LCMS Stewardship Feature Story

Four Budgeting Lessons

Editor’s note: Monthly articles from LCMS Stewardship Ministry are hosted here on The Lutheran Witness site. Visit the “Ministry Features” page each month for additional stewardship content.

Karl Vaters, self-professed small church pastor, provides the grist for our stewardship mill this month. In his blog post “Small Church Finances: 4 Budgeting Lessons I Learned the Hard Way,” he presents some wisdom that every congregational steward leader should consider. Vaters presents four essential budgeting tips:

  • Don’t spend more than you bring in.
  • Build strong and study, not cheap or fancy.
  • Anticipate surprises.
  • Do not hire ahead of growth.

These are four great lessons, and I encourage you to go read his original post about how he learned these lessons the hard way in his context. Here, we will reflect on these four lessons and how they apply to stewards in our LCMS congregations.

1. Don’t spend more than you bring in.

This is essential. Spending more than we earn doesn’t work in our personal budgets. It certainly doesn’t work in congregational stewardship either. St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 4 that a steward is to be found faithful. There is no way spending more than you bring in is faithful. It puts households and households of faith in jeopardy.

So, how do we spend faithfully? It starts with the budgeting process. One of the most important tasks a steward leader in a congregation can undertake is to make sure that the budgeting process is working with real numbers. The congregation that simply takes last year’s numbers and adds a percentage that will come in “by faith” (especially without any intentional effort of stewardship education or formation) is setting stewards up for failure!

There is a way around this. It is the commitment process. It has been said that a congregation that doesn’t intentionally talk about money at least once a year will complain about it all year long. Steward leaders with experience will confess that congregations that avoid an annual stewardship commitment process will eventually fall into crisis. Now, it is true that not every member of the congregation will participate, but those who are actively and annually presented with instruction, encouragement and the opportunity to commit will more likely make and keep a growing level of support in the ministry. For those who won’t participate, but are regular in worship and giving, estimates can be made to provide a solid basis for building a faithful budget that is focused on stewardship of the Gospel in a fiscally responsible manner.

This is also a call to strenuously avoid operating deficits. Capital debt can make sense. Money spent to pay back a mortgage on a facility or a furnace still allows for ministry. But spending money on operating debt is like taking the giving of faithful stewards and throwing it into the fireplace. This frustrates faithful stewards and needs to be avoided.

2. Build strong and study, not cheap or fancy.

Taking the lowest bid or using duct tape and bailer twine may also not be faithful stewardship. There is an axiom that states: “The cheapest money you spend is the money you spend today.” When you take a middle way approach to investing in ministry, it may not be the cheapest. This means that the lowest bid is not always the best stewardship. This means paying a little more for a higher quality, longer lasting item may be better stewardship. Also, spending a bit more on an item where both sales and service are in your local community is also something to be considered in terms of faithfully being a steward in the community.

This is not a call to spend recklessly. Asking what is needed for the project or ministry is where to start. Bells and whistles don’t steward the Gospel. Reckless spending can also hamper the stewardship of faithful members of the congregation. When corporate stewardship is foolish, it gives an opportunity for the devil to work. If an individual takes seriously their created and redeemed identity as a steward, leaders who spend wildly may give them pause. This isn’t godly. Steward leaders need to take this tension seriously if they are going to be faithful stewards of the Gospel in the local congregation.

3. Anticipate surprises.

Surprises happen. But the failure of a roof or a boiler isn’t one of them. Surprises are things like fires, floods and tornadoes. Every piece of mechanical equipment has a reasonable lifespan. Congregations of every size need to take seriously the call to be good stewards of the building, equipment and people entrusted to them.

Setting aside resources to repair and replace equipment is most certainly a mark of good corporate stewardship. In the same way that financial planners encourage families to have an emergency fund, congregations should as well. With the pandemic fresh in our collective nightmares, could we see benefit in making sure there are resources on hand to provide for faithful Word and Sacrament ministry while the there are less than ideal conditions for financial support? This isn’t about hoarding resources only for local control. It is about realizing that the local congregation is the body of Christ in that place and is called to proclaim Christ, even in the most challenging time.

This also would include preparing for benevolence ministry. Embodying the care for our neighbor that Jesus has for us necessitates having resources at hand for this kind of ministry. In many cases, when opportunities arise for this kind of care, time is of the essence. Having resources on hand for these kinds of “surprises” allows for ready opportunity to show care for the sake of Jesus.

4. Do not hire ahead of growth.

This might be the hardest one to follow. In many cases, a ministry opportunity presents itself to a local congregation where it would be best addressed with a dedicated staff position. But as any congregational stewardship leader knows, staffing is front loaded. Salary and benefits, even from a newly minted seminary graduate, will eat up the better part of $100,000 if the compensation is fair.

But this need not be the end of any new potential ministry. It is simply a call to be much more aggressive in the process of raising up stewards who are willing to invest themselves and their time for the sake of the Gospel. These investments of human capital, while they take effort, may actually make the entire ministry stronger in the long run as the individual stewards see themselves faithfully investing their sweat equity in the ministry of reconciliation that is the Gospel.

Another way around this might well be ministry partnerships. A group of congregations in a given area might become creative in areas like youth and family ministry by sharing resources to call a worker for a specific ministry in a region rather than just one congregation. A deaconess, DCE or other church worker might be able to serve multiple congregations. This will require partnership rather than competition, but it can be done.

This list is by no means exhaustive. But it is a place to start the discussion of faithful financial stewardship of the Gospel in the local congregation. These points are not meant to accuse, but to encourage thoughtful, examined and measured stewardship from all perspectives. The Lord can and does provide resources to the individual steward and the local congregation. But the call from the Lord that comes with that trust is a call to faithfulness. To Jesus. To each other.

LCMS Stewardship ministry features may be reprinted with acknowledgment given to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

2 thoughts on “Four Budgeting Lessons”

  1. An expensive new undertaking that is zealously advocated by some might be deemed a reckless endeavor to others. But the excitable visionaries and the fastidious bean counters may both have a valuable contribution to make, and they might even learn from each other as the congregation collectively and prayerfully considers how best to respond to emerging ministry opportunities and challenges.

    Does exercising faith mean being unconcerned about financial risks while affirming, simply and fervently, that “the Lord will provide”? Such an attitude might reflect more presumption than faith. For God, being God, can certainly choose to orchestrate an outcome that is different from what we aim to achieve. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21 ESV).

    When Jesus counseled his hearers concerning what they would be getting into were they to become his disciples (Luke 14:28-32), he did not simply say, “Don’t worry. Just trust the Spirit.” Rather, he used relatable illustrations of a builder who wants to construct a tower and a warrior king who is facing an enemy. Jesus did not suggest that the faith of the builder or the king would be weak if they felt the need to take stock of their resources. To the contrary, he upheld their assessments as exemplary.

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