Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The bottom line of the budget. . .

While some churches have fared rather well in the wake of the pandemic, others are finding old financial concerns returning.  It is the problem of the bottom line.  What can we afford and what can't we afford.  This is certainly true of local congregations.  Once budgets enjoyed double digit growth and all kinds of things were added into the largess of the congregation.  Those days are largely over.  Even once mighty congregations are finding that the dollars are not coming in as they once were and that the budgets are being trimmed down to what is essential.

I have experienced both sides.  On the one hand, I was there when we were adding everything to the congregational spending plan -- from local charitable agencies that fed the poor and gave Christmas gifts to the national causes including Lutheran World Relief and Wheat Ridge and such.  We plugged those agencies into the congregation's budget and wrote out a check on behalf of us all.  Now it is less likely to find all of these agencies in the local budget of the congregation.  It is more likely that if these organizations are supported, it is through the direct gifts of those in the pew not through the parish.  This is even true of support for such core items as missions and seminary support.

Some find this a bad thing.  I have heard it lamented that my own church body does not include much money for seminaries or missions in the budget of corporate Synod (a term I actually dislike).  It is true.  The designated mission funds greatly overshadow the mission monies that come from congregations through districts and finally to Synod.  There are those who complain that missionaries have to be fund raisers and that the seminaries have to solicit funds directly.  We ought to do better.  Of course, we should but is it a bad thing that good causes and even high priority church work is done the way it is?

The seminaries complain but the reality is that the Synod does support them and even better today than in the past.  Both of our seminaries have had highly successful campaigns to raise funds to provide free tuition to those studying to be pastors and to handle what are often expensive repairs and maintenance to campuses in desperate need of the work.  None of these funds came from corporate Synod and the funds that start out in congregations and wind their way through districts finally to Synod but ALL of these funds came from Synod -- individuals and families who are members of Synod congregations whose hearts overflow with faith, generosity, and love for the Lord and His Church.

The sad reality is that fewer and fewer dollars actually find their way from congregations to districts and then to Synod and more and more of them are kept at the congregational or district level.  I get that.  Look at what health insurance costs and maintenance on our buildings and utilities.  Our people are generally very generous and the dollars given for the direct support of missionaries are a testament to the generosity of God's people.

A long time ago we presumed that support from the church meant a line on a budget.  It may have worked for a while but I will take this opportunity to say something shocking.  It was never supposed to be the congregation's job to feed the hungry, care for the poor, relieve the needs of the sick and elderly, and do the good works that fall under the larger category of social ministry.  It was always the job of the Christian.  Unfortunately, good works have become writing a check or designating an online gift to a cause.  That is not what the Scriptures talk about -- good works were not meant to be a transaction but a commitment from the hearts of people who had experienced God's mercy and who showed that mercy to those in need -- whether familiar or a stranger!  We should have never made the charitable good works a part of the congregation's budget in the first place.  God did not create the Church to be a clearing house for funds for a good cause.  He created His Church to be the place where His gifts were distributed to His people (Word and Sacrament).  Of course other things go on but we dare not forget that these good things are the domain of the Christian and the reflection of his or her own baptismal vocation to live as His children in the world.

The congregation has its core expenses to take care of -- including the faithful support of a pastor -- and the people of God should not consider this optional.  You do not get a choice of whether or not you are going to take care of the people in your household (feeding, clothing, sheltering, etc...) and you do not get the option not to support the people in God's household (your pastor and other church workers).  It is part of the duty of the faith (though it ought to be our privilege and delight).  But caring for the place where you worship as a congregation and the man of God who serves you as shepherd and steward of the mysteries of God should not have to compete with other causes for support.  The tithe is not a rule or a law but it is hard to figure out how what was once required should end up being of no consequence as people consider their stewardship of God's resources entrusted to them.  Can we as Christians do less in love than the law required?  Should we?  

In the same way, Christians should not be dividing up their total designated giving between good causes and the church.  The church is not a beggar.  The church first (I would suggest considering a tithe here as a good comparison point) and then another level of giving for the good and noble causes of our church agencies, institutions, and organizations that act in our name.  In the end, however, the good works that we do were always meant to be more than a convenient check or online giving transaction but were designed to inconvenience us and to be a sacrifice.  By making such things painless or easy, we often defeat the fruit these good works bear in us and in our lives.

It has never been a matter of not enough money.  It has always been a matter of will and purpose.  God has richly supplied His people in every age and He does not ask from us that which He has not already given us.  Now more than ever we enjoy an abundance of resources.  Now is not the time to make God's work in the congregation compete with God's work in the community.  Both are His will and purpose.  Both are His domain.  Instead of doing less, we should strive to do more with the more He has given.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Our congregation Good Sheperd Lutheran Toledo does Fort Wayne seminary support, the local Lutheran Social Services food pantry, and our missionaries the Naumanns.