29 Mistakes Churches Make With Money
To wrap up this series on churches and money, I recently connected with my team at The Unstuck Group to find out what they’ve observed with money mistakes. My plan was to write a “Top 10” list, but the hits kept coming.
Here are 29 mistakes we’ve found churches make with money:
- Budgeting on faith rather than past performance. Faith budgets usually lead to frustration when the giving doesn’t come in and budget cuts are the last resort. We’d much rather see a church budget based on previous giving trends.
- Taking on too much debt. We’ve seen churches take on debt as much as six times their annual giving. The mortgage payments left very little room for paying staff and expanding ministry. Any level of debt below two times annual giving is usually manageable. Any debt over three times annual giving raises a red flag.
- Teaching on money in single messages rather than in a series. We find that churches experience a sustained increase in giving when they teach a series of combined messages rather than teaching the same number of messages individually throughout the year.
- Not knowing the names of your top contributors. I’ll never understand why pastors are willing to acknowledge the people who contribute their time and talents, but they’re not willing to acknowledge those who contribute their treasure. You need to know and cultivate those relationships, too.
- Paying too many people too little money. We’ve seen time and time again that the churches that get this right are the ones who hire higher-capacity leaders who get more ministry done by building teams and raising up new leaders. With higher-capacity leaders, the church needs fewer staff. With fewer staff, those who are hired can be paid more.
- Living “paycheck to paycheck” without cash reserves. We encourage churches to have six to eight weeks in cash reserves. This helps during the ups and downs of a typical ministry cycle, especially during the common drop in summer attendance and giving. It also buys the church time if there’s a crisis, economic or otherwise, to make adjustments.
- Saving too much money. On the other hand, we’ve also seen churches hoard their money. We’ve seen churches with more than a year of cash sitting in the bank with no plans to invest it for Kingdom impact. What may feel like wise financial planning could actually be poor Kingdom stewardship of God’s resources.
- Never talking about money. You have to talk about money if you’re going to teach the truth of Scripture. Jesus taught about money. The Gospels are filled with references to topics related to money. If you avoid talking about money, then you’re avoiding a critical piece of what it means to become a fully-devoted follower of Jesus.
- Not providing a next step beyond the weekend service. It’s a fallacy to think that everyone’s spiritual and life questions will be addressed in a Sunday sermon. In every area of spiritual growth, there needs to be a next step beyond the weekend for discipleship. In the area of finances, that next step may mean financial coaching, small groups dedicated to this topic or online resources to help people experience financial freedom.
- Making desperate pleas for money. Though never talking about money is a big mistake, only talking about money when you’re desperate is a bigger mistake. This is why it’s smarter to have an intentional, regular plan to teach on this topic and then to provide ongoing transparency to your leaders and your church.
- Not establishing healthy financial controls. Without controls, you might as well just hand the money that faithful people have contributed to the evil people who exist in this world. I’ve heard too many stories of churches that didn’t have appropriate internal controls in place, and then people inside the church ended up stealing from the ministry. Ask an accountant who audits churches to help you put some basic protections in place.
- Letting the budget drive the ministry strategy. The ministry strategy should, instead, drive the budget. This can’t happen unless the church has clarified its vision for the future and its strategy for seeing that vision accomplished. We recommend an annual planning retreat prior to the budget process to prioritize initiatives that will drive financial objectives.
- Not conducting background checks on people who handle money. We would never allow anyone who ministers to kids or students to serve without a background check, and we should never allow anyone to handle money without one either. (Remember, it’s listed here because we’ve seen it happen…on multiple occasions.)
- Abdicating responsibility for monitoring financial health. Senior pastors, we’re talking to you. You can’t delegate financial management to a person or a committee and think you’re off the hook. You are still the chief financial officer of the ministry. Ultimately, you are the person who needs to champion financial health if your church is going to experience ministry health.
- Allowing multiple options for designated giving. When this happens, people give to their favorite little pet projects, which opens up the possibility that core ministry areas of the church could end up underfunded. No one wants to give to the electric bill, but it’s pretty important that the lights come on Sunday morning in the sanctuary. Ideally, you’ll have one fund that will support all ministries of the church.
