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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - When Volunteers Aren't Working Out

The work of Christ's church is carried out by faithful volunteers. But the church's ministry can also be impeded by them, even when they mean well...such is the situation presented this week:
I recently found out that our treasurer (volunteer - member of council) has not paid our preschool teachers yet this school year. The preschool should have plenty of money, they have collected tuition and had money in their account. Unfortunately their account is kept in the church's general check book, in theory so if they would ever have low enrollment the congregation would pay their expenses. And, well, the checkbook is empty... we have borrowed from ALL the funds in order to pay ongoing expenses, and still they aren't even always paid.

This is not the first time this has happened. He stopped paying the organist without telling anyone, council found out in July that the organist had not been paid since May! Council does get monthly financial reports but they aren't very user friendly and so I would have to (and now will) look to make sure checks to the preschool teachers and organists have been issued. But last year there was also problem with late paychecks to the preschool teachers where the report showed he had paid them, he just didn't get them their checks until several weeks later.

But my question isn't financial as much as it is process. I just don't think my treasurer is up to the job, he isn't a great numbers guy but more to the point he lacks follow through. It has been embarrassing and awkward for our part time employees to mention that they really do have bills to pay and need their money after months without pay or discussion of when they would be paid. There have been enough instances like this that I just don't feel comfortable with him serving as treasurer anymore, but I am not sure how or who should start that kind of conversation. I suspect it should be the council president, and if so how do I bring it up with him and coach him on handling it well? And how do we or do we not tell the congregation about this? Our financial picture is already bleak, but it turns out it's much worse than the numbers suggest.

Hoping to be paid this Sunday,
Pastor I could SCREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Our first response comes from Jennifer,
who blogs at

There’s no doubt that you have to involve others. Your council president is a great person to start with. Ask to meet with him privately or with you and the preschool director (is there such a person?) This is a serious problem and the issues of how to replace the treasurer and if/when/how to involve the council and inform the congregation are all very important matters. Transparency in all things administrative, and especially in financial matters is crucial. As you learn more, it will be clear what needs to be shared and with whom. Perhaps it will be necessary to involve your higher governing body, but start local, treat this with seriousness and careful listening and response, and all can benefit from a new way of handling church resources.


One of our matriarch who recently addressed similar issues and therefore wishes to respond anonymously writes:

From another context it’s hard to comment on process , so I’ll leave that to other matriarchs – but as I have recently gone through a difficult somewhat similar situation, I just wanted to encourage you to get this sorted out as soon as possible.

I realised that lots of things were stopping me from grasping the nettle of unresolved financial problems:
  • I feared that if I disturbed things too much I might actually find that there was something improper going on and
  • I was frightened of being drawn into something really difficult and painful
  • I didn’t know who else could sort out the finances – but it certainly can’t be me! The people involved were really nice and kept saying how much they wanted to do the job
  • I worry that the minute someone shows me accounts I just glaze over (same happens with the tax return!)
But on the other hand if I didn’t get something sorted:
  • People were getting hurt and frustrated and angry
  • The church had no idea how much money they really had so they were getting mean with money!
  • The tension around the whole thing was affecting me and various other people in leadership roles
  • I felt we had a duty to account for the money people gave the church
So with the help of wise friends and having taken a deep breath, I decided to get it sorted out.
I had to set aside my feelings of inadequacy & my fear of ‘losing friends’. I had to be a real nag at times (phone calls, emails, reminders... “meeting in 10 days – we need an up to date report’”.. “what are we saying to next week’s meeting?”... “are you able to make the meeting in 3 days time or are you sending a written report”... ).It’s a good job I’m a mother, I can DO nagging.

But let me tell you, the relief when all was sorted out was amazing! – not just for me but for the whole church.

Last word of warning – don’t get too sucked into the ‘how did we get in this mess?’ conversation – remind yourself – this is where we are, but it’s not where we’re staying.

Many prayers for courage, wisdom and patience!

And from earthchick at

There is no question that the treasurer has to go. It is completely unacceptable to have church employees go unpaid. Equally horrifying is the fact that this volunteer has had the church borrowing money from the preschool. If this sort of thing were to happen in any other place of business, the person in charge would certainly be fired and possibly even charged with some sort of crime.

Of course, it is much easier to say he has to go than to actually help that happen in a constructive way. I would suggest you have a conversation with the council president immediately. Is there a finance committee or board of Trustees? There needs to be some body of people who oversees financial matters - it cannot be left to just one unsupervised person. If there is a body who does this, they need to be brought into the loop as well. If there is no group explicitly involved in financial oversight, then that will need to be a near-future step that has to be taken by the congregation at your initiative. If your church were ever to be audited (or if the preschool were to be), you could face much bigger headaches than you are facing now. A board of Trustees or other committee like that needs to be charged with the stewardship of the church's finances and legal matters.

