Monday, 27 June 2011

The Business of Church

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.

  1. 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
  2. Often the expenditure is not fully controlled - which to say, tested for best value, appropriateness or return
  3. We don't properly thank people for the money that they do give
  4. We under-utilize that greatest of modern charitable miracles - Gift Aid
  5. We under value our church life, financially speaking.
  6. 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.  


  1. The Churchwarden27 June 2011 at 13:00

    Oh, that's my boy, well said! There does tend to be more than a slight curling of the lip in disadain if one even suggests running the church like a business. As a parish which is a net contributor to the Deanery finances and supporter of those parishes who cannot cover their costs, I so often heart "Oh but I can't ask MY people to give any more, they can't afford it!" (meaning, of course, that OUR people CAN afford to give more to let theirs off the hook?)

    Of course we want support parishes that are struggling, but the only reason we can do this is because we do all the things you have mentioned.

    Even the Dean of Lincoln, in his otherwise excellent sermon last week, (and Cathedral Deans aren't known for being unworldly) curled the lip slightly and said that, of course, we don't measure success by 'bums on seats'. Maybe not, but you could pretty soon measure failure by the absence of bums on seats when matched by the emptiness of their beautiful new alms dish.

    We can't expect people to give up their hard-earned dosh (and we do need them to do just that) if they then see us fritter it away through inefficiency or ineffective security or inadequate financial management. It's just not fair.

  2. I think that you are quite right in this. Money is almost a dirty word in church. But Stewardship is as important a part of ministry as the other functions. I have to come clean, I'm involved in Benefice Finance.

    Stewardship is something identified within my diocese, at a recent meeting when the Bishop asked the question, when did you parish last preach on stewardship, only a few hands were raised among the 50+ clergy and treasurers present.

    Fund raising is a constant thorn in our side. We have ancient, listed churches in our benefice, which all require ongoing maintenance and one requires repairs costing in the hundreds of thousands. We are forming friends groups to try to get some help to maintain the fabric, but I often wonder if we need to keep ancient fabric, rather than a more modern, building. I hear lots of moans about church always wanting money, but when threatened with closure, lots of moans about where has all of the money gone.

    The reality is that maintaining a modern purpose built building, with all of modern energy saving and easy maintenance, makes more sense to me that trying to preserve ancient monuments, which are a liability.

    But I am also a lover of our ancient buildings, so commonsense goes out of the window and we get stuck into trying to make and mend and raise funds for it.

    I am realistic about giving. I give what I can afford, and spread it across the collection plate and one or two, selected christian charities. As a pensioner, I cannot give more. But I also give of my time voluntarily, therefore, the church accrues a benefit by not having to pay for those services.

    I actually believe that we need to be upfront with congregations about giving, and gift-aiding their giving. Stewardship materials are available and there are people who can come and preach on it, with a real grasp of both the practical and theological reasons for giving.

    Off course, giving it linked to growth. If the church grows, then in theory giving will increase. i.e. bums on pews = pounds in tills.
    So, this is I see as part of the solution, outreach, mission and overt evangelism to bring the good news to people, but also the good news is coupled with being part of their community, actively participating, including stewardship as part of the obligation of accepting membership of the community.

    We'll eventually go bust unless we do something radical in the next few years to create growth and promote the gospel to both the de-churched and unchurched. There are millions out there wating to be reached.



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