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Every Last Dollar, Every Last Dime: Mixing Church and Money

Every Last Dollar, Every Last Dime: Mixing Church and Money

THE MAGAZINE

by Eric Bonetti

 

An elderly friend of mine, wife of a prominent banker, used to say with a twinkle in her eye that there are just two problems with money: You either have too much, or not enough. A good observation, and one that I suspect is very relevant to The Episcopal Church.

 

Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable we are with the topic? Money truly makes us fidget.

 

Perhaps it’s a legacy of our former role as the quasi-state church, when we suffered an embarrassment of riches. Maybe it is discomfort with our diminished role in the world. Or it may be a fear that we are “selling faith.” But the discomfort clearly is there. And we’ve probably all sat through far too many sermons during this, the pledge season, in which the priest waxes on interminably about God’s grace, generosity and love. It’s clear she really is saying, “Please make a pledge,” and yet she never comes right out and gets to the point. (More than once, my mind has wandered during these sermons, and I’ve imagined myself caught in a trap, forced to gnaw my own arm off to get away.)

 

That discomfort also surfaces when our vestries and other governance structures talk about money. All too often, discussions about money and budget are an 11th-hour thing, done almost apologetically, as if somehow distasteful.

 

Part of the problem is that our dioceses and the national church do far too little to provide training to clergy and vestries about money, budgeting, and a healthy, affirming approach to finances. We pump hundreds of millions of dollars into our hierarchical infrastructure, yet how often do we see training materials to help our community manage money effectively? The fact the we typically lack even these basic materials speaks volumes about our stewardship, and what it says is not good. As a a result, we have far too many vestry members and clergy who don’t understand basic issues like how to read a financial statement, financial forecasting, or the importance of saving for capital expenditures.

 

We have a real reluctance, too, to cross the Rubicon when it comes to budget issues. All too few parishes and dioceses start from a zero-based budget, which typically preempts tough questions like, “Do we really need or want this ministry? Has it outlived its usefulness?” And many neuter their decision-makers, by controlling too closely financial detail and aggregating salary and other data. Doing so results in a lack of buy-in and accountability, and leaves our organizations vulnerable to breakdowns in financial control.

 

Speaking of, does anyone really believe that people in parishes and dioceses that, for example, obfuscate salary information, don’t eventually figure out the details? Or imagine the reality to be worse than it really is? One parish I know aggregates its salary and compensation data, with the result that there is endless criticism that the rector is one of the highest-paid priests in the country. Not true, but it just goes to show how wrongheaded it is to be “clever” when it comes to finances.

 

We also send some powerful messages in how we spend and manage our money. On the one hand, it was encouraging to see signs of increased collaboration within the organization as we worked toward our last triennial budget. On the other hand, the scars of our historic infighting about the budget remain, and overhead at the national level remains shockingly high. Indeed, if the national church were a charity, it would get a dismal governance rating, given that almost 40 percent of revenue goes to overhead. Per Charity Navigator: “We believe that those [charities] spending less than a third of their budget on program expenses are simply not living up to their missions. Charities demonstrating such gross inefficiency receive a 0-star rating for their Financial Health.” And yet we still have not sold 815.

 

Similarly, a great many Episcopalians probably fell out of their chairs when the National Cathedral reported that it needs $200 million to stabilize its finances. That’s right—roughly as much money as the national church will pull in over the next six years. Yet, the ink was hardly dry on this announcement when the Cathedral announced plans to replace two stained glass windows depicting images related to the Confederacy—a move that would be costly indeed. And while I strongly support efforts to end racism, this is neither the highest nor best use of the money in a city where far too many lack food, shelter and medical care. A well-intended announcement, to be sure, but tone-deaf in the extreme.

 

What does the future hold? I’m optimistic that our beloved Episcopal Church will grow and prosper, particularly since we are on the right side of diversity and inclusion, albeit too often late to the game. But adopting a healthy approach to money and finances, and professionalizing our business operations, is going to be essential if we want to earn the trust of future generations.

 

What do you think? Is your parish, diocese, or other Episcopal entity well run? Are you comfortable discussing financial issues?

