Congregational budget-makers frequently divide into two camps that approach the task in different ways. The first camp is likely to include children of the Great Depression, experts in finance, elementary school teachers, and persons anxious about their own money situation. Their first priority is to make sure that the budget balances and that the congregation makes no plans or commitments it is less that 100 percent certain it can meet. They squint over budget sheets like bookkeepers of old with their bright lamps and shoulder garters—I call this camp the Green Eyeshades.
The second camp typically includes young clergy, upscale decorators, Baby Boomers, college professors, and commission salespeople. They firmly believe that with God (or even without God) all things are possible. They say, “We are a congregation, not a business.” This camp can be identified at budget meetings mostly by their absence. When shanghaied into talking about money, they glaze over. Staring at a distant sunrise, they float over the surface of numerical reality—I call them the Rose-Colored Glasses.
The division between the Eyeshades and the Glasses is as old as Mary and Martha, Moses and Aaron, Job and Job’s wife. It as deeply rooted in our culture as the duality of secular and sacred, temporal and spiritual. There is nothing wrong with it, so long as people see themselves as members of one team and value one another’s contributions. But too often, the division becomes rigid—one group always thinks of ways to spend more money; the other always says we can’t afford it. It certainly forms part of the tension between clergy called to transform lives and boards elected to control purse strings—especially when they understand their roles that way.
The budget process often sets up friction between the Glasses and the Eyeshades. Typically the word goes out for each program unit to request a budget for next year. Knowing how these things work, program committees (full of rosy thinkers) ask for more than they expect and then some. A finance committee (strapping on their eyeshades) puts all of the requests onto a spreadsheet as a “dream budget.” Usually even the dream budget gets trimmed quite a bit, making it resemble the Green Eyeshades’ own, fiscally-sound dreams.
The fund drive naturally falls short of the “dream” goal. How could it not? Calling a goal a dream almost guarantees that you’ll fall short. The finance committee sharpens its pencils and begins grinding the dream down to a practical nub.
The program people rise up, asking “How can we say we can’t afford what God has called us to accomplish?” The finance people answer, “Good stewards live within their means.” The Green Eyeshades with their pencils and their spreadsheets go to battle with the Rose-Colored Glasses, armed with blunt-end scissors, opera glasses, and pink feathers. It is not a pretty picture.
Sometimes the Roses win the day until they’ve run up deficits and the Greens come like an exasperated crew of parents to clean up after them. If the Greens win too consistently, the Roses trade their glasses in for blinders and quit dreaming. Sad.
Nothing can do away with the division between Green and Rose; it is too deeply rooted in the temperaments and histories of the players. But if we can’t change human nature, we can at least stop setting up the budget process to bring out the worst in us. Here is a budget process that can help narrow the divide:
Instead of starting by inviting program units to submit budget requests to the finance committee, this process begins with the governing board. Their first task each year is to define not a budget but a statement: a Vision of Ministry. The Vision is a short list of the new and different ways this congregation plans to transform lives over the next one to three years.
Why a short list? Because if you have a long list of priorities, they are not priorities! The fact that something does not make the list does not mean that it won’t happen. The Vision is a short list of things the board means to accomplish no matter what. While creating it, the board will bank a number of ideas for the future: pieces of a long-term vision to which the board is not prepared to make an iron-clad commitment this year.
The board may create the vision by itself. Or, better, it may ask a varied group, including staff and clergy, to join them in creating a statement for the board to authorize. The Vision of Ministry confronts directly the question that most budget debates are about indirectly: What aspects of our mission will be our top priorities?
The board votes a new Vision of Ministry each year. It also adopts, and less frequently revises, written Budget Policies defining the core principles that will guide budgeting each year. The principles will likely include fair compensation, adequate building maintenance, a financial audit, adequate insurance, and a strong mandate to maintain high standards of health, safety, and accessibility.
After the board adopts the Vision of Ministry and the Budget Policies, these form the basis for the annual call for budget proposals from the program units. The request is not for a “dream” budget but for a budget that will accomplish the Vision and comply with the Policies. The board, not a finance committee of Green Eyeshades, determines the actual proposed budget.
The annual fund drive, then, communicates the Vision of Ministry over and over again. Contributors are asked for amounts which, if about half of them say “yes,” will make the Vision possible. The board, clergy, and staff make it clear that the Vision is not something the congregation plans to shoot for but that it intends to accomplish. Year after year, the people learn that when this congregation asks for gifts, it means it. If they give what is asked, the results promised come to pass. Over time the fund drive becomes easier, more pleasant, and more popular.
One reason for this is that the division between Green Eyeshades and Rose-Colored Glasses, while it never goes away, is addressed in creating the Vision of Ministry. The fund drive comes, not in the middle of the argument, but after it has been resolved.