- Not making it easy to give electronically. Come on! It’s 2017! Most people don’t pay for anything with cash or checks today. You need to make it easy and convenient for people to contribute with credit cards using their mobile phones and through your website.
- Lack of a strategy to cultivate high-capacity contributors. You need to be intentional in these relationships so that your first conversation isn’t the one when you are asking for a significant contribution to a critical ministry initiative. I can assure you that your “competitors” for charitable donations have the strategy and the people specifically employed to develop relationships with the people who have the potential to give the most to your church.
- Not paying bills on time. You would think that a church would have integrity when it comes to paying bills on time. In our experience, though, it’s not uncommon for one in ten churches we serve to be behind in their payments. Let’s pray it’s just a systems issue rather than a lack of follow throughto a commitment made.
- Sharing the numbers without sharing the stories. I’m a numbers junkie, but I know most people are not. For normal people, numbers do not communicate vision. Stories, though, can be very powerful. They help people see how their financial contributions are directly impacting people’s lives. You can never tell too many stories.
- Not saying “thank you.” Again, this is typically a reflection of a broken system. I refuse to believe churches are ungrateful for the financial sacrifices that people are making. This is just a reminder that we need to make sure a “thank you” goes out, at a minimum, after the first time someone gives to the church or after someone makes a significant financial contribution.
- Monitoring giving by the week rather than monthly trends. People don’t generally get paid every week, so there’s always going to be ups and downs from week to week. Attendance patterns typically shift with the seasons, so there will be ups and downs from month to month. Instead, monitor giving in this period to the same period last year and the years before. Is it increasing, decreasing or plateaued? Monitor those trends.
- Failing to include generosity principles in the discipleship path. “Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be,” (Matthew 6:21, NLT). If you want people to experience a heart change, you have to help them grow in their understanding of stewardship generosity. If they’re still wanting to control their money, God is not in control of their heart.
- Avoiding transparency. Celebrate with your church when God provides financial resources to accomplish the mission and vision. Inform your church when the financial resources aren’t keeping pace. It’s not necessary for the congregation to know how every nickel and dime is spent. That’s the job of an accountant or auditor. The church should have a general understanding, though, of how their financial contributions are being used.
- Letting the treasurer or finance committee control where money is spent. The treasurer or finance committee should only be responsible for systems and controls for managing money that facilitates ministry. They should not be the ultimate decision-makers on how money gets spent. That’s the responsibility of the Senior Pastor and the leadership team.
- Not establishing purchasing guidelines. Without purchasing guidelines, every purchasing decision has to rise to the top of the organization for final approval. Instead, establish guidelines so that purchases under a predetermined amount that are within the previously approved budget can be made as needed. The Texas Baptist General Convention has provided sample purchasing guidelines within this financial policies and procedures document.
- Not creating financial margin in the budget. If you only budget 90% of what you anticipate receiving, as an example, you will lack financial margin for unanticipated opportunities or emergencies that present themselves during the year. By the way, there will always be unanticipated expenditures. This is particularly important for the church that hasn’t been diligent in maintaining a healthy level of cash reserves.
- Allowing individual ministry areas to do fundraising. We once worked with a church that required every ministry area to raise funds for their entire annual budget. Every ministry team was competing to raise money from people inside and outside the church. As a result, very little ministry was actually happening. The better strategy is to encourage your church to give to one ministry fund and then develop one budget to support every ministry team.
- Letting big givers dictate vision and ministry strategy. I’ve lived this. It’s not easy. The biggest donor (by far) in the church left the church because he didn’t agree with the ministry philosophy of the church. In the end, you need to stay focused on the mission, vision and strategy God has called you to pursue. He builds the church, and he will provide the financial resources needed to see his church thrive.
- Failing to pursue a big vision. People don’t invest in small visions. And they certainly don’t invest in organizations that don’t have any vision. People won’t give to a budget either. They will invest in a big vision especially when that vision is focused on helping people experience a transformed life in Jesus Christ. Find that big vision. Cast it often. Then invite people to join you in seeing that vision become reality.
I covered a lot of ground in that list. For those of you who made it to the end, I hope this is an encouragement for you to continue to be wise stewards of the financial resources God provides to our churches. I’m grateful for God’s provision and I’m praying you continue to be blessed with the resources needed to accomplish his vision.