By Ed Thompson

I attended the Wee Kirk conference in Laurelville, PA last week and had the opportunity to present a workshop on “Church Vitality and Resilience.” While I don’t consider myself an expert on the topic, I have been thinking about it quite a bit, trying to understand what makes a church healthy and what leads a church to make the decision to close. Vitality doesn’t seem to depend on a church’s size, its average worship attendance, or the size of its budget. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Smaller isn’t necessarily a death sentence.

An important, although not critical, factor in a church’s vitality seems to be transparency. More often than not, that has to do with money. Sometimes churches don’t want to reveal how much money they have in the bank or in investments. The thinking seems to be that if the members knew how much money a church actually had, it would discourage stewardship. There may be some truth in that. People may think, “Why should I give my money to the church when we’re already sitting on more than (insert what seems to be an outrageous figure here)?”

That can be at least partly addressed by doing a better job of teaching stewardship. Primarily, our giving should flow out of gratitude and not be based on an individual’s or family’s fair share of the church’s budget. We often turn that around, though, completely skipping any references to gratitude and focusing almost exclusively on what we think are more practical matters. I’m not sure whether we do a worse job of teaching about evangelism or stewardship, but we could do a much better job in both areas. 

While we may completely skip saying anything about evangelism during the year, we often limit stewardship to just one Sunday. Rather than reflecting on how we have been blessed and how we might use the gifts we have been given, we talk about the church’s budget and how much more money we’ll need in the coming year to pay for the rising cost of utilities and a cost of living increase in the pastor’s salary. Guilt, as well as fear, seems to be the primary motivator when we handle things this way. Pastors may also feel guilty talking about the church’s budget, afraid that members will take anything they say as self-serving since their salary package probably makes up well over half of the church’s budget.  

Talking about stewardship throughout the year is one way to deal with this. Financial transparency is another. Periodic reports on the church investments, how much we have, where it’s invested, what restrictions (if any) are placed on these funds and how they are being used get the facts out there for everyone to see. That should supplement regular financial reports on the church’s income and expenses. 

I have seen churches report on each week’s offering and expenses. While that may seem the gold standard for transparency, I’m not sure that much information is really all that helpful. Some people only give once a month, so the offering on the first Sunday of the month may be inflated and the offerings the rest of the month may seem anemic. Some expenses only occur once a year so things may look good until that annual expense hits. 

Sometimes churches take in a third to a half of their budget in December. I also heard about a church in North Carolina that took in almost 90% of its annual income in the month when tobacco was harvested. If you didn’t know that, you couldn’t really understand the church’s financial reality. You probably need to look at weekly and monthly income and expenses for at least the last five years to understand what trends there might be in your church. 

Keeping secrets creates a toxic atmosphere. Not being open and honest generates suspicion and mistrust. We’re better served by open and honest communication, especially when it comes to finances. The truth may be scary, but it’s better to know the truth than to be caught by surprise. 

How does your church deal with stewardship? How often do you report your church’s complete financial picture? What is one thing you can do to be more transparent about your church’s finances?