During my short foray across the surface of this Rock, I have encountered churches where my simple inner comment has been of the order: "If this were a business, I would have had to close you down".
First things first - church life is not business life; let me be clear. Neither do I think that it should be. However, it has struck me on a number of occasions that parish life, especially in the financial sense, even falls short of the basic disciplines that we as householders apply even to our own homes. At home, we know what our bills are going to be, they are prioritised in times of difficulty, and we know what is left (or what is the amount left to find in those cases where we are short). My Nan and her generation did all this in their heads ('reckoning up', as she referred to it), and before the advent of the Direct-Debit generation, put cash in piles for the bills. It was that considered and that mechanical - but the bills got paid.
As Christians, we all share the responsibility for the house of God. Many Christians elect Councils to do that work for them but the responsibility never leaves them. In my own household, my wife deals with the finances - but that doesn't mean I have to stop caring or knowing what she is up to (or indeed, to be willing and able to jump in if a problem ever arises). The mandate from Christ to Christians to be generous stewards of the Church in our age is clear and there is no doubt that we should all play our part. As one fine cleric once put it, the parish has all the money that it needs, but that it is simply still in our pockets.
How many churches, especially in the present financial climate, are in deficit? Big church and small alike, many are experiencing considerable shortfalls and there have been some common causes, in my modest opinion.
- Churches are afraid to ask for money, even of those people who are willing to give it - it is treated like an unsavoury practice, akin to begging almost
- Often the expenditure is not fully controlled - which to say, tested for best value, appropriateness or return
- We don't properly thank people for the money that they do give
- We under-utilize that greatest of modern charitable miracles - Gift Aid
- We under value our church life, financially speaking.
- Too many cash-campaigns are rooted in a kind of guilt (if you don't give, then ...), which means that the practice across the board becomes perceived as a sort of emotional blackmail
During my time plodding around parochial mechanisms, I have seen the extremes. I know of one loyal Christian who re-mortgaged her home because her church was in peril, and at the other end I know of Christians who have thrown a pocket of coppers into the collection bag before hopping back into the forty-grand motor.
I am not writing this as any kind of judgement, but rather the observation of a problem (perhaps even the naming of the elephant). Christians are people of faith, and very often God does provide, but at what point do we expect God pay our gas and electricity bills? Christians, in many circles, are quite coy about cash. I have listened to at least two gatherings in the past trying to cobble together a begging letter - letter by committee. They would have made good Monty Python sketches. Churches have lived through difficult financial times on many occasions over many centuries, but I fear that in our generation, we will see the closure of more temples because faith in manna from heaven replaced the need for a robust and honest budget.