Managing money and feeding souls

Some church leaders call it a “challenge budget,” others a “faith budget.” I call it a bad idea.

Faced with a gap between anticipated revenues and desired expenses, leaders adopt a deficit budget and “challenge” members to show more “faith” in supporting it.

The strategy rarely succeeds, and it usually backfires. People tend to make their giving decisions and then stick to them. They might be poor decisions, mired in ingratitude, and every ounce of a leader’s being might shout out, “How can you expect so much and give so little?!” But it is what it is, and a deliberately imbalanced budget doesn’t change anyone’s mind.

Giving in mainline churches and other traditions is pitiful. We should be embarrassed at how far below the biblical tithe we fall and how much our giving to church has declined in recent years.

My recommendations:

First, give members the church experience they are choosing to pay for. If that means little or no education for children, let them know why. If it means unkempt facilities or inferior music, say why. If it means minimal support for mission and thereby an inability to attract young adults, name it. If pastors and staff leave after short tenures because they can’t live on mediocre salaries, don’t let people blame them.

When giving lags but church leaders refuse to cut expenses, they send the wrong message, namely, that they are irresponsible stewards of church resources. They also shield constituents from accountability. Jesus, after all, paid attention to what people gave and held them accountable for giving too little. Why should we do less?

Second recommendation: at the same time — and this is critical — church leaders need to teach vigorously about true stewardship and forge a strong link between gratitude and giving.

A deficit budget makes giving all about the budget. So, of course, does trimming the budget in response to low giving. That’s why leaders can’t just manage money; they must also feed souls.

There’s a tipping-point where people catch the stewardship message and start giving sacrificially, and budget worries disappear. People can ask the right question, namely: How shall we use this abundance God has given? Until then, the question tends to be at the personal level: How little can I give and still feel a part of the congregation? And at the group level: How little can we spend and stay in business? Neither question leads anywhere.

Moreover, deficit budgets encourage a delusional clinging to a former, and now quite insupportable, way of life. Better to have a small flock with tithing members who are eager to give and to serve than a large flock of “tippers.” The tippers aren’t learning anything, whereas tithers can be a foundation for building a healthy congregation.

Better to be honest, transparent and accountable up front, and let people see the impact of their giving. Maybe they won’t care. But artificial challenge and faith budgets don’t inspire caring. They inspire distrust and defensiveness.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH’S new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to