By Tom Stolle
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much change to our churches. How we gather for worship has changed. How we conduct the business of church in some ways has also changed. Yet, the church’s mission to share the Gospel remains non-negotiable. For the church, it is a biblical mandate. It must not be compromised. The last words of Jesus to His disciples before His ascension into heaven are found in Acts 1:8 : “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (NIV).
The necessity of operating differently in this COVID-19 season forced churches to approach outreach differently. Many churches have learned more about their capabilities. Pastoral and key lay leadership are seeing this, and many churches are taking steps to change organizationally, along with aligning the church’s mission and ministry priorities with new ways of operating. Virtual worship, changed methods of outreach, and other ways of connection have resulted through the changes forced by the coronavirus. The church would be wise to learn from this season, incorporating into its future plans what it has found to be effective in terms of outreach and discipleship. Some changes may be much more permanent than we realize. We must not waste this opportunity to learn.
Often, when considering church ministries, leaders focus on outreach and discipleship. However, internal finance and administration are also vital ministries that should exist in alignment with the church’s mission and priorities and they are sometimes overlooked. This is especially true in times of rapid change or crisis.
There are some financial/administrative principles that we would be wise to consider as we navigate this COVID-19 season.
If your church has experienced a reduction in its offerings due to the pandemic, it may have to consider budget cuts, depending on the church’s cash position. I do not believe that across-the-board cuts are the most effective method of handling reductions in resources. I encourage churches in times of reduced financial resources to consider how ministries are to be resourced and if they must cut, to target cuts based on ministry effectiveness and priorities.
Across-the-board cuts essentially weigh all ministries and portions of the operation equally. In times of financial shortfall, give thought to how a restructuring of ministry priorities is could be best utilized. Some ministries may need increased resources (such as digital outreach) during a time when conventional church meetings are not occurring.
“For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t first sit “down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?” Luke 14:28 (CSB).
Many churches were not prepared for the arrival of the pandemic and its effect on their operations. I believe that a church should commit to a journey that results in a cash reserve necessary to sustain operations for a minimum of three months while working from there toward a six–month reserve of average annual cash receipts. Organizations that had built up a cash reserve have fared much better during this time of crisis. Ministry must go on and God expects us to make prudent plans for the future.
As a church, we must invest in acts of charity. We must invest in the lives of others. We must meet needs. However, in order to continue to meet needs in an ongoing way, principles of saving and investing are applicable. Saving and investing will result in ministry that is sustained over a longer-term.
It may sound daunting to build six months of reserves. Start today. Make a commitment to set aside a portion for saving and wise investing each month. Over time, these funds will grow. Store up for that season when it is needed. Be prepared.
“You lazy people can learn by watching an anthill. Ants don’t have leaders, but they store up food during harvest season.” Proverbs 6:6-8 (CEV)
It is impossible to fund ministries and build reserves without receiving contributions. Tithes and offerings primarily fund church ministries.
Many believe that Americans give less than they have in the past. This is a myth. The National Philanthropic Trust reports that Americans gave over $428 billion in 2018. This represented a 0.7 percent increase over 2017. The largest portion of the amount given, 29 percent, was charitable giving for religious purposes.
Also note that of the $428 billion referenced above, individuals gave $292 billion or 68 percent of the total. This was more than twice the amount given by foundations, bequests, and corporations COMBINED. Charitable giving is driven largely by individual giving.
Therefore, when giving is declining, we must ask ourselves uncomfortable questions:
- Are we not effectively communicating the needs?
- Are we not building meaningful relationships?
- Are we not casting a clear and compelling vision?
Churches should ask these questions no matter the season, even in the midst of a global
pandemic. We should acknowledge that it is much easier to blame others for not embracing what we are saying than it is for us to do an honest assessment of our church, asking hard questions with a willingness to follow through with change. Individuals pay for what they need and they give to what they care about. Give them reasons to care.
“Each person should do as he has decided in his heart — not reluctantly or out of compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7 (CSB).
Sadly, financial fraud exists within churches. A season like this can make a church more vulnerable to fraud as individuals are isolated and handling more tasks single-handedly. Also, personal financial losses can be triggered by job loss, potentially leading to church embezzlement. Church leadership should be mindful.
LifeWay conducted a research survey of Protestant churches and concluded that approximately 10 percent of these churches have been the victim of embezzlement.
Churches may attempt to counteract fraud by segregating financial duties, installing cameras, and never permitting just one individual staff member to handle cash. In this COVID-19 season, many churches may have a trusted individual handling cash alone and most of these individuals serve with honesty and integrity. But sadly, when putting LifeWay’s survey in perspective in a Baptist state convention that has 500 affiliated churches, 10 percent equals 50 churches. That sounds much more serious.
What can the church do to combat this potential problem? The church should have someone outside of the finance office, perhaps the finance committee, a trustee, or an elder, review all check images and bank statements each month. If the church uses credit cards, a trusted individual should conduct a thorough review of all charges. Finally, pastoral staff should be under the same financial accountability as all other church staff and volunteers.
We must recognize that sin is present everywhere, even in the church. ”It can’t happen here” is not true. It can and it does. Protect your church by insisting on controls, no matter what season the church is in.
“People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them.” 1 Timothy 6:9 (CEV).
Your staff is vital. The pastoral staff paid lay staff, and key volunteers comprise the engine that keeps church operations functioning each day.
Staff must feel empathy from their leaders, especially in times of crisis. There is a human side to what is happening in this COVID-19 season. There are personal schedule changes, financial challenges, medical/mental health issues, and staff face loneliness. If church leaders handle this well, they can pull staff closer together. We often use the phrase “church family.” That phrase rings hollow if leadership does not display empathy.
Leaders may believe that they are caring, but if the staff does not experience that care, they may not believe their leadership truly cares about them. This becomes more evident during a crisis. Christians should excel in loving others.
“As a prisoner of the Lord, I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own. Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other. ” Ephesians 4:1-2 (CEV).
May God bless us as we love and serve one another!
Tom Stolle is the associate executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware and the chief financial officer.
For more information and to access resources used in this blog, visit our friends at ChurchLaw&Tax.