 

 

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor

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EricBonetti

@Joe:

I agree about the church failing badly when it comes to money. An example close to home for me: Shortly after zeroing out its token annual contribution to capex of $6,000 (for a physical plant worth more than $14 million) my parish approved $3,000 for a farewell party. This at a time when parts of the HVAC system are more than 75 years old, and the newer portions 20+ years old; the parish also is running a deficit. $1.2 million will be needed in the next 10 years for the physical plant, and there is no plan whatsoever to address the issue. And recommendations at the LAST capital campaign, roughly seven years ago, to start replacing failing sections of piping in the building, were deferred at that time. All I can say is, "Kick the can down the road often enough, and sooner or later, the can kicks you down the road." Meanwhile, I'm supposed to take seriously calls to give generously?

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Joe Rowan

Philip,
You did not so infer, but to be clear I have not asked for anything I haven't already done and helped others to do. My path includes being a vicar, rector and finally a diocesan Canon in a retired status. The career included Two single congregations and 4 linked, Diocesan council, finance committee and clergy deputy.

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Richard Benson

I've only been in the fold for a little over a year (but thought about it longer). I'm an acolyte and on my parish's finance commission. I love how during the Eucharistic prayer, the plates are on the Altar and (I am assuming) are consecrated as holy as well. I treat the money as set apart for God's uses. I am honored to handle the offerings after the service to prepare for counting and the like (since priests are not supposed to handle them). I am not sure people see the gifts as holy.

I wonder if we should move to a mutual aid society form that worked well before. Encourage people to automatically deduct a tenth from their automatic pay to the Parish. For that they get burial expenses covered and maybe some sort of life or health coverage. In addition to feeling God on Sunday morning, we get to feel God among each other in Fellowship. Bearing burdens is a great thing.

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Philip B. Spivey

Thank you, Mr. Benson. The church would be much refreshed and reinvigorated with thinking like yours. Have you considered Holy Orders?

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Joe Rowan

The individual clergy really isn't a victim or being victimized. Some passively allow, are scared of, or just remain aloof of "such" issues. In the Episcopal Church the ordinal specifies presbyter. Taking the oath is the end of one process in the overall life and times of the new presbyter. The first Call is usually a baptism by fire. Just about every priest has been or will be fired (or escape or resign just in time.)A good deal of the underlying cause is funding and somebody panicking as the clergy did not know the truth.

There are certain skill sets required which morph over time. But basics remain. It doesn't take an MBA or CPA to be proficient. It requires leadership which is different from management. A leader looks ahead and asks what may be. Management asks what is. Either may not be able to do specifics of a welder but is acquainted with the basic principles. How is it that the cathedral doesn't have maintenance funding already in place? Leadership failed. On a national level, the Episcopate has failed.

I used Quicken as an example of a very basic skill set. Others of it's ilk are even better than using paper and pencil.

My main point is that we often allow clergy to be active in avoidance and/or benign neglect of very basic principles in dealing with filthy lucre. Don't get me wrong, a guiding principle is never touch or be in control of funds (except discretionary---even then have controls for protection.)

The epitome of TEC and money is a former PB and a certain treasurer. In that case, we have real avoidance by the former in spite of numerous red flags well in advance of the arrest and conviction.

We require training sessions for clergy regarding sexual misconduct. Why not mandatory diocesan clergy day or days about basic best practices. I've attended diocesan week long sessions about congregational development that never once addressed money accept as it related to a conflict. $800 per person. Never used the TEC congregational charts.

Excuse us as we reload and shoot the other foot.

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Philip B. Spivey

Joe: I think we ask a lot of our clergy. That clergy don't "measure up" to the many complex tasks put before them says less about them and more about a church environment that is quicker to judge and blame them to lend a generous hand.

Charity begins at home. That is my only, and final, point in this thread.

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Joe Rowan

Ok then...."remove an offensive symbol from 'our(?)' National Cathedral."

So far it's gone from a flag to two windows. Having been in the Cathedral, I would suggest that the significantly "offensive" symbols are not so limited.

