How Do Churches Make Decisions about Money?

Is your church facing financial decisions? Even in boom times, making decisions that involve money can be a challenge for leaders. It may involve taking a risk, and that raises anxiety: deciding to increase salaries substantially, hire additional staff or move ahead with a building program creates the possibility of not being able to pay for it. And when times are tough, and budget cuts seem inevitable, the decisions can be even more difficult.

Churches with leaders who are less anxious make better decisions. Anxiety-driven decisions can easily be made too quickly or too slowly. Sometimes anxiety means people want resolution immediately, as with one church who laid off a key staff member to balance the budget after one meeting’s discussion. Sometimes it causes people to postpone a decision for fear of making the wrong one, as with churches who use up their entire endowment as a way of avoiding any budget cuts.

Remember, as a church leader, you can only manage your own anxiety, not anyone else’s. Edwin Friedman used to say, try to be a “relatively non-anxious presence.” Don’t think you’ve failed if you have moments of anxiety or get caught in a particular meeting or conversation. See how quickly you can get back on track. Your calm will likely influence others.

Churches with clear leaders make better decisions. How do you give yourself time and space to get clear? You may need to say, “I’ll get back to you on that. I need to think about it.” Or in a meeting, if a thought does need to be offered right now, you can say, “Here’s the best thinking I can come up with right now, but I expect I’ll have some further thoughts later.” Decisions based on clear principles and on the overall vision for the church are almost always better than decisions based on feeling good or making people happy.

Here are eight questions that might be useful as you consider your decision-making process:

1. What is the question that needs to be decided?
2. When does a decision need to be made?
3. Who else needs to contribute to this decision?
4. Are we appropriately balancing the needs of the present with the needs of the future?
5. Are we clear on the roles each person and group is playing – pastor, governing board, finance committee – and what those responsibilities entail?
6. Are we sharing information appropriately? What do staff, other lay leadership and congregation need to know, and what is the right timing?
7. On what assumptions are we basing our decisions? How do we know they are accurate?
8. How is our faith informing this decision?

2 replies on “How Do Churches Make Decisions about Money?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Thanks for this, Marcy. I haven’t seen The Checklist Manifesto, but it sounds fascinating. I do think there is plenty to be learned from the business world about structure and accountability — and yet the church is very different. I heard Pete Steinke say once a business leader told him that one year in business equals seven years in church! It does take longer to move forward at church, and more patience is required. Also, much of what we are working toward is intangible.

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  • Marcy H. Nicholas

    Not to dominate the comments on this blog–but first of all thank you for that repertoire of responses: “I’ll get back to you on that. I need to think about it.” And its companion: “Here’s the best thinking I can come up….” I definitely need those. I also appreciate the list of questions. I don’t know if you have come across the book The Checklist Manifesto or not. Written by a surgeon, the book explores what is the best way to deal with issues in this increasingly complex world with so much information out there. The author checks in with pilots, general contractors and builders of large structures such as skyscrapers, and even how Wal-Mart handled Katrina. I think it could be useful in the life of the church as well. At the same time, I do struggle when church growth writers leaders use business models of leadership with the church. Let’s face it, in the church, we work with “volunteers” who can quit anytime, who can stop what they are doing, who can underfunction over and over again without any consequences. I do not know of any source that addresses this issue about the church. Would love to hear your thoughts on this unique aspect of the church.

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