What message are we sending?

In the name of transparency (and perhaps to goad more in donations) many churches are fond of putting financial information in the bulletin.  It usually goes something like this:

Amount received last week:  $800.  Amount necessary each week:  $1,000.

Some with the guts to do so will add something like, Last week’s deficit:  $200.

And some will even publish:  Year to date deficit $6,000.

Kinda makes you want to reach for your checkbook and stroke out a gift for $6,000 to bring us up to date, doesn’t it?

As you might imagine, I have a couple of issues with this approach.

First, where do we get the number that we need to receive each week?  Almost always we take the total church budget, and divide it by 52.  While payroll and a few other expenses may be this constant, the reality is that in most churches, there is a great deal of program spending in late summer, before schools starts.  Trustees often do capital improvements during the summer.  And few churches have the same utility bill in May that they do in January.

Similarly, does your church really believe that its income comes evenly throughout the year?  If you don’t get a little boost at Easter, Christmas Eve and the end of the year, there is a very real chance you’re doing something wrong.

So we’re really starting off with inaccurate statements to our members.  So much for transparency.

Second, this focuses on the church’s need to receive money, the old stewardship model rather than the generosity model.  OK, you’re behind in your receipts.  So what?  There is no indication of how this is hurting our ministries.  The lights are on and the organist seems to be getting paid.  It makes me wonder how this is all happening when we’re behind on our budget.

Third, look at it from a visitor’s point of view.  When they settle into the pew before the service starts and read through the bulletin, what impression will this leave them?  Would you want to join a church that is broke?  What does it convey about not only your financial strength, but your ability to manage, to support the ministries they are looking for?

But I have to admit the above is far preferable to what I read in one bulletin this spring;

Due to the current financial problems all spending MUST BE APPROVED in advance by the Finance Committee.

Welcome to First Church, we look forward to caring for your soul, as long as it doesn’t cost anything.

So what’s a church to do?

I say just drop all statements about the budget.  If you must, I have no problem with listing what you receive right there with attendance in worship and sunday school and other “vitals” from the previous week.  Just don’t make any comparisons.

Your Finance Committee, of course, isn’t going to like this.  When they object, ask them when the last time was that they received a special contribution matching a deficit number by a member who wanted to get them caught up.  I’m willing to bet that it has probably never happened, at least before Thanksgiving.

If you must publish a comparison, publish your year to date receipts compared to last year’s.  It will give your folks some sense of context without misleading them.

So how do you know how you’re doing.  The number crunchers at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership have developed the Congregational Giving Profile, a spreadsheet that lets you enter YOUR congregation’s actual giving data over the past several years.  It then analyzes these trends, taking into account seasonal differences in giving and special holidays to give you an accurate representation of where you might expect to be at any point in the year.  Not bad for under $40.

I endorse the product, but I don’t endorse putting it in the bulletin.  Let’s just make that available to members, not visitors.

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