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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Drowning in Paperwork...Not!

Our question this week is really an question and an update from a newly ordained pastor who has discovered that the congregation she is serving keeps no records...

Dear Ask the Matriarch,

I have worked for a few different churches in a non-ordained pastor role, always with other pastors and full time secretaries. About three weeks ago I started my first call, it is a solo call at a church with a volunteer part time secretary. I knew it would be different and I am excited
but....although the church is set to celebrate their 150th anniversary I cannot find hardly any records of anything. I don't mean just historical stuff, I mean basic day to day stuff like old bulletins, newsletters, and annual reports not to mention the parish membership records or budgets. What little I have found has been painfully incomplete. I just don't understand what happened or what I should do about it.

When I ask about the lack of records I am usually told I'm the pastor I should make all the decisions. When I ask about the lack of a budget I am told the congregation doesn't have a lot of money but if it is needed we can usually try to find it. I can't help but think its important for me to know what they have done in the past and have some kind of budget to work with. How can I the past or a budget. For all their talk about me being in charge I am convinced that without records I will miss something important and without a budget I will violate some financial taboo and end up unnecessarily offending the congregation.

How much of this is normal new call/first call stuff? And how should I proceed?

Frustrated in Wisconsin

Now as we were preparing to address that question, "Frustrated in Wisconsin" wrote again, this time even more frustrated!

Dear Matriarchs,

Over the last week I have found out more about why I can't find certain things, they never existed. Apparently I can't find old budgets because they have never had one. In fact the secretary told me I am the third pastor to asked her if we have one...and when the first one pushed this issue it apparently wasn't well received. So my revised question has to do with church budgets. Am I the only pastor in the land with a church that doesn't have and possibly refuses to create any kind of church budget? If you too go without a budget how do you make spending choices? Do you bring every little thing to council? Do you just do what you want
and assume they will pay for it? Or something in between? Have any of you come into a parish and tried to get them to make this kind of huge shift in the way they think about and deal with money? How did it work? Should I just leave it be (either until I get more settled or forever) or can I pursue this (now or later), because a big part of me wants to ask them to create a budget so I can know how they want to utilize their resources, but I don't want to stir up a hornets nest in my first month?

Even more frustrated in Wisconsin

An Episcopal priest, a friend of one of our matriarchs, writes:

This is going to take some counsel with her bishop. But if she can dig back through other parish records like newsletters and vestry minutes, she might shed a little historical light on the problem. But ultimately, I think she's accountable for the continuing lack of a budget and, by extension, the wise use of parish resources. A couple of questions:

Is there a treasurer and what does he/she do?

How does a pledge campaign fit into this lack of financial accountability?

Her language needs to move from "they" to "we".

A couple of other questions that affect this situation: How small is the parish? Is there a group of parishioners who have pretty much run things over the decades? Has she talked with the previous two priests? Did she not get parish information prior to accepting this call? Has she never talked with the bishop about this parish? How can they fill out a parochial report without solid financial info? I'd check national and diocesan canons as well to see if they're violating anything or if they're lack of budget implies that they must violate a canon. I don't think, though, that she'll be able to do much without the bishop's support. And if she cannot be assured of that, she needs to make a move out of there sooner rather than later. This is a major disaster waiting to happen and regardless of what the disaster is, the priest will be lifted up as the cause.

This parish reminds me of a priest-killing parish in xxx where I was the interim. A small group ran the place and it was a struggle every day. The treasurer wasn't even a member of the parish! When he called me the day before my first pay day and told me they couldn't afford to give me a check after paying the bills, I called the senior warden and told her that there would be no more services on Sunday until they could afford to pay me. I had a check within the hour. And that was only the beginning ....

A rector friend adds:

What a nightmare! I would find some good "financial stewardship" type information. The Episcopal Church has the Manual of Business Methods in Church Affairs – that would help. Then I would gather some numbers types in the church and share this information with them. Enlist a group to support a change process. Maybe as a first step then, this year, I would ask one of those folks to help track spending and maybe come up with different categories. Take that spending tracking to the council at the end of the year and set it next to your mission or parish priorities and ask if the way we operate reflects accurately who we want to be? If it does, let's set this as a sort of budget to help us stay on track. If it doesn't reflect who we think we are, then lets allocate money in advance and use that allocation to keep us faithful to our stated commitments.

It seems like budgets are good stewardship for two reasons – one is that we are open and hones in how we deal with money – no secrets from the congregation, the other is, as I said above, because they are tools to help focus our ministry where we believe God wants it to go.

Jan, who blogs at A Church for Starving Artists writes

Dear FIW,

This is not normal.

And keeping the status quo would be a lose-lose situation: if you spend whatever you want and you overspend, they'll be angry. If you spend nothing terrified of overspending and so certain ministries are not possible then they'll be angry.

As I've said in these posts before, most difficult conversations start best with "In a healthy church . . ."

Healthy churches have budgets. Budgets also give you and the congregation a clear understanding of boundaries, permission, core values, and goals.

You could also ask the leaders: why do we exist? (possible answers: To have someplace to go on Sunday mornings. To serve God in this community. To take care of our own needs.) Information, money, and energy are all needed - among other things - to do ministry. You cannot do your job unless you have those resources. You are not the only minister of that congregation -- unless they have called you because they want a personal chaplain. (I hope this isn't the case.)

