Ministry Nuts and Bolts – managing the church finances

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Yesterday I shared some thoughts on the need for leaders to be trained and equipped beyond their responsibilities to offer pastoral care, preach or teach and do the work of the evangelist. Today I want to share some thoughts on the specific issue that Steve Kneale’s original blogpost raised, the question of church finances. If you are a pastor or an elder, then your responsibility is not to handle the nuts and bolts of the accounts but there is a responsibility and skill which we might describe as financial leadership.

Now, my first piece of advice is that you get yourselves a good church treasurer.  This is the person who should know their way around the balance sheet as well as other financial tools available to them. They should know how to forecast and how to budget.  It’s important that as well as being able to understand the accounts that they can explain them clearly to others.  If you need t learn how to understand the books, then your treasurer should be the first port of call when looking for a teacher.  They do not have to be an accountant. After all, the church can employ the services of a professional accountant when needed. Indeed, some people argue that it is more important to find someone with an entrepreneurial mindset for the role. They do have to be numerate and most importantly trustworthy in financial matters.

Secondly, remember the old rule “KISS” or “Keep it Simple (followed by semi polite insult of your choice)”.  What often happens with financial stuff is that we make things more complicated than we need to be. Steve, mentions in his article how churches can end up with various pots and funds including those that are restricted for particular purposes. At a previous church we had little funds for everything.  It dated back to the days when most people gave in hard cash and they would set aside so much money each week.  So, we had an individual collection on any given Sunday that was allocated for this or that cause including separate collections for individual missionaries.  Added on to that, you would have different people who at different times would make a donation but insist it was for a specific cause.  Now, that is all well and good if the cause was a live one and agreed by the church as a priority but we also found that we had protected funds dating back years because at some point someone had thought the church needed this or that thing and so had given for it but the need wasn’t agreed on. The result was that we had money in the accounts we couldn’t easily spend on things that were required.

The problem with such ways of doing things is not just that it ends up complicated and hard to manage but also that it encourages bad habits.  You see, it is possible for people to keep giving to the church so that their conscience is protected but what they are tempted to do is to move their giving around. If you fall out with the pastor, then you move more of your tithe into the buildings fund, if you aren’t convinced that missionary x is doing a good job then you give to missionary y instead. This prevents open and honest conversations in the church about priorities and it also means that rather than the leaders or the church members (depending on your polity) making the priority decisions that those with the most money are able to control the church agenda and shape the mission.

Now, over time, we simplified things down until we just had a General Fund and a Staffing Fund. I think that we probably would have liked to move to one fund but the separate staffing fund was seen as a demonstration of the church’s desire to look after me and our other worker. Your church probably doesn’t have as messy a financial system as we did but there are still ways in which you can add complexity that gets in the way of transparency and good governance.  People argued that the different pots was a good thing because members were motivated by those things that they knew about and cared about. In other words, there was a spiritualised excuse. Often its those spiritual excuses that (as in that case) actually restrict us spiritually. So ask yourselves whether your processes and systems are unduly complex but also ask whether your financial systems encourage or discourage spiritual fruitfulness and faithfulness.

And this is the point.  We keep it simple by remembering our own specific responsibilities and priorities.  So, prioritise teaching good stewardship and generous giving as part of your teaching programme. That way, the whole church are properly engaged with the finances. 

Finally, keep it simply by keeping your focus on the main thing. It helps with financial decisions if you know what your mission and your priorities are as a church. This helps you to say yes and no to the right things. It also helps people to give faithfully and to give generously because they aren’t invested in this or that project which might be temporary. They are invested in the Gospel vision of the church.

All of this means that financial leadership is not just a practical matter but a spiritual exercise too and so is to be approached Biblically and prayerfully.

If you are looking for a primer on church finances and stewarding them well, I’d recommend John Temple’s Make your church’s money work

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