Dealing with volunteers who are not doing their job well or properly can be a very tricky situation. Our inclination is not to have them step down when they are performing services for free. But sometimes there is no choice but to remove a person from office, and this is one of those times. Be as gentle as you can, but be upfront too - with him, with the other church leaders, and with the congregation as a whole. What he has done has led to a dishonest picture of finances for the church. I think the congregation needs to be made aware of the true state of things - including that they now owe the preschool money. It will be hard for them to stomach, but it will not get any easier by delaying the truth-telling or by trying to clean up the mess behind-the-scenes.

I wish you strength and courage!

If you have some experience or advice or words of support for Pastor I could SCREAM!!!!!, please add them to the conversation by way of the comment function of this post.

And send up your questions...we have just one in the queue at this point!

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. What you should also consider is getting someone with an accounting or legal background to help you set up financial practices. Generally, good financial practice requires that the person who writes the checks is not the person handling the incoming funds. This can be done as a "neutral" matter, just putting into place financial management practices that most businesses will also use.

    I don't want to make matters seem worse, but embezzlement happens in churches. And it happens because we want to be nice, we don't want confrontations, we can't imagine that Bill or Jill would do something like that.

    Every church needs to make sure their finances are handled properly. This is a matter of faith: stewardship and responsibility to those who give.

  2. There's lots of good advice here. I would add one question - is the treasurer elected by the congregation on recommendation from a nominating committee? I know different denominations and congregations do things differently, but this might be a change to make if it's not currently done -- so that someone who may once have done an OK job but is no longer doing so can be eased out. Also, I'd urge the trustees to do something about separating the preschool and general church budgets. The church could still help them out as a mission donation if necessary (although it looks as if the opposite is happening right now!)I have been fortunate to belong to relatively affluent churches with a good-sized pool of financially-educated people to draw from for such volunteer jobs. I do worry about the churches that don't have that. It must be hard, and especially on the pastor if s/he is the best-educated person in church.


    There are 2 files on this page... that show "best practices" for church finance folks. This could be a place to start your journey... in figuring out what's going on... what's going wrong... and what's OK.

    Hope it helps... and hope you get to the bottom of this soon. Appearing to be careless with the money of the church... can cause heartache and pain that is beyond indescribable... not just for the person doing it... but the pastor too. Cause no matter how you slice it... the "buck" stops on the pastor's desk.

  4. You've already gotten some great advice.

    A few more options to consider: If you can afford it, you might want to have an accountant familiar with church bookkeeping come in on a consulting basis for a few hours to do a desk audit and give you a list of recommendations for proper practices. Your judicatory may have some advice on best practices as well as people you might reach out to. That would help you flag if there is a very serious problem (embezzlement) or simply inattention and lack of timeliness. It would also give a heads-up to the judicatory in case something bigger is involved here that you recognize there is a problem and are taking action.

    I'd also be curious about the age and health of the volunteer in question - is it possible that the job is more than he/she can handle because of other underlying health or mental status issues?

    But the broader issue of the volunteer in the wrong ministry is a thorny one. At Saint Middle School, we recently fired everyone from their volunteer jobs. Then they could sign up again, but only if it was something they really felt was a way of connecting with Jesus for them. This solved some of the problem of volunteers just not getting stuff done because they were tired/burnt out/didn't like the team leader/had other stuff going on. We also did some work on spiritual gifts, and on task-sharing, so no one person carried the whole load. There have been a couple of folks who have been misplaced in ministries with whom I've had conversations along the lines of "You've worked so hard at [name that ministry] but it doesn't seem to give you that happy glow... have you considered doing [name that other ministry]? It might really feel more like you're doing the work you're called to, and I know that the folks who are doing that would appreciate your help."

    Then of course there are the folks who are problems no matter where they serve...and for that, I've only got prayer!

  5. Our church rules say we have to do an audit every year. It doesn't always have to be by a CPA (we can audit other churches in a sort of exchange ... we have also used a team of grad students from a local university). But someone needs to be looking.

    Your first responsibility ... even more than to the staff ... is to the people who entrusted the church with their financial gifts. You need to honor their trust and their gifts by handling them at all times with the highest level of financial responsibility, transparency and accountability that you can manage. More than the treasurer, more than the nursery school, more than the employees, you owe this one single important thing to your members and financial supporter.

  6. Good evening. I'm new here, but would like to offer my two cents. I think it is wise to have an outside source handling the books and checks. When DH and I were doing a church plant and had only 20 people on a Sunday, we hired out the books. It insured integrity, and covered our backs. We did this, in part, because of a huge financial scandal that took place in our sending church. The cost isn't a whole lot, and the benefit is.
    Praying with you for wisdom.

  7. One more thing, if you're not using some sort of financial software package, I definitely would get one, but one that is integrated with the entire church database.

    One that will track contributions (overseen and deposited by the counters and a Contributions Secretary), that then can send transactions over to the Accounting side, overseen by the Treasurer.

    And all income from the school should be in a separate accounting fund, and checking account.

    Any such financial or church database software, should reside at the church on the church computers, not in someone's home where data can be manipulated.

    You have to face reality in that financial scandals happen in churches on a regular basis.


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