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Revise Your Ministry Plan
By: Lyle E. Schaller

What are the options when the treasurer of your congregation warns that budgeted expenditures exceed receipts? Typical reactions include (1) reduce expenditures, (2)"borrow from the memorial fund" or some other reserve, (3) postpone capital expenditures, (4) concentrate on a stewardship education program, (5) recruit more members to "help us carry the load," (6) call on several households where the members appear to be contributing less than they could to finance the ministries of this congregation, (7) reduce the number of paid staff or cut back from a full-time pastor to a part-time minister, (8) urge the pastor, if married, to trade the current spouse for one with a higher income, (9) ask the denomination for a financial subsidy, if it is a denominationally affiliated congregation, or (10) preach a three-sermon series on "Our Problem."

While far from a complete list, these 10 alternatives do illustrate the "Band Aid" approach to the problem. A positive response is at least 8 of the 10 are preferable to focusing on (1) closing the church by dissolving the congregation or (2) merging with another failing congregation or (3) borrowing money to be able to pay budgeted expenditures or (4) choosing which staff person should be removed from the payroll.

One of two other options may appeal to the policy-makers in your congregation. These are offered on the assumption that among congregations under that broad umbrella called "American Christianity" the differences among congregations are greater than the similarities. One size rarely fits all regardless of the issue being discussed.

Who Are the Policy-Makers?
This issue was described in the previous essay in this two-part series. We already have dozens of categories for classifying Christian congregations in America. That long list includes (1) rural or metropolitan, (2) new or old, (3) neighborhood or regional, (4) liberal or conservative, (5) Catholic or Protestant, (6) small or midsize or large, (7) North or South, (8) growing or shrinking or on a plateau in size, (9) wealthy or poor, and (10) Anglo or African-American or Asian-American or Latino.

The past dozen years have added a new one to that list. The influential policy-makers are drawn largely from among adults who are savers and possess significant financial assets or the influential policy-makers are drawn largely from among adults with little or no net accumulated wealth.

While millions of exceptions do exist in both categories, one generalization is the savers grew into adulthood in a culture that taught people to "save for a rainy day." By contrast, the borrowers tend to have been reared in a culture, and sometimes that means the family constellation, that encouraged borrowing money. How old were you when you began to rely on a credit card? If you graduated from college, what was your accumulated indebtedness when you graduated? Does the value of the mortgage on your home exceed the current market value?

The explanation for offering this first is NOT because it is the preferred option. It is placed first because the economic perspective the policy-makers bring to the table will influence their recommendations.

Review the Ministry Plan
In the ideal world, all religious institutions will refer to their customized ministry plan when difficult choices have to be made. In simple terms, a customized ministry plan is NOT a response to such questions as, "How do we perpetuate our past?" or "How do we pay our bills?" The customized ministry plan resembles a response to a question such as, "What do we believe God is expecting this called-out collection of Christ followers to be and to be doing five, or seven, years from now? What do we have to do, what changes must be made, and what are the criteria we will use in making the decisions we must make to fulfill Godís calling?"

This is a radically different response to a budget crisis than asking, "Terry, what do you think we should do to balance our budget?" or "Pat, whatís your preference?" or "Chris, we need to hear your opinion."

Typically, the ministry plan consists of five parts: (1) the shared vision of Godís call, (2) the operational values, policies, priorities, plans, programs, and practices required to turn that vision into reality, (3) several means-to-an-end concerns, such as real estate, staffing, money, channels of internal communication, schedules, and resources that will be outsourced, such as printed materials, projected visual imagery, and janitorial services, (4) specific, attainable, and measurable goals and timelines that can be used for self-evaluation, and (5) a precisely defined statement on who will carry the responsibility or who will conduct that annual audit of performance.

Instead of playing the "Blame Game" of identifying an external factor in producing this financial crisis such as "The Recession," "Our New Pastor," "Our Denominational System," or "The Finance Committee," the focus is to identify a flaw in that customized ministry plan. One common flaw is a dependence on a unified budget rather than on encouraging donor-directed charitable contributions. This frequently represents a failure to recognize that church members born in the 1860-1940 era tended to be comfortable with the concept of the unified budget in which the finance committee chose the final destination of these undesignated dollars, while those born after 1940 tend to respond more generously to requests for designated charitable contributions.

In other words, that financial problem may be a product of an obsolete system of asking for money. In too many churches, that system may not be competitive with other requests for charitable contributions. One example is most congregations have ignored federal laws that since 2006 have encouraged mature adults to make charitable contributions out of their individual retirement accounts. Another example is, for generations, most Protestant congregations in America scheduled only one worship service for the 24-hour period between noon Saturday and noon Sunday. Adding a second service often produces both an increase in church attendance and in the financial contributions.

The desire to perceive this congregation as "one big family" often drives the design of the ministry plan rather than the more realistic description that, "We are a congregation of worshiping communities, cells, choirs, circles, classes, fellowships, groups, missional teams, music groups, social networks, peer led study groups, and task forces." One of the most effective unintentional strategies to minimize numerical growth is to treat anonymity as an enemy rather than as a normal, natural, and predictable consequence of an effective emphasis on evangelism.

A related source of financial problems is the widely shared assumption called "economy of scale." In manufacturing the per-unit cost of producing an item often does decrease by increasing the number produced every month. In American Protestantism, however, the annual expenditures divided by the average worship attendance often triples or quadruples when the average worship attendance doubles. The larger the number of people who contribute the dollars, the greater the demand for higher quality, more choices, and greater relevance to "where Iím at in my own personal faith journey."

For other congregations, that ministry plan often assumes, "Our service area includes people living within three or four miles of our meeting place.Ē In recent decades, the journey to work, to shop, to visit kinfolk, to recreation, to entertainment opportunities, and to "our doctorís office" has been getting longer. One productive response to that trend is to revise the ministry plan to include a larger area.

But will that also require an increase in the number of church-owned off-street parking spaces? One widely used strategy to decrease worship attendance is the ministry plan calls for only one off-street parking space for every four people in worship on the typical Sunday morning. In todayís American economy, where the number of licensed motor vehicles exceeds the number of licensed drivers, the appropriate ratio is 2-to-1, not 4-to-1.

Time to Relocate?
Thousands of congregations are gathering for the corporate worship of God in a functionally obsolete building at an inadequate site at what has become a second-rate location. The economic recession has brought to the market one-story "big box" commercial buildings at excellent locations with a huge paved parking lot and no potential buyers. These "distressed commercial properties" may be on the market for a bargain price. This can be an especially attractive option for congregations that include a large number of members who were born before 1950 and were socialized to be savers.

Congregations averaging 350 or more at worship and needing to relocate in order to raise the ceiling on their future may respond to the question, "Should we continue at this sacred site or relocate our meeting place?" by a simple "Yes!" The decision is to revise their ministry plan to join that rapidly growing number of multisite congregations.

Smaller congregations may choose a similar strategy by becoming another "off-campus ministry" of a large multisite congregation that serves Christ under one name, one staff, one budget, and dozens of worship experiences every weekend at somewhere between 3 and 300 sites.

In summary, instead of blaming the national economy for that financial problem, focus on how your ministry plan could be revised to eliminate that problem.

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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