Amidst all the flurry of activity to care well for their churches during this difficult time, questions like these sit near the top of pastors’ minds: “With giving dropping, what are we going to do?” “Even if there’s enough cash in the bank for the time being, will we be forced to make drastic cuts to our budget over the next year to make the numbers balance?” What will that do to our staff, our missionaries, our plans, and our programs?”
Let me propose three things to keep in mind as you look ahead to a church budget with more-than-usual uncertainty.
1. Remember your real assignment.
Very often a church’s goal for its budget essentially translates into “bigger is better.” That means the possibility of budget cuts feels like an impending disaster. But your assignment from Jesus is not to maintain your same staff, missionaries, and programs. Your assignment from Jesus is to be faithful. Your assignment as a church is to be faithful with whatever he entrusts you, be that little or much, more or less.
In that sense, this is the time to lean into the sovereign goodness of God and rest in his plans for you. His plans have never once been delayed for want of money. He says in Isaiah 46:10 “My counsel will stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” Remember Psalm 50:12, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” God’s plans for your church are not at risk, and you should not worry as if they are.
My guess is that right now many in your congregation are seriously disobeying Jesus’ command to not be anxious. They are worried about health, about jobs, about relationships, about money. So as you think about the financial future of your church, be a model for them of someone who trusts in God’s good plans. He knows what he’s doing, and this time is no exception. Your job is not to understand why a smaller budget might be his plan for your church; your job is to be faithful with whatever he decides to entrust to you. He knows what he’s doing.
2. Remind your congregation why they give.
If you experience a shortfall in giving as a result of the current pandemic and whatever aftermath we might all experience, you’ll most likely be going to your congregation at some point to see if they can give more. When you do that, you should remind them of how the current situation affects the two reasons why they give:
- They give because they trust that God is better than their money. When God tells us to give, it’s not because he wants our money but because he wants our hearts. It’s because he wants us to literally put our money where our mouth is when we say that his promises are better than the things money can buy. And in a time of scarcity, this opportunity—the opportunity for giving to proclaim the surpassing worth of our Savior—is only increased! It’s notable that the giving heroes of the Bible aren’t the rich; they’re the poor. Freed Egyptian slaves giving to the tabernacle (Exod. 36); Macedonian Christians giving out of extreme poverty (2 Cor. 8); the poor widow giving all that she had to live on and receiving praise from the Son of God (Mark 12). Scarcity only highlights of value of a gift in God’s sight because it highlights the value of his worth.
- They give because they love your church. Yes, they give to lay up treasure in heaven by proclaiming the excellence of Jesus—and they also give because they’re investing in what your church is doing. In that regard, you need to be careful how you talk to them right now. Nearly always, when you talk about giving with your congregation you want it to be crystal clear that you’re asking them to give because it’s good for them, not because you need the cash. But this time, well, you need the cash. Or at least it seems that way. So be honest about that. Explain that this is a different kind of request than you normally make. You’re asking them to give above-and-beyond so that you don’t need to end multi-year investments in facilities, staff, and missionaries during a short-term cash crunch. Make it clear how this request is different so you don’t confuse their perception of your motives in your normal teaching about giving.
As you discuss giving with your congregation, make it clear that you trust the wisdom of the limits that God has put around you. If your congregation gives faithfully and generously but that amount totals 25% less than last year, you’ll be thrilled with them. Again, your assignment from Jesus is not to have a bigger budget but to be faithful as stewards of whatever he’s given you.
3. Reduce expenses wisely.
For many churches, we need to at least prepare ourselves to make reductions in expenses over the next year or so. You’re not likely there yet, but you may well be considering what you’ll cut if this is what providence dictates. As you consider that possibility, let me leave you with a few guidelines to consider:
- Resist the “easy” solution of trimming everything by a little. Churches and businesses alike do this far too often: revenue is down by 20% so every salary and every program gets trimmed by 20%. But that is simply asking people to do more with less, which is not sustainable. Instead, consider a few things you will stop doing (and defund them entirely) rather than giving the rest of the budget a “haircut.”
- Protect long-term relationships. Some of your missionaries, ministry partners, and staff are relationships you’ve built into for years and it would take years to replace them. In general, protect those budget lines as much as possible. You don’t want to give up 15 years of trust because of short-term budget tightness.
- Beware our tendency to fund what we can see. The impact of some cuts will be painfully obvious—like laying off a member of your church staff. Other cuts might not be as noticeable—like defunding a missionary half a world away. That’s a dangerous dynamic because there’s no reason that the far-off missionary is less worthy of the money than your staff member. You might consider making a commitment that after your budget reductions, the percentage of your total budget that goes oversees will be the same as it was before.
- Utilize this opportunity to eliminate suboptimal spending. Perhaps there are items in your budget that you’ve long known aren’t a good investment for Jesus, but the political cost within your church of cutting them seemed too high. That course of action may well have been wise and gentle on your congregation, but this could be the moment when the calculus has changed.
Lord willing, none of this will prove useful for your church. But if you must eventually walk down this road of budget shortfalls, remember that Jesus is not surprised by this turn of events. He’s got this; you can trust him.
[April 27, 2020]