Train stewards, not co-managers


Should we include the treasurer’s report in the e-letter?” a church secretary asked me.

We were working on a switch from traditional printed church newsletter with its dozen or more articles to an e-letter.

At the risk of meddling, I said, “No, you shouldn’t.”

“Won’t members be concerned about how their money is being spent?” she replied.

We might have trained them to have that concern, I said, but Jesus taught otherwise. The right hand and left hand should operate separately. In stewardship and finances, our role as members is to give back to God because God gave to us. We have no responsibility for helping to manage the church budget. Our concern should be whether we are giving generously and sacrificially.

“Won’t we run the risk of financial misconduct?” she asked.

No, that’s why we have a leadership groups like session. They have fiduciary responsibility. We can trust them to manage church finances. But when we spend time at church meetings worrying about money, we are doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught.

We should train people to be good stewards. Train them in the biblical tithe, for example. Train them to give without expecting to control spending. Train them to give to God, in gratitude for God’s blessings, not to the budget.

If the budget runs short, leaders need to manage spending, not keep going back to the well for extra giving. Pleading for additional giving because spending got out of line mainly succeeds in sapping the spirit. It says leaders aren’t to be trusted.

Yes, extreme exigencies can occur. Then faith communities can rally as they would to a flood or civil unrest. But when leaders routinely budget 10 percent or more above likely income, they are just being irresponsible. Don’t call it a “faith budget.” Call it a “lousy budget.”

I recommend that leaders do their best to train people in Christian stewardship, then tally up the giving and budget to spend no more than 90 percent of that total. That is, if your giving and other solid revenues add up to $200,000, then set your budget at $180,000.

Don’t fudge the numbers. Behave in a responsible manner, and encourage members to focus on faith and mission.

While I’m meddling, I should add this: Don’t use your endowment for operating expenses, including mission. Use it for facilities maintenance. If your pledges are $250,000, then abandon your dreams of being a $600,000 church. Live within your means.

And work at growing your membership, which will mean growing your mission and ministry and becoming alive spiritually.

We are called to be transformative communities, not institutions that manage to survive. Giving is one measure of whether people’s lives are indeed being transformed by faith. Focusing on the giving doesn’t mean pestering people to satisfy institutional objectives. It means examining members’ stewardship and asking if it signals transformation.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.