As to the "money" issue:
No priest worthy of the calling to a parish or mission church should be so ignorant of basic finances that they can't read a budget and see trends. I am amazed at how many can't do a simple spreadsheet or use Quicken. One cannot lead in a
vacuum...especially if it's between the ears.

When the call goes out for lay leadership as evidenced in earlier comments, know this. Volunteers such as vestry members serving for three years may spend 3-4 hours a month at meetings which seldom spend time leading ministry...look at agendas. That means a priest may (MAY) have 36 to 48 hours a year with a group that reshapes every year of the regular 3 yr term. Add to that it takes at least four yrs for clergy to truly understand a congregation and be an effective leader or change agent. Then factor in the average (AVERAGE) turnover rate and time spent back in the call process.

I distributed copies of the TEC data sheet graphs for every congregation at a diocesan convention ...most delegates had no idea of the trends and several priests were not happy that the historical data was made available. I have visited congregations and met with leadership who knew little of the facts.

Often ignorance is bliss until reality runs over it.

Money follows ministry not the opposite. Therefore money is an indicator of the ministry. Everything in a church is ministry not just the outreach budget. Ignore the above at great peril.

BTW somebody mentioned the apparent LDS "financial health" (my words). First, there are no paid positions in a ward. Second, be ready to bring in your IRS return and be told what your share is to be. Third, .....naw.....I'll leave the recent "sociological" edict alone except to say the Stars and Bars in a window pane isn't so important anymore.

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Philip B. Spivey

OK then, Joe...so this is not about arm wrestling an opinion to the table. If there's an element of surrender here, it's about surrendering to Jesus. That's what General Lee ultimately had to do.

Re: Money: Perhaps the problem is not that rectors can't manage Quicken; maybe the (spiritual) problem is that the church has not invested enough time and resources in our clergy, enabling them to thrive in these times. Last time I heard, an MBA wasn't a requirement for Holy Orders.

Let's not blame the victim.

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Bill Bonwitt

I agree that the clergy are the "victim" in this situation. I do not believe the solution lies in training clergy to be administrators. The callings and skills are almost opposed. What is needed is a better model of Church Administration.

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Epizabeth J Digby

Joe,

Thank you for an accurate and amusing assessment.

Another observation from my consulting work is that parishes too often assume that people do not wish to donate the goods or services they provide in "real life." Yet my experience suggests the opposite. An accountant, for example, is delighted to see clean, accurate financials. A person with facilities skills will rejoice when the physical plant shines. Conversely, seeing that these outcomes are lacking can be very frustrating to parishioners with the related skills. "Why doesn't someone just ask me to help?," is a line I have heard hundreds of times.

One way to boost clergy capability and maintain vestry term limits is to appoint honorary staff members, complete with job descriptions and annual reviews. (All your volunteers should have these, regardless.) This allows those with a particular talent to give generously over time, while maintaining appropriate governance. (One Presbyterian church I worked with came to me looking for help with its budget. When I walked in to the building, my instinct was to say, "Problem solved." I looked at the lavishly gleaming floors, the beautifully polished woodwork, and impeccable grounds, and thought. "Way too much spent on the physical plant." Only later did I learn that less than $2,000 a year was spent on the physical plant. The rest was the labor of loving parishioners who, to this day, give sacrificially to care for their beloved church.)

On a related note, it is a mistake to assume that all parishioners should be involved in all areas of stewardship, particularly vestry. Pastoral presence and an understanding of the role of a vestry in building community and fostering loving relationships is key. If someone is snarky, mean, or has undercut previous vestry members, do not nominate that person just because you need a warm body. Things may superficially work for a while, but parishes that do this (and most do) are planting seeds of hard times ahead.

Lastly, on the windows in the National Cathedral, I will say this: When announcing a capital campaign, never announce a potentially competing need. Why? Just look at the excitement the windows caused in this forum. Yet how many have read this piece and said, "Wow, I should do more to support the Cathedral." The point is people get easily sidetracked, and it's often around the easy issue. $200 million for the cathedral? A tall order, no matter your perspective. Far easier to debate a pair of stained glass windows that many didn't even realize were there until the Cathedral said something.

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