Even More Frustrated is not the first to have experienced this lack of appropriate financial behavior. Do you have some insights to add?

(image courtesy of


  1. I have served a church that said they didn't have a budget -- but in reality they had one, but it was a tacit, informal kind of thing where only a couple of people held the purse strings. For that church, it was a control issue.

    I suspect that someone -- maybe the the treasurer or who ever writes the checks -- knows a lot more than they are telling you. For many people in the church, the money IS the control. I also suspect that they are not forthcoming with the information because they don't know you yet.

    I would make a personal visit to the treasurer -- get to know the person and build a relationship. Then ask if you can see the books. From there, you (along with the treasurer, if possible) can begin to build a budget, based on past spending. You can also get an idea of what the plate count is from the deposits.

    I would also talk to someone higher up -- for me it would be my District Superintendent or Bishop. Ask them for ideas -- and keep them informed about what is happening.

    I know that in very small churches this is actually a consistent problem in my denomination -- and it's mostly out of ignorance, not malice. If we didn't have the district and conference asking for apportionments and budgets, most of our smaller churches just wouldn't have a budget.


    At the very least, they had to file tax records! They had to have some kind of accounting or audit or bookeeping to continue to be a non-profit!!

    to NOT have a budget - NOT have a paper trail is very disconcerting and dangerous. By law, every non-profit must have books which can be inspected by a stakeholder... and the IRS.

    Do not let this go, for the good of their reputation, and yours...

    I actually annoyed a senior pastor extensively on this when I asked for this information for a seminary assignment. He claimed that "everyone in the church trusts" how the church handles their money. We no longer attend that church...


  3. Wow. The questions could have been written by me, but it wasn't. The details are almost exactly the same as my situation, except that I am on an interim placement and will only be here four months. I have also found that the parish records (marriages, baptisms, deaths, etc.) have not been adequately kept for the past four years.

    My plan is much prayer and a meeting with my bishop. I'll be watching this space for more comments too.

  4. [raising hand] While I've never been in a position to have to deal with the details of church administration (thank you, Jesus) -- Fisher's Net, an ELCA-related clearinghouse for online/distance learning opportunities, has some courses available on just such stuff. You don't have to be in the ELCA to avail yourselves of the courses listed...and in fact Fisher's Net is a portal into a website called Faith and Wisdom, that provides the same service on an ecumenical scale.

    Here's some info on the administration course offering:

  5. Just as a sidebar: FT and I want to include (with our pastor's blessing) church council minutes on our church website, but are having an incredibly hard time getting our hands on them. As noted by others, I think this is less a case of malice than of disorganization. Although we have had a couple people ask us -- interestingly, through third parties -- WHY we want to publish our council minutes online.

  6. Wow! In the PC(USA) we pretty much *have* to keep our session records in order because we have annual inspections of them by the next higher governing body. While that doesn't say that it has to include the budget, I can't imagine a presbytery letting records with no budget slip by without some sort of investigation into why it isn't there.

  7. I know on our side of the street we have to have an annual independent audit.

  8. I think a great way to frame this conversation is as a stewardship responsibility. Use the parable of the landowner who gives his three servants money and then comes back later to see what they have done with it... there is an accounting to be made!

    I'm in a sort of similiar situation with my church. We have a budget, but I don't know that we have seriously thought about it in the past few years before I got here (maybe even further back). I'm meeting with the finance committee tonight to draft our budget for next year, a task that was normally done by the treasurer adding a percent to the previous years figures.

    For small churches, I think this is especially difficult. There just isn't that much money to go around and most likely 80% of that money goes towards the building and the pastor's salary... but it is a conversation that needs to take place as we try to move our congregations to focus more outward... how can we plan and make goals for our resources so that we can together further God's kingdom? That's what a budget is all about.

    Prayers requested for my meeting tonight!!!

  9. DANGER Will Robinson DANGER! (arms flailing wildly)

    This is a sign of a congregation with problems. In our denomination it would be a congregation bound for a review by PResbytery.

    IT is not just a stewardship issue, it is a responsibility issue. ANd one of the roles of pastor is administrator. Mind you some of us handle that part better/more easily than others.

    I would be caslling someone in the wider church for advice at the very least.

  10. I'm guessing this might be a church that is either non-denominational or belongs to a looser confederation, such as Baptist for example. In this case there might not be any supervision from outside the congregation. Otherwise, I think there is some good advice here. My personal advice would be to make sure there is one person who collects money and one person who disburses, both of whom are overseen and never the twain shall meet. As for the other types of records, appeal to the historical sensibilities of the members, perhaps items have been kept at people's homes?? Good luck!

  11. I'm absolutely gobsmacked by the notion of a church not having a budget. Who pays the bills? Surely that person must have some idea how much money is available and what the priorities are for spending it. Or could it be that after paying the pastor's salary and the basic bills there is nothing left to budget?

  12. Is there a church constitution? That also can be a starting point: who is responsible for what? etc.

  13. I just picked up a copy of Anthony G. Pappas' Entering the World of the Small Church and in the introduction it talks about serving a church with no budget, and the mentality that is behind it. Check with the Alban Institute for a copy if you're interested!


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