Friday, May 29, 2009

Church Finances

Although most of my evidence is anecdotal, I think our shrinking economy is having an impact on church finances. Some of my former colleagues in the eastern part of the country report lower church giving. The fallout is forcing cuts in church staffs, less giving to missions, postponed building and program upgrades and pay freezes. Our denomination, the ABC - USA, has downsized considerably, mostly without publicity. I only recently learned that our missionaries are now charged with raising their own support after years of full denominational support. This is a huge change. Many state church staffs are having to sell off buildings and property to try to free up program funds. Massachusetts and New York have had drastic cuts in state staff. Massachusetts put both their camps on the market as well as their state office building. Local pastors in Massachusetts and New York are handling the tasks that full time area ministers used to do.

Bucking that trend is a pastor in the Boston area who is a good friend of mine. A church member who died last year left a very sizable gift to the church. There is a committee meeting now to present a recommendation to the church about how it should be used. My friend thought a new Porsche for the pastor and a trip to Hawaii for the pastor and wife would be good first steps. However, he is not feeling too optimistic that the committee is leaning that way. Still, it is a good problem to have and he confesses to feeling a bit guilty about the good fortune of the church in the midst of so many churches who are struggling financially right now.

I have never been able to figure out a formula for church finances. How to increase church giving is a popular theme of books and conferences aimed at pastors. We are suckers for this kind of thing. We will pay good money to go to them. There is a lot of anxiety among pastors regarding this subject. After all, it directly affects our bottom line. Most small churches work on a very thin financial margin. I have had the experience of going to the bank to cash my paycheck and being told that there were insufficient funds to cash it. It is unnerving and makes for some interesting dreams where the pastor (me) and family are out living on the street because the giving dried up.

So I have tried a variety of stewardship programs. Often they are framed in discipleship or evangelism language and presented as ways to increase church fellowship ("this program is not really to raise money but will strengthen your church in significant ways"). It's a lot of work to raise money and I never found these programs really did what they advertised. They didn't even increase giving. In some cases they had the opposite effect. Some people would say, "you only call me once a year when you want money." They were right. I don't blame them for being upset. I was told by church Trustees when the giving was slow that I needed to preach on tithing more. I did but I wasn't sure what good it did. It didn't seem to work either. Do people give more just because they are told to? I was uncomfortable using God's word as a means to better offerings. I never saw a direct link between preaching on giving and more giving. Maybe it was my preaching. I could never really put my heart into it. So, I have pretty much stopped talking about it and I haven't been involved in a stewardship program for years.

I think giving is a spiritual issue, don't get me wrong. I just think we talk about it for the wrong reasons. The following Christ life is a giving, even sacrificial lifestyle. We have to teach that and learn that. But, financial giving is just one small part of that. By focusing only on giving money to the church we present a skewed perspective. It's more like give so we can keep this enterprise afloat. That's not why we give.

We give because God gives. If we are going to become like him, we are going to become better givers. I think it is a matter of Christian maturity. As people mature spiritually, they give more. That's why I haven't found any formula or program that works to increase giving. It is one part of an overall church growth (spiritual growth) process. Which means God is in charge. If a church needs something, it is probably better to pray than to find a stewardship program.

Over the past ten years or so our church has had its ups and down in this area of giving. Like the times of Joseph we have had lean years and fat years. During the fat years, we can do some things we couldn't do during the lean years. We can take care of some maintenance that is overdue and we can give more money to missions. We can also save some money for the lean years that will surely come. I wish I could say I knew how to have more fat years. I wish I could say it was due to my preaching, or leadership. I wish I could say God is just really blessing what we are doing right now. I hear pastors say that, you know, God is really blessing us right now. But that always sounds to me like the emphasis is on the "us". God is blessing you and not me because why. Does that mean He likes you and what you are doing more? You are doing more things His way than we are? I don't think so.

My friend in Boston could have really laid one on me. He could have said, God is really, really blessing us right now! How are you doing? He didn't. He said we had a person die and she left all this money to the church. Now we have to figure out how to deal with it. That is a task that will lead to greater spiritual maturity in his church, he hopes. It might not, too. No guarantees. Just like life. There are lean years and fat years. Spiritually mature Christians can handle both.

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