Thursday, April 7, 2016

How should we, as a church, spend "our" money?

Our church is currently considering a couple of big financial decisions.  This has got me thinking about the philosophy Martin and I apply to our personal finances, and whether or not the church's finances should be run along similar lines. I'd like to share here some of the considerations Martin and I make when setting our household budget, and the questions those are raising for me about the church's budget.  I'd be interested in your thoughts!

We try to take as our starting point that the money we have isn't really ours - it's God's.  He, after all, owns everything!  So we want to distribute the money He's entrusted us with in a way that honours Him: in a way that reflects both that we serve a God of abundance who desires good things for us and that our primary calling is to love both God and our neighbours with all that we have.

In terms of loving our neighbours as ourselves, it might be logical to try to keep no more money for ourselves to live on than what some 'global average person' has to live on.  After all, God loves us equally, and it's largely the global financial system - a construct of sinful humanity - that puts Martin in the top 1% of income-earners globally and leaves so many others so badly off.  However, doing that would also be the end of me: after all, in most of the world, someone as sick as I am would have died long ago.

Instead, the ideal we've chosen is to live in such as way that everyone in the planet could live as we do: in a sense, to not use more than our 'fair share' of resources.  If everyone lived this way, we're sure that we'd have a world where everyone could thrive.  After all, God is a God of abundance who desires good things for all His children, so we're confident that there'd be plenty to go around.

We're a long way from that ideal right now, but it's the direction we're trying to head in.  As we've done so, we've simplified our lives considerably, and that's freed up funds that we've been able to use to love our neighbours both here and overseas.  Our desire to love our neighbours has sometimes also led to us paying a bit more for some things: we pay a Living Wage for our cleaner and we buy some goods fair trade (see more here, here, here and here).

Implementing these ideas means that we live much more simply than most people we know, but we still live far from minimally.  After all, as I said at the beginning, we serve a God who desires good things for us, so we don't think a purely ascetic life would honour Him!  Whilst we try to find inexpensive ways to do the things we enjoy, we make sure plenty of fun things are included :-)  For example, whilst we've moved to cooking meat only once a week, we haven't moved to the most minimalist-yet-healthy diet we can think of (lentils/rice/veg - no fruit, no spices, no variety).  It's great to be able to enjoy all the good things that God has given us!

We're also learning to be bold and spend money not allowed for in our budget when we think God wants us to.  After all, He owns everything and is perfectly capable of making up the shortfall that creates.  It has been exciting to see God return to us money we have spent in this way :-)

So, in short, we try to guide our lifestyle choices by "could everyone afford this?" rather than "can I afford this?".  We try to use the remaining funds entrusted to us to honour God by loving our neighbours with it.  With the funds allocated to our own use, we enjoy the abundance of good things God makes available to all His children.  And, when it seems appropriate, we spend money on things we haven't budgeted for, trusting God to provide for our needs as we do so.

How could these ideas translate to the communal life of a church?  How could we use our collective funds in a way that reflects our love of God, our love for our neighbours and the abundance God delights to share with his people?

I go to a probably wealthier-than-average church in a very wealthy country.  Most of the money that comes into the church is used to provide services for the church.  This means that we are able to pay people to do things (like office administration and cleaning) that, in many churches, are done by the members.  We can also afford to maintain a separate church, lounge and hall as well as office space, and to provide 'nice-to-haves' like carpet and comfortable seating.  Because we can afford these things, providing them has seemed obvious.  But, now that I've started thinking about it, I'm not sure that's right.  Why should we have all these extras, when other churches even in my own city struggle to find the money to pay for a pastor?

So, I wonder if, as Martin and I have done personally, our church should also choose a level at which we want to provide for ourselves, rather than simply spending whatever comes in.  And, if we did so, what kind of resource use might we aim for?  Aiming to provide only what is accessible to some kind of 'global average' church would probably lead to privations we're unwilling to put up with - as it would with our household budget.  Maybe our ideal should be some form of 'not much more than the minimum we need in order to function as a church'?  What would that look like?  I'd appreciate your thoughts!

As with our household budget, we may also sometimes choose to pay extra in order to our love our neighbours: for example by paying all staff at least a Living Wage.  And we should, of course, be bold when things come up that we haven't budgeted for, trusting God to make up the difference :-)

Spending this way would likely lead to budget surpluses.  This extra money could be distributed to other struggling churches (or other neighbours who are on the hearts of the congregation).  Alternatively, the church could even refuse to receive extra money.  We could alert the church when we'd received enough income for that year's budget, and the members could then spend the money they would have given to the church as they see fit.

I've talked about some of these ideas with one of the elders of my church, and received a fairly positive response for such 'out-of-the-box' ideas :-)  I hope to be able to talk with him further, as well as raising these ideas with others.  Trying to develop these ideas in a vacuum would be a recipe for personal frustration and utter ineffectiveness, after all!  And, of course, nothing may come of it.  Restricting our spending in order to better love our neighbours is an idea that has come out of Martin and I trying to be faithful to the gospel, but there are many other ways to be faithful, too.  How we act collectively will be an expression of the different ways the different church members have found to love God and to love their neighbours.  But I'm keen to add these ideas to the mix, now that I've realised they could apply!

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