Adaptive Leadership

Money, Ministry, and Church Leadership

How can we talk about church finances in a healthy way? Let’s face it, it is a sensitive topic to bring up in a church. Having said that, in the past twelve years, hundreds of congregations in the United States have permanently closed their doors due to lack of funds. Others have split over disagreements of how to spend their funds. Some ministers or church leaders have gotten themselves into deep legal trouble because they did not understand the rules governing church finances.

In the Fall of 2015, while Emmanuel Christian Seminary was in the process of becoming an embedded seminary in Milligan College (now Milligan University), a representative from the Association of Theological Schools did an on-campus visit to see how the merger was progressing. She and I began discussing how well seminaries were preparing their students for the actual tasks related to ministry, whether in a church or some other Christian organization. One comment that stuck with me was that she was not aware of an ATS accredited school that was preparing their students for any kind of leadership in church or ministry finances.

This struck home since it echoed my own experience. I had gone through the traditional route of Bible college and seminary followed by a PhD program in Biblical Studies. Throughout all those years of education I had not taken a single course having anything to do with money. In fact, one of my professors had jokingly said, “We don’t teach you anything about money, because you are going into ministry and will never have any!”

Since that time, many schools have developed courses or seminars on personal finances. For the average minister on a limited salary, it is important to know how to live within one’s means, stay out of debt, and save for retirement. But this is a vastly different thing from knowing how to provide financial leadership for a congregation.

My own education in this area came from the school of hard knocks when I became Director of the Papua New Guinea branch of Pioneer Bible Translators, and even more so later when I took on the role of president of Emmanuel during a stressful financial season. I read textbooks on accounting. I took classes in investing. I learned to analyze the financial statements of major corporations and nonprofits. I made myself a nuisance with friends in the business world as I asked them question after question. I had a huge learning curve to climb, but desperation was a great motivator.

As I began to research what might be involved in teaching a class on ministry finances, I came across a wonderful book called Ministry and Money by Janet and Philip Jamieson (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009). Fascinated, I tracked down the authors and had several great phone conversations with them. Philip had taught pastoral theology, and his wife, Janet, had taught accounting at the University of Dubuque in Iowa. They developed and co-taught a course for their seminary students to help them understand church finances. When they resigned from the school, they converted their class notes into a book. In our conversations, we discussed what they would add or change if they were to teach the course today. Using their research, along with other resources, I developed a course called Money and Ministry for Emmanuel that I now teach online.

Where to Start

It turns out that the best place to begin is the Bible, and the Bible has a lot to say about the subject. Walter Brueggemann, the famed Old Testament scholar, authored a 342-page book surveying what the Bible teaches about money (Money and Possessions, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016). Karl Barth thought of money as a power that could be used for God or against his purposes. When it comes to money, the first job of a preacher is to help people understand that money can be a useful servant, but it is a dangerous master.

A solid theology of money is just a starting point. There are several practical skills that a minister needs to acquire to provide strong leadership in this area. Part of this is about understanding how to read basic financial statements and interpret the foreign language spoken by accountants and bookkeepers. What are debits, credits, assets, and liabilities? What is the difference between a cash basis or an accrual basis? What are restricted, unrestricted, or partially restricted funds? What does it mean to have a gift policy? These are some of the concepts a minister needs to have a foundational understanding to support church leadership in financial conversations. The minister does not need to be a financial guru but must have some understanding to come alongside leadership in what can be a difficult conversation. If a church treasurer is giving a report during a finance committee meeting, and the minister is sitting there with a blank look on his or her face, no one will expect much guidance from that end of the table.

Finally, there is the matter of a minister’s salary. If you are a minister and call the IRS with a question about your taxes, you will find yourself punted from one representative to the next because we are a complicated breed and most of their helpline folks do not know how to deal with us. There are ways that a church can designate parts of a minister’s salary that will save them hundreds, if not thousands, in their taxes without costing the church a dime. Understanding this part of church finances is a vital part of how the church leadership cares holistically for the wellbeing of their minister.

Budget and Mission

The church budget is not a thing to dread but a way to celebrate and clarify your mission. Many churches tend to operate on autopilot when it comes to budgets, often taking the amounts approved in last year’s budget and adding one or two percent to account for inflation. But a budget is one plan for how the church will accomplish its mission. It takes some significant thought and discussion to create a worthwhile budget for any organization. This, in many ways, is where churches and other organizations need strong pastoral leadership.

The church budget is not a thing to dread but a way to celebrate and clarify your mission.

Of course, there are also times when we need to ask people to give more: The church needs a new roof or even a new building. They need to fund a special short-term mission trip. How do we ask people to dig deeper into their pockets without turning them off? A healthy pastoral team and leadership will be able to navigate special campaigns connected to the larger church budget when they understand how these fit into the church’s larger mission.

It is a lot to take in, but once you have a handle on it, it is not too difficult and a great way to serve your congregation. If you are interested in learning more about this subject, I have taught Money and Ministry online three times now, and many of my former students have let me know how helpful the course has been. If you are a minister or a church leader interested in learning more about money and ministry, please go to the Emmanuel website to learn more about this class.