Healthy Boundaries and Access to Financial Information
by Meredith McNabb
Healthy boundaries are important in so many aspects of congregational life—and the financial matters of the congregation are no exception. Instinctively, many congregations set up a boundary wall at the level of “silence” around money, to be breached only a few times a year. But that wall likely has more to do with unconscious habit, a money taboo, or perhaps even past financial trauma than it does with a healthy boundary. Money matters in congregations should be handled with sensitivity, but the healthiest boundary lines are far different than “silence.” Congregations have a responsibility and a capacity to handle these matters with appropriate candor and grace. Let’s think about three levels of boundaries as opposed to a silence wall: Publicity (Budgets), Availability (Financial Reports), and Need to Know (Giving Records).
Budgets—Boundary level: Publicity
The congregational budget is a moral document and a practical one, and everyone should be invited to understand how the congregation intends to spend the money entrusted to it. A budget reveals the mission and vision of the congregation—or it should: it helps givers to know what matters to the congregation and how that work is accomplished.
Some congregations panic about revealing the share of their budget that goes to support staff and/or facilities, but a narrative budget can help tell the line-item budget’s story clearly. It can also help leaders see if the expenditures are truly out of balance, or if they simply reflect that staff and facilities are two key ways the congregation accomplishes its mission. With transparency in the budget, anyone can see how God might be calling them to join in with the spiritual and material well-being that this congregation creates. Additionally, publicity that the budget is an open document helps to foster trust among the many people who may have been turned off by an image of dishonest ministry leaders or secretive religious organizations. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant!” is an adage from the legal profession, but it serves well in the area of congregational budgets.
*Note: When possible, consider presenting salaries of congregational staff in lump-sum lines that lend themselves to narrative budget-style categories. Personnel committees understand benefits and raises and finance committees understand allocation of resources, and those groups (or leaders like them) should be the ones to address congregational questions—not individual staff members asked to defend their compensation to every onlooker.
Financial Reports—Boundary level: Availability
Financial reports should be available to all members and givers, but congregations should help them be interpreted well. For many—including some clergy—financial reports are sources of confusion: their financial savvy stops well short of accounting literacy, and that can lead to indignation or panic about the numbers. Different kinds of reporting can be helpful in different ways:
Public Reports: Weekly or monthly reporting of the offering compared to 1/52nd (or 1/12th) of the budget can create a logical trap: either the number is above what’s “needed”—telling some would-be givers that there’s no use for their gift, or it’s below it—telling some potential givers that this is a failing operation. Far better to compare giving to the time last year (or averages of that date for several years) and to share what impact that giving has had. Significant surpluses or shortfalls require different communication than just a report, including hopes and plans for addressing the situation.
Internal Managerial Reports: These are useful to leaders who manage cash flow—they allow for wise decisions about discretionary spending and swift tending to any discrepancies. Sadly, congregations can be quite vulnerable to financial wrongdoing, both intentional and unintentional.
Year-end Financial Reports: These are useful to share with members and donors as well as leaders and auditors to report on congregational financial health and ensure appropriate transparency.
Giving Records—Boundary level: Need to Know.
Healthy boundaries are higher around individual giving records, but they still do not reach the level of “silence” or “secrecy.” Senior pastors and financial secretaries have legitimate needs to have access to individual giving records. (Congregations differ on the senior clergy’s “knowing,” but all would agree that a financial secretary must be entrusted with the practicality of keeping records, at the very least.) Anonymized lists of gifts can be helpful for a stewardship team to consider patterns in giving—those teams will have been asked to serve because of their spiritual maturity and their own faithfulness in giving and can hold the knowledge with sensitivity. Beyond those individuals, healthy boundaries will include good technology to keep giving and records secure, and to teach and practice good theology to take care that different levels of giving do not create iniquities within the congregation.
Money in congregations can stand in for power, for love, for faithfulness, for call, for enthusiasm. It allows for ministries to happen and for congregations to practice what they preach about justice and generosity. Healthy boundaries—neither too casual nor too rigid—help on organizational and spiritual levels to model transparency, clarity of mission, and care for each person through the money matters of the congregation.
For more information about money and boundaries, take a look at these resources. They are among many available to help and support you as you navigate money in your context. The More You Know by me – Meredith Mcnabb, and Ministry and Money: A Practical Guide for Pastors, by Janet T. Jamieson and Philip D. Jamieson.
This article was originally published at Faith+Lead Luther Seminary.
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