What’s the Budget For Anyway? Part Three

The third and final installment of the “What’s the Budget For Anyway?” article by K. Peter Henrickson*~

Presenting the Budget

By whatever planning process is appropriate in your congregation, the Finance Committee needs to showcase a set of targets for congregational services three or four years into the future.  The presentation of such plans and their longer term financial implications shifts the congregation’s attention from considering the spending request for next year vis-a-vis last year to considering where the congregation is heading.  The stewardship drive is an opportunity to meld the conversation about congregational direction with the conversation about individual dreams.  So, here are some guidelines for presenting a vision budget stimulating such conversations.

Summarize and focus expenses into the major areas of energy for your congregation.  We want the membership to “own” the vision — to believe it is good and to love it passionately.  Suppose we organize a vision budget around the major growth needs driving the church.[1]  Consider these examples:

  • Worship, Spiritual Growth and Exploration
  • Organizational Services and Leadership Development
  • Community Outreach and Denominational Support
  • Pastoral Support and Shared Ministry

These categories represent what is sometimes referred to as a “mission budget”.  They virtually scream out the necessity to describe why we are in community. The minister and board need to provide inspiring leadership in each of these areas — to show in greater detail the aspirations for your congregation.  “Worship, Spiritual Growth, and Exploration”, for example, might mean a year around ministry for children or additional emphasis on laity ministry.  It might mean developing two or three regular services each week (or more), each targeted to the needs of particular groups of people.

  •  Include a multi-year forecast, three or four years beyond the budget year.  The purpose of a forecast is to show that the leadership has heard what the members want and that such a church is available in the future — although not next year.  Members understand that programs take time to launch; they need to see movement toward objectives.  They will support growth with a vision that fits their own, that enhances lives in the community today as it moves toward tomorrow.
  • In the vision budget keep the focus on the future and away from the past.  Consider using only the following column headings congregational meeting budget:  current year budget, current year projected, budget year, first vision year, second vision year, third vision year, etc.  That is, strip last year’s spending out of the budget presentation. The data are 12 months old or more and contributes virtually nothing to the discussion about future years.  If someone wants to reference a particular number from last year, the treasurer can look it up quickly enough.  But do not presume that the entire congregation needs or wants to review the historical perspective.  That entire extra column  of numbers increases potential confusion without bringing much benefit.
  • Give committees a way to talk about why they do what they do, and how they want to do it better.  Most of what your membership envisions will be championed by the various committees.  Listen to what the committees want in the future and recognize its priority in the budget presentation.  The role of the board is to defer committee requests, not cut them.
  • Present a vision budget which is adequate to the community.  Too often churches limp along without the ministerial or other staff support they need, without an annual installment on the building repair fund, or without sufficient religious education supplies.  Good leadership presents a budget to focus attention away from the discouraging present and toward the place we want to be within the foreseeable future.  The vision budget should highlight the opportunities facing the congregation.  Develop the vision budget to get both the board and the committees to share their observations and their dreams.  They are the core of the congregation and their common purpose for the future is building community.
  • Show what can be done with modest pledge increases over the next few years.  I do not believe that any congregation can say with integrity that it enjoys a fullness of spiritual meaning in all of the four areas of energy suggested above if the average giving level is below $120/family/month. This is a commitment of about 2% where congregational monthly incomes average $5,-$6,000/month.  The vision budget needs to show what the church could be with a growth of gifts to a 3% – 5% level over the course of a few years.
  • Show the number of members or giving units currently and into the future.  Growth is important in most congregations, and the vision budget should elevate this discussion.  This is also a way to focus attention on growing average stewardship levels.  One might show average commitments separately for “members” and for all other contributors as a way of communicating the higher giving levels expected of membership.
  • Do not show the congregation numbers with more than four digits.  The membership will not absorb numbers with length, or at least not an entire page of them.   A budget totaling $150,000 – $250,000 can express $435 as “.4” — at least in the years out beyond the budget year while a budget of $500,000 should round to even thousands.
  • Put the entire budget on a single page.   Leave lots of white space on the paper and do not reduce the type size.  When you have done this, you have a budget that is comprehensible to those not familiar with it.  Again, the sole purpose of the vision budget is to increase the level of giving.  We who are church treasurers often lose sight of this objective.  We default to thinking the purpose of the budget is to present numbers, and more is better.  In the vision budget, fewer is better.

In summary, “This is not your father’s budget!”  Look forward.

Use the annual budget process to continually revisit the congregation’s dreams for where it wants to go and how fast it wants to get there.  The budget process is repeated every year.    It brings focus and detail to the discussion.  When done as described above it shows clearly what the leadership sees as priorities and focuses discussion on them.  It shows that those programs and needs which are not this year’s priorities are still important and are viable in the future.  It is public enough to generate discussion among many who are interested but not directly involved.  It can be a terrific vehicle for inspiring a congregation.


*K. Peter Henrickson lives in Vancouver, WA has served the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and its Pacific Northwest District for over 30 years.  Peter served two separate terms as district treasurer for a total of 15 years.  During that period, he began consulting with congregations on general financial management issues.  With the learnings from those consulting jobs, Peter put together several presentations for both district meetings and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly.  And the material from those workshops grew into a book, Church Financial Management, which is now available through Amazon.   Peter has served on the Board of Eliot Institute and was Treasurer for a total of about ten years and has served as the UUA’s District Compensation Consultant since 2005.  Peter can be contact directly at:   kphenrickson@gmail.com    (360) 608-8571

            [1] See Loren B Meade’s “More Than Numbers, The Way Churches Grow” referenced in the bibliography.  I recommend it for further development of these notions.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Budget For Anyway? Part Three

  1. Sean,
    Thanks for your kind words.

    I am stumbling a bit in responding because you grasped onto a notion I did not intend to convey — that it is the Finance Committee that creates the vision or dream and then establishes the culture of generosity.

    My message about finance committees is that they can have a very important part in supporting these efforts by others. Too often the finance people are a drag on dreaming,– unfortunate, but I think it’s true. What I have been trying to put out is an alternative role and attitude which makes them more inclined to support others in putting a cost on their dreams and then integrating those financial descriptions into a sensible picture of the future. They are the ones who say “We can do A or B next year; both of them will need a 10% in income to get and might well take a couple years.”

    And, I think I was pretty clear that this should be done in a room that has the staff and other major leaders present.. The minister is usually the most important person in the room for this work.


  2. Peter – again, nice, timely article. I agree wholeheartedly with the bullet points you lay out. Its a very good recipe and effective. We’ve already undertaken portions of that list in the past few years and had good results here at 1st UU Austin. The rest will come along shortly.

    I am scratching my head a bit on the role you’ve outlined for the Finance Committee in casting the vision, however. The information I’ve received from reading and consultants (outside the UUA) points to the minister over and over again as the critical voice in casting the vision. Basically, they say that the congregation will follow the minister’s lead — if the minister is silent on money, then they won’t talk about it either. If the minister speaks openly about generosity as a spiritual practice and her/his own path, congregants will open up. As one accomplished consultant put it, “we’ve never found a church where people give generously but the minister does not give generously and visibly.”

    Have you actually seen Finance Committees successfully take that sort of leadership role rather than the minister in a church with a full-time minister? If so, what made it work?


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