about money: the building? Staffing? Mission/outreach giving?
* Who knows what about the money? Has that always been the case?

Bendroth says “Critical reflection on all the stuff of history, the good as well as the bad, is a source and a sign of institutional vitality.” It’s not a dusty past; it’s alive and well right now in your church. This reflection can help you lead more calmly in the area of money. It can give you perspective on your role and the overall strength the congregation has to maintain its ministry into